Winch cleaning is a perfect social distancing activity…crew members always scatter when this dirty but necessary chore needs to be done, so you’re bound to be doing it alone!
All kidding aside, this preventative maintenance work needs to get done, particularly considering that you probably have a lot of money invested in your boat’s winches. For perspective, the chances are that the value of your compliment of winches on 30 to 40-foot boat equals the cost of your engine. Protect that investment with annual cleaning and lubricating and your winches will continue to reward you with reliable performance season after season. The work isn’t hard, and some find it therapeutic.
If you do this job once a year, all you need is some old T-shirts to wipe all the parts clean. If the old grease has hardened from years of neglect, the gunk can be loosened by spraying it with WD40 or by soaking parts in fresh diesel fuel. If you do use a solvent, make sure to wipe it all off your cleaned parts before re-greasing. Make sure to clean each tooth on every gear.
When taking apart the winch, I keep groups of parts together for easier re-assembly. If you get confused on how to put the parts back together, take solace that most winches come in pairs – port and starboard. As long as you don’t take both apart at the same time, you can always use the other winch as a guide. Pro tip: when disassembling the winch, have a clean, clear surface on which you can place each piece you remove in the sequence right to left as you remove it. Then, to reassemble the cleaned parts, simply go put them back in using the reverse order.
After the parts have been cleaned, inspect them for wear, cracks and breakage. Plastic roller bearings can crack after years of use, pawl springs break, and pawls break or get rounded edges. Lubricate pawls with light machine oil (3 in 1 Oil or Harken Pawl Oil). The gears, metal needle bearings and spindles get a light coating of grease, do not over-grease (see the last two photos). Some racing sailors mix a little oil into the grease to thin it out, which reduces friction even more. Do not grease plastic bearings, you can use a drop or two of McLube’s One Drop Oil. Harken recommends not lubricating their composite roller bearings.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the job is reinstalling the pawls without losing the springs. The little springs seam to shoot out to the edges of the universe as you try to get them back into place. And since they are so small, they always blend in wherever they come to rest. Pro tip: have a supply of extra springs and pawls for each of your winches.
Assuming we all have some extra time on our hands for pre-launching boat prep, take on this necessary job in solitude. Listen to your favorite music, get this necessary job done while practicing social distancing. If you need any help, contact your winch manufacturer or go to YouTube and search, “How to Service a Winch.” There are heaps of videos to watch before you even start disassembly that will give you all the confidence you’ll need.