Winches on sailboats are powerful and compact internally gear driven tools that allow you to haul in and hold lines under high loads manually, by a single person. Winches will have their size stamped on the top of the drum, ex. 20, 35, 40, and so on. This number indicates the power ratio. For example – a #35 winch will provide a 35:1 mechanical advantage. Say you have a winch handle inserted into the top of the winch and you are exerting 40 pounds of pressure as you wind the handle, which is, in turn, winching in a loaded line. The amount load being translated to the line is 35 x 40 = 1400 pounds. Impressive power.
So, you are the engine, the winch is the transmission, and the handle connects you. But what handle should you use to reduce fatigue, and that will be optimal for the load and available winching area?
We will take you through the four criteria to properly choose a sailboat winch handle:
- Locking versus non-locking
- Handle length
- Handle grips
Classic winch handles are either bronze or chromed bronze. They are beautiful (especially on a classic boat), built to last a lifetime, but heavy and the most expensive.
Anodized aluminum sailboat winch handles are medium weight, robust, and are by far the most popular on the market.
Reinforced plastic handles offer a lower price, lightweight (some float on or at the surface of the water), but extreme winching loads and can cause them to flex sometimes.
Carbon handles are lightweight (about half of the weight of aluminum), and without the possibility of flexing life plastic handles, but they carry a higher price tag.
Locking or Non-Locking?
Images courtesy of Harken
All modern winch handles use an 11/16″ (17.5 mm) octagonal star stud that fits into the top of the winch. Locking handles will have a spring loaded square lock-plate on the end of the star studs. When the spring-loaded lock-plate is held in the unlocked position, it aligns with the star stud ridges, allowing it to be inserted or removed from the winch top. When the lock is released with the handle in the winch, the plate rotates out of alignment with the star stud, and catches on the corresponding ridges of the winch, holding the handle securely into the winch.
There are two exceptions to the lock-plate: 1. The Harken OneTouch handles, which uses two stainless retracting pins. 2. The Ronstan Quick-Lock handles which has an auto-insert locking mechanism and is the only locking handle you can put in a winch without having to unlock it first. By sticking it into the winch it automatically locks until you depress the handle button to release it.
All lock types are actuated either by a thumb-operated lever (on top, or on the side of the handle) or by a top plate that is hand squeezed.
Generally, all handles on a boat should be locking unless there is a specific reason for it not to be. While non-locking handles are easier and faster to insert and remove from the winch, they are also easier to lose overboard if you don’t immediately remove it from a winch after use, and you knock it, or a line catches it. Losing handles overboard is expensive, and boats are extremely hard to sail if you run out of them.
The type of lock you choose is all personal preference. Top- thumb and side–thumb operated locks only require only the movement of your thumb to actuate the spring-loaded mechanism. Top-hand locks require you to grip the sides and underside only of the handle’s shaft so as not to unlock it and then squeeze the trigger with your thumb when you are ready to unlock it. Top thumb locks are easy to operate with your thumb, either right or left handed, and are the most commonly purchased handle, historically. Side thumb handles are easy to actuate left or right handed, and sleek on top (line shedding). Think through what would be easier for you and your crew to operate.
10″ handles are the most common and comfortable handle length for most sailors. It is the length that will give you the most power. When looking at specifications on winches, they will be based on this length handle.
8″ handles allow you to grind faster because they swing through a smaller circle, but power is reduced by about 20%. Cruisers may use them when a dodger or bimini is installed too close to a winch to use a 10” handle. They work well on smaller race boats when speed is more important than power. If you are a really strong person, and trimming substantial loads is not an issue, using these when racing on larger boats may be desirable, due to the faster trimming speeds.
All quality winch handles will have ball bearing grips to reduce friction and translate the maximum amount of your energy to the winch. Some handles can even be rebuilt with new bearings after substantial use, but this is a rare occurrence.
By far the most common grip type used and found on sailboats. If you do not have any specific needs of your handle other than for it to work well in a wide variety of uses, this is the default sailboat winch handle.
These are designed to help you translate two arm cranking power to the winch once the load is fully taken up by the winch. Initially you crank with one hand at high speed; then transition to two hands when the load becomes too much for just on arm. If you do not need the additional power of a double grip, consider a more appropriate handle. The taller grip stack will more easily snag lines (and body parts), and the larger size can be more difficult to store in a ready-to-use location.
Knob Grip Only:
Excellent for racing where maximizing winching speed is the only concern. The palm of the hand is placed on top and the fingers grip around the knob top. Once substantial load comes on, it is assumed you are done winching in, as you cannot switch to the more powerful vertical grip or two-handed grip on this low profile design.
Knob with Single Grip:
Allows you to change from speed grinding with your pam around the knob, to one-handed power grinding on the vertical grip when the load becomes substantial, or supper powered two-handed grinding with one hand on the knob and the other on the vertical grip. It’s almost like having a three-speed handle. The Haken is unique in that the knob and the single grip rotate independently of one another, thus allowing your wrists to bend independently when two-handed winching.
At the end of the day, if you have no special requirements of your winch handle, and you are looking to purchase a new one, a 10”, top thumb locking, aluminum, a single grip is a safe bet.
Electric Winch Handles
WinchRite Electric Handle
If you are looking to greatly reduce the physical strain of winching lines, this product allows you to effortlessly operate any manual winch by simply sticking the handle in the top and pulling the large button built into the grip. It is variable speed – starts off slow so there is no jolt. It is waterproof and also floats, and can be charged with the included AC or DC chargers. Battery life is said to be equivalent to hauling the main up 6-8 times on a 38’ boat. It even comes with a molded PVC bulkhead pocket for storage.
Cruiser Ingenuity, Electric Handle
It consists of a 24V angle drill (Milwaukee model 0721-21) with a winch ‘star bit’ (Harken). With the bit in the chuck of the drill, just drop it into the top of your winch with the drill set to low speed. Pull the variable speed trigger and you have electric winches. This is a less expensive solution than a purpose designed electric winch handle, but it does have some significant downsides: It’s not waterproof (needs to be stowed away in really wet conditions), does not float, not easy to store, and it’s almost twice as heavy as the WinchRite. Some who use these have created a waterproof and padded sleeve for the drill which helps address its lack of water resistance and helps protect deck gel coat.
As a side note, the Harken ‘star bit’ is sold as an emergency furling device for electric and hydraulic furlers. If there was furler power loss, you would put the bit in a cordless drill, and insert it into the side of the furling unit, and furl it with drill power.