The winches aboard our sailboats are the great power machines that allow us to efficiently trim sails, raise halyards, tighten docking lines and much more. And like all mechanical devices, winches need to be given regular maintenance. We like to strip our winches at least once a year. That means disassembling them, cleaning them thoroughly and greasing them judiciously before reassembling them.
If you are not familiar with the inner workings of your winches, go to the manufacturer’s website to download a schematic and any maintenance information that might be posted. On metal parts, you can use paint thinner or kerosene to remove old grease and dirt. Plastic parts need to be cleaned with warm soapy water. Often, the pawls and springs will be somewhat fouled with grease and dirt, so clean those carefully and replace any springs that are bent or damaged.
Before reassembling the winches, apply thin, highly refined winch grease—not thick axel grease—to the gears, roller bearings and all fasteners. Dedicated winch grease is available from most chandleries or from the winch manufacturer. Do not grease pawls and springs, since this will cause them to stick and fail, which can be both annoying and dangerous.
Electric winches should be cleaned in the same way. In addition, you need to clean and reseat all power cable attachments and make sure the switches are in good working condition. If you have old, compressed-air switches on the winches, consider replacing them with electric switches, which are less likely to misbehave or fail outright.