Winch technology has changed little over the last few decades, but now as winches with new features and capabilities are coming from all corners of the industry, it might be time to think about an upgrade.

Winches have been part of the sailing scene for nearly a century. In the days of the J Class they helped sailors hoist massive, heavy sails and control the loads they were under. But it wasn’t until the multispeed top-action winches we recognize today were developed in the late 1950s that winches began showing up on smaller cruising boats, and by the 1970s they were commonplace.

Many of the winches from that era are still onboard boats today, for the simple reason that they still work. “Winches are fairly robust machines. They last decades if maintained properly, and frequently deck gear from the 1980s is still very usable today,” says Jim Anderson, U.S. sales manager for Harken. The problem is that for many of those winches, once they stop working they’re hard to repair. For example, the companies that manufactured Barient & Barlow winches, which were very popular in the recreational sailing market when they were introduced, don’t exist anymore, and spare parts are getting harder to find. If this sounds familiar, it may be time to bite the bullet and upgrade your winches.

As is often the case when updating things onboard, when you’re thinking about new winches you need to consider what kind of boat you have and how you use it. Are you a weekend cruiser or a bluewater adventurer? Do you consider yourself a serious racer or do you just make it around the marks on a Wednesday night? All of this will determine what kind of winch you’re looking for.

You need to get to know your winches intimately—maintenance is vital

You’ll be choosing between self-tailing and non-self-tailing (standard) winches. Today, non-self-tailing winches are usually only seen on sportboats in situations where the sail requires constant trimming (flying a spinnaker for instance). Most boats from the 1970s and 1980s had non-self-tailers as the standard while almost all of the winches you find on cruising sailboats built since the late 1980s are self-tailing. Upgrading to self-tailers is the logical choice because they are a real boon for shorthanded sailors. “Lots of guys are replacing standard winches with new self-tailing winches,” says Harcourt Shutz, general manager for Lewmar USA.

But that’s not all you have to consider. “We ask if someone is looking at a classic style winch or a winch that would be good for all types of rope,” says Anderson. “For instance, are you using a soft Dacron-covered rope, or is this a racing boat with a very high tensile strength small diameter sheet or halyard?” The different type of rope you are using will determine the type of “grip” your winch needs to have, i.e. how the drum keeps hold of the rope. “There are two different grips on a winch—shape friction or surface friction,” Anderson says. “On Harken’s radial winches we have facets that are cut into the drum that we rely on to hold the rope—that is shape friction. This works well for cruisers using standard sailing lines.”

Typically, a sailor replacing his winches will know what size winch he is looking for. “If a guy walks up at a boat show who has older equipment, we ask if he has a certain size and use it as a benchmark and we go from there,” says Shutz. “The square footage of the sail is the starting point when picking a size. Also taken into account is the weight of the boat.”

You also need to take into account how the winch will be used, what sails they will be holding and what strain they will be under. “When sizing winches we focus on the working load and the ultimate load that the particular application would see. Is it a sheet, halyard, etc.,” says Anderson. Every winch has a certain power ratio, how much force you will get out in relation to how much you put in. “That’s the number on the top of the winch, the power ratio,” says Shutz. The power ratio is the combination of the winch’s leverage (the difference between the drum radius and the winch handle radius) and the gear reduction (the number of times the handle turns for every rotation on the drum). So for example, for a winch with a 10in long handle and a 5in diameter drum, and a 6:1 gear ratio, the power ratio is 24:1 (10/2.5 x 6). This means that for every pound of effort you put in, you get 24lb out.


Winches use two sets of levers to increase force. The winch handle is the lever arm; the longer it is, the greater its effect. It rotates the internal levers (gears) to generate torque. To work out the power ratio, divide handle length (10in) by drum radius and multiply by the gear ratio, which you’ll find in the maker’s specifications. Typically, a size 44 winch will develop 44lb of power for every 1lb of effort in high gear

The growing trend these days, when sailors upgrade their winches is shifting to electric winches. “The past two years we’ve seen a pretty good spike in aftermarket electric winch sales,” says Shutz. “At the Annapolis show last year we had an all-time high for inquiries on electric winches.” And there is good reason for the shift in the market. “To hoist a main sail can be a hard job for a small crew and just to push a button means safe and convenient sail handling,” says Jan Karlsson, a design engineer with Swedish-based Seldén Mast. “As we see it, powered winches are already something builders of cruising boats above 40ft must offer.”

What lies Ahead

In the last few years we have seen yet another choice come onto the market when you’re deciding to upgrade your winches—reversible winches, which allow a sailor to trim and ease a sail without having to touch the line. “The advantage of not having to touch the line when releasing it is obvious,” says Karlsson, whose reversible winches won a Pittman Innovation Award when they were introduced in 2010. “It’s safer, you can do it with one hand and you do not need to take the handle out of the drum.”


1.There are 14 models of Antal’s two-speed self-tailing XT winches, and they come in hard black aluminum or chrome (shown). 2. Harken’s two-speed self-tailing Radial winches are lightweight, strong and come in a wide range of sizes. 3. Seldén’s line of manual self-tailing reversible winches 
is great for racers. 4. Andersen’s self-tailing winches are designed for small and mid-sized monohulls and multihulls. 5. Lewmar’s Revo electric winches feature backwinding, so you can trim and ease the sail at the push of a button.

“We see the shift really going to a more push-button sailing style, where you can trim and release the sail from the helm station,” says Shutz. Lewmar developed its Revo line for just this reason.

There have also been developments in the materials used for winches, moving from classic bronze and stainless steel to aluminum and chrome. As with many of the pieces onboard a boat, the aim is always to reduce weight. “A lot of the development in terms of materials and construction that we use in our grand prix products trickle their way down in a couple years and become a standard offering,” says Anderson. “New composite bearings, new alloys—all things that lead to weight savings.” The materials used in your winches, be they traditional or cutting edge, are one more piece of the puzzle you’ll have to consider when looking to upgrade your existing components.

f you have older non-self-tailing winches it might be time to upgrade

So, while it took a good two or three decades for winch technology to develop, the winches available to sailors today are more advanced than ever before, and the developments keep coming. From powered winches to reversible winches, new lightweight materials to advanced construction, to what might be the most advanced winches yet (see “The Next Generation,” on page 54), if you’re thinking about upgrading your winches, there has never been a better time.





Andersen Winches