The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Offshore Sailboat Winches, Selection and Positioning

We have already published two chapters on offshore sailboat cockpits in our How To Buy a Cruising Boat Online Book, but even so there are still a bunch of selection criteria I have not covered, so let’s dig into winches, both those in the cockpit and generally.

Why It Matters

With offshore sailboats the devil is absolutely in the details and never more so than when we come to winch setup. A poorly-positioned winch:

  1. Can result in repeated injuries, particularly to shoulders, neck and back.
  2. Will force the crew into an awkward position so they can exert far less force on the handle than they would be able to otherwise.
  3. This in turn can require the installation of electric winches, with all of the associated expense and potential dangers.
  4. Can encourage crew members to adopt unsafe positions, often outside of the cockpit and in the way of the boom.

Given that, let’s look at how to identify boats with winches done right:

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More Articles From Online Book: How To Buy a Cruising Boat:

  1. The Right Way to Buy a Boat…And The Wrong Way
  2. Is It a Need or a Want?
  3. Buying a Boat—A Different Way To Think About Price
  4. Buying a Cruising Boat—Five Tips for The Half-Assed Option
  5. Are Refits Worth It?
  6. Buying a Boat—Never Say Never
  7. Selecting The Right Hull Form
  8. Five Ways That Bad Boats Happen
  9. How Weight Affects Boat Performance and Motion Comfort
  10. Easily Driven Boats Are Better
  11. 12 Tips To Avoid Ruining Our Easily Driven Sailboat
  12. Learn From The Designers
  13. You May Need a Bigger Boat Than You Think
  14. Sail Area: Overlap, Multihulls, And Racing Rules
  15. 8 Tips For a Great Cruising Boat Interior Arrangement
  16. Of Cockpits, Wheelhouses And Engine Rooms
  17. Offshore Sailboat Keel Types
  18. Cockpits—Part 1, Safe and Seamanlike
  19. Cockpits—Part 2, Visibility and Ergonomics
  20. Offshore Sailboat Winches, Selection and Positioning
  21. Choosing a Cruising Boat—Shelter
  22. Choosing A Cruising Boat—Shade and Ventilation
  23. Pitfalls to Avoid When Buying a New Voyaging Boat
  24. Cyclical Loading: Why Offshore Sailing Is So Hard On A Boat
  25. Cycle Loading—8 Tips for Boat and Gear Purchases
  26. Characteristics of Boat Building Materials
  27. Impact Resistance—How Hull Materials Respond to Impacts
  28. Impact Resistance—Two Collision Scenarios
  29. Hull Materials, Which Is Best?
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  31. Six Warnings About Buying Fibreglass Boats
  32. Buying a Fibreglass Boat—Hiring a Surveyor and Managing the Survey
  33. What We Need to Know About Moisture Meters and Wet Fibreglass Laminate
  34. US$30,000 Starter Cruiser—Part 2, The Boat We Bought
  35. Q&A, What’s the Maximum Sailboat Size For a Couple?
  36. At What Age should You Stop Sailing And Buy a Motorboat?
  37. A Motorsailer For Offshore Voyaging?
  38. The Two Biggest Lies Yacht Brokers Tell
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Philip Wilkie

As has been so often the way this past year or so, you put up articles that are downright spooky in their timing. I just got home after a spending a few hours templating my winch and clutch layout on my coachroof – so this article has been a huge sanity check.

I think I’ve managed to tick all the important boxes. My boat has a grand total of 11 winches festooned over it, 4 forward on or near the mast for the halyards and reefing lines (and I’ve listened to your stern admonitions on this despite almost all local opinion going the other way), then 3 on the coachroof just forward of the cockpit, and finally 2 each side on the cockpit coaming.

Because my staysail track is already on the coachroof, the sheets go to the 2 outboard winches up there. In effect this gives me the ‘three winches each side’ you suggest. The same winches are also used for the minor mainsail trimming controls outhaul and vang, and the two traveller control lines.

The centre coach roof winch is used for the mainsheet only – not ideal but I’m going to live with it as the easiest solution to get me back into the sea. (The coachroof is low enough that standing astride the cockpit seats we get a good position to operate them.)

