Be Wary Of Winches


Winches can be a sailor’s best friend or his worst enemy.

They assist in hoisting and trimming sails, pulling up anchors, raising bosun’s chairs, lifting dinghies out of the water, recovering a man overboard and a host of other tasks. But do not underestimate the power of these devices. Many a sailor has lost a finger, or worse, because he was not careful enough.

A recent, tragic story of a friend of my daughter was brought to my attention a few weeks ago. A fisherman, working alone on his trawler, was caught up in a winch and sadly lost his life. It reinforced my perception that winches can be dangerous pieces of equipment if not treated with respect. Whilst this was a dreadful accident involving a large commercial winch with massive loads, the loads on smaller winches used on yachts, particularly if they are powered winches, should not be underestimated. Accidents may result in loss of limbs and potentially of lives, if the correct safety procedures are not followed.

On sailing boats, the larger the sails, the more need there is for help to handle them. Winches help to tame the largest of sails and harness the incredible power of the wind. It follows that the larger the winch, the more easily it handles big loads, but it requires the handler to manage the operation and make sure that the winch does its job without incurring mishap or injury.

Safety Tips

Winch safety starts with correct specification and installation

  • Make sure that you have the right winch for the job, taking into consideration aspects such as the size of the boat, sail area and strength of the crew. Materials vary; the best is stainless steel, which is strong and durable, but expensive. Cheaper options are anodized aluminium and chrome-plated bronze.
  • Make sure that your winches are in the right place, correctly installed and regularly serviced, with leads properly set up. Getting the placement correct may allow you to use one winch for multiple purposes.
  • Two-speed winches have a high and a low gear, allowing you to crank in ropes quickly at first, then more slowly as the grinding gets more difficult and some winches have a reverse mechanism enabling the user to ease the tension without removing the line from the self-tailer.
  • Self-tailing winches are more expensive but are worth the extra, allowing one person to grind without the need for a crew to tail.
  • Winch handles can be both lock-in and non-lock. The lock-in varieties are less likely to fall overboard but are slightly slower to insert and remove and will be slightly more expensive, but are probably the best option.
  • A longer winch handle will generate more power, but make sure there is enough room to use it. A short handle is good for speeding things up in light winds.

Correct and safe operation of winches

  • Stand with your shoulders over the winch and feet spread apart so that you can use the stronger muscles of your legs and back as you grind the handle and get better balance and leverage. Relying solely on your arm muscles will tire you quickly. If you are winching from the low side of the boat, keep your centre of gravity low so that you will not overbalance.
  • Make sure that the line is wrapped clockwise round the winch.
  • Start the first turn at the bottom of the winch and don’t let the turns overlap.
  • Two turns should be made before taking in the slack on the line, but too many turns can cause riding turns, which will jam the winch.
  • If you need to add additional turns while the winch is under load, hold the line at a distance from the drum and make sure that your fingers are pointing away from the winch, wind the new turn above the previous one in a clockwise rotation with the hand holding the free end of the line.
  • To prevent the line from slipping while under load, you need a minimum of three turns or more. Less than this will not provide adequate friction and the line could slip as the winch turns, not only negating its use, but also pulling your hand towards the drum. Many a finger has been lost this way.
  • Make the turns on the winch before inserting the winch handle. It is very difficult to add turns once the winch handle is attached and is another cause of overlaps.
  • Tailing a winch is an important job and one that ensures safe and smooth operation. Self tailing winches allow you to have both hands free for grinding, but be aware that they can slip. If you are sailing short handed, self tailing winches are a boon, but make sure that your line is sized to fit the teeth of the self-tailer. If a winch is not self tailing you will need to have one hand free, or an additional crew member to help tail the line and take in the slack. The angle of the tail is crucial to avoid over-rides and ensure that the line does not slip.
  • If you have a clutch stopper in front of a winch, do not underestimate the amount of tension it is holding. Winch in slightly with the handle and hold the tail end firmly before releasing the clutch. Some clutches, like those on the old Challenge yachts, are designed so that you have to winch in to release the clutch.
  • When releasing a line quickly from a loaded winch, make sure that it is able to run out freely without any tangles and ensure you and other crew members are out of the way and will not get fouled on the free end. Also make sure that the winch handle has been removed and is in a safe place. Hold the tail end of the line above the winch and make an anti-clockwise movement that will remove the wraps as you raise your hand. Take care that your other hand is not in a position where it could get sucked in.
  • Riding turns can sometimes be ground out by carefully continuing to winch in. Alternatively you may need to attach another length of rope, with a rolling hitch, to the working end of the jammed rope and lead this to another winch to take the load while you free the riding turn.
  • When using powered winches, the winch should always be turned off if the rope gets jammed, before trying to free it.

Be aware of the dangers of winches

  • Never let a new person on board operate a winch until it is first demonstrated and the proper safety procedures are pointed out. Make sure that they are aware of the dangers and supervised.
  • When using a winch never wear jewellery, scarves or loose clothing etc., hanging down where it can get caught. Not only will it probably be damaged but you could sustain a serious injury if it got pulled into the winch. Even rings have been known to rip fingers off. Power winches should, if practical, be turned off when not in use, to avoid an accident due to inadvertent operation.
  • Sometimes the amount of friction on a winch drum is so great that it will not ease when you release the tail end. In this case you should never use your fingers to release the tension as they could easily get pinched under the line. Carefully remove one turn and then use your palm or heel of your hand to push and control the easing the line around the winch.
  • Keep a sharp knife handy to cut free a rope that has caught and tightened around a limb or item of clothing. Some sailors mount a sheathed knife close to their winches for this purpose.
  • If a sheet is cut away from a jammed winch it can become a very dangerous weapon as it whips about in the wind. If the helmsman has time, luff up into the wind to de-power the sail before cutting the sheet.
  • On larger yachts some winches can be de-powered so quickly that the synthetic lines melt as they slip round the winch. They can then fuse when they are stopped. If you know this is likely to be a problem be prepared to lubricate the line with water if the line is dumped quickly.





The moral is – think before you winch and at the end of your sail, may you have the same number of finger as you started with.





Author – Dee White.

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