Rupert Holmes looks at electric winches and electric winch handles
Electric winches and electric winch handles
Sailing can be a very physical activity, even for those who try to seek out gentle cruising.
So many boat owners find there comes a time when it is sensible to add some kind of assistance with winching.
In addition to the convenience factor, this also brings a health benefit – heart attacks are more common than is generally realised after a vigorous spell of winching.
Electric assistance can therefore be a benefit to those with boats of little more than 30ft if they have big overlapping genoas – it’s less of an issue for more recent craft that tend to have non-overlapping jibs whose sheets require far less effort to wind in.
As boats get larger the effort required to hoist the mainsail also increases, so electric halyard winches can also make sense.
However, they are eye-wateringly expensive, even if you’re lucky enough to have existing winches that have conversion kits such as Lewmar’s Ocean series and most post-1999 Harken winches.
Unless you opt for a compact electric winch like Seldén’s E40i (£2,900) or Harken’s Unipower 900 (£3,750), where the motor is at least partially within the drum, an electric winch will also reduce headroom below and the gearbox/motor will require boxing in.
The drawback with these two models is their compact format affects manual operation – in the case of the Seldén winch this isn’t possible at all, even in the event of power failure, while Harken’s is only single speed.
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It’s always worth considering whether a different route will produce a similar result to fitting electric winches, but at a lower price and potentially beneficial side effects.
If hoisting the mainsail requires a lot of effort, check the slides are matched to the luff groove.
A couple of squirts of Teflon or silicone based lubricant can also make a huge difference.
Many cruising yachts have halyards that exit at the base of the mast, but it’s not a difficult job to make an exit for the line higher up the mast that allows body weight to be used to ‘bump’ the sail aloft.
Top-quality roller bearing mast tracks cost a lot less than electric winches and make an enormous difference to sail handling.
You can even drop the main with the wind aft.
When it comes to sheeting a headsail home when sailing closehauled, accurate helming and good timing (or a deft hand on the pilot buttons) means you can luff 15° after a tack to pull most of the sheet in by hand.
If you don’t get it all the way, bear away around 15° below your usual close hauled course to build speed, then luff again – this will enable you to wind the winch with minimal effort.
This technique works with the widest variety of boats imaginable.
Electric winch handles
If electric assistance is necessary by far the cheapest and easiest option is the iWinch.
This small fitting, costing under £50, enables a cordless electric drill to be connected to any conventional winch.
Even though this is not a fully waterproof set up it can be a good solution for occasional use, or for a halyard winch under the protection of a sprayhood.
The longest-running unit in this market is the WinchRite, a bulky but powerful two-speed device with a soft start brushless motor that delivers maximum torque of 130Nm – equivalent to 50kg of effort on a 10in winch handle.
It’s also the most affordable all-in-one powered handle.
The Ewincher 2 is an update on the original model from six years ago, with a more powerful battery and a 20% better performance.
It benefits from a torque limiter that can be set to avoid the risk of damage through overenthusiastic winching – a surprisingly common problem.
The downside is that at 2.2kg it’s a fairly hefty piece of kit – and is pricey.
A recent newcomer is the PowerWincher, the brainchild of Australian mechanical engineer and long-time sailor Richard Taylor.
It has a soft start brushless motor, the spindle locks into the top of the winch for safety.
Forward and reverse gears work well for two-speed winches, while the speed is variable – up to 80rpm.
It’s run by a user-replaceable Milwaukee battery that’s readily available worldwide.
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