Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Winches aboard Oceanus: Barient, Barlow, Wilkie and Winchmate

Some of the 12 winches aboard Oceanus from the largest to the smallest.
Columbia Yachts built Oceanus in 1971 as a racing boat and the winches show it. The big two-speed Barlow and Wilkie Number 30 primary winches and the Barient 22 two-speed secondary winches in the cockpit are impressive and expensive pieces of equipment. In all, there are a dozen winches on the boat: two 30s, two 24s, two 22s, four 16s, and two small reefing winches on the boom that I think are 12s. They are from a mix of makers: Barient made in the U.S.A., Wilkie made in New Zealand, and Barlow made in Australia.

None of these makers are in business anymore. Lewmar gobbled them up and shut their doors. That would be really bad for us old boat owners with all this glittering hardware if we couldn't get the little springs and pawls that need to be replaced from time to time. But bless their little black heart, Lewmar continues to make and sell those two items. Hutton-Arco Yacht Winches in Australia acquired the tooling from Barlow and sells other spare parts for these old winches as well.

The machined stainless steel drum on the Barient winches
 is still beautiful after 45 years.
I've been thinking a lot about winches over the last few weeks as I've serviced each one of them. For most of the winches it takes about an hour to take apart, clean and lubricate the parts, replace the springs and put them back together. For the big number 30s it takes closer to four hours, just because of the many parts and their size. It's a job I've grown to enjoy and something that gives me time to reflect on the yachting scene of the time Oceanus was made.

Back then Columbia Yachts was the largest manufacturer of sailboats in the world. They also made the largest production sailboat at the time, the Columbia 57. The 57 and the 43 were the company's flagship race boats. Both were designed by Bill Tripp, the hottest racing-yacht designer of the time. Both boats regularly won their classes in the premier ocean races of the day like the TransPac, Ensenada and Bermuda races. The company's advertising featured these wins, which helped Columbia sell all the boats in their line.
From 1969 to 1973 Columbia built the Tripp-designed 57 and 43 to win big ocean racers. 

But I digress, back to winches. Being the biggest builder of sailboats in the world meant Columbia had to buy a lot of winches to put on those boats. The winch manufacturers put out a fairly uniform product regardless of whether they were made in the U.S.A., New Zealand, Australia or England. The designs largely came from the America's Cup boats, which had to be built - even the hardware, like winches - in the country the represented. (Don't get me started on the current state of the America's Cup. Let's just say I yearn for the 12-meter days.)

The consequence was that these winches, regardless of the manufacturer or country are nearly identical. Some have drums machined from bronze and some models and manufacturers have machined stainless steel drums. But the parts themselves are pretty much interchangeable. They are all incredibly well made and built to last. There is not a speck of plastic anywhere inside or out. The stainless steel needle bearings gleam inside their bronze cages nearly a half century after they were made. The drums, spindles, pawls, gears and other parts are finely machined and a joy to look at and handle. These are finely-made machines that will easily last another 50 years with a little care.

My big Wilkie number 30 cleaned and ready for some grease. There are a lot of parts, but they go together easily.
I've worked on newer wiches with too few needle bearings set in plastic cages. They do not inspire the same feeling. That's why I enjoy servicing the wonderful old winches. I get a sense of the pride and craftsmanship the builders put in their work all those years ago. It makes me feel privileged to own such a fine thing. I want to take care of it. I also want them to work well and not fail when they are under a heavy load.

My guess is that the winches on Oceanus have not been serviced for a dozen years because that's how long it's been since she's been sailed. Lucky for me, the grease used by the last guy who serviced them held up. None of the parts are frozen or corroded. It also helps that everything is either marine bronze or stainless, which play pretty well with one another. Winches with aluminum drums and other parts may not have held up as well.

According to the manufacturer's instructions, winches should be serviced at least once a year. More often if they are raced hard or if they have aluminum parts. In fact, they recommend aluminum winches be serviced once a month! You can find original manuals and other helpful information here and here. I'm not an expert on servicing winches, but here are a few thoughts and observations that might be helpful.


Lewmar and Harken, two current winch makers, both put out nice tubes of winch grease. Both seem pretty expensive for what they are, but I like them. The greenish amber Lewmar grease seems a little heavier of the two and reminds me of the waterproof bicycle grease used on wheel bearings. The Harken grease is a translucent white and reminds me a lot of Vaseline. I like to use the heavier Lewmar grease on the gears, needle bearings and adjacent surfaces and the lighter Harken grease on the ends of the pawls and the surfaces they contact. It seems to me that you want to keep the heavier (and stickier) grease away from the pawls so they don't get gummed up.

