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How to Repair the Winches

Tracy Williams

Now and then, a winch will start making growling sounds. That most likely indicates it needs to be cleaned and re-lubed. The process is rather straightforward and only takes 20-30 minutes. You can even do it directly in the boat, but you should bring a towel or large shop rag to lay the parts on so that nothing falls into the bilge.

The first step involves using a small screwdriver and needle nose pliers to remove the retaining metal springy O-ring, which is called a circlip. Use care to avoid dropping it into the water (left picture).

Other models like the Harken winches may not have a circlip, but instead, a screw which you need a bit of leverage to un-tighten (right picture). You may find it necessary to use a pair of vise-grips on the shaft of a large screwdriver to give two-handed leverage.


Once the retaining ring is removed, you can carefully lift up and wiggle a bit to remove the whole assembly off the spindle, keeping your hands around the top and base to avoid any loose parts falling into the water.

winch insides
winch bearing

Over time, the lube grease mixes with dust and dirt and fouls up the winch. With gentle cleaning and focusing only on one task at a time you can have it cleaned and back together as planned. 

In the photos, you can see the dirt and buildup on the spindle – gently use a brass wire brush and a small screwdriver to clean off the residue bit by bit.

Once the spindle is cleaned up, you can apply Super Lube (gray tube) on all of the working gear surfaces below where you normally attach the winch handle. This includes the smooth brass area over which you will re-install the roller bearings once they are ready.

The roller bearings will need a good cleaning. Using a cloth work towel or rag is better than paper towels to avoid the fibers of the paper towel getting caught up in the bearings as you clean off all the old lube and dirt.

Once it is all cleaned up, you should use more Super Lube on the roller bearings on both external and internal surfaces. Be sure to rotate the bearings to ensure the lube covers all the roller bearing surface area.

use superlube to lubricate bearings
bearing for winch lubricated

Now that the main spindle and roller bearings are cleaned and lubed, we can move on to the pawls and pawl springs. They can come loose during cleaning or de-install, so it is essential to anticipate that and to have the work area set up such that if one does fall, it won’t fall onto the floor and into the bilge.

The one here was rather messy and required some thorough cleaning and then a treatment of 3-In-One oil, not lube grease. Using lube grease can result in the pawls getting gummy later and prompting further repairs. You want the pawls to be oiled and be freely springy to function well.

open winch before cleaning
winch inside

A close-up view of the pawls and pawl spring is shown here. If they do fall out, they are rather easily re-inserted as long as one doesn’t lose the parts.

inside parts, spring clip

There are pawls on the bottom of the winch. Be sure to clean and oil those with 3-In-One oil too.

inside parts of open winch
use regular 3 in 1 oil to lubricate
toolbox with spare parts

 Our Chief of Maintenance, Paul Feldon, has done a nice job of equipping our dock box with the required supplies. You’ll see the grey Super Lube and the 3-in-One oil in the blue supply organizer shown above.

Below is what the winch looks like when all cleaned up and re-assembled, first by lubing the spindle and re-installed the cleaned and lubed roller bearings, then gently re-installing the crown (housing) such that the pawls don’t come out of place when sliding back into position over the gears.  CAUTION:  Be sure that the spring clip (circlip) is fully seated in its groove.  If not fully seated, the winch top and drum can fly apart and off during use!   Once done – you’re now back in business and ready to sail!

If well-maintained, our winches should last for many years. If certain parts are damaged or cracked, it is possible to buy replacement parts such as roller bearings, pawls, and pawl springs for much less than the cost of purchasing a new winch. Schematics and part numbers are available on the manufacturer’s websites if you want to look them up.