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Upgrade Your Boat Trailer Winch

This simple, one-hour project will make it easier to load your boat onto its trailer.

Boat trailer winch

Shopping for your new, high-efficiency boat trailer winch might take longer than actually switching it out.

Replacing your boat trailer's winch is a straightforward project that can be tackled in less than an hour, providing there are no rusted bolts that must be cut away. Our project boat's trailer had a few seasons of saltwater use on its résumé, so we had to break out the torch and grinder to free some of the hardware that held the winch to the winch post. Once the bolts are out and the old winch is free of the frame, the standard three-hole pattern found on the winch posts on most popular boat trailers matches with most aftermarket winches, and it's a simple matter of bolting the new crank in place.

Shopping for the right winch for your job may actually take longer than switching it out. A tech rep at Fulton, which sells aftermarket marine and utility trailer products, notes that boat-trailer winches are rated by capacity and matched to the weight of the boat. For most situations involving loading a boat onto a bunked trailer, Fulton recommends using a factor of 1.5 for determining the right winch for each job. For example, if you have a boat, engine, and fuel package with a total weight of 3,000 pounds, divide that number by 1.5 to get 2,000 pounds. That tells you that you need a winch rated to handle at least 2,000 pounds.


For more on trailer winch maintenance projects see "Replacing A Winch Strap".

When it came time to replace the winch on our project boat trailer, we matched the weight to the winch using Fulton's formula, then decided to upgrade to a two-speed winch because the second, lower gear on a two-speed winch can make it easier to load boats that weight more than 2,000 pounds.

Other options now available on winches include variable crank-handle lengths; dual drives to the winch drum, which help the strap to load evenly; and a strap guide, which keeps the webbing from getting tangled in the drum. We chose a Fulton F2 model FW3200 (under $200) that offers all three of these options, and once our rusted hardware was freed, it took mere minutes to bolt on the winch, as the accompanying photos show.

Old trailer winch

1. The old winch showed its age and marine use and needed to be replaced before it failed.

Tools and hardware for winch installation

2. The tools and hardware required to replace a winch are as simple as the project is straightforward.

Removing bolts securing old winch

3. Remove the bolts securing the winch to the winch post. If there are signs of rust, first soak them with penetrating oil. Remove the old winch from the winch post.

Winch base

4. Most trailers' winch posts are predrilled to accommodate the common three-bolt pattern. If yours isn't, you'll need to use a template provided by the winch manufacturer, or you can make your own using the new winch base as a guide.

Drilling new holes

5. Drill the new holes or ream out the old ones to match the diameter of the bolts securing the new winch. Put the mounting bolts in position in the base of the new winch. Place the new winch in position on the post.

Lining up mounting bolts

6. Line up the mounting bolts with the holes. Insert and tighten the mounting bolts. Install the crank handle.

Installing handle grip

7. Install the handle grip.

Tightening handle bolt

8. Tighten the handle's mounting bolt. Thread the web strap onto the drum and secure the anchor bolt that holds it.

Crank web strap onto new winch

9. Crank the web strap onto the winch drum keeping it under tension, flat and even.

Why Winches Fail

To hear a Fulton tech rep explain it, the winch's job ends the moment the boat's bow kisses the bow stop.

"The winch is designed only to pull the boat onto the trailer," he says.

"It isn't intended to hold the boat on the trailer. That's the job of the bow strap or chain and the other devices designed to secure the boat atop the trailer.

"Most winches fail due to misuse and stress," he says. "Stress usually results from using too small a winch for the job or overtightening the strap once the boat's bow is against the stop. Once the bow is tight to the stop, every extra crank of the winch gear effectively doubles both the pressure on the drum and the chances the winch will fail. Overloading the pressure in that manner leads to drums stripping out, frames twisting, and ratchet palls breaking."

To help a good-quality winch last indefinitely, match the winch capacity to an appropriate load, stop cranking the boat aboard with the winch when the boat nudges the bow stop, and every now and then lubricate the moving parts with light oil.

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Dan Armitage

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

A full-time travel and outdoors writer based in Ohio, Dan is in his 20th season hosting the popular syndicated radio show Buckeye Sportsman. He gets around on a pontoon boat and an Aquasport center-console, which he uses for all his DIY editorial projects and fishing features. A USCG Captain (Master 50-ton), he’s a popular speaker at boat and sport shows.