Powered Winches Take the Strain Out of Sailing

Like thousands of other sailors, I scoffed at powered winches until a rock-climbing injury reduced my right shoulder to an arthritic mess. So, while I love to spin handles, I’ve realized that powered winches are my friends. And I’m not alone. Most medium-to-large cruising boats I saw at last year’s United States Sailboat Show at Annapolis either came fitted with some (or all) powered winches, or
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Powered winches fine-tune sail shape without straining muscles

Powered winches fine-tune sail shape without straining muscles

Like thousands of other sailors, I scoffed at powered winches until a rock-climbing injury reduced my right shoulder to an arthritic mess. So, while I love to spin handles, I’ve realized that powered winches are my friends. And I’m not alone. Most medium-to-large cruising boats I saw at last year’s United States Sailboat Show at Annapolis either came fitted with some (or all) powered winches, or at least had the option to upgrade to them should an owner fancy push-button sail control.

While powered winches are on the options list of most new boats, plenty of sailors have retrofitted these handy units to their own boats. “Powered winches are appreciated by all sorts of sailors. For older sailors and those with physical disabilities, it’s often impossible to sail shorthanded without them. Some younger sailors find that physical effort in cruising isn’t their objective,” says Harken’s Andrea Merello. “I’m 43 and I can sail singlehanded in any conditions thanks to a complete electric-winch system that I have on board. Racers use them every time that the rules allow, as it brings maneuvering speeds to a higher level.”

An example of an Andersen powered winch

An example of an Andersen powered winch

Depending on one’s needs, adding a single powered winch to hoist the mainsail might be enough. Others will see benefit from using powered winches on genoa and mainsheets as well.

Virtually all powered winches place the motor below the winch’s drum (under the deck), rendering a clean-looking winch with only a set of buttons to betray the fact that the unit is powered by a motor and not by a human. Depending on the specific winch, an owner has options as to where these controls are mounted. “The operating switches for all Andersen powered winches are waterproof and can be freely located on the boat, upon the choice of the user,” Andersen’s Morten Nielsen says. Most powered winches today can operate at two or three speeds, enabling a sailor to quickly sheet in a sail after a tack or gybe. According to Merello, “in second gear a Harken electric winch can pull more than what a normal cruising sailor can [grind].”

This begs the question: can an inattentive crewmember overdo it with an electric winch and damage sails, equipment or the rig? “In general, the mechanical feeling of the load is, of course, not the same under power as it is when [the winch is] manually operated. It is therefore essential that the operator pay attention when—for example—hoisting the halyards,” says Nielsen.

Some winches, like this Antal unit, feature a motor that’s set at a right angle

Some winches, like this Antal unit, feature a motor that’s set at a right angle

“Winch size and pulling power is ideally matched to the application. In turn, the motor gearbox is sized to match the winch,” says Lewmar’s Ian Stevenson. “The current drawn by the motor is directly proportional to the winch load, so at high loads the circuit breaker will not allow the winch to stay at too high a load for long. Most [Lewmar] electric winches have an option to use our Electric Load Sensing (ESL) control box, which is designed to stop the winch at very high loads.” Depending on whom you regularly sail with, an ELS control box (or the equivalent from other manufacturers) might be a sound investment.

While an upgrade to motorized winches is usually a huge benefit, it can be difficult to find room for the motor belowdeck. This is especially true for cabintop winches. All manufacturers have motors that attach at different angles to accommodate tight spaces while Andersen also has a low-profile motor that can be fitted above deck.

Another potential downside to powered winches is their battery draw. While you can always run your engine or generator to top off your batteries, some sailors might seek a quieter, greener solution. “Winches are used for only minutes in a normal day’s sailing so the overall amount of power used is minimal,” says Merello. “Solar panels replace power into the batteries during daylight hours on a more constant basis, so a trade-off can be made.” And if your boat should lose power or if the batteries go flat—or worse, if the motor should fail—all electric winches are designed to accept manual power.

Winch motors are designed to fit into tight spaces. This Lewmar unit uses a right angle connection

Winch motors are designed to fit into tight spaces. This Lewmar unit uses a right angle connection

If you are thinking about upgrading to powered winches, you’ll need do some custom wiring. “An electric winch will require dedicated power cables to be routed from the battery to the winch motor via a circuit breaker,” says Stevenson. “We recommend either a contactor (solenoid) or a control box, which will operate the winch motor. Also, deck switches have to be wired to the contactor (in-line fuse required) or [the] control box.”

Given the amount of power and torque that a powered winch can exert on a halyard or a sheet, what sort of safety precautions are necessary? “Electric winches are very powerful tools, and as with any winch, the danger of riding turns or trapping your fingers are ever present,” says Stevenson. “The winch—if not being used—should have the breaker tripped to isolate it and prevent accidental start-ups.”

Harken’s new Radial winches feature a stationary top that prevents fingers or clothing from being ingested

Harken’s new Radial winches feature a stationary top that prevents fingers or clothing from being ingested

Owners need to be attentive to the bolting patterns and mounting hardware that are used by their existing winches. Depending on the manufacturer, some powered winches will use the same pattern and bolt types, saving the trouble of drilling new holes (space for the winch’s motor still needs to be created, usually by cutting a hole in the deck). Also, some manual winches can be upgraded to powered units (see sidebar).

Finally, powered winches are not much harder to maintain than standard winches. Merello recommends cleaning and lubricating each winch’s gears on a yearly basis, just like a standard winch. According to Stevenson, “The electric motor is basically fit and forget, and is really maintenance free,” although he adds that it pays to keep a keen eye on the electrical connections.

Finally, the real drawback to electric winches? Says Merello, “Your wife (or husband) might start discussing with you about how a sail should be trimmed better...”

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