Have you given any thought to where will you store your boat this winter? If you live in the northern latitudes, and you're boat isn't trailerable, you'll probably be putting your boat to bed at a marina, either in wet or dry storage. We boat owners in the northeast start to talk and think about winter storage in mid-August, when the nights come sooner, the weather begins to cool a bit, and the waters become unpredictable due to fall tides and brewing storms. We learn from each other, sharing information about which marinas we like and who has the best deals. This is all important because one thing is clear: marinas and boatyards vary in the kinds of storage and service they provide over the winter, and it's best to be informed.
The first decision you'll face is whether you need to move the boat at all? If you are happy with the storage options offered by your summer marina, stay put. Be aware that there is a growing trend among overcrowded marinas to reward winter allegiance with a guaranteed slip in the spring. Recently a marina in our area ousted a couple we know who had summered their boat there for over 10 years. When they chose not to store their boat there for the winter, they weren't offered a summer berth.
Despite what happened to our friends, there certainly are instances when you will need to move your boat to an alternative location for the winter. If you will be taking the boat south, it's obvious you will need to look for a winter port elsewhere. Here, security and amenities are important, especially if you plan to leave the boat for long periods, say while you fly back home to work. You might also need to have special work performed over the winter—like installing a heating system, a generator, or a bow thruster for example—that can best be done by a particular yard. Or, your summer yard may not be able to accommodate your winter needs. We take our boat to a marina that does not require us to unstep our mast. (Our Freedom yacht has a carbon-fiber mast that is not subject to the stress common to aluminum masts.)
Start by considering the marina's location in relation to your home. Many boat owners find comfort in making pilgrimages to the marina to “check on the boat,” and having it within convenient driving distance allows them to easily conduct winter work, as the weather permits. This is especially true if you opt to store your boat in the water, as its safety against ice, water intrusion, and storms needs to be monitored constantly. The year we took our boat to a yard in Rhode Island--a two-and-a-half-hour ride from home—we needed to rent a hotel room in order to have enough time to clean up the boat and prepare it for spring launching.
When you're faced with choosing among several marinas, it's best to make the rounds in person and tour them all. Stop by the office. Meet the yard manager. Is he or she friendly, or too busy to speak with you? Ask about special requirements, like using your cousin to do the electrical work on your boat in their yard, to find how accommodating the yard is. The manner of the response you get is likely carry through to any work the yard does for you, so go with your gut and avoid those boat yards whose personnel show little concern for you.
You should also stroll around the yard and check out its facilities. Is the lift in good repair, and is it adequate to support your boat? If you own a 45-foot yacht, and the marina is serving boats under 25 feet, this is a clear indication that you need to go elsewhere. How are the boats stored? One marina we stayed at must've thought boats were anchovies in a can. They packed stored boats so tightly that we couldn't reach a hand between our boat and the one near it to polish our hull, much less sand the teak rail. Have a look at how the masts are racked? Are they clearly marked with owner's names, and is the rigging neatly tied? Are they accessible to work on? Are water and power sources convenient to the storage areas? If you discover that you'll have to daisy chain several power cords together to operate your sander, maybe you should check out an alternative boat yard.
If a marina looks promising, pick up a copy of their winter storage agreement and read it carefully. Negotiate any changes before your sign a contract. And weigh the price against whatever the benefits are. When is payment due, and is there a discount for cash payment? Are their prices in line with other marinas? Be alert to slight differences in terminology that may fool you into thinking that you are comparing similar services. For example, one marina's contract I reviewed charges by boat length (cost per foot), while another's charges by the square foot (LOA x beam), which will multiply out to a higher cost. Ask about which services are included in base storage, and which are priced separately? And find out if the marina's hourly rate is in line with that of others in the area.
Winter storage contracts allot check-off blocks for winterization, repairs, and installation services, which they normally bill for on a time and materials basis (hourly rate plus parts). To avoid surprises, request estimates in advance. Should you decide to have the yard perform major work, such as installing a refrigeration system or a watermaker, be sure to obtain a separate, written quotation detailing the work to be done and the cost breakdown. A friend who arranged to have a marina Awlgrip his boat on the strength of a non-binding estimate was shocked when the final bill was more than double what he expected.
Turn over the contract and read the fine print. You'll realize that the marina is merely housing your boat; the responsibility for its safety lies with you, the owner. Many have clauses waiving liability in the event of damage or destruction to a boat while in storage, and some require that owners have all-risk insurance coverage.
Then you'll need to determine if you can you live with all of the marina's terms. The contract will outline exact expectations, such as how rigging is to be prepared and whether or not they permit leaving masts up. If you are a DYI boat owner, choosing a marina that will not allow you to work on your boat will be frustrating. Can your favorite contractor—a rigger or carpenter—work at the yard without penalty or yard approval? We have a friend who hired a young man to varnish her boat's teak. The marina charged him a fee to work on their premises, thus upping the cost to the owner.
You should also ask around regarding the marina's reputation? Go with a yard you can trust to do the work you've contracted for, and to do it well. One marina erroneously charged us for winterization services they not only neglected to perform, but, because they were not done, put our boat at risk for damage. They'd missed running antifreeze through one of our systems, which might've resulted in cracked fittings.
Find out how on-target the marina is in meeting launch dates, or any commitments, for that matter? It can get nasty when you arrive at the marina with the wife and kids, your car loaded to the gills in preparation for your first