You should service your winches before the season and at least once during the season. If you race your boat hard, check your winches before every regatta.
Keep your winches clean and operating smoothly by flushing them regularly with fresh water. Check pawls and springs, bearings, gears, and spindles for signs of wear and corrosion.
Dismantling a winch, degreasing, inspecting, lubricating and reassembling it is not difficult if you prepare, and are methodical.
Preparation: Have the correct tools and consumables ready. Get an exploded diagram of the winch. If it is a Harken winch, you will find these included in each winch manual here. Surround the winch with towels in order to protect the deck and reduce “parts bounce.” If you are near the rail, put towels over the life lines to try to block the route to oblivion. Wear gloves to protect your skin from the winch grease and general dirt. If you wear two pair, one over the other, you can take the dirty outside pair off as you near completion so you don't get everything dirty as reassemble the winch.
Be methodical: When dismantling the winch, compare what you find to the diagram. Lay out the parts logically so you can be confident about where they came from. When dismantling parts with bearings inside, don't let the bearings fall out. The main bearings inside the drum are traditionally most likely to do this, so lift the drum slowly and check to see whether the bearings are on the housing or stuck in the drum. If they are in the drum, wait until they fall, or tilt the drum so that you can see what is happening and so that they fall into the boat rather than out of it. If something does drop, make sure you don't compound the problem by over reacting, and turning a minor irritation (dropping a washer or bearing) into an expensive proposition (throwing the drum into the water while trying to catch the original dropped part).
Clean all the old grease and muck off the parts of the winch. (Use a tub or bucket tub with mineral spirits, diesel fuel or commercial degreaser. Do not use gasoline, which may damage plastic parts.) Assess the condition of the winch. Look for bent or chipped teeth on the gears. Don't forget the teeth on the inside of the drum. Make sure the bearings are intact and undamaged. Look at the holes where gear shafts, etc. are located and make sure they are not elongated. Check the pawls and springs, and especially the pocket where they reside. Look for any corrosion. If your winch has a thrust bearing (a row of steel ball bearings under a cover at the base of the housing that takes the downward load on the drum), do not open this without taking precautions, or you will have ball bearings going in all directions. If the bearings are not dry, leave them alone.
Replace worn or corroded parts as necessary.
Hopefully you have a nice clean winch base so that you can start the reassembly process. This generally is a reversal of the dismantling process. Lubricate as you go. Squeeze some winch grease into a bowl and apply it with a paint brush. Apply grease to the teeth of each gear and also to the shaft on which the gear sits. If the winch is big enough that the gears have bearings, grease the bearings too. DO NOT grease pawls and springs. This will cause them to stick and could result in a free-spinning winch. Oil the pawls with properly formulated pawl oil. Grease around the handle socket if it is contact with a bronze housing. When reassembling Harken Classic winches, make sure the ratchet gears are the correct way up, with the pawls sitting properly in the teeth. Failure to ensure this may cause excessive wear or friction in the winch.
Once the winch is reassembled and closed, test it by spinning it by hand; put a handle in and wind both ways. You should have a nice, easy-to-spin winch ready for all that the sea, wind, and you can throw at it.
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