Which Winch And Why?

By Scott Henze

While there really isn't much to them, trailer winches are one of the most important and underrated pieces of equipment you own.

Whether you are replacing an old winch or installing a new one, the first thing you need to determine is its size. Winches are rated by weight capacity, not boat length. If you're not sure about your boat's gross weight, the boat manufacturer can provide you with that information. Be sure to add the weight of the motor and everything else onboard to get an accurate total weight. Round up if you're not sure.

The capacity of the winch you select should be rated on average at roughly 3/4 of your total gross weight. Different factors will affect this ratio. If you typically launch at steep ramps and/or have a trailer equipped with bunks as opposed to rollers, you should select a winch closer to the actual weight of the fully loaded boat. Gently sloped ramps and rollers create less resistance which will allow you to get away with a slightly smaller winch. The difference in cost between winch sizes is so negligible that there really is no excuse not to err on the high side when making your selection.

While the cost difference between different size winches of the same variety may be small, the difference between manual and electric can be fairly substantial. The choice is yours and it hinges mainly on how hard you want to work after a long day on the water.

Smaller manual winches are typically single speed, which means it has a single, fixed gear ratio. Simply put, a 10:1 gear ratio means that you need to crank the handle 10 times for the winch drum to turn once. A ratio of 20:1 means that you need to crank 20 times to turn the drum once. A lower gear ratio will work faster but will require more physical effort on your part. A higher ratio will require less effort but will take longer. Some of the higher-capacity winches will be available with dual speeds, which allows you to use a lower gear ratio to quickly get the boat onto the trailer and switch to a higher gear ratio when gravity and friction rear their ugly heads. The clicking sound you hear when you're winching the boat onto the trailer is the spring-loaded ratchet that prevents the boat from rolling backward when you let go of the handle. A very serious word of caution: if the boat starts rolling backward and the handle starts spinning, let it go. A broken wrist is much worse than a do-over at the boat ramp.

Electric winches have a couple of advantages, the most obvious being that they do all of the hard work for you. Additionally, they can often be operated by either a wired or wireless remote, which makes it easier to launch and retrieve your boat. If you need more control when launching a larger boat or on steeper ramps, you may want to consider a winch with the "power-out option." Rather than simply free-spooling, power-out uses the motor in reverse to launch the boat in the same way it does to retrieve it, which offers you greater control when backing the boat off the trailer. Always keep the engine running on the tow vehicle when using an electric winch to reduce the strain on your battery, but be sure the parking brake is set or, better yet, have someone in the cab in the event the truck starts moving. You keep the truck running to avoid draining your battery with the winch because there are too many stories about someone not having enough juice to start the truck after using the winch for a long period of time. Also be sure to carry a spare handle so that the winch can be operated manually in the event of an electrical failure.

Now that you have selected your winch, it's time to mount it. Where you put it will depend on your specific boat and trailer. While they can often be bolted directly onto the trailer frame, sometimes it's necessary to install a mounting bracket in order for everything to line up properly. Pre-made brackets are inexpensive and easy to come by. The winch should be centered and straight on the trailer. A winch that is crooked or off-center will allow the cable or strap to load up on one side of the drum, which can cause all kinds of problems for you. The cable should wind onto the drum in tight, even rows. Make sure also that you have a straight, unobstructed line to the bow eye at all times and that the cable or strap does not chafe on the trailer frame when under load. The winch should be far enough forward to be able to pull the boat up snug with the bow stop or roller.

Steel cable or nylon strap? Nylon straps are essentially the same material as the seat belt in your car. They are generally easier on the hands and are fine for smaller boats. Cables are stronger than straps and better suited for larger boats. Cables can also be doubled by using a pulley block that will nearly double the weight capacity of the winch as opposed to a single line. Don't install more cable than you need, particularly on a manual winch. Every layer of cable on the drum robs you of a certain percentage of power. While this will not affect the weight capacity of the winch, it will make it harder to crank with each turn. Check your strap or cable for wear every time you use it and replace anything that is worn or frayed.

Trailer winches are designed for one purpose: pulling your boat onto the trailer. They are not designed to tie your boat down when trailering. Once the boat is winched into place, it should be secured to the trailer with a safety chain and trailer straps. When you are preparing to launch the boat, remove the safety chain and use the winch cable to prevent the boat from rolling backwards off the trailer while you are backing down the ramp. More than one captain has dumped his vessel onto the launch ramp as a result of this newbie mistake. You don't want to be that guy. This is especially important if your trailer is equipped with rollers as opposed to bunks and on particularly steep ramps. The problem with using the safety chain when launching is that if the boat does slide backward, it can snug up the chain, making it impossible to remove without winching the boat forward.

While it may not be the sexiest piece of gear you own, a well-maintained trailer winch may be your best friend at the end of the day, so choose it wisely and treat it well 

This article was published in the Spring 2012 issue of Trailering Magazine.


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