Handling winches and jammers (rope clutches) better


A winch gives you leverage over pulling a line. We use winches to hoist our mainsail, furl the Genoa in high winds, and tighten the Genoa sheets.

The ratios of leverage you get are usually the name of the winch on your boat. So a Lewmar 40 has a power ratio of 40 and gives me 40 times more strength than when pulling the line by hand.

When you’re on a production boat, you will usually find two-gear self-tailing winches. This means that when you turn your winch one way you get a quicker but less powerful gear, turning the other way results in a slower, but more powerful gear.

You can find plain top, top cleat, and self tailing winches. 

Older cruising boats usually have plain tops, so you wrap your line around the winch, pull the line, and then cleat it off on an extra cleat close by. Top cleat is something you barely see, where the line gets cleated off on top of the winch. It’s usually racers that have that kind of setup.

The most common winches are self tailing, so after wrapping the line around, you feed the tail into the jaw. It’s important to know the max and min diameter, too small a rope and it may slip, too large and the jaw won’t grab it.

The reason why you’re able to pull line easy is the material of the grip on the drum. It’s either surface friction or shape friction. Surface friction is achieved by roughening the surface. It works well but over time (lots and lots of time, don’t worry about it) the line gets a bit fuzzy. Shape friction is achieved by grooves and ridges on the drum. It’s kinder to the rope but it bites less. On self tailing the bite when pulling line doesn’t really matter anymore, because the jaw holds the line anyways. But when easing line, it is even more important to have enough turns on the drum for a comfortable grip.

Winch handles come in different shapes and sizes as well. As a cruiser on a regular boat, don’t worry about it, it’s just a question of comfort and budget.

Jammers (Rope Clutches)

Jammers are used to keep lines under tension and lock them in place. Usually you have a big battery of jammers in your cockpit, just in front of your winch. Most jammers have 3 settings. Open, semi-locked, locked. The setting you usually need is semi-locked. This is where you’re able to pull one way and tighten your line with the winch. When you want to double down on grip, choose the locked setting. You won’t be able to pull either way. It’s usually not needed, at least we don’t. It’s more of a nuisance because you can’t pull line, and there is not really a benefit over semi-locked. Have a look in the video on how to handle the jammers to switch between locked and semi-locked.

Using jammers and self-tailing winches in conjunction

When you want to pull or ease a line that runs through a jammer, always put the line on a winch first, before you open the jammer. Only then you are able to hold it comfortably and safely. You want to make sure that whatever tension is on that line, you can hold it either yourself or it is jammed on the jaw of the winch. Also take out all slack between jammer and winch before opening the jammer. Ideally, the tension of the line is already taken on the winch. Then the jammer can be opened without any shock or movement of the line.

When easing line, obviously the jammer has to be open. In any other case, the jammer should be closed in semi-lock. When you hoist a mainsail for example, you want to be sure that the winch pulls the line, but it is locked by the jammer. Make this a habit to prevent injuries. Imagine what happens when you take a tensioned halyard off of the winch, assuming it is locked by the jammer but it isn’t. Mayhem! Chaos!

Important things to keep in mind when handling line

  • Always use enough turns around the drum to make sure you have enough grip to hold the line comfortably
  • Choose your gear and stay in it. The teeth of the winch can wear quicker if you pump your two gear winch forcefully
  • Don’t forget the safety turn, especially on your Genoa winch
  • When easing line, always hold the line with the pinky towards the winch
  • Always make sure the jammers grip, before you take the line off the winch. To do so, take the line off the jaw of the winch and ease it carefully a little bit. Now the jammer takes the tension. If it doesn’t slip, you can take the line off the drum