Self-Tailing Winches & How They Work!

Self-tailing winches hold the line while you crank the winch handle. This means you do not have to pull the excess line while the winch turns. This allows your second hand to be available for other things like holding on during rough seas.

This article is about self-tailing winches and how they work. Keep reading to find out more about them and the alternatives to self-tailing winches.

What Are The Advantages Of A Self-Tailing Winch?

A self-tailing winch will hold the line by itself. It has a slot at the top where you put the tail of the line. While you turn the winch, the line will tail itself. This allows you to have an extra hand free when winching the lines.

After using a non-self-tailing winch for years, switching to a self-tailing winch will feel amazing. Not having to deal with that extra line is a great feeling. You will wonder how you ever lived without these.

Self-tailing winches will also hold your line even when you are done cranking it. I still always recommend cleating it off just in case you were to knock the line loose, but that is up to you.

An important thing to remember when considering a self-tailing winch will be the size needed.

If you want to learn about electric winches, click here to see my other article on Electric Winches and if they can be used manually!: Self-Tailing Winches & How They Work!

How Does A Winch Work On A Sailboat?

A winch is used to tighten the sails. This is done by wrapping the line around the winch and cranking it until it is tight. A winch will allow the sail sheet to be tightened a lot more than a human can tighten it. This will optimize the sail shape and harness the wind better, creating more speed.

The winch is a very important part of sailing. If you want to use the wind to its full capacity, then you need to utilize your winches. When I started sailing I never bothered to touch the winches. I just sailed without them and had a great time. You can do this as well until you are ready.

The winch will create more pressure on your lines causing the sail to tighten much farther than it would under normal human strength. Winches have a rough almost teeth-like grip that the lines will wrap around. This grip allows the winch to hold on to the rope and not slide when tightening it. If you let go of the rope it will loosen though.

A winch always turns clockwise, so remember to wrap your lines in a clockwise motion. If, you can remember this turn the winch with your hand before wrapping the lines around it. This will help remind you. After doing it for a while you will never forget it again. Follow the steps below for using a non-self-tailing winch.

How To Use A Non-Self-Tailing Winch

1. Pull the slack out of the sheet, before wrapping it around the winch.

2. Wrap the line around the winch in a clockwise motion, starting at the bottom.

3. After three wraps, pull more slack out of the line if you can.

4. Insert the handle and grind/crank the winch handle.

5. While cranking the winch, tail(pull) the extra line out of the way to avoid override.

6. Once it is the right amount of tight, cleat off the line.

7. Remove the winch handle and store it securely.

8. If the sail is too tight, uncleat it and slowly let the line out. When the desired tightness is reached cleat it off again.

There are a few things to remember when winching. Be careful not to knock your winch handle in the water. There are thousands of lost winch handles at the bottom of the ocean. I always store it securely as soon as I cleat the line off. Most boats have a specific spot to store the handle.

Do not overlap your line on the winch. Each wrap should sit against the winch. Overlapping your lines will cause a tangled knotted mess or override that will cause serious problems for you.

I also do not always grind my winch with the handle. I will wrap the winch two times and pull it tight. Just wrapping the winch one or two times will allow you to pull the line easier. If you want the most speed then you will need to crank it with the handle. When I am just cruising I hardly ever use my winch handle.

If you want to make your life easier, I recommend using a self-tailing winch. Go to the next section to see what these are about.

What Size Winch Do I Need For My Sailboat?

To select the correct winch size, you will need to know the overall length of your boat and the area of the sail that you will be winching. If you plan to use multiple sails for the same winch, use the sail with the larger area for calculating winch size.

Another thing to consider when purchasing a winch is speed. The basic options are 1-speed or 2-speed. I have used both and I like the 2-speed winches. The difference is the crank speed. When you turn the handle one way it goes at 1 speed and if you crank the handle the other way it goes faster, which is the 2nd speed. Having a multi-speed option allows you to get the perfect trim for your sail.

In racing, they want to trim the sail quick after a tack. The higher speed helps them do that. If you are just going to be cruising the 2-speed is not necessary but it is nice to have when you want it.

Take a look at the diagram below to find out what size winch is recommended for your boat. Provided by

Are Winch Handles Interchangeable?

Winch handles are interchangeable for all common winches. The main difference in winches is the locking mechanisms and the length of the handle.

You can normally purchase a winch handle that will lock in the winch or not. This is a great idea because so many are dropped overboard. You can also buy ones that are designed to float if they go overboard. During a race, you probably won’t stop to pick it up but maybe you can find it after the race.

The bigger the sails, the bigger the winch. The bigger the winch, the bigger the winch handle.

One of the best winches I have ever seen is the folding winch handle by EasySea. The handle never has to leave the winch. It folds down on top of itself making sure it is never in your way. Check out the video below to see how they work.

If you are a casual sailor or a circumnavigator I highly recommend this winch handle.

If you are not able to get one of these foldable winch handles, just make sure to secure your regular one in a safe place that is easy to access.

If you want to find out more about winches and how to repair them, click here! How to fix your winch in 12 steps!

Final Thoughts

I believe every sailor should be utilizing self-tailing winches. They make the sailor’s life so much easier and more organized. My first boat didn’t have them and it was such a hassle to use, that I rarely used them. Just do whatever makes you feel the most comfortable and don’t go out and spend thousands on new winches. Try looking for used ones if you want some and don’t have the money. Cheers!


Boatlifehq owner and author/editor of this article.

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