How many winches do you have on your boat? The answer is none. They're all capstans.

How many winches do you have on your boat? The answer is none. They’re
all capstans. By  definition, a winch stores its cable on the drum, and it’s mounted horizontally. We’re familiar with Nelsonian sailors hornpiping their way around the capstan, weighing anchor, but the rest of the sail handling was done using blocks and tackles. The poor mechanical advantage and high friction they offered limited the size of the sails they could handle, hencethe many small sails seen on Tall Ships.

The winch has been in use for millennia. There are records, dating from the 4th Century BC, of winches being used to tighten cables supporting pontoon bridges, and also being used in construction. Looking at the capstan, it’s clear that – axis aside – little changed in the intervening 2,000 years. So hen did winches become so popular?

There is evidence of snubbing winches, geared 1:1 and turning only clockwise on a ratchet, in use on yachts in the late 19th Century, but the following extract from Douglas Phillips-Birt’s Rigs and Rigging of Yachts, 1954, confirms that sheet winches were around at the turn of the century.

‘Winches are not in fact a new piece of gear, though their extensive use in yachts of all sizes is a modern piece of design. And the best winches of the past seem to have been at least as good as the present day. Those designed by athaniel G Herreshoff in 1903 for the Reliance were handed down to Resolute in 1920 and then to Enterprise in 1930. Some of them may even have found their way on board Ranger six years later.’

Moray MacPhail of Classic Marine in Woodbridge said ‘There are photographs showing Herreshoff’s Whirlwind with winches in 1929. Sparkman & Stephens’ stormy Weather was also fitted with them when Olin’s brother Rod brought her across in 1935, winning the Transatlantic Race and the Fastnet Race before eading back to the States.’ Winches were common on larger racing yachts by the mid 1930s but didn’t become commonplace on smaller yachts until after WII.

These winches were more like capstans, operated using a lever in the base or at the top of the winch, like early Lewmar and Gibb winches. It wasn’t until 1959 that the modern top action winch was invented. Len Lewery started a company making Tufnol dinghy fittings in 1946 and he was joined by Leslie Marsh, a local plant hire operator. In 1950. They called the company Lewmar. Henry Shepherd, whose company made helicopter gearboxes for Westland, bought into Lewmar in 1959 and used his knowledge of lightweight aeronautical materials to develop the multispeed, top-action winch we recognise today.

It’s thanks to the power-multiplying winch that the simple Bermudan sloop rig has become so popular. Instead of many small sails, like you would find on Tall Ships, and rigs like ketch, yawl, gaff, smack or schooner, we now ave the power to control two big, powerful sails.