The cockpit primaries are jib sheet only, but the secondaries have four different lines, furlers, preventers, whisker pole and running backstay terminating on them. Trying to shift the mainsheet back there as well just struck me as too hard – even though I can see the advantages. The blocks and jammers needed to make it work are going to be complicated enough as it is.

I just counted them all up – a total of 30 different lines! Deciding on how I wanted to run them all has been one of the most drawn out and troublesome decisions I’ve had to make so far, and I want to convey just how much your input here at MC has influenced my thinking for the better. I couldn’t quite get to the ideal, but close enough that I’m really looking forward to getting it finally done!

Andrew Craig-Bennett

Agree about the timing!

Only 11! Bah! 🤣 My old girl has thirteen – seven in the cockpit, two on the mast and – (this is where I have doubts) – four on the coachroof, under the gooseneck (reef, outhaul, topping lift, kicker). I can scrap the kicker and topping lift by fitting an hydraulic strut as per MC, and move the reefing winch to the mast. Then we will be even!

Andrew Craig-Bennett

Winches “r” us! Old picture from two years ago. The halyard, reefing and mainsheet winches are now self tailing and I just have to raid the piggy bank and talk to Mr Harken about replacing the six flat top monsters in the cockpit… your advice about not going for electric winches is very welcome!

Alex Borodin

Hi John,

any thoughts on how much of a compromise are standard winches with Barton Winchers compared to self-tailing winches?

I have no experience with them yet, but I’ve got a pair of winches nearly for free and been contemplating getting rid of the staysail boom and using these standard winches with Winchers to sheet the staysail. Say, if you were forced to choose, which of these would be the lesser evil: staysail boom or non self-tailing winches?

Andrew Craig-Bennett

I had a staysail boom for 29 years and whilst it was master of the foredeck when the sail was set, one could always drop the staysail on entering an anchorage. One does lose some horsepower but one can hank on a bigger staysail… on the other hand trying to sheet a staysail every tack with sub optimal winches is a pain in the neck. IMHO, fwiw…

Alex Borodin

Thank you for your opinion, Andrew.

Maybe I should have said that I’m talking about a staysail on a cutter. If need to short-tack, I tend to drop the staysail altogether and use just the jib-top, which is sheeted to self-tailing winches. So, I’m not sure how much of a pain in the neck it would be in practice. Definitely more work than when it tacks by itself, of course.

Dick Stevenson

Hi John, Andrew, Alex and all,
John, agree completely about the staysail being a doddle to tack. When timing is good, snubbing the sheet before it fills pretty much precludes a need to winch. At most, a few inches is needed. For me, a chance to roll up the jib-topsail and short tack into an anchorage is just plain fun: no real work, total control (little worry about close-to-land gusts), good visibility, a chance to look around, no waves: what is not to like.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy   

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Yes, agreed. It amazes me how easy it is to move a well-designed hull in flat water when there is little wind. I sometimes think that every boat should have as one of its base reported stats the force necessary (dynameter?) to pull it through the flat water on a calm day at, say, 6 knots. I imagine that would be an informative piece of information relatively easy to come by.
My best, Dick 

Andrew Craig-Bennett

This was the home of the staysail boom – not in use in this picture.

Alex Borodin

Thank you John. This answer is graphic enough to leave no doubt as to which way the boom should go.

Charles Starke MD

Hi Phyllis
The details in this picture are really interesting. What is orange fixture on your Spinlock left belt, and what kind of gloves are you using and do you like them? Would they be good for photography in Antarctica? How do you like the Musto Ocean gear?

Picture of you at mast in today’s post:×759@2x.jpg

Best wishes,
Charles L Starke MD FACP

David Bangsberg

Hi John,
Thanks for the article. Interested in your thoughts regarding winch placement on the Boreal 47.2: central winch in cockpit for halyards, centerboard, vang, reef lines (single line for first & second reef tack/clew, 3rd reef has line for clew and hook/cringle for tack). Two inboard winches for Genoa, staysail sheets. I am not sure whether the main sheet goes to central or aft winches. Maybe JFE will chime in.

