How to Use Sail Pulleys and Winches On Board your Sailboat

Almost all lines, especially your Mainsheet and Jib sheet lines are housed in blocks! These sailing blocks main purpose is to alter the course the line actually travels. However, when you use multiple blocks, they can also aid in holding and pulling the lines themselves! The total amount of extra lifting leverage is known as purchasing power. This power comes down to how many pulleys are being utilized and what kind of layout!

Tip- Sailing block leverage-Should I muscle out all my lines!?

Picture: Using Muscle

If you are using a 3 part or  4 part sheet system for your mainsail or jib sail then you will find it way easier to pull in vs just a single line pulling the same sail. if it’s a 3 part system then it will only take 1/3 of the effort it would take your single line and same for 4 part sheet system (1/4 the power) . So, if you can afford these multi-part systems then we suggest you don’t hesitate and pick one up. We like Nautos, they make affordable 4:1 systems at around 230$.add to your 4:1,  a cascading system,  will leverage the advantage two-fold, so your 4:1 becomes an 8:1 which ultimately means you will need to only use 1/8 the power it would take to pull a mainsheet with a single rope.

Regardless of which system you go with, purchase/cascading systems are used for one goal in mind; to facilitate line pulling and make life much easier for the sailor. The concept was also made to help sailors with the “slip” problem since sail lines can be unpredictable in certain conditions. Furthermore, you really have only two options for preventing slip: You can either cleat the rope using something like a cam cleat (with an aluminum shell, we use these Zomchains on our keelboat and they work really well) or if you want to go for the more galvanized steel look (Simple Living cleats). Otherwise, if you do not use cleats, your only other option would be to hold onto the line, which is not very convenient.

How do ratchet blocks work?

ratchet block, ratchet, block , sailing block

Picture: Ratchet block

There are some sailing blocks that turn with no resistance while pulling on the line. They also refrain from pulling in the opposite direction while you are pulling from one side. These are called ratchet blocks. We like Harken for their 40 MM and 57 MM sizes. Pretty affordable just under 70 $ depending on which way you go.

They are important to have because they create even more friction which essentially makes the line much more pleasant to hold without losing grip. You will find ratchet blocks on main and jibs on the smaller variety of boats (20 ft or fewer keelboats/dinghies). They typically have some sort of trigger device( button or pull-down lever) to help ease up on the ratcheting while having the block turn free in each direction. This is particularly helpful when facing lighter elements (not much wind action). Its main purpose is way more power to hold and secure the line during windy elements.

Picture: Horn/Jammer Cleats

Jam Cleats and others

Typically, your sailboat will utilize enough lines to have your head spin if you aren’t getting any mechanical help. When you are ready to hold them in place, it is essential to use cleats to do so. Otherwise, it’s going to make for a long day out on the waters and you will not have as much fun. Here are some type of cleats that will serve you well to look into:

Jam /Horn cleats: These are ideal for halyard line that you won’t adjust often. They are fixed to the boat


Clamcleats/cam cleats: These are much quicker to uncleat when needed. Since you will be using mainsheets/jib sheets more often than other sheets, we recommend using these two for easy adjustment purposes. The reason for the clamcleat name is that if you look at its grooves it almost resembles a clamshell. What these grooves do is they support in holding a loaded line. However, with a cam cleat, you are working with two shiftable and grooved jaws that utilize spring mechanics to disengage and engage the line. With cam cleats, you would pull up and towards yourself to release it out of the jaws.

How to use a sailboat winch?

sail winch, self tailing winch, tailing, tailing winch

self-tailing winch

No more are the days where you need to tug as hard as you can on the line to pull it in as if you are competing some sort of tugging competition during field day! Now you can use winches (we use the Lewmar EVO for all our bigger sailboats, as they are one of the best you can go with for price/quality at just $500 ish) when you are looking for that leverage under heavy sailboat load. These winches are typically found on larger vessels since the wight can get a little crazy on bigger boats.

Winches are devised to use a gear system which can be found inside their drums (a cylinder shape). This is the system that gives the winch its power to pull and work. When you are setting up, make sure to twist the line clockwise, encompassing the drum. Continue to do this until the load is secure and the line is as taught as needed. Do not skimp on how many wraps you end up using around the drum. Each wrap provides the necessary friction in order to facilitate holding the line yourself (with your own hands). What happens during winching, is that the drum piece spins while you are pulling on the rope (that isn’t under any load). When your line begins to take on a good amount of load (for example: when a jib line is heavy during a sail tack!) the best thing to do is turn the drum using a winch handle. (we like Dutton’s 2-speed winch attachment handle for price/durability). This is the act of grinding. Grinders are known in the racing world for doing this specifically. There is an art to doing it right!

Sailing grinder training!

