After I bought my 50’ foot schooner Britannia I decided to fit as many systems as I could afford to make handling the big 22-ton boat easier. I made an electric hoist to lift the heavy RIB up on its davits; a crane to hoist the outboard; a powerful anchor windlass, etc. I also converted all five sails to roller-furling and routed twelve control lines back to the safety of the center cockpit and minimize deck work. I then fitted self-tailing winches and rope jammers on either side of the companionway to handle all the lines, that we now call the rope decks. This of course, meant an awful lot of manual winch winding, so after dismissing electric winches due to their horrendous cost, (the header shows a regular electric winch) I began to think about electric winch winding devices.
A portable battery operated winch winding device that fits into the top of a regular winch would effectively “electrify” all a boats winches, and on Britannia that would save a lot of winding by hand.
The early winch winders went under names like Winch Master, Winch Buddy, and Modea. They had long electrical cables that needed connecting to a 12-volt battery; 13 feet long with the Modea, that restricted their use outside of a boat's cockpit.
I tried to make an electric winder myself by using a simple right angle drill adapter on a power drill with an eight-point sprocket in the chuck, that fits all my winches. It worked okay, but the battery expired quite quickly and had to be changed a number of times. It was also not very powerful and I usually had to finish off the sheets by hand using a regular handle. This meant first cleating off the sheet because my winches at the time were not self-tailing. Indeed, there were many shortcomings, but better than hand cranking.
Next, I bought a Milwaukee M28 90 degree cordless drill, but that was the opposite, it was much too powerful! and I had to be very careful to avoid having it wrenched out of my hands if the rope jammed. There was also the chance of snapping a line or damaging a sail. This drill was also very heavy and actually designed for construction workers to drill sideways holes in wood frameworks to pass wires through. There are now a few other makes of right-angle drills that are smaller and lighter that would be better choices.
In 2010 the Winchrite was exhibited for the first time at the Fort Lauderdale boat show, and I immediately saw the advantages over my poor effort and I bought one for $510 – they are now $999. This was the first purpose-designed battery operated winch winding device with an easy to grip handle and proportional and reverse speeds from a powerful electric motor. The purpose of the lower gearing on a winch is to allow a few extra turns to be wound to tension the line, however it is unlikely that the lower gearing will ever be needed when using an electric wincher, except perhaps if the battery is running low. Winchrite was a vast improvement on all previous devices and was completely portable for use on other things like winding a dinghy up on davits. Unfortunately the battery is built-in, so when it dies the machine can't be used again until it is re-charged. Also, the winding sprocket does not lock in a winch, like a regular handle and was tricky to use on the horizontally mounted halyard winches on my masts.
My next device was the French Ewincher2. This is an ergonomic design with a vertical handle similar to a manual handle and with interchangeable lithium-ion batteries. This was a great leap forward because when the battery begins to die – always when you are using it of course - a new one can be inserted without even taking the machine out of the winch. It also has a number of other inovations. (1) The drive sprocket locks in a winch automatically that is very important when using it in a horizontally mounted winch, or if someone is being winched up a mast. (2) The turning circle is only 11” inches, the same as regular winch handles, so when the Ewincher2 is turned by hand it won't interfere with anything else in the cockpit, like a Bimini strut, which the massive Milwaukee drill always did. (3) Ewincher2 also has Bluetooth connectivity so the speed can be controlled from an iPhone that also shows the battery charge and how much time is left for use. The Lithium batteries on the Ewincher2 are special to the machine and only available from the manufacturers, and quite expensive at around $250.
Designs of these machines continue to pass through an evolutionary process, the latest being the Australian built Powerwincher that is different from the others in a few notable ways. (1)The drive sprocket is located centrally in the machine, so it “sits” securely in a vertical winch with a nice balanced feel. Yet the turning circle is still the same as a regular manual winch handle. (2) The battery compartment is forward of this pivot point that helps with stability and the battery lid can then be gripped with the free hand, to counteract the winding pressure. (3)This machine is designed to work off a regular 18-volt Milwaukee lithium-ion 5Amp/hour battery or the similar Dewalt version along with their look alikes. This is nice for anyone already owning either of these popular American tools because they can use their existing batteries. Otherwise, buyers need to purchase their own batteries that are sold in hardware stores nationwide, along with look alikes on the web. When I bought my own Powerwincher batteries and charger I was surprised to find that the charger only worked on 120 volts and not also on 12 volts. The Powerwincher is bulky and at 11 1/2lbs,. it is the heaviest of the electric winchers
For continuous use, like in racing, two batteries are advisable for any wincher, then as one runs down it can be instantly replaced with a fully charged one.