Jean-François Eeman

Hi John,
The set-up of the cockpit of the 47.2 (what you call mk2) is indeed very different from the earlier generation of Boréal. For us it is important to stress the fact that the 44.2 has the same principles of cockpit lay-out as the “original” 44 : one helmpost, all lines at the mast…
That way we have a solution for the adapts of both philosophies…

Michael Lambert

Hi David,
I’m almost positive the smaller outboard winches are for the main sheet. I think the red for main and hard to see dark blue for jib are meant to show that.

Jean-François Eeman

Hi John, Hi Michael,
The genua winches are indeed the bigger winches you see on the inner side the cockpit… The ergonomy behind is that during a tack manoeuvre, one person can release the genua from one side AND pull it on the outer side… There is only more block (however at 90 %) than on the layout on the Mk1. Of course there is more friction than if the block was not there but the sytem really works fine.
I hope that very shortly you can come and test it for yourself…
Speaking of electrics : The ergonnomy is such that all lines can be brought back to the big central winch. If you electrify this one you can do all manoeuvres with that one electric winch. (the winch is oversized to a 65 size).

P D Squire

At the start of this article I became a little depressed. Must we really accept headsail sheet winches on the leeward coming as the only option? The suggested seat-height, kneeling, and other recommended ergonomics; and MC’s cockpit jackline solution mentioned elsewhere improve the situation but the operator still has her centre of gravity to leeward of her centre of support with the winch handle carrying the rest of the load. I really dislike sheeting to leeward and value the ability to place a foot to leeward of the load very highly. Perhaps it’s because I’ve sailed smaller boats than MC that bounce around more and on which crew weight position makes more of a difference. Full approval from me that Boreal at least, have brought them inboard. I have yet to see a better system than my old 1/4 tonner, which offered near-midship sheeting and a windward sheeting option, with the crew able to get a foot to leeward of the winch, all within the cockpit, and with no extra turnblocks. Might be hard to achieve in a larger cruising boat, but totally worth striving for IMHO.

Sweathog Cockipt.jpg

Amen to the round-up problem being exacerbated by vang and main sheet controls out of reach of the helm! I’ve experienced this, for example, while pushing my luck too far with the spinnaker up in squall zones, and it is not fun. In my most serious round up, with the boat pinned on her ear, I was only able to depower the main by, while keeping the tiller hard to windward with my arms, stretching my leg across the companion way and releasing the vang clutch with my foot. I haven’t thought of a way to mitigate this hazard yet, except by sailing more conservatively. I am hesitant to move anything because the current set-up allows me to work the jib (or spinnaker) sheets, main traveler lines (and the topping lifts and after guys for two poles) while standing in one place (tiller between legs), so I can tack and jibe safely while single-handing. I have five winches on the cockpit coaming (primaries, secondaries and a spare), and two on the coach roof under the dodger.
I’m also a fan of working the main halyard, reefing outhauls, and downhaul (Cunningham) at the mast, and have it set up so that I feel secure there even when it’s rough – cross bars between the forward and aft lowers give me a place to brace my back. I have four winches on the mast, two each side, that I use for the main, jib, staysail and spinnaker halyards, as well as for tensioning my removable inner forestay. A clutch for each halyard (and the inner forestay) is very handy, for example while hoisting, and of course allows winch sharing. I set my reefing outhauls using a winch on the forward end of the boom with a clutch for each of the outhauls. A bag below the boom winch collects the lazy ends which keeps the deck clear. The winch mount on the boom has always served well, and it seems it’d be more complicated to have it anywhere else, but I wonder if I am overlooking something?

Yan Brand

Bonjour Messieurs,

I understand the friction issue, but for a shorthanded passage I am happy to have most of the lines coming back to the cockpit on the Mk2. 
This feels safer to me than having to move to the mast everytime that a sail must be reefed, and only the third reef should need intervention at the mast in the Mk2. This was one of my requirements for our boat and it was heard by JFD. 
Being novice, I may be in the wrong of course, and only time and experience will let me see the light on that topic. 
In which case, we could still electrify the other four smaller winches, or at least two of them, since at the current time, only the central main winch is electric on our boat.
But this is a very interesting topic indeed, and I am glad that John provided his insights on it. Thank you so much.

