How To Use A Winch On A Sailboat

Sailing is an extremely invigorating recreational activity, imagine feeling the wind’s gentle breeze, and the radiance of the clear blue sky. It’s also a great way to get yourself outdoors and have a vacation at your own set time and a place of your choosing. Though there can be a lot of work involved in it, with the right tools and practice, you can put yourself on a boat much more quickly. One of the tools that you can have installed on your boat is a winch.

When you hear about winches, they are typically associated with vehicles. In vehicles, winches are additional attachments installed for a utility purpose or self-recovery when stuck. Winches are not limited for use in vehicles only, they are also used in other areas as well, and one of those areas is sailing. If you want a guide on how to use a winch, refer to this guide.

Sailing can be a tremendous exercise, it can be exhausting trying to control those sails, especially if you are sailing alone. It can be a great exercise controlling those sails, but if you are sailing for leisure they can be quite troublesome. To make it easy for you to control those sails, you may want a winch for controlling those sails.

Winches For Sailboats?

Used on sailboats, winches provide a mechanical way for handling sheets, halyards, and other lines. Even small boats such as 30 or 40-foot sailboats have pulling forces up to 2 tons, depending on the wind conditions. Winches also provide the force needed for when controlling heavy sail hoists and for controlling the sail during strong winds. 

Winches work by having the ropes wrapped around the drum of the winch, they are held together by friction. It is best to operate the winch by a tailing method, one person holds the ropes while the other operates the winch. The tailing method is not that necessary, winches can still be operated by only one person.

Choosing The Right Winch For Your Sailboat

Before we get into the tutorial of how to operate the winch, you must first learn which winch to get. The pull of the lines from the sails can be strong especially for when winds are strong. So pick which winch is capable of handling it. There are factors you need to consider when getting a winch, the purpose of it, sail area, and sailboat length.

  1. Purpose: There are different models of winches for different purposes. Some winches are designed for heavy use such as sailing for sports or sailing for leisure. Select which type of winch you will use such as self-tailing or plain top.
    • Self-Tailing: The popular type of winch, primarily used in yachts, for sheet halyards and control lines.
    • Plain Top: A type of winch for sailboats, primarily used in sports, this is more focused on speed and efficiency in casting ropes. These models of winches can get expensive.
  2. Sail Area: Determine the surface area of your sail. This part of the specification is needed to determine the right size of the winch you need.
  3. Sailboat Length: Determine the size of your sailboat. You will need the specifications so that your winch manufacturer can determine which winch for you to get.

How to Operate A Winch On A Sailboat

Here is a basic step by step guide to operating a winch when sailing.

  1. Wrap The Ropes Around The Winch: Begin wrapping the ropes starting from the bottom of the drum and work your way up.  Wrap the ropes around the drum in a clockwise direction.
  2. Number Of Wraps Around The Drum: The ropes are wrapped around the drum of the winch and they are held together by friction. Wrap the ropes around the drum three to four times. Depending on the diameter of the winch, small diameters require much more wraps to prevent the ropes from slipping.
    • Make sure when the ropes are being wrapped around each other are stacked neatly. This avoids the ropes from getting tangled and causing a jam.
  3. Insert The Winch Handle: Insert the winch handle at the top of the winch and use it to tighten the ropes. Be sure that the handle is safely installed properly. Try to jerk it around to ensure that they are installed properly. This avoids unnecessary mistakes and accidents that happen when the handle suddenly pops off.
  4. Cleat The Rope: Begin the cleat the rope when it is wound up in to keep it under tension.
  5. Grinding And Tailing: The act of rotating the winch is grinding while the act of pulling the ropes and tightening it is tailing. Both of these actions need to work together and simultaneously. This is for the winch to be able to pull the line and tighten it around the winch drum. Sometimes only one person is needed to do both actions, it depends on what the situation calls for. The person doing the pulling is the tailer and the person grinding the winch is the grinder.
  6. Remove The Winch Handle: After you are done with your activity, remove the winch handle.

Winch Recommendations

If you are not into operating boat winches manually, perhaps you could consider gas powered winch. Some models of gas powered winch are portable and they can be used for a variety of applications, including sailing.

Here are some of our recommendations for gas powered winch:

  1. Portable Winch Gas-Powered Capstan Winch – 1,550-Lb.
  2. Portable Winch Gas-Powered Capstan Winch – 2,200-Lb. 
  3. Portable Winch Gas-Powered Capstan Winch Forestry Kit – 2,200-Lb


Now that you have learned how to operate a winch on a sailboat, get out of there and have some fun! Do you have any more thoughts about his guide? Do you think I missed something? Comment below. We also offer other guides and tips regarding winches, such as Boat Trailer Winch Stand Review and Best ATV Winch for Snowbear Plow.