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Parts of the following text have been taken from a discussion of Sue & Larry on the "Sailnet Forum"

Handling Winches

Loading Winches

The line on a winch is always wrapped in a clockwise direction, and it's important when loading a winch to start the first wrap at the bottom of the winch and add subsequent turns above that, but never overlapping the last wrap on the winch. Initially, just a single or possibly two wraps should be made before taking in the slack from the line. If you put too many turns on the winch when the line is still slack, that can cause foul-ups and a possible "over-ride". An over-ride is when the line traps itself under another turn of line on the winch. Improper wrapping of the drum or uneven tension when tailing usually causes this. Tailing is, of course, the process of handling the line as it exits the winch.

To add additional wraps to a winch while the line is under load, grab the tail end of the line at a distance away from the drum that is just greater than one wrap. While maintaining tension on the line, keep fingers pointing away from the winch and make the clockwise rotation around the drum placing the new wrap above the existing top wrap on the winch. To prevent the line from slipping around the winch while its under load, a minimum of three turns is needed, particularly if trying to crank the line in. Less than three turns will not provide adequate friction and the line will most likely slip as the winch drum turns, disabling any progress.

It is strongly recommend that all of the wraps be made on the winch before the winch handle is inserted into the top of the winch. Inserting the handle too soon makes it very difficult to add additional wraps around the winch. If it turns out that more wraps are needed after the winch handle has been inserted, it's best to take the time to remove the handle, add the additional wraps, and then reinsert the handle. Adding winch wraps with a handle still in place results in a sloppy and dangerous technique and often leads to overrides.

Tailing Winches

Tailing a winch is one of the most important jobs in ensuring smooth and safe operation. The method of tailing will depend upon the kind of winch is used. Standard winches simply feature a drum and a winch handle. Self-tailing winches add a line stripper on top that's designed with a cleat to hold the line as the handle is turned. Electric winches are usually equipped with self-tailers and no handle or exertion is required. Either of these winch types can be single-speed or multi-speed.

Self-tailing winches allow to have both hands free for grinding. When it comes to easing the line off the drum, it helps to use the palm of your hand to govern the friction to release the line.

If a winch is not self-tailing, one hand - or better another crew member - is need to help tail the line as the winch does its job. The angle of the tail of the line coming off the winch is crucial to smooth operation. If the angle is too low, the line may try to rearrange itself on the drum, and create an over-ride. If the angle is too high, it will interfere with the free rotation of the winch handle on top. The goal is to ensure that the line stays neatly wrapped on the drum as it turns, and to provide enough tension so that the line does not slip on the drum inhibiting the winching progress. Most standard winches require having a cleat nearby to secure the line after the required tension has been achieved.

If a winch is self-tailing, the job of winching becomes much easier and safer when sailing short-handed. A single person can operate the winch without having to exert effort both winching and tailing. This leaves both hands free to operate the handle. The self-tailer's stripping arm feeds the line leaving the winch drum into a specially designed cleat at the top of the drum. This disk cleat captures the line and prevent it from slipping. With self-tailing winches care must be taken to properly size the line within the specifications of the winch. If the line is too large or too small in diameter, the winch cleat will not properly engage the line.

Grinding Winches

When winching, it's important to position your body so that the stronger muscles of the back and legs can assist in the process. Relying solely upon arm muscles will be tiring quickly. When winching from the low side of the boat, remember to keep your center of gravity low to minimize the risk of going overboard.

When choosing a winch handle, remember that the longer the handle, the more power it will generate. A short handle, however, is good for speeding things up in light winds because it can be rotated faster. A double grip handle will allow to position both hands on the handle and really get your whole body involved in the winching process. Another way to get more power is to use multi-speed winches. These winches allow to switch to a different gear reduction simply by reversing the rotation direction of the handle. For both winch speeds, the winch drum will of coarse keep rotating in the clockwise direction.

Winch handles come in both lock-in and non-lock-in varieties. Obviously, the risk of losing a non lock-in handle overboard is greater, but they are, a little faster to insert and remove from the top of the winch and usually also less expensive.

When using winches, remember, to take care not to have jewellery, scarves, or loose clothing, etc., hanging down. There is a high risk of physical injuries if these items get caught up between the line and the winch.
And electric winches should be turned off when not in use to avoid inadvertently hitting the power button and getting clothing or parts of your body caught up in them.

Easing Line

Sometimes the amount friction created by a wrapped line on a winch drum becomes so great that when tension from the tail is removed, the line doesn't slip on the drum and goes out. In this situation carefully remove one wrap from the drum, or bring the line into a swinging motion while reducing the tension on the tail part. Keep hands and fingers away from the drum as they could get pinched between or under the line. To release the line completely off the winch, pull it upward in a counter-clockwise motion, and be sure the tail of the line is completely free to run.

When easing a line that is held by a clutch stopper in front of a winch, always winch in slightly with the handle and hold the tail firmly before releasing the clutch. This will take the pressure off the clutch and make it easier to open, and it can prevent your hand or fingers from being pulled into the clutch stopper. Never underestimate the amount of tension that a clutch stopper is holding.

Releasing Line

Before releasing line from a loaded winch, make sure that the tail has been neatly flaked and will be able to run out freely with no tangles in the cockpit. Also, make sure you remove the winch handle and place it safely in a winch handle holder so that it doesn't bang around the boat.

To release the line, position your hand with the tail of the line above the winch and quickly make counter-clockwise rotations that will remove the wraps as you raise your hand. Never allow your hand to be in a position beside the winch where it could get sucked in with the line that is quickly releasing.

Emergency Measures

Veteran sailors always have a knife in their pocket, or somewhere handy nearby. If you find yourself in the middle of a winch mishap, having a knife nearby will allow you to remedy the situation. When sailing, each of us usually keeps a knife in our pocket, but as a back up we've permanently mounted a couple of razor-sharp, blunt-tipped knives in sheaths close to our winches.

When a fully loaded jib sheet or main sheet is cut away from a jammed winch, be aware that the now-loose line on the sail can become a very dangerous weapon whipping about in the wind. If there are enough hands on board, time the cutting of the line with appropriate steering actions to unload the power in the sail. And, if at all possible, cut the line close to the clew so that you'll spare the bulk of the line.

Whether you're a racer, day sailor, or cruiser, winches are a sailor's best friend when it comes to making light work of many jobs on the high seas. They hoist, trim, and reef our sails. They kedge us off shoals, pull up our anchors, raise crew members in bosun's chairs, lift dinghies out of the water, lift people out of the water in man-over-board situations, and too many other tasks to mention. But please take care to respect the power in these useful pieces of hardware and pass on your knowledge to others by practising safe operating procedures.

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