Salutations de Montréal,

Matt Marsh

This is part of why, in our re-jigging of Maverick V‘s mainsail handling, we’re keeping all halyards and reefing at the mast. At some point, you’re going to have to go out on deck in rough stuff – so it’s probably best for that to be a routine, one that you practice so often that it’s easy and normal, rather than a rare special event.

The other reason is that, with kids often hanging out in the cockpit, I want as few loaded lines as possible that they have to watch for. It’s easy enough to teach them to stay clear of the traveller, mainsheet, and leeward jibsheet, but if there’s an 8-line jumble of spaghetti in the way, it’s harder for them to learn what’s loaded up (and thus must be avoided).

We tried running the main halyard back to the cockpit for a bit, and that caused more problems than it solved. Friction wasn’t an issue, but keeping control of the halyard while dropping or reefing the main became a 2-person job. It’s going back to its as-designed spot, a winch on the starboard cabin top beside the mast, this spring.

Our winches are mostly tail-it-yourself style, but we are replacing the #8 reefing winches and horn cleats on the boom with #18 Andersen self-tailers and Lewmar DC clutches so that Katy can grind those in by herself. I am quite impressed with the Andersen build quality and, at least around here, they are among the least expensive options.

Arthur Watson

Hi John,

Just a note about Barlow and Barient winches. I recently inherited a few, and recently had a very satisfactory experience with Hutton-Arco in Australia, which stocks parts for both brands. Their service was knowledgeable, friendly and fast.


Another Barlow note: Rather than replace my big 1970’s non-tailing Barlow primaries, I converted them (about ten years ago) to self-tailing using the Winchmate kit. It took some fussing to get them to operate as smoothly as I wanted, but David Leitch was very helpful and we got there, and the $ savings were substantial. They have worked well.

Eric Klem

Hi John,

I generally agree with the advice but am not sure I agree on the placement of primaries for all cockpit shapes. If you look at the second picture with Phyllis, it is extremely hard to effectively brace yourself fore and aft when kneeling on a cockpit seat (athwartships relative to the boat), especially when heeling. This means that there are 2 portions of the winch stroke which are really hard. The first is where the handle is furthest from your body, your leverage is not good, you are leaning significantly downhill and your body kinematics are not good at sideways motion. This one will always be true and the best solution is to be able to get over the top of the winch as you state. The second problem area is when needing to pull the handle back towards you, you often see people jerking backwards in awkward motions or trying to go back and forth in a different area using both speeds of the winch to avoid going around.

The best solution that I have found is to be able to stand behind the winch facing forwards. This gives you a good view of the sail but also lets you compensate for heel with your legs. Of course, the problem then becomes how do you actually create this standing area assuming you are not on a really big boat where everything can be done standing. On smaller boats, the best way that I know of is when a T shaped cockpit is employed and the winch is just before the cross in the T as far inboard as possible. It is quite easy to screw up this layout either with the sheet being in the way or interfering with the helm but done well I personally much prefer it. If you don’t have a cockpit that permits standing facing forward or aft at the primaries, then I think the suggested location is the best compromise. One other trick which I got from you but believe we differ on how much we like it is that a ratcheting winch handle can help if the winch is in the described location.

Of course if winching the primaries is the only goal and you can ignore other requirements, then a centralized setup like an IMOCA is best but that seems a bit extreme to me.


Eric Klem

Hi John,

My observation of cruising boat designs in the size range of interest leads me to believe that a decent percentage of them have T shaped cockpits but I don’t have any actual numbers to back that up. Of these, probably something like half would work well with winches setup for standing without major surgery, I have sailed on a few different boats doing this and I definitely liked it more but you usually can’t stand as outboard as is ideal so it is still not as good as a pedestal in the middle of the cockpit. I agree completely on not standing outside the cockpit. I am actually contemplating moving our primaries to exactly this position at the front of the T on our boat although it is not super high on the priority list. There are molded in spots for winches in the right spot, they were just not originally populated. Several owners have reported to the owners forum that they have made the change and it has been a big improvement. At the same time, I would update to winches with spring loaded self-tailers as the current winches are an appropriate ratio but push us into larger than needed sheets and those still want to fall out sometimes.

