Using Winches Safely - SailNet Community
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Using Winches Safely

The safe use of winches is important for all sailors, and particularly so for solo sailors like Mike Golding (above). If these guys can use their equipment safely, with all they've got going on, certainly the rest of us can too.
Far too many of our sailing friends share an unusual common denominator. Theyíre missing a finger. Attacked by a hungry shark you might ask? Or perhaps the digit was severed during a high seas sword fight with pirates? Unfortunately, their stories are not so colorfull. In each case, their fingers were lost in winch-related accidents.

As sailboats get larger, the sails increase in size until it soon becomes impossible to manhandle them without some assistance. Winches help us to tame even the largest sails and harness the enormous power of the wind. Through the mechanical advantages created by using a combination of leverage and gear reduction, we can harness hundreds and even thousands of pounds of sheet load. Not surprisingly, the larger the winch, the more easily it handles large loads. But these devices donít do this by themselves. You, the sailor, must still manage the operation and make sure that the winch does its job without any mishaps that might injure you or your crew.

On our 46 footer, Serengeti, Larry and I never let a new person on board operate our winches until we first demonstrate the proper safe procedure and point out a few doís and doníts. We donít even let another sailor whose abilities we donít know first hand touch the winches before we are sure that these folks are winch-savvy. This rule is strictly based on my own experience as a first time crewmember on a racing keelboat.  None of my years as a dinghy racer prepared me for how powerful those big sails were. I nearly got my own hand sucked into the winch and learned that first day that winches must be treated with a strong degree of respect.

The following are some tips to help you and your crew remain safe when using the winches on your boat.

All winches are built for the line to be wrapped in a clockwise fashion. Standing over a winch will allow you to use the stronger muscles of your legs and back, and the use of a double handle like the one above can further enhance your grinding ability.

Loading Winches    The line on a winch is always wrapped in a clockwise direction, and itís important when loading a winch to start the first wrap at the bottom of the winch and add subsequent turns above that, but never overlapping the last wrap on the winch. Initially, just a single or possibly two wraps should be made before taking in the slack from the line. If you put too many turns on the winch when the line is still slack, that can cause foul-ups and a possible ďover-ride.Ē An over-ride is when the line traps itself under another turn of line on the winch. Improper wrapping of the drum or uneven tension when tailing usually causes this. Tailing is, of course, the process of handling the line as it exits the winch.

To add additional wraps to a winch while the line is under load, grab the tail end of the line at a distance away from the drum that is just greater than one wrap. While maintaining tension on the line, keep your fingers pointing away from the winch and make your clockwise rotation around the drum placing the new wrap above the existing top wrap on the winch. To prevent the line from slipping around the winch while its under load, youíll need a minimum of three turns, particularly if youíre trying to crank the line in. Less than three turns will not provide adequate friction and the line will most likely slip as the winch turns, negating any progress. Thatís also one way that a hand can get pulled toward the drum.

We strongly recommend that all of the wraps be made on the winch before the winch handle is inserted into the top of the winch. Inserting a handle into a winch too soon makes it very difficult for you to add additional wraps around the winch. If youíve inserted the winch handle too soon, itís best to take the time to remove the handle, add your additional wraps, and then reinsert the handle. Adding winch wraps with a handle still in place results in a sloppy and dangerous technique and often leads to overrides.

Tailing Winches    Tailing a winch is one of the most important jobs in ensuring smooth and safe operation.  The method of tailing will depend upon what kind of winch you have. Standard winches simply feature a drum and a winch handle. Self-tailing winches add a line stripper on top thatís designed with teeth to hold the line for you as you turn the handle. Electric winches are usually equipped with self-tailers and no handle or exertion is required. Either of these winch types can be single-speed or multi-speed.

Self-tailing winches like this one allow you to have both hands free for grinding. When it comes to easing the line off the drum, it helps to use the palm of your hand to govern the friction as you release the line.

If a winch is not self-tailing, youíll need to have one hand free or have an additional crewmember nearby to help tail the line (again, taking in the slack) as the winch does its job. The angle of the tail of the line coming off the winch is crucial to smooth operation. If the angle is too low, the line may try to rearrange itself on the drum, and create an over-ride. If the angle is too high, it will interfere with the free rotation of the winch handle on top. The here goal is to ensure that the line stays neatly wrapped on the drum as it turns, and to provide enough tension so that the line does not slip and negate your winching progress. Most standard winches require having a cleat nearby to secure the line after the required tension has been achieved.

