Yearly Maintenance: Greasing your winches
by Walter Schulz
|Before you go out and buy a tub of butter and head down to the local bar, I’m talking about greasing your winches, not your wenches. You remember your winches, right? Those marvelous wonders of engineering that pull in halyards and jib sheets with the strength of forty men. When you think of them, if you do at all, you may only pause to thank the sailing gods that they developed at least one piece of a boat that doesn’t need some sort of maintenance. And then the sailing gods will laugh demonically and your winch will drop dead. True story.
Because the facts of the matter are that winches are complicated wonders of engineering, and like all wonders of their kind, winches are made up of a dozen complex little pieces of metal that clink and move in unison to give you that strength of forty men. And even though they sit there year in and year out looking relatively new on the outside, what you can’t see is that water and minerals build up inside the seemingly impervious casing. Eventually, if not cleaned and greased yearly to take down this buildup, you will hear one final clink and thing will go from a wonder of engineering to about as useful as a fixed anchor on your trunk cabin.
Ah, some of you are saying right now, I’m all set because I have my winches greased yearly by the boatyard. The sailing gods will never get me!
But, let me ask you, are you sure? I mean really, truly, completely certain? Because on the list of jobs a boatyard must perform, greasing the winches falls right above making sure all of the screw heads in your fittings are facing the same direction. Not to say that boatyards are lazy, just that greasing the winches is a tedious job that is likely to be handed to lowest member of the crew on the food chain. And, as all winches are taken apart differently and all contain little parts that are mysteriously attracted to the bottom of the ocean, the kid that is given the job is more likely to go out for a burger than to tackle the task.
Sadly, unlike aligning the screw heads, skipping the grease when it comes to winches is bound to cause some serious problems for you and your boat. Problems that will only be resolved by ripping the frozen winch out and replacing it with a new one. Which, of course, will mean that you will end up with two completely different winches and put a loud screaming sign on your boat that says: “The sailing gods got me again!”
So, what can be done? Well, there are two options, and one is a lot easier than the other. The easy one is to have the boatyard grease your winches but make sure you are on the boat at the time. Now, I’m not talking about hovering over poor kid who got the job and putting together photo documentation on what he’s doing. Just, simply, be on the boat. It’s going to be a whole lot harder for that kid to hear the burger joint calling his name if you are somewhere on board. You could be cleaning out your tackle bag, color coding your lines, or even aligning all of your screw heads, anything that doesn’t fall into the category of watching a winch get greased. If you are wondering why I’m specifying what you are going to be doing, I ask you to remember that teacher you had in high school, the one who used to hover over your paper during the test. When the teacher was watching, weren’t you always afraid that you had chosen the wrong answer? Didn’t you always feel like you must have been cheating even when you weren’t? Well, the kid facing a winch with many moving parts and the owner watching feels just the same way. It’s almost a guaranty that a critical part will make a splashing sound as it drowns along side the boat. Grease the winch when the boat is up on the hard? Nope-same problem only no sound as it disappears under the boat.
The second approach, the harder one, is to grease the winches yourself. Now, I could get into it here but this article would have to be a lot longer and would need photos, diagrams, and the number of a good scuba diving company. For now, let’s just stick to the basics. You are going to need a couple of things before you begin. The most important is actual manual that came with the winch, which is going to tell you exactly how to get the casing off so that you access the parts inside. If the winch manual went the way of the one that came with your new folding ladder, have no fear. The internet is filled with resources and your manual is probably available online, if not, you can get the number to the company and ask them to send over a new one.
The next thing you are going to need is a tub of waterproof white lithium grease and a brush of some sort. I personally use an acid brush, which has hard bristles, a shiny metal handle, and is just the right size. Your hardware store should have all of these items and the lithium grease will come in handy for a variety of projects in the future, so I suggest buying the tub and not the tube. The best thing to do with lithium grease is to cut a small square hole for the brush in the plastic top with a penknife because it makes it easier to wipe off the excess. One day I’m going to take over a lithium grease company and make tubs with the square already cut out and probably corner the market in grease, but until that happens, grab a knife.
The final, and most important thing, is a collection of boxes, or a piece of cardboard. This is the alternative to the number for a scuba diving company that I mentioned earlier. You see, the real problem with greasing a winch is that there are little springs and parts that are going to come flying off and land right in the water the minute you pull up on the casing. And, let me tell you, getting them replaced is going to be about as easy as getting the missing screws for that television stand you put together. So, your best bet is not to lose them at all and the only way to ensure that is to put up a wall. It may be hard to believe but these springs have some sort of magnetic attraction to the ocean that can only be broken if you put up a piece of cardboard. Don’t ask me why it works, maybe it’s physics, maybe it’s Murphy’s Law, but if you spend the time to make a nice little wall out of cardboard, those springs will fly off and land nicely in the cockpit. Now, I’m not saying to build the Great Wall of China here, just put up something simple.
There you have it: the basics of greasing a winch. For those of you that are going to head out and look for your manual online, I have these words of encouragement: once you do it once, it’s like you’ve done it a million times. For the others, who are off to talk to the guys at the boatyard, remember that teacher you had in high school. And, finally, for the others who stopped reading this article because they thought greasing a winch didn’t apply to them, well, I might think some more about them as I try to figure out how to find an attractive wench that doesn’t mind a little butter.