Your comments on speed and ratcheting handles got me thinking and I believe that one of the tricks is that humans do not have constant power output over a very wide range of speed. At low speed, our torque output does not increase as much as our speed dropped and at high speed, our torque output falls quite quickly until you just can’t spin any faster even at no torque. If we assume that winches are the same efficiency regardless of gear ratio, which is not a terrible assumption, then we want to be operating close to our peak power output point as the energy output of the system remains the same regardless. In the real world, it is very hard to do this because our leverage changes depending on where we are in the rotation and the load on the sheet changes depending on several factors. Ideally, the ratio would actually vary based on where you are in rotation but that becomes a very fancy winch and we should all just buy Ewinchers first as they solve this and other issues. The worst would obviously be a gear ratio that is not deep enough so you struggle to grind but going overly deep is not good either. Ergonomics will play a big part in the right winch gear ratio and also lead to a much less fatigued sailor if done right, I think you want to be just short of bogging down in the worst case scenario and then rely on the multiple speeds to help improve efficiency in lower load situations.


Eric Klem

Hi John,

I hadn’t realized that there are now 4 speed winches available, interesting. I wonder what the ratios are? If you are only looking for max power or efficiency in an application with variable load, having more gears is always good as you can better fine tune speed and torque. However, the real world includes things like size, weight, cost, reliability, control logic, etc that don’t always make that a good idea. I think that the auto industry provides an interesting view into this, it used to be that everyone drove cars with 3 speed gearboxes and now many are 10 speed or even infinite within a band (CVT’s). It isn’t like they are only just learning the laws of physics, they are optimizing differently and there have been technical advances too. 3 speeds used to be considered a reasonable compromise, sure you were often not in the powerband of the engine or it was revved up real high when you didn’t need a lot of power but it got the job done cheaply. At the same time, the tractor trailers often had 12+ gears, sometimes in 2 sequential boxes, because they were extremely power limited so needed to be able to get the right ratio and with professional drivers, they could. As people demanded more performance from cars, transmissions crept up to be 4 or 5 speeds but didn’t go higher. From a sales standpoint, I suspect that it was due to users not really understanding the complex product and just focusing on how many horsepower it has. From a performance standpoint, engines had gotten to silly high power levels so the performance was fine and actually, they would have accelerated more slowly if they had to shift more as shifting is time consuming. The car companies have continued to push performance but also are now having to push efficiency and finally we have seen a very quick jump to approximately double the number of gears. This would not have made sense without also vast improvements in how quickly gears shift. Can you imagine going along efficiently at 60mph and 1500 rpm, pulling out to pass someone, mashing the throttle and waiting 3 seconds while it slowly shifted down through 2 gears so you were at 4000 rpm? Since this was not acceptable, they used to just have you cruise along at 3000 rpm burning more fuel and then you might drop 1 gear at max but often none. The setups now do a great job of allowing you to cruise along at a low and efficient rpm but then very quickly shift to a high rpm for power and the control logic is good enough that it doesn’t bother the user like slushboxes of old.

Applying this to sailboat winches, I am not sure exactly what is right. My guess is that the average user would not be particularly good about knowing when to change gears but the top users would be, just watch people ride a bike or drive a manual transmission car and see how many are not doing the right thing. Then there is the question of how gears are changed, if it is time consuming or tricky, that can negate all of the positives. If someone really wanted to nerd out on this, they could use a stationary excercise bike with a true power readout to map out speed versus power by simply varying the resistance.

One other lever that people have to pull is of course winch handle length, I am aware of 2 lengths but there may be more. If someone finds that they have slightly deeper of a ratio than they need, it could be that going to the shorter handle is better. Depending on the ratios, you may find that in the other gears, it is less optimal though so you need to optimize over the whole range of conditions. I suspect that America’s Cup teams have the data and optimize around this stuff but for everyone else, they use some rules of thumb and move on.


