Electric winches are becoming cheaper and simpler to fit, making effortless sailing an affordable option, says Sam Fortescue
Electric winches have been with us for decades, and are often specced as upgrades on cruising boats. But as the idea of all electric yachts becomes more prevalent and battery performance improves, electric winches are also fast becoming more comonplace.
The technology behind it is pretty unimpeachable these days, but manufacturers are always finding small incremental improvements to distinguish their product from the competition.
Take major supplier Lewmar, now part of the US Lippert Group. Its sleek Evo winch, which weighs 20% less than the familiar Ocean range, is available in a fully electric version from size 40 upwards.
And so is its Revo range – designed to backwind so that you can sheet out at the touch of a button too.
Though touted as a racing feature, this is exceedingly useful for shorthanded crew or solo sailors, where it might otherwise mean letting go of the helm to dive into the cockpit and manually slip a line.
An electric Evo 40ST costs from around £2,810, while the Revo version is priced according to exact requirements.
An upgrade even allows you to connect two electric winches together, so that one backwinds while the other takes in the slack when tacking – at the touch of a single button.
‘We would not generally sell the Revo winch system to an aftermarket customer, as they require very specific set-up requirements,’ says Claire Martin, group marketing manager
Harken is often considered a step up from Lewmar, with racing pretensions.
Here, too, the basics are well covered with a range of instantly recognisable black anodised self-tailers (bronze and chrome finishes are also possible).
Electric versions start at size 35, and cost from around £2,586.
And the Harken Rewind Radial is also able to backwind at the touch of a button, like the Lewmar Revo.
It goes a step further in that a knob on the winch itself allows you to switch between forward-reverse mode and two-speed winding in one direction.
This feature kicks in from size 40, costing from £4,168.
Antal is another strong winch brand with a stout electric option in the XT.
You’ll need the control box that houses the solenoids, and should consider the additional load control box, called the WBC.
This starts the winch in its fast gear, then steps down to the more powerful slower speed when the winch reaches its maximum safe working current.
It cuts out altogether when it hits this limit in slow gear. At £3,220.87 for the winch plus more for the WBC, this is not a cheap option.
If there’s a limit to Lewmar, Harken and Antal’s otherwise well-engineered and soundly priced systems, it is the choice of control buttons available.
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There are just two options, both for deck mounting, which have a housing that allows them to be activated with a finger when closed, or by a foot when open.
It doesn’t allow you to put a button on the instrument console or wire it into a digital switching system.
Denmark’s Andersen is reputed for the quality of the build of its all-stainless steel winches, which run from size 12 up to 110.
The E1 is its entry-level electric winch, which operates with just a single speed.
Two- and even three-speed versions start from the 60ST size, which roughly equates to genoa sheeting on a 45ft-plus boat.
A super-simplified Compact Motor system is available, where all the gubbins from gearbox to controller is built into a single, low-profile unit.
‘It uses a brushless DC motor matched to a low profile planetary gearbox, which requires less space for installation and draws considerably less current than traditional motor/gearbox configurations,’ explains Andersen’s Thomas Galster.
‘Simple electrical installation requires no external control box, and the low profile above or below deck motor allows installation even if the original boat design did not allow for space under the deck for a motor.’
Another nice feature of the Compact Motor is the variable speed system, where a pressure-sensing button controls the rate of rotation: the harder you press the button, the faster the winch will turn.
Pricing for the Compact Motor starts at around £2,250 for the 28ST unit, and £2,940 for an E1 of the same size.
A relatively slim plastic or stainless-steel hinged lid protects the button, which is designed with a built-in LED which tells you when the system is powered up.
Electric winches: connectivity
When it comes to connectivity, however, Selden is streets ahead with the launch of its E40i electric winch (£2,850).
This is unique in its ability to talk to other Selden devices in a push-button system that might include a furling main or headsail.
It uses its own bus network to shuttle information between units and in principle, just a single power supply unit (£592) is required to run all the components.
It is not yet compatible with a multifunction display (MFD) or your NMEA instrument network, but that is surely just a question of time.
The motors involved all run on 42V, which has several benefits over 12V or 24V without running into the restrictions associated with ‘high-voltage’ equipment over 50V.
This higher voltage means lower amperage during power-intensive use, so wiring runs can be lighter and motors smaller.
This has allowed Selden to engineer a powerful motor that actually fits inside the drum of the E40i winch, so there’s no heavy-duty drilling required to install, fitting on deck exactly as a manual winch does.
Launched last year in Sweden, the E40i has proved popular with boat owners in the 35-45ft range, especially those who sail with limited or inexperienced crew.
‘It’s convenient and easy for everyone onboard, such a simple way to hoist, furl and trim the sails,’ says Anders Lagerberg, owner of a Najad 400 with an E40i installed.
‘I’m experiencing much smoother sailing than ever before, especially when sailing by myself.’
Six years ago, Jeanneau teamed up with Harken to launch the ultimate in connected winches.
A Harken Rewind was linked to a dedicated sail handling display to automatically trim sails without the skipper having to raise a finger.
It could handle wind shifts, gusts and course changes, and even to tack the jib.
Jeanneau had expected 20% of those buying its 50-plus foot boats to opt for the €15,000 system, but it appears to be no longer available, which tells its own story.
Electric winches: main brands
The Ocean and Evo (above) winches can be electric but conversion kits for manual are also available.
Harken’s motor drives the central shaft, using the winch’s gears, rather than driving the drum directly, so reducing the power draw.
Antal says its winches deliver 490W or 700W at the winch drum, compared to a human arm at 400W.
Andersen winches are distinguished by the use of a ribbed drum surface, which doesn’t abrade ropes like the commonly used rough finish.
The E40i’s internal motor means that there’s no big hole in the deck, and no motor protruding into the space below.
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