The technique is pretty simple. As one person grinds, there is another crew member who is in charge of pulling in the cable the is fed out the drum. If you are sailing solo, go ahead and try and do both jobs! It is harder but it can be accomplished. You would be way more efficient if you had someone do one of the two jobs. You will hear the term self-tailing winches (like the Lewmar EVO). These winches are mechanically built to hold the line, in place, so that all you would need to do is grind without pulling in line. if you can afford these we suggest you get one! They really come in handy if your crew is smaller (less than 3), however, if you are trying to be most effective, simply delegate the job to two sailors.

grinder sailing, grind sailing, grinding sailing, sail grinding

Picture: Grinder Duo

Here are some key pointers for when you need to grind and tail properly:

Make sure you are in great positioning in relation to the winch: If your winch allows for you to stand over it, then make sure you are in this position. There are times where winches are especially made to sit on the sides of them. Figure out which technique is suitable for your winch.

Always be wary about which winch speed you are using: most winches have at least two speeds/gears. When you are ready to change gears, you will need to shift in the way you are turning the winch handle in order to prep yourself for speed shifting once the grinding gets extremely difficult.

When you are grinding, make sure to round out your rotations in a circular fashion: If you have to, try using both hands. The key here is making sure you complete your rotations, turning as far out as you possibly can while then ratcheting the handle back to where you started from (starting point on the winch)

Oh no! it is slipping! what do I do?  If you find that the line is beginning to loosen, try pulling as hard as you can or try adding some more wrap to the drum piece. This will surely fix the problem. Rule of thumb: if you are pulling on a slacked line, ( that isn’t bearing much weight) you will not need to load up the drum with too many wraps! Maybe just two or three wraps. Once the load is unbearable, wrapping the drum 4 times or more, is recommended. The times where you are slacking out a small loaded line, make sure to add a sufficient amount of wraps in order to grind, anticipating when the line is about to load up and wrapping just enough wraps right before the big load occurs. Reason being is at the time you are quickly pulling this slacked line, having way too many wraps may cause a tangle around the drum called an override.

Make sure that when you are not using the winch, to remove the winch handle: Reason being is that they can be dangerous when moving around the cockpit and will easily sink if your boat capsizes. Also, when you are in a position to release the rope on the winch, you should have already removed the handle.


What to do (safely) when the winch is loaded?!

So your winch is cocked and loaded…With tons of load! How does one release this load without tearing up the hands and starting a hand-rope friction fire!!! Ouch! We recommend taking off your rings in the process and using the right sailing gloves that fit you (the snugger the fit the better). You don’t want to winch wearing gloves with excess fabric that can get stuck/pinched on the cable wrapping around the drum.

Picture: Easing Up


If there comes a time where the additional wrap is needed to help load the winch, take the sheet with both hands and try for consistent tension while wrapping your line around the winch. Remember to keep twisting your hands clockwise in order to dodge from getting your fingers stuck in a tangled mess. When you are ready to ease (let out ) a rope carefully, secure the line with your dominant hand and put your non-dominant hand onto the wraps/winch. Now eaaasssee up on the line but make sure to do it counterclockwise and only a few finger length at a time. While you do this, maintain some pressure on the rope and change up the pressure your non-dominant hand is applying to the coiled cable on the winch. 

When you are ready to unwrap the winch completely (typically when you are about to tack), make sure to pull upward on the sheet (jib sheet for example) and make sure you are pulling around left to right in a circular counter-clockwise motion. Right before you undo all the wraps, check to see that the jib sheet’s tail is loose and ready. Last place you want it is tangled around your crew members foot.

How do I release a jib sheet that is winched during tack?

Make sure to always check to see if the load has been mostly eased off the jib sheet before taking off the wraps. How do you figure this out?

You will start to see that the jib is luffing, which tells you that the captain has started to turn and tack. Make sure you start releasing right as the tack begins. This is all about timing because if you release the line too soon you will more than likely burn your hands and if you release the wraps too late then the line will pull down and you will experience the same burning sensation.

ease line, sailing ease

Picture: Fully Eased


Do not be shocked when you experience and override-this happens a lot even to sailors that have been at it forever. This override will for sure create a knot on the winch which you will have to undo. These overrides can also be the outcome of incorrectly placing the winch where it needs to be so that the line can easily be fed into it. Most of the time though, they will be caused by sailors who wrap way too much around the drum.

How Do I untangle an override?

Picture: Override

If the conditions aren’t so bad, sometimes just taking the end of the line and pulling it upwards and around the winch, the incorrect way (counter-clock) will do the trick. When you are faced with very strong winds then focusing on just untangling the line going directly to the winch is ideal.  So when you are faced with hard winds, sheeting and heading up will take hold of the load overriding the sheet and possibly untangling it.

If you are having trouble untangling, your best bet would then to replace the line and rig another one in order to accomplish the same things you relied on the tangled line to do. Another remedy would be to use a rolling hitch, tying this hitch to the tangled mess! You would then secure the new line taught to the point where you then produce slack in the tangled line. The last remedy would be to cut the tangle but really be careful when doing this. Cut closest to the lines end so that you can still use the rest of the line. We recommend never to cut a halyard line because of the pain in the butt rigging job it needs.

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