Just one machine will “electrify” all your boat's winches for a fraction of the cost of converting even one manual winch to electric. They are not as simple to use as a fixed electric winch where you just press a button, but even converting just the cockpit winches on Britannia to electric would cost about $15,000, and that would still do nothing for the other six on the two masts, so for me that was never an option.
All winch winders are primarily intended for use on self-tailing winches, and it can be quite tricky tailing the line from a non-self-tailing winch, while holding the wincher with one hand. However, if an assistant tends the line, (that is a good safety practice anyway especially when hoisting someone aloft, which all these powerful devices will easily do), the operation is simplicity itself.
CAUTION: When using any winch winder in a horizontally mounted winch it is important that the winding sprocket locks into the winch, like most regular handles do. If it is not locked it is possible that the 1” inch long sprocket could slip out of the winch. I know this from experience with the Winchrite because their drive sprocket does not lock into the winch, or even on the machine. It relies on a spring loaded button to hold it in place, much like a regular socket wrench handle.
All of them will spin a winch faster and for a lot longer than even the strongest crew member can sustain, and for those who sail single or even short-handed one would be invaluable to reduce effort in so many ways. Having one on a sailboat at any time, irrespective of your age or strength can save a lot of aches and pains.
They will haul any mainsail or jib up in a jiffy, and if you have roller furling sails you can rapidly reef or furl a large main, jib, or Genoa. They will trim a sheet as hard as you like, but that can actually become a problem if you're not careful because it is easily possible to snap a line, break a running block, or damage a sail. This also applies to the equally powerful deck mounted electric winches as well.
Using a portable electric wincher, young people and women can now do any of the winch winding jobs just as well as the men. Furling Britannia’s large squaresail takes 19 turns of the rope deck winch, (Britannia is a brigantine schooner), which my wife can now do in 40 seconds. We also hoist the 24’ foot long yard up the foremast using a wincher.
If you don't have an anchor windlass or just a hand cranked one, simply run the rode back to a mast or cockpit winch, or use a rope with a chain claw to haul the chain and you now have a powerful electric windlass.
All these devices are capable of hoisting a 220 lbs man (that would be me), up a 57’ foot mast. However, just like when using a regular handle it is wise to have someone tail the line from the winch and also keep tension on a second halyard safety line. The Winchrite has a paragraph in its instructions stating that their machine should not be used for this purpose, but the others do not. This is not an issue on vertically mounted winches because the weight keeps the machine in the winch.
If you hoist your dinghy up on davits using tackles you can now forget that slow hand hauling torture. Just run the hoists through blocks to a winch - even if that means extending the hoisting lines to a cockpit winch – and these amazing machines will effortlessly whiz the ‘dink’ up in no time, even with the outboard attached! It's so easy that I always hoist mine at night at anchor to prevent theft.
All three of the modern winch winders employ “soft start” motors. These always start turning slowly irrespective of the speed settings, then speed up. There is therefore very little “grab” like on the start of some electric drills.
Another way to use the Ewincher2 and the Powerwincher is as a manual assist handle. Isaac Newton's third law states that; for every action, there is an equal and opposite re-action. This opposite reaction force can be quite strong when a wincher is winding hard, but if you just wind the handle at the same time like you would a normal manual handle Mr. Newton's contra rotating force will be much reduced. This is a bit like power assisted steering in a car that makes turning the wheel much easier. It is not really possible using a Winchrite because of its flat configuration, or the Milwaukee due to its size and handle position.
Storage cradles are available for all the winders, for mounting somewhere where everyone knows where to find it. It would be an expensive disaster if the wincher were to fall overboard on a sudden swell because they definitely do not float! An eye pad is fitted on the Powerwincher to attach a lanyard, and a hand strap is supplied with the Ewincher2’, just in case...
The warranty is two years on all the newer models, but it is worth noting that the Ewincher2 is the only warranty that pays for return shipping to France, or to their US dealers. The other models require the customer to ship the device back to the makers, and in the case of the heavy Powerwincher from Australia can be rather expensive.
Once you own an electric wincher you can transfer your investment from boat to boat, unlike all those other expensive gadgets you fitted and had to leave for the new owner.
An electric wincher has certainly improved our sailing enjoyment by taking over the winch winding tasks, and enables my wife to do some of them. The only disadvantage is that my biceps have now become even weaker through lack of exercise.