Overcoming Winching Woes

We had been waiting and waiting for a special tool to be delivered to the Whitsundays, delaying our departure south for it. But finally we have got it, so let us tell you about it!

As we mentioned in a previous post, in the last few months we have both developed a nasty repetitive strain from furling and unfurling sails – an inflammation of the tendons that join the forearm muscle to the elbow. Some days the pain is so acute that we can’t lift or pull anything, emitting even more old people’s noises than usual! When we asked our doctor what we could do to get relief, his response was “you’ve got tennis elbow; anti-inflammatories and compression sleeves may help, but basically you have to stop doing what aggravates your elbow pain. It won’t go away if you keep winding. Get electric winches!”

Easy for him to say! Trouble is to replace our Harken winches with electric ones would cost a scary amount of money. On Anui apart from the anchor winch and dinghy davits winch, we only have one electric sail winch: the one to raise the mainsail. All other winches are manual.

Here is the set up in the cockpit: five manual winches, the big one in the centre for the mainsail sheet, two mid size ones to trim the jib, screecher or spinnaker (the ones at either end of the image), and the culprits, two for furling/unfurling the jib or screecher and moving the mainsheet traveler. It is the sustained furling action that hurts the most.

Anui’s Cockpit

Being a bit stingy by nature we decided to consult Mr Google for alternatives to spending a fortune on electric winches. We came across stories of other sailors with similar problems in the US who had a solution: they use a right angle drill to do the winching. Bingo, one big drill turns all your manual winches into electric ones at a fraction of the cost! Most of them use a particular Milwaukee right angle drill, unfortunately a model not available in Australia. But there are other brands on the market. We also considered the eWincher, however at 4 times the cost of a right angle drill, we did not pursue this option.

So Wade was on the prowl for a workable alternative. The drill had to be powerful enough to winch under tension. The torque needed to furl or unfurl a sail is significantly bigger than your average hand drill can cope with. The Milwaukee is 128 Nm (the Newton-meter is a measurement of torque) and was our benchmark.

Meet Sir Walter

After many discussions with various tool shops and the review of specifications from several right angle drills, we have ended up purchasing the DeWalt Flexvolt 54V XR right angle drill (DCD470) together with a charger and two 9A/H Lithium Ion battery packs. You need a battery that will deliver enough runtime to allow you to work on the sails repeatedly. Best to buy two so you can swap and recharge! The first charge from empty takes 140 minutes. You also need a special drill adapter to fit in your winch. We got our Powered Furling Adapter directly from Harken.

The two reasons that led us to choose DeWalt were that it is a reputable professional brand, and they have a ’30 day satisfaction guarantee’, which means that if the product did not do the job, we could return it and get our money back. As our application for the drill was rather unorthodox and untested, it was important to us.

Walter the DeWalt is a beast. It is 60cm long including the battery and weighs 8 kilos. With 269 Nm of torque it definitely has the required power to winch. We were concerned it could be too big and heavy and that we might trade our tennis elbows for a dislocated hip or shoulder! But we put it through its paces as soon as we picked it up and the batteries were charged.

Walter charged and ready to go

Our voyage south from Mackay to Fraser Island was a good chance to test the gear. We are happy to report that Walter worked extremely well. We are not giving it back!

Each time we set up the jib, swap it for the screecher, or move the mainsail traveller, we use Walter to do the hard work. The ease with which it winches the sails, especially the very large screecher is impressive. Also pleasing is the battery life. We found one battery delivers enough power to do multiple sails winching each day without needing to recharge. After 5 long days of passage making, the battery was still showing it was full! As for the pain in the arm: there is none!

Wade furling while Chris controls the jib
Screecher on!

We winch with it on low speed, keeping a close eye on on the sail. It ensures we furl and unfurl in a controlled fashion, don’t overdo it and it saves on battery power! Although it is heavy, it holds itself on the winch. So you are not carrying it, just supporting it and we don’t leave it on the winch when not in use.

Jib ready for trimming with normal winch handle; Walter is having a rest!

Sails trimming is done by hand with the traditional winch handle, but all sails winching is handled by Walter and is now a breeze. It is smooth, steady, effortless – for either of us. We don’t hesitate to do a sail change because it is easy and is completed without fuss in a few minutes. We should have done this ages ago! We still wear the compression straps on our elbows… but the irritation will hopefully subside with time.

Many cruisers are in their ‘golden’ years like us and may well have similar physical challenges. For the yachties amongst our readers who are reluctant to spend thousands of dollars on electric winches, getting a right angle drill may well save you some pain and dollars… not to mention ensuring you can keep sailing for years!

And now?

We made the 400 nm or so migration south from St Bees to Fraser Island in five daylight hour hops and are now officially below latitude 25 south, along the Great Sandy Straits. We are hiding from strong south east winds and are hoping to head off again on Sunday towards Mooloolaba for the usual medical check ups. Next will be the annual haulout at Boat Works on the Gold Coast. More on this later!

26 thoughts on “Overcoming Winching Woes

  1. Hi Guys
    What a great addition to the family! I had the same problem when I was sailing on BIGGER boats and realising this Judi and I went for a self tacking jib on Imagine. One of the boats I sailed on had a sleeve made to go over the body of the drill. It was made of a thin wetsuit material. This helped protect it from both the elements and storage in the cockpit when not in use. Safe travels.

    • Good thinking re the cover, Richard & Judi! And choosing a self-tacking jib for Imagine certainly helps. You’ve got to do what you can to make the sailing easier but in our case it would not have been enough!

  2. So glad you have found a solution that did not involve having winch slaves on board. They take up too much room, and you have to feed them!

    • Ah ah we had Electric Grant & Deb for two weeks and that most definitely convinced us we needed a permanent solution… they were excellent, but …

    • Thanks and interesting how these things come out of the woodwork! Fortunately ours supports itself on the winch so we won’t be getting anything else!

  3. You are the second boat that we know has reverted to this type of equipment. Great idea. Fortunately we only have one manual winch, and it doesn’t do a lot of work (or should I say we don’t need to do a lot of work with it). Stay safe. xxx

  4. Brilliant solution guys! Dewalt seems to be the tool of choice for most Aussie tradies. I feel your pain guys, next week I’ve organised a small group of codgers to sand our church floor. So I’ll be using a back brace and knee braces for the powerful ‘drag you along’ floor sander. Tricky thing decrepitude eh?
    Happy pain free sailing!

  5. What a great idea! You guys have always been inspirational to us.
    Go the oldies.And cheers from Chi’s Crew.⛵️😊

  6. What a great solution, Chris. I’m sure that you have more than enough things to do on the boat to keep you physically active. 🙂 I think that all of us are learning that our bodies don’t come with warranties and we do have to make accommodations as parts wear down or don’t recover as quickly.

    • Hi
      Mike, lots of compromises and problem solving are needed to ensure we keep doing what we want. Without Walter or a large money spend, we could not keep sailing… it is that debilitating for us.

  7. Not good about the tennis elbow, I have had that in the past, and golfers elbow. I have it really bad in my wrists, and some days my hands hurt so much. I hope you find good solutions.

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