A New Sailboat Winch Could Add More Power

A well-built sailboat winch of the right size can seriously improve your time on the water
Sailboat Winches


Courtesy Of The Manufacturers

There’s a reason that the word “grind” is the term most often used to describe the work involved in trimming sails, especially if you own an older boat with winches in need of some T.L.C. or you sail a lot in heavier breezes that can quickly overpower the original equipment, which may have been undersized to begin with.

Over the years, I’ve sailed on boats with both afflictions, the worst case, perhaps, being a 46-footer with chronically broken primary sailboat winches. Trying to tame a 140-percent genoa with wimpish secondaries in a stiff breeze left me wondering how the captain could not have a more powerful sailboat winch. It’s a wonder he could find crew at all!

The good news is that it’s a problem that’s fairly easy to remedy if you’re willing to invest in the pleasure part of the sailing equation. In the last couple of years, longtime winch manufacturers have revamped their product lines, and a couple of new players have joined the fray. For the sailor looking to repower the cockpit, this means that prices are competitive and that there are lots of choices in how you go about your upgrade.


To get started, you’ll need to make several decisions: Are your present sailboat winches powerful enough to let you trim sails when the wind pumps up to 20 knots or more? If not, you may want to buy new ones that are a size or two bigger. Next, decide if you want to replace them with another set of manual winches, or would you rather pay a bit more and upgrade to electric (or in some cases, hydraulic) ones that will put sail trim literally at your fingertips?
Once you have those answers, it’s time to go shopping.

Mark Pillsbury is the editor of Cruising World_._

Well-known winch manufacturer Harken has introduced a whole new line that it calls its Radial Winches. They’re designed for easy installation and maintenance and incorporate drum technology that provides a better bite—but less wear and tear—on sheets and halyards. Rather than having a knurled finish, the working part of the drum has diagonal ridges that help grip a line when it’s being tailed but make easing the line under load smoother.


The self-tailing winches in this line are available in models for boats ranging from, say, 24 to about 50 feet. The winches, roughly three years in the making, were first rolled out about a year ago. Over the past year, Harken has adjusted the product line, and it now includes winches sized 20 to 80, numbers that refer to their power ratios. Larger winches, from 60 and above, are also available in a three-speed configuration.

Harken tech Mike Lee says that installing new ones is relatively straightforward. The winches use hex-head bolts that lock into the winch’s base. After drilling the appropriate holes, you simply drop the winch into place and tighten the nuts from below.

To determine the correct size of winch for your boat, you can use the tools in the winch section of the Harken website ( For sheet winches, Lee said the company recommends using the 100-percent headsail-area measurement for sizing purposes. That way, you’ll have the power you need to trim sails in windy conditions. It’s a myth, he notes, that you need the most power to trim big headsails. In reality, those sails have been put away well before the breeze picks up.


If you plan to do a lot of bluewater sailing or if you’re looking to make trimming just a little easier, you can always go up a size.

Netherlands-based Holmatro, a longtime manufacturer of safety and rescue equipment as well as marine hydraulics, got into the winch business several years ago when it bought Meissner Winches, makers of the high-end, classic-styled winches you might find aboard the yachts in Cannes or St.-Tropez.
Using Meissner’s underlying technology and patents, Holmatro then spent five years on R&D to come up with a new line of winches that were developed and tested aboard Extreme 40

raceboats. The result is a line of modern-looking forged-aluminum winches that are very light but strong, says Howard Seaver of Holmatro USA, which has facilities in Glen Burnie, Maryland.


Inside the winch, gears and pawls are made of bronze and stainless steel, and the company uses a solid bearing rather than roller bearings between the drum and spindle. This bearing is self-lubricating and only needs to be washed occasionally with fresh water, so maintenance is reduced.

The drums are distinctive because rather than having a knurled finish, they’re covered with fine, nearly perpendicular lines designed to provide better grip when under load, make it easier to ease sheets, and distribute the force on the drum upward, where it flares slightly, providing more surface area and better grip. The self-tailing line gripper is spring loaded so it can accommodate a wide range of lines.

Winches come in sizes ranging from 16 to 68, and all but the smallest are two-speed. Prices range from $777 to $5,900. The company also continues to manufacture a line of classic winches. Though you may soon see Holmatro winches in stores, at present they’re distributed mostly through a network of rigging companies, says Seaver. You can find dealers at the company’s website (

Seldén Mast
Mast, rigging, and hardware manufacturer Seldén Mast is a newcomer to the winch business, but it’s jumping into the fray with an intriguing and innovative new product, a manually powered and reversing self-tailing winch.

We’ve not yet seen one of these Reversible Winches here in the States; they were introduced this past fall in Europe, where they’ve been installed on some high-end boats, and they should be available to the refit market sometime in the fall, according to Scott Alexander, the company’s U.S. representative. He’ll have demo models at some of the winter boat shows.

Unlike Harken’s Rewind Radial Electric Winch, the Seldén winch uses a proprietary handle with a button located atop its handgrip. The winch sheets in just like a normal two-speed, but when it comes time to ease the line, push the button and the winch reverses, paying out the sheet. The winches are all stainless steel.
For the racer, says Alexander, it’s a pretty useful feature. Once you get your trim set, you can easily ease out a turn or two to power through a wave, then get right back in the groove by cranking in the same number of turns.

For the cruiser, it means that the helmsman can ease a sheet and still keep one hand on the wheel and that a crewmember who isn’t used to handling lines under load doesn’t have to take the tail off the winch to let it out.

The winch comes in four sizes: 30, 40, 46, and 52. Prices will range from $1,400 to $3,400.

Like most of the other new winches on the market, this winch is quite easy to install. You’ll need to drill four holes, then drop it into place.

For Seldén, the move into the winch business makes sense. For some time now the company has been able to offer boatbuilders all the abovedecks hardware in one package: mast, rigging, Furlex headsail furlers, and in-mast furling for the main. Now it can add these new winches to the mix.

Make your way through any sailboat show and you’re bound to see Lewmar winches in abundance. Like its American-based competitor Harken, Lewmar, with headquarters in the United Kingdom, has been a longtime player in racing circles, and it’s a supplier of winches and other hardware to production-boat builders worldwide.

Two years ago, the company revamped its product line and came out with its EVO winches, the name being an allusion to the company’s mantra that it believes in “evolution, not revolution.” The company also continues to manufacture its Ocean winches, which have been in production now for 20 years.
The EVO line includes self-tailing winches sized from 15 to 65, and all but the smallest are two-speed. The company also offers electric and hydraulic versions of all its winches size 40 and above; these are designed so that an electric motor can be easily attached to the base of the winch, either when installed or as an upgrade. The EVOs are also available in a Sport configuration; these aren’t self-tailing and would be used primarily on raceboats, where lines are being constantly adjusted.

The winches are designed for easy installation with Fast Fit studs that are screwed into the base; then the winch is dropped into place, and nuts are fitted from below. No tools are needed to maintain the winches; the top cap is unscrewed using just your fingers. Inside, the bronze gears and spindles will need only to be cleaned in mineral spirits and relubricated annually.

EVOs are available in black or gray alloy and chrome bronze, and all the self-tailing models use the company’s WaveSpring jaws to grip line.
The company’s product literature (available online at includes comprehensive instructions and charts to help you select a replacement winch that will be appropriately sized. Prices for the standard EVOs range from about $580 to $4,420.

Winch Contacts
Harken: (262) 691-3320,
Holmatro USA: (410) 768-9662,
Lewmar: (203) 458-6200,
Seldén Mast: (843) 760-6278,