I also use 3-In-1 Oil on the springs and pawl pivots so they move freely. Some people recommend using spray lubricants like WD-40, but I don't think they are heavy enough. The original directions recommend a 30-weight oil. I think 3-In-1 is a little lighter, but close enough. I like to use WD-40 when I'm cleaning the winch, in concert with a soup can filled with mineral spirits, but I don't think WD-40 is heavy enough for the long-term lubrication the pawls need.

I also use my trusty old can of waterproof lithium grease for all screw threads so things come apart easily the next time. Lithium grease wouldn't be a bad choice for lubing the entire winch. It certainly would be cheaper than the spendy little tubes of grease from Harkin and Lewmar, but I thought I'd go with winch-specific grease - at least until I get more confidence. Interestingly, the old Barlow instructions for servicing their winches recommend their grease (of course), which is no longer available, but in a pinch they say you can use Vaseline.

The grease I found inside Oceanus's winches looked like green axle grease. It is much heavier and stickier than should be inside a winch because it slows the action and can cause the prawls to stick and not work properly. But, the heavy grease did a great job preserving the innards of the winches. The bottom line is this: what you use to lubricate your winches is less important than keeping them lubricated.

Directions on servicing winches all caution against getting the stickier bearing grease on the pawls since it could cause them to stick in place. That is true and good advice. But the maker of one YouTube video I watched took this so much to heart that he was stingy with the grease he put on his aluminum winch parts. I think that's a mistake, especially on an aluminum winch. Every surface inside a winch should be covered with a light film of grease or oil.

Pawls and Springs

Pawls and the little springs associated with them are what keep winches rotating in only one direction. If they fail it could be bad. I can think of several scenarios where someone could be severely hurt if these little fellows failed. I bet you can too. So it was distressing when I serviced one of the spinnaker halyard winches (yes, Oceanus has two) and found only one of the four pawls was working. Yikes!

I found several pawl-spring assemblies in my other winches where one leg of the spring was broken or corroded off. These springs are small. It wouldn't take much corrosion or metal fatigue to cause them to break. They need to be replaced regularly. As I mentioned, Lewmar still sells springs and pawls to fit Barient, Barlow and Wilkie winches. I found them at West Marine. Keep a supply on the boat and change them when you lube your winches. Don't wait for them to break.

On my big two-speed number 30s the pawls have larger coil springs that fit into a dedicated hole. I suspect they will be good for the life of the winch if they are kept oiled.


Barlow 30 with the Winchmate self-tailing conversion installed. The Pepsi is for scale.

Speaking of the big 30s, the owner of the other Columbia 43 in my marina, Alcyone, retrofitted his 30s with Wichmate self-tailing conversion. I wanted some for Oceanus.

These are well-made self-tailing conversion kit for larger sized winches of the Barient-Barlow-Wilkie design. It fits numbers 27, 28, 30 and 32 right out of the box. The larger sized #33 through #36 winches can be retrofitted after modifying the drum, according to Winchmate.com.

At $550 or more per winch (depending on the model), these are not cheap, but they are still a good value. They are a high-quality product. Compare replacing a winch the size of a number 30 with a new self-tailing winch and you won't balk at the price. They are also a great value because of the personal service Dave, who makes the Winchmates, gives. Here's my story.

Stripper arm at 8 o'clock.
My number 30s are nearly identical even though one is a Barlow and the other is a Wilkie. When you get them apart, however, the Wilkie seems to have a higher polish on the machined parts. After cleaning and servicing them I fitted the Winchmate self-tailing device on the Barlow. It worked great. Then I tried to do the same on the Wilkie, but the drum wouldn't slide over the spindle extension. I called Dave and told him my story. After a few questions he agreed with me that the spindle extension needed to be turned down a bit in a metal lathe. He said he'd send me a new one. And he did. I got it in about a week and it fit and worked perfectly. The service was absolutely top notch.

If you get the Winchmate self-tailing conversion, place the striper arm at the 8 o'clock position while you are facing it and looking abeam. That way the stripper arm deposits the line in the cockpit and not over the side of the boat where you don't want it.

I'm no expert

If there's one thing I hate about the internet, it's folks passing themselves off as experts when they are not. Let me say this flat out: I'm not an expert on servicing winches. If I have something wrong, please tell me in the comments. I will fix it. I don't want to perpetuate bad information on the web; it seems to get repeated and eventually gains gospel status. Maybe in a year or two I'll review this post and update it as my experience dictates.

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