While it’s true that just about any winch handle will turn a winch, that’s no reason not to think carefully when purchasing one. Selecting the right handle for a particular boat or application will make not only make your sailing more efficient but more enjoyable as well.
Equally important, in extreme circumstances ease of use can mean the difference between getting the job done and getting into trouble. A winch handle that’s simply a pain in the butt in ordinary sailing conditions could cause you to, say, miss stays in a blow, setting off a chain of events leading to truly dire consequences.
Big or Small
When choosing a winch handle, the first variable is length—either 8 or 10 inches. Although a 10-inch handle provides more leverage, bigger is not always better, because a longer lever requires you to turn the handle through a larger radius, which is slower than spinning a handle around a shorter 8-inch radius.
A longer winch handle also requires more room. Although two inches doesn’t sound like much, if there’s a dodger in the way, it can mean the difference between cranking through a full 360 degrees and sawing back and forth through a semi-circle using a winch’s ratcheting capability, which is nowhere near as fast.
For those who can’t make up their minds on handle length, there is the Speed-Shift winch handle from West Marine, which can be adjusted from 7 to 10 inches. Constructed from fiberglass-reinforced composite, it is both lightweight and convenient for use in less demanding applications, like coastal cruising. It is not, however, as well suited to grinding heavier loads, where a simpler handle will be more durable.
Winch handles are available in bronze, chromed bronze, aluminum alloy, glass-filled nylon and carbon fiber. Aluminum offers a combination of strength and moderate weight, whereas heavier bronze offers unequalled strength where weight and speed are not issues. Andersen also offers winch handles made of stainless steel.
Lewmar’s bright red glass-filled nylon Titan handle is both affordable and so light that it actually floats. However, while it is warrantied for life against breakage, it’s not as strong as a metal handle and shouldn’t be used for cranking in really heavy loads. Dax also makes a reinforced nylon handle, which doesn’t float, but is strong enough for more heavy-duty use. Another lightweight option is a recently released 8-inch carbon-fiber winch handle from Schaefer.
These days ball-bearing grips are pretty much standard, which is good because they minimize friction, allowing you to get the most from your winches. Some have a rubberized surface to make them easy to hang on to in wet conditions, and there are a number of different shapes and sizes to choose from. A standard single grip works well in a wide range of situations and offers the added advantage of a low profile, which can be important aboard a cluttered cruising boat. A double grip lets you use both hands to grind (or get help from a friend) when cranking in the last few eye-popping inches on a big headsail, but it needs plenty of swinging room.
I favor a single handle with a mushroom-shaped knob on the end, variously called a Power Grip by Lewmar, a Ball Grip by Antal, a Palm Grip by Dax, a SpeedGrip by Harken or a Knob Grip by West Marine. No matter the name, this configuration has a low profile and enough room for a strong two-handed grip, making it ideal for high-power/high-speed jobs, like grinding in spinnakers when racing.
Lock and Grind
It is still possible to buy non-locking winch handles, but in reality, the added security of a lock makes it a desirable feature on all but the most casual daysailer or on a dedicated racer where changeout speed is critical.
The issue here is not just keeping the handle from falling overboard, but protecting the user. Aboard a boat sailing on its ear on a windy day, it’s all too easy to accidentally start cranking away with a nonlocking handle before it’s fully inserted. If it subsequently pops out while you’re grinding with all of your might, you run the risk of being thrown off balance and tumbling into something hard and sharp.
With a locking winch handle, the extra step required when inserting the handle in a winch also serves to ensure it’s all the way in its socket, while the lock itself makes sure the handle will stay there, no matter what. Get in the habit of making sure it “clicks” in. The extra nanosecond of effor is time well spent.
For years, locking mechanisms have consisted of a small spring-loaded knob-like lever on the top of the winch handle that turns a small metal square that locks into the winch socket. Today, however, many sailors prefer alternatives like the OneTouch system used by Lewmar and Dax, which features a “button” running the length of the handle. To operate, just squeeze the handle as you insert it into the winch and then release. That’s it. To remove the handle, give it another squeeze to free it up again. A drive gear and locking pin systems serves to hold it in place.
Antal has also developed what it calls the Speedylock, which features a release button on the side of the handle instead of a standard knob on top. Although it’s a subtle difference—Antal basically rotated the position of the release knob 90 degrees—the button just happens to be where you tend to put your thumb (if you’re righthanded, at least) when inserting or removing a winch handle, making it much easier to operate in rough conditions—brilliant!