The air is bursting with the crispness of autumn and, for many of us poor souls living in cold weather climates, questions arise as to where and how to berth our boats for the winter season. The safest place to store a sizable sailboat is ashore. Although indoor storage is the least stressful on boats, space is limited and costly; so the typical boat is stored outdoors, either in the marina yard or in the water.
Yard storage Once you have chosen a marina that meets your requirements and have set a date, the marina will haul out your boat, place it ashore in a cradle, and then pressure wash the bottom to remove barnacles and other debris. A cradle constructed of metal or wood, or a set of metal poppits, supports the critical areas of the hull—the bulkhead areas, keel, and engine. Be certain the keel rests solidly on the main beam, since the vertical risers are only stabilizers. In yards where boats sit on a soil or gravel surface, which softens when it gets wet, the yard should place plywood beneath each poppit stand and chain the stands together to assure the assembly will remain balanced and in place.
Must you unstep the mast? It is customary to unstep the mast when hauling the boat to reduce windage, which can tip the boat off kilter in high winter winds and induce the rig to vibrate if it is up, leading to cracked fittings. Extreme temperatures stress the rig by causing dissimilar metals in the spars and rigging to expand and contract at different rates. Aluminum masts, in particular, are affected by this problem and should be taken down. Manufacturers claim there is no harm in leaving carbon fiber masts (which are not impacted by temperature changes) in place through the winter, as long as the hull is well supported and ice isn’t allowed to buildup on the spar.
Should you opt to leave the mast stepped for the winter, relax the entire rig by loosening the turnbuckles for shrouds and stays and tie off the halyards so they won’t slap against, and thus nick, the mast. While having the mast down makes it convenient to clean, check, and wax the spars and replace lights, it also means disconnecting the VHF antenna and wiring for lighting. It can mean several trips up the mast in the boson’s chair if everything isn't properly reconnected in the spring.
The yard normally will store your mast as part of the hauling process. Ensure that your masts are set on well-padded supports, that no weight is placed on top of them, and that attached rigging is tied off.
Prepare to haul Consult your owner’s manuals for recommended winterization for your boat’s engine, water system, refrigeration, head, and other operating systems. Some general procedures include cleaning all thru-hulls and strainers, draining and pumping all water from the seacocks and bilge, draining water system and head holding tanks before flushing them with a nontoxic antifreeze, and servicing the engine. In northern latitudes, remove the batteries and take them home. Keep them active by either putting them on a trickle charger, or charging them frequently.
Assure your boat is adequately ventilated to reduce condensation and prevent mildew by leaving dorade vents in place and open. Hang moisture-absorbing packets throughout the interior. You don’t need to remove the cushions as long as you tip them on end to allow air to circulate around them. Leave drawers and cabinet door slightly ajar. If you expect freezing temperatures, remove all canned goods, beverages and cleaning supplies, except those with a high content of alcohol, to avoid finding them splattered about in the spring.
Rinse sails and lines with fresh water. Allow them to dry thoroughly to prevent mildew, and then stow them below or take them home. You can wash sails in your bathtub at home using a sail cleaner, or have them cleaned by a professional sailmaker. Off-season is a good time to have sails repaired, recut, altered, or replaced.
Wet storage If you like to putter about your boat during the winter or take advantage of unseasonably warm days, consider leaving your boat in the water. Because your boat will be exposed to winter storms and, in some areas, radical temperature changes, this will entail some "baby sitting." To safeguard your boat for the winter, batten it down using the same protective measures you might use when preparing for a hurricane—use additional lines to secure it to the dock in a web fashion, protect the lines against chafe, and remove external canvas and other items that might take flight in heavy winds or seas.
Prepare for winter afloat Even though a boat is at home in the water, its engine and other systems still require winterization. In addition to the normal procedures, you will also need to ensure that water does not enter your boat and cause it to sink. Close all openings to the water—seacocks and gate valves, except for the cockpit drains. Store you boat ashore if it has thru-hulls below the waterline that can’t be closed. Make certain that the bilge pumps work, that float switches activate the pumps, and that no debris blocks the exit openings. Batteries need to be fully charged to operate the bilge pump automatically, so service the terminals and check the electrolyte level monthly. In cold weather, add water sparingly so it won’t freeze.
Cold weather cautions In areas where temperatures drop, it’s important to keep water from freezing inside ducts and thru-hulls, causing them to expand and crack. The most common solution is to install a deicer, or "bubbler" at your slip, which will continually churn the water around your boat to prevent ice formation. Some sailors add heat by placing light bulbs near thru-hull openings, or by leaving a space heater in operation. Untended heaters are a fire hazard, however, and experts say they aren't necessary if the boat has been properly winterized. Anyway, when area power is out at the marina, none of this equipment will work.
Frozen water will lift a poorly secured hose off a fitting, so it is critical to double clamp all thru-hulls, using stainless steel hose clamps at each end. Replace lightweight or PVC tubing with heavily reinforced hose, especially in cockpit drains, to avoid rupturing. Snow adds weight and can push exhaust ports underwater, allowing water to invade the exhaust system and rust engine components, so plug all exhaust ports.
Winter cover-up Covering the boat with a winter blanket is the final step in protection, keeping the gelcoat and brightwork from fading and shielding the boat from ice and snow, sea salt, and the effects of pollution. Tarps are usually either synthetic (plastic) or canvas rectangles, which are draped and tied down to fit over a wooden or metal frame that extends the length and beam of the boat. A frame is helpful in keeping the tarp off the surfaces of the deck, allowing air to circulate, and preventing water from pooling. Boats stored afloat in cold climates also need to be covered to keep water from collecting in deck drains and freezing.
Shrink wrapping is not for painted boats and makes for poor entry and ventilation.
Many marinas offer shrink wrapping, which is the application of heat over a thin coating of disposable plastic to conform to the shape of the boat. Although convenient and protective, shrink-wrapping can trap moisture under the cover and invites mildew. Hulls finished with AWLGRIPÒ or other linear polyeurethane paint systems, should not be shrink-wrapped, and require care to avoid abrasion from covers and tie-down lines. If you really love your boat, treat it to a custom canvas cover, which can be made to accommodate mast, rigging, and extraneous equipment left up during the winter.
By the way, whatever type of winter cover you choose, don’t forget to create a flap so you can exit and enter to steal a winter boating moment.
Choosing a Winter Marina
When considering potential marinas, review their contract and discuss their ability to meet your needs.
What is their reputation?
Go with a yard you can trust to do the work for which you’ve contracted, and do it well. Make sure they meet date commitments for hauling and launching. If winterizing services have not been done properly, you risk damage to your boat.
Where is the marina located?
Driving distance from your home becomes an issue when you wish to stop by to check on your boat during the winter, or work on it in preparation for spring launching.
Are their facilities adequate?Walk the storage yard. Is the lift in good repair and capable of handling your boat? Are boats packed in the yard, like anchovies in a can, making it difficult to work on them? Are masts protectively stored, clearly marked with the rigging neatly tied, and accessible for spring re-commissioning? Are water and electrical outlets available and convenient to work areas?
Are their prices reasonable?
Winter storage costs typically include hauling, washing the hull, and relaunching in the spring. All other procedures are billed at the marina’s hourly rate, which will vary according to location. Prices for indoor storage are based on square footage (LOA x Beam), while outdoor storage is cost is per foot (LOA). Marina payment plans will vary. Look for perks like discounts for early payment, priority consideration for an in-season berth, or an invitation to their annual Customer Appreciation Party.
Do you need additional work done?
Winter storage contracts allot check-off blocks for winterization, repairs, and installation services and you will be billed for them on a time and material basis. Ask for an advance estimate to avoid surprise invoices. If you hire the yard to do major work, such as painting the hull or installing major components—refrigeration system, watermakers—obtain a separate, written quotation detailing the work to be done and the cost breakdown.
Read the fine print
What are your responsibilities and liabilities? A contract protects you, as well as the marina. Negotiate changes before you sign.
- Discuss the placement of your boat in the yard, since a savvy yard will situate a boat in preparation for spring launching. If your boat is wedged in at the back of the lot, the marina may slip your launch date, or charge you to extricate your boat on time. Once your boat is launched, ask how soon you must move it before incurring slip charges.
- Marinas often have regulations that impact your ability to have work done on your boat. Read the storage contract carefully to determine the specifics for the yard you are considering. If you are a do–it-yourselfer, or have a favorite rigger or system service people, you may opt to go elsewhere. Some boatyards charge outside vendors a percentage, upping your cost of work done.
- Some yards consider unstepping masts "mandatory" due to liability concerns. If you are insistent on leaving your rigging in place, search for a marina that will comply.
- Many marina contracts have clauses waiving their liability in the event of damage or destruction to your boat while in storage, and some require that owners have all-risk insurance coverage.