P D Squire

Thanks for your insights into human power development and ergonomics Eric; most interesting. Your observations seem to have many parallels to bicycling, where a dozen or so gears 10%-13% apart have been found optimal. It will be interesting to see how far down this path winch manufacturers will go. Will we see a 10-speed winch at some point? In the meantime, short and long handles for light & heavy jobs seems like a wonderful progressive step (simple & cheap.) While thinking about handles, the Ewincher offers another solution. E-bike makers are just cottoning onto the fact that they don’t need to provide so many gears so closely spaced. The e-assist makes up the difference between more widely-spaced gears. An Ewincher might prove a more reliable, fault tolerant, and redundant option than a future 4-10 speed winch.

Jeffrey Stander

Good article, John!

Our winch plan on Beatrix (44′ cutter) is very similar to your suggestions.

Part of selecting winches should be a consideration of maintenance issues. Servicing is an important (and often neglected) task that should be done at once or twice a year.

When I re-winched about 20 years ago the sales guys at Fisheries Supply and I took apart an Anderson, a Harken, and a Lewmar to check the ease of servicing. Anderson was by far the easiest and Lewmar was the worst. We chose Harken, partly because they had a 15% off RRP program at the time which, combined with my 40% commercial discount, saved us a LOT of money, but most important was that they are good winches and Harken had a good customer service reputation.

For the primaries, we have 2 big 3-speed Harken 56.3ST winches. The insides resemble a Porsche transmission. (I’m happy with the 3-speed winches but 2-speed would have been fine.) Kathy does all the servicing (she’s the “winch wench”) and she does it regularly. Unserviced winches eventually break teeth or become hard to use.

We also carry spare parts: all plastic components like the upper jaw, plus various washers, springs, pawls, and detent balls. Occasionally a tiny part is lost during servicing. The plastic upper jaws are all original. Where the winches are duplicates we don’t need a complete spares kit for each one.

Last, and not totally relevant to the topic, Sunbrella winch covers keep out dust and UV when not in use.


Marc Dacey

A little bit of planning and practical geometry allowed us to put larger primaries (Lewmar 44s, rehabbed, freshwater-only “Ocean Wave” models from the ’90s) between our Andersen 40 primaries and our single speed Andersens we use for the staysail sheets. The heights differed enough so that the biggest winch, the Lewmar, clears the rest with the biggest winch handle. We can get right over the winches on the centerline standing in the footwell and all lines run fair through blocks from forward. The rest of the winches are at the mast (more Andersen 40s). The largest winch handle clears the Lewmar by 3 mm or about 1/8th of an inch.

If we need to winch the staysail sheet, it’s usually just one or two cranks, so the inability to do a full circle was no real compromise. We have no coamings on our rather strange boat, and so often attempt to think in non-obvious ways, such as “height of winch tops” to solve problems. We carry spares for both the Lewmars and the Andersens, both of which were easily obtainable and we strip down all winches for cleaning and related service (the occasional pawl replacement, mostly) every two seasons.

Ernest E Vogelsinger

Hi Marc, this sounds like an interesting setup – do you have some photos available?

Marc Dacey

There are two photos in this blog post of interest…we had a busy month aboard.

Ernest E Vogelsinger

Thanks Marc! This is truly an unusual setup, but seems perfect for the functions intended.
(hope you never have to use it to winch in a drogue…)

Marc Dacey

That’s actually what the aftmost Andersen 40s would handle, not that I anticipate that with enthusiasm as we’ll have to practice deploy the drogue in order to practice retrieving it! We are installing our drogue chainplates before launch in the next 60 days or so.

Bruce Cuthbert

I find Pontos [now Karver] 4 speed winches a dream to use for the headsail primaries in my old age, and agree an Ewincher is perhaps the only satisfactory solution if the boat builder has stupidly put the mainsheet winch on the coach-house.

Martin Ledger

I truly love this site and it never fails to give me information I desperately need (even as it highlights more tasks to add to my already MASSIVE ‘to-do’ list!). While I realize that there are endless configurations of gear and systems, would it be possible to post a few “generic” evolutions for we somewhat crazy new-old boat owners? For example, “this is what I look for when inspecting and servicing my wheel steering system”. It certainly won’t look exactly like mine, but given that it performs the same function it should have useful similarities… and generate lots of horror story comments…

Dick Stevenson

Hi Martin,
Edson has maintenance manuals ( that will give you most everything you need to inspect steering systems and to determine their current state and guide further care.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy