ELECTRIC WINCH: Weapon of Mass Destruction?

Electric winch

I’ve been trying for a while to figure out exactly what it was that happened in Jolly Harbor, Antigua, back in March. Accounts are vague and somewhat contradictory. As is often the case, Dick Durham, news editor at Yachting Monthly, seems to have developed the best information. The magazine’s most recent web post on the subject describes it, in the words of one eyewitness, as a scene from “an abattoir with body parts all over the cockpit.” According to YM‘s current print issue (p.11), the horrific accident was the result of “a complex riding turn on the drum of [a] foot-operated self-tailing winch.”

What seems clear is that: a) the boat involved was an Amel Maramu, ranging somewhere in size from 50 to 56 feet; b) the winch was electrically powered, built by Lewmar; c) a woman from Venezuela lost her hand and some part of an arm, and also had her other hand crushed, while trying to hoist her husband up a mast; and d) the good Samaritan who tried to rescue her lost 7 (or was it 8?) fingers for his trouble.

My testicles shrivel at the thought of it.

According to YM, the good Samaritan was named John Ahlgren, age 63, from Norway, though other accounts, including the one in the local paper, assert he is Swiss.

According to Practical Sailor, the woman’s name was Lola Khon.

Lewmar, in response to this carnage, has recently issued the following advisory:

On 5 March 2011, an accident occured aboard a 2006 Amel 54 in Jolly Harbour Marina, Antigua while carrying out the lifting operation of a crew member using a self-tailing winch. Currently, an investigation is underway.

Safety is of paramount importance to Lewmar and, in advance of the outcome of the investigation and as part of our ongoing commitment to operational safety, we would like to remind owners of Lewmar manual and electrically-operated winches of the following key points from  the Lewmar Electric 40-77 & Hydraulic 46-111 Winches Manual, Sections 2.1 and 6.1:

–Under no circumstances should any self tailing winch be used in self tailing mode for any lifting operation; rather suitable and adequate manual tailing should be arranged with proper means of manually cleating or stopping the hoist.

–Isolate the winch using circuit breaker/isolator when not in use.

–Only persons who are completely familiar with the controls and those who have been fully made aware of the correct use of the winch should be allowed to use it.

–It is the unavoidable responsibility of the owner or master or other responsible party to assess the risk of any operation on the vessel.

All safety notices are available in the relevant Lewmar Technical Manuals on Lewmar.com. Click on Support, then Product Literature, and filter by product. If you have any questions about the safe operation of a Lewmar product, please email press@lewmar.com.


It also seems clear that none of the severed body parts were successfully reattached to their bodies at the hospital. Again with the testicles. It all reminds me of a recurring nightmare I had as a child, where someone’s arm or leg would get chopped off by an outboard motor. In those dreams I always carefully collected the missing limb, just in case it could be reinstalled.

More specifically, I see two major morals to the tale of woe in evidence: 1) powered winches (and windlasses) must be respected; and 2) when going aloft you should have some way to secure yourself to the mast so the line you’re on can be cut if all hell breaks loose on deck.


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6 Responses
  1. Jeremy McGeary

    I looked into this as far as i could after Scuttlebutt posted the Lewmar advisory on its BB.
    I know about as much as you do.
    What pisses me off is that nobody in the sailing community in Antigua seems to have followed this up with a detailed analysis of what is and isn’t known about the incident.
    Is Lewmar trying to hush it up? Amel?
    I think everybody out there who has a powered electric winch, regardless of manufacture, should be advised/warned of the possibility of a foul-up.
    You would think the first reaction would be to cease operating the winch. I can only guess that for some reason, the winch didn’t stop when the button? was released.
    We need to know what went wrong, so we can advise everyone out there about it so they can take steps to prevent it happening again.
    Yes, sure, anyone can sail around the world. Just buy a 50+ foot boat so you can get all your stuff in it and fit it with electric winches. Piece of cake.

  2. Charlie Doane

    Hey Mac: Thanks for coming by. I agree 100 percent. We need to know what happened. Lewmar is supposedly conducting an investigation. I can’t see that it had anything to do with Amel. It seems the switch failed to shut off. Also, why didn’t the breaker trip? Or is the load imposed by an arm getting caught in the winch too insignificant to do that? All we have at this point are questions.

  3. Wally Moran

    “Yes, sure, anyone can sail around the world. Just buy a 50+ foot boat so you can get all your stuff in it and fit it with electric winches. Piece of cake.”

    Too true, I saw that last year with the World ARC in Raiatea in Fr. Polynesia. Several of them could not med moor to the quay, despite there being no wind and the sea flat calm. And it wasn’t just the usual ‘reverse doesn’t work on a sailboat’ stuff either, it appeared to be real incompetency with a boat in close quarters.
    Won’t say who the worst transgressors were, but the nationality is known for its arrogance.

  4. Alan Leslie

    For a starter the lewmar winches on Amels are not foot operated unless you can contort yourself somehow under the dodger. This is a story of sheer incompetence on the part of the individuals involved. Nothing to do with Lewmar, nothing to do with Amel.

  5. This was an horrendous accident and as with most accidents it was preventable by proper planning. However, again as with all accidents we in our comfortable arm chairs can be so knowledgeable. It would seem that the poor lady tried to fix an over ride from the danger side. I can add a fact to this. Sometimes the pushbuttons winches do not stop when the finger is removed. Another fact, The push buttons sometimes do self start untouched and boats that have been left power on have had considerable damage done when a self start occurred in the absence of crew and tailed on sheets just keep on pulling. Likewise anchor windlass switches can self launch your anchor at very inconvenient times. Back to accident, any accident. Pre planning for eventualities can save lives. And the process when something does go wrong. Observe, Evaluate, Plan, Act

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