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How To Service Your Winches

This handy guide from the Harken Tech Team teaches you how to keep your winches running smoothly & efficiently & how to make them last as long as possible

Winch servicing

  • How often should you service your winches?
  • What should you look out for during a service?
  • How to avoid common pitfalls
  • Degreasing and inspecting
  • Reassembly

How often should you service your winches?

Everybody knows that winches need servicing. Rather fewer are comfortable with the task. This is a shame as it is a very straightforward process that requires only a modicum of practical aptitude.

How often should you service your winches? This depends on the nature of the usage of your boat-Grand-Prix racers will service before every race, while annually might be more typical for more cruising-oriented sailors. The advice we get from the factory is that twice a year is ideal, and they are right.  A winch serviced twice a year, in normal use, will work efficiently, and wear and tear will be reduced to a minimum. However, pragmatically, we might have to accept that annually is a good frequency.

What are we scared of?

Dismantling a winch, degreasing, inspecting, reassembling while lubricating as appropriate… What could possibly go wrong?

My guess is that people are concerned about getting mucky, dropping half of their valuable winch in the water or finding on completion of assembly that they either have parts left over, or the winch won't even turn.

Well, yes, I think every single one of those things has happened to me over the years, but not for a long time!

How do we avoid this?

  • Preparation
  • Be methodical

Firstly, preparation: Have the correct tools and consumables ready. Have an exploded diagram of the winch (if it is a Harken winch, you will find these included in each winch manual here). I will surround the winch with towels in order to protect the deck and reduce "parts bounce". If I am near the rail, I will also put towels over the guard lines to try to block the route to oblivion if I do slip and drop something. Wear latex gloves to protect your delicate skin from the ravages of winch grease and general dirt. If you wear two pairs, one over the other, you can take the dirty outside pair off as you near completion so you don't get everything covered in mess.

Next, be methodical: When dismantling the winch, compare what you find to the diagram. Lay out the parts logically so you can be confident about where they came from. When dismantling parts with bearings inside, don't let the bearings fall out. The main bearings inside the drum are traditionally most likely to do this, so lift the drum slowly and check to see whether the bearings are on the housing or stuck in the drum. If they are in the drum, wait until they fall, or tilt the drum so that you can see what is happening and so that they fall into the boat rather than out of it if the worst happens.  If something does get dropped, make sure you don't compound the problem by reacting precipitously; turning a minor irritation (dropping a washer or bearing) into an expensive catastrophe (throwing the drum into the water while trying to catch the original dropped part) is all too easy to do.

Degrease and inspect the winch

Clean all the old grease and muck off the parts of the winch. This gives you a nice basis for relubrication and also allows you to assess the condition and detect any damage. Look for bent or chipped teeth on the gears; don't forget the teeth inside the drum. Make sure the bearings are intact and undamaged. Look at the holes where gear shafts, etc. are located and make sure they are not elongated. Check the pawls and springs, and especially the pocket into which they locate. Look for any corrosion. If your winch has a thrust bearing (row of steel ball bearings under a cover at the base of the housing which takes the downward load on the drum), do not open this without taking precautions-you will have ball bearings going in all directions! Provided there is no evidence of dry bearings, I would leave this task well alone; replace parts as necessary. Once you are happy with the condition of the winch we can move on.

Reassembling your winch

Hopefully we have a nice clean winch base onto which we can commence reassembly. This is generally a reversal of the dismantling process, with the addition of lubricating as you go. My preferred technique is to squeeze some winch grease into a bowl or similar and then apply it with a paint brush. Apply grease to the teeth of each gear and also to the shaft on which the gear sits (if the winch is big enough that the gears have bearings, grease the bearings too). DO NOT grease pawls and springs! This will cause them to stick and could result in a backwinding winch. Oil the pawls with properly formulated pawl oil. Grease around the handle socket if it bears on a bronze housing. When reassembling Harken Classic winches, make sure the ratchet gears are the correct way up, with the pawls sitting properly in the teeth. Failure to ensure this may cause wear or friction in the winch.

Once the winch is reassembled and closed, test it by spinning it by hand; put a handle in and wind both ways. You should have a nice, easy to spin winch ready for all that the sea, wind, and you can throw at it.

If you have any more questions about servicing your winches or other gear don't hesitate to Contact Us

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