If a winch is self-tailing, the job of winching becomes much easier and safer when sailing short-handed. A single person can operate the winch without having to exert effort both winching and tailing. This leaves both hands free to operate the handle. The self-tailerís stripping arm feeds the line leaving the winch drum into a specially designed set of teeth at the top of the drum. These teeth capture the line and prevent it from slipping. With self-tailing winches care must be taken to properly size your line within the specs of your winch. If a line is too large or too small in diameter, the teeth will not properly engage the line. Of course no cleat is required when you want to leave the line in a self-tailing winch unattended.

Grinding Winches    When winching, itís important to position your body so that the larger muscles of the back and legs can assist in the process. We can tell you firsthand that relying solely upon your arm muscles will tire you quickly. If youíre winching from the low side of the boat, remember to keep your center of gravity low so that if you happen to slip you will not go overboard. 

"When winching, itís important to position your body so that the larger muscles of the back and legs can assist in the process."
When choosing a winch handle, keep in mind that the longer the handle, the more power it will generate. A short handle, however, is good for occasionally speeding things up in light winds because it will turn more quickly. If you need a little more oomph, a double grip handle will allow you to position both hands on the handle and really get your whole body involved in the winching process. Of course another way to get more power is to outfit your boat with multi-speed winches. When you find that you canít crank any longer, you simply switch speeds and by the magic of a greater gear reduction you can once again turn the handle.

Winch handles come in both lock-in and non-lock-in varieties. We greatly prefer the lock-in handles as the non lock-in varieties weíve owned have all fallen overboard long ago. Lock-in handles are, however, a little slower to insert and remove from the top of the winch and usually a little more expensive.

Remember, you should take care when using any winches and not have jewelry, scarves, or loose clothing, etc., hanging down. If these items get caught up between the line and the winch, theyíll be destroyed and you may well be injured. And electric winches should be turned off when not in use to avoid inadvertently hitting the power button and getting clothing or parts of your body caught up in them.

Easing Line    Sometimes the amount friction created by a wrapped line on a winch drum becomes so great that when you remove tension from the tail, the line doesnít want to go out. In this situation you can carefully remove one wrap from the drum, or coax the line into motion by using the inside heel of your hand as you reduce tension on the tail. Never use your fingers as they could get pinched between or under the line.

To release the line off a winch, pull upward in a counter-clockwise motion, and be sure the tail of the line is free to run.

When easing line that is held by a clutch stopper in front of a winch, always winch in slightly with the handle and hold the tail firmly before releasing the clutch. This will take the pressure off the clutch and make it easier to open, and it can prevent your hand from being pulled into the clutch stopper. Never underestimate the amount of tension that a clutch stopper is holding.

Releasing Line    Before releasing line from a loaded winch, make sure that the tail has been neatly flaked and will be able to run out freely with no tangles in the cockpit. Also, make sure you remove the winch handle and place it safely in a winch handle holder so that it doesnít bang around the boat. To release the line, position your hand with the tail of the line above the winch and quickly make counterclockwise rotations that will remove the wraps as you raise your hand. Never allow your hand to be in a position beside the winch where it could get sucked in with the line that is quickly releasing.

Emergency Measures    Veteran sailors always have a knife in their pocket, or somewhere handy nearby. If you find yourself in the middle of a winch mishap, having a knife nearby will allow you to remedy the situation immediately. When sailing Serengeti, each of us usually keeps a knife in our pocket, but as a back up weíve permanently mounted a couple of razor-sharp, blunt-tipped knives in sheaths close to our winches.

When a fully loaded jibsheet or mainsheet is cut away from a jammed winch, be aware that the now-loose line on the sail can become a very dangerous weapon whipping about in the wind. If there are enough hands on board, time the cutting of the line with appropriate steering actions to unload the power in the sail. And, if at all possible, cut the line close to the clew so that youíll spare the bulk of the line.

Whether youíre a racer, daysailor, or cruiser, winches are a sailorís best friend when it comes to making light work of many jobs on the high seas. They hoist, trim, and reef our sails. They kedge us off shoals, pull up our anchors, raise crewmembers in bosunís chairs, lift dinghies out of the water, lift people out of the water in manoverboard situations, and too many other tasks to mention. But please take care to respect the power in these useful pieces of hardware and pass on your knowledge to others by practicing safe operating procedures. I already know enough sailors who canít rely upon their fingers to help them count to 10.

Suggested Reading:

It's Winch Servicing Time by Tom Wood

Leading Sail Control Lines Aft by Sue & Larry

Reefing and Raising Systems by Beth Leonard


SialNet Store Section: Self-Tailing Winches

Sue & Larry is offline  

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