An annual winch servicing will prolong the life of those important winches and ensure that they work at top efficiency, particularly when under heavy loads. Here's a quick guide for easy winch servicing.
First the tools
Winches rarely require replacement parts but it's wise to have a selection of pawls, pawl springs and winch grease on board just in case they are misplaced. In addition, the retaining circlip or screws are sometimes lost or damaged. The only other tools required are brushes, a sharp knife, screwdriver, as well as some clean rags, perhaps some solvent and a cardboard box. The cardboard box helps prevent those important parts from dropping overboard during disassembly.
It's a good idea to keep close track of the parts. Winch parts are expensive and often difficult to obtain. Manufacturers of the older makes Barient, Barlow and Maxwell are out of the winch business and parts for them are only found in salvage shops.
Service mast-mounted winches first. Hold or tape the box close under the winch and placed all the removed parts in the bottom. Once the spar winches have been done, cut a round hole in the bottom of the box. Make the hole a bit bigger than the base of the largest deck-mounted winch. Now, before beginning to disassemble, slip the hole over the winch so the winch is encapsulated.
It's a good idea to have the manufacturer's exploded winch parts diagram-if you have it. This shows how parts fit together and the order in which they come apart. The first step is to determine how the drum is retained on the spindle. Over the years, manufacturers have used between one and six screws, the round circlip spring and screw-on top caps. You may need a screwdriver or Allen wrench to remove any of these.
Once the drum is free, pull it off slowly and gently. I've found that the roller bearings have a nasty habit of adhering to the inside of the drum and then falling out as soon as the drum is clear of the spindle. Most self-tailing mechanisms pull right off with the drum and need not be taken apart independently. Be careful not to drop the drum. It can be easily dented, which renders it useless.
When the internals of the winch are visible, locate the pawls. Some small single-speed winches have only two pawl-and-spring assemblies, while larger winches, as well as all two-speed winches, will have four. Pawls are about ˝-inch long and comma-like shaped. They ratchet back and forth against toothed gears, allowing the drum to turn only one direction, and making that clicking noise in the process. Inside a groove in each pawl is a tiny circular spring that will come out with the pawl.
If you have a short memory or are not mechanically inclined, take notes with sketches of how the winch comes apart. Better yet, a series of Polaroid pictures can go into the maintenance log. After you've done it a few times, the process of disassembly and re-assembly will be simple.
Remove the pawl assemblies and note how the springs are inserted. Then pull the springs out of the pawls. Clean these thoroughly with a rag, using pipe cleaners or cotton swabs in the cracks and crevices. An old toothbrush is even better. Use a mild solvent such as WD-40 on stubborn old grease. Once clean, inspect pawls for wear and springs for deformation, replace as necessary.
Clean out the dirt and apply grease.
Disassemble the winch in stages, cleaning all bearings, bushings, gears and axles as you go. Some older winches may need to be unbolted from the deck to get the lower gears out. It is only necessary to do a total teardown if old grease and dirt are causing problems. In most normal maintenance cases, turning the gears while working as much dirt out with rags, brushes and spray solvent will be adequate.
Clean the bronze spindle that is now exposed and, lastly, wipe out the inside of the drum. When completely clean and shiny, apply a thin coat of fresh grease to each part as it's re-assembled.
Most winch manufacturers have proprietary grease in tubes or tubs. Any good-quality white, waterproof lithium grease will do, however. Globbing on too much grease is a common error. Brush a thin, even coat on all the parts. I prefer to use an acid brush, the ˝-inch-wide, short bristle jobs with a tubular metal handle that sell for about 10 cents at most hardware stores. They are also great for small gluing and clean-up jobs around the boat.
Since all the pawls are standing out it may be difficult to get the drum to go all the way back down. Try turning the drum clockwise as you push it gently onto the spindle. This will generally depress the pawls and allow the drum to fall into place. Re-install the top cap, circlip or screws that hold the winch together. There should now be nothing left in the bottom of the box. If there is, the process needs to be repeated. It takes about 30 minutes to clean and lubricate a winch.
Remove the box and give the winch a spin. You should hear a light, metallic clicking sound-music to the ears.
Photographs by Kathy Barron