Learn to Sail Like a Pro – How to Use a Sailboat Winch

Learn to sail with confidence when you know the safe, easy way to put sailboat winches to work. These mechanical devices save you time and effort and help you trim sails for power and speed. Read on to learn how to put these “sailing workhorses” to work aboard your sailboat.

Imagine that you need to trim your sail in a heavy breeze. You grab the line, pull hard, and find it almost impossible to hold because of the tension created by the wind. Enter the sailboat winch!

These mechanical helpers are shaped something like an hourglass. The middle part–called a drum–has gears inside. These gears, along with a winch handle (more on this later), multiply the mechanical advantage of the winch to save you a lot of back-breaking work!

The wide bottom mounts onto the deck of your sailboat. The wide top–or plate–has a hole in the middle. You insert the winch handle into this hole and turn the handle, which turns the gears and drum of the winch. Follow these five easy steps for safe sailing and sail trimming.

1. Lead the Line in Up to the Winch

Check to make sure that the line you want to take to the winch leads (points) up to the winch. You may find on some boats that the line leads down to a winch–and that can be dangerous.

You can change the lead of a line with a block. Sail sheets (control lines) pass through blocks first before they get to the winch. Blocks that help point the line in the correct direction to the winch are often called “lead blocks”, because the “lead” or “redirect” the line in the correct direction to the winch.

Position lead blocks between the sail clew and winch in such a way that the sail sheet will lead up to the winch at a slight angle. Keep the block just a bit lower than the drum of the winch. This will insure that the sail sheet always leads at an upward angle to the winch drum for safe sailing when you use your sailboat winch.

2. Wrap the Sheet Clockwise

Pull the sheet to the winch and make a full turn (circle) around the drum in a clockwise direction. Full turns on a winch are called “wraps”. Build wraps onto a winch drum by keeping each successive wrap parallel to the previous wrap, flat against the drum. Avoid stacking wraps on top of one another. This can lead to an “override” or jammed turns that will cause the wraps to freeze onto the drum. Keep the wraps next to one another for safe, smooth, easy sail trim.

3. Count the Wraps

On small boats make a single wrap around the winch drum to remove the slack from a loose sail sheet. Then wrap it one or two more times to hold the sheet in place. On larger boats, wrap the line three to four turns to hold it in place. More wraps creates more friction on the drum to keep the line from slipping. Increase the number of wraps for thinner line.

After you wrap the line two to four times, pull on the line with slight tension to hold the wraps in place. This action–called “tailing” places light tension on the wraps to keep them aligned on the drum. Some winches are self-tailing, which means they have two “clam-shell” plates on top to hold the line for you. After you complete the wraps around the drum, jam the line into the clam plates and make a full wrap.

4. Grind on the Winch

Trim your sail by turning the winch drum. This pulls in the sheet or halyard so that you can shape your sails for speed or power. Insert a winch handle into the center hole in the top plate of the winch drum. Stand up, hover over the winch and keep your back straight. Hold the sheet or line with your non-dominant hand and grind (turn the winch handle) with your dominant hand. When finished grinding (unless you use self-tailing winches), remove the winch handle. Cleat off the line. Make the cleat hitch without the final locking hitch. That way, you will be able to release the sheet fast and easy for trimming, tacking, or jibing.

5. Ease or Cast Off

Use your dominant hand to ease a sail sheet (let it out). First, remove the sheet from the cleat or remove the single wrap from inside the clam plates on a self-tailing winch. Hold the line with moderate tension to keep the wraps in place. Place the palm of your non-dominant hand against the wraps on the drum with moderate pressure. This will keep the wraps stacked without overrides as you ease the sheet. Use a smooth motion to ease the sheet an inch or two, then hold (brake”) the sheet with your palm. Ease and brake, ease and brake, in a smooth, easy motion.

You will cast off the line or sheet when you change tacks, jibe, or need to lower a sail. Wait until you have eased the line as described above. Pull straight up and out off the drum of the winch and let the turns spin off the winch. Allow the sheet or line to run through your hand. If tacking or jibing, drop the sheet and move to the sheet on the opposite side of the cockpit. Repeat the steps above to trim the opposite sheet. When finished, stow the winch handle, coil sheets or lines and get ready for the next tack or jibe.

Follow these easy sailing tips to use any sailboat winch fast and easy. Sail with confidence when you know how to sail in safety–wherever in the world your choose to cruise!