How to Untangle a Winch Cable

How to Untangle a Winch Cable

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Untangling a fouled winch cable aboard your boat is an educational experience. Properly called a "fouled" cable when tangled, it may be found wrapped around itself and anything it's come into contact with. Winch cables become fouled when they aren't stored properly, or when they part -- the technical term for breaking -- under a load. You will learn the hard truth of the seaman's saying about "a place for every thing and everything in its place," whether you stowed the cable or not. You'll learn something about maintaining wire rope. You may even learn a whole new vocabulary.

Step 1

Move the winch to "Neutral" and set the winch brake.

Step 2

Don heavy leather gloves. Grasp the cable at the end farthest from the winch, called the bitter end. Continue to hold the cable and walk away from the winch. Pull the cable away from the winch as far as possible, without tightening the tangles.

Step 3

Apply a thin coat of heavy marine grease to the cable, using a heavy rag, beginning at the bitter end and going to a point 2 or 3 inches from the tangle.

Step 4

Inspect the tangle and locate the last loop -- loops are called "bights" -- through which the bitter end passed. Pull the bitter end backward through that bight.

Step 5

Apply grease to the part of the cable you just pulled from the tangle. Inspect the tangle again and locate the next bight through which the bitter end passed. Pull the bitter end backward through the bight. Repeat this process until the tangle has been untied.

Step 6

Apply grease to the palm of one glove. Wrap your gloved hand around the cable near the winch, using the greased glove. Walk away from the winch and allow the cable to slide through your lightly clenched hand, pulling the now-untangled loops of wire straight.

Step 7

Stop, when you reach the bitter end. Instruct your assistant to activate the winch and slowly take up the cable. Walk toward the winch, keeping a slight strain on the cable. Ensure the cable feeds onto the winch drum in flat, even wraps.

Step 8

Tell your assistant to stop the winch and set the winch brake when you are 10 feet from the winch. Bend the bitter end back along 1 foot of the cable and secure in place with at least two wire rope clips. Fit a shackle through the closed loop -- called an "eye" -- thus formed and shackle the eye to a deck fitting.

Step 9

Restart the winch, release the winch brake and "bump" the winch motor until the cable is taut, but not tight against the shackle. Shut the winch down. Release the winch brake and allow the cable to slacken. Set and lock the winch brake.


  • Do not approach within five feet of the winch as it takes up the cable. If you must let the cable go at that point, set the winch brake, turn the winch off and wrap the cable onto the winch drum by hand.


  • Always wear heavy gloves when working with winch cable. Broken wires in the cable, called "fish hooks" can penetrate your fingers, causing fish-hook-like wounds.
  • Unless the winch cable is stainless steel wire rope, it must be kept lubricated with grease to protect it against a life at sea.
  • Untangling a fouled cable gives you the opportunity to inspect the cable. Look at the cable -- if half of the wires you see are flattened, replace the cable. Run a finger along one wire as it makes one full revolution around the body of the cable. If you feel more than five small breaks or kinks, replace the cable.
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