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Operate with care

Jan 22, 2013

Big winches are great voyaging tools but can be dangerous if not used properly

For decades, the trend has been for cruising couples to sail ever larger boats, with obvious benefits in terms of comfort and speed. The enabling technology has been powered windlasses, winches and bow thrusters. The dark side of this technology was on graphic display in March when a woman winching her husband up the mast with a foot operated electric winch got first one hand and then the other trapped in the line. One hand was severed and the other crushed. A sailor who ran to her assistance lost seven fingers.    

This is not the first time such an accident has happened, although this may be the most horrific. I have on file another in which a lady mangled both her arms. This, too, involved a winch with a foot switch. And another in which a Maine fisherman had to hack his arm off with an axe to free himself from a winch. There are many cases of lost fingers around anchor windlasses.

Safety cut-offs
Could these accidents be prevented by some kind of a safety cut-off, such as a circuit breaker, or something similar to the safety lanyard on an outboard motor? Unfortunately, it is hard to envision a mechanism to do this. The kind of forces that can destroy flesh and bone are considerably less than those required to pull up an anchor and chain, or hoist someone up a mast. Any cut-off device with a low enough threshold to protect humans would render these devices useless.

Foot switches are particularly problematic. Their huge benefit is that they free up both hands for dealing with lines, washing down an anchor, or doing other tasks. Their great danger is that when disaster strikes, in the panic of the moment it is easy to forget to take your foot off the switch (which seems to be what happened in the first two accidents described above). In contrast, with a hand-operated device, if one hand gets hurt the more-or-less automatic reaction is going to be to whip the other hand off the switch, limiting the damage.

The absolutely critical, iron-clad rule is to not attempt to work in any way with the line, or anchor rode, on the loaded side of the winch or windlass while the winch or windlass is operating. If a riding turn occurs, or something else happens which fouls things up, the winch or windlass should be stopped and disabled (by turning off the main switch or breaker) before dealing with the problem. As often as not, this requires adding a line to the loaded part using a rolling hitch, and taking this line to another winch to relieve the load on the first winch or windlass. This takes time and certain basic line handling skills, which need to be practiced before a crisis occurs.

Self-tailing winches
Self-tailing winches are more prone to riding turns than ordinary winches and as such have to be treated with special caution. They are often harder to clear once a riding turn occurs. Lewmar has this to say in its manuals: “Under no circumstances should any self-tailing winch be used in self-tailing mode for any lifting operation; rather, suitable and adequate manual tailing should be arranged with proper means of manually cleating or stopping the hoist.”

On a short-handed boat, where one person is doing both the winching and the tailing, this advice can be hard to follow, especially with a hand-operated switch. Every time you have pulled in a foot or two of line, you have to stop the winch because you need both hands to move the tailing hand down the line back towards the winch. There is often a little slippage. For someone going up a mast, it can be a slow and jerky ride. If the grip on the tailing line gets lost for any reason, the bosun’s chair can come down fast.

On our boat, we minimize these problems by only using lines that are fed through line jammers ahead of the winch. Regardless of what happens at the winch, the bosun’s chair is not going to fall out of the sky. If a riding turn or some other problem arises, the line jammer holds the line while the problem is resolved.

Wonderful devices
This is all pretty gloomy stuff! It’s important to put things in perspective. I’ve yet to hear of an accident with a powered winch or windlass that would have occurred had basic safe operating practices been employed. Set against the tragic events described above, we have to recognize the enormous benefits these powered boat handling devices bring to us, enabling many of us to enjoy a lifestyle on the water that would otherwise be inconceivable. I, for one, with my two slipped discs, would have difficulty sailing today without them. There is no way I would willingly give up my electric winches, windlass and even the bow thruster!

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Contributing editor Nigel Calder is the author of numerous articles and books on marine technology, including Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual and Marine Diesel Engines (both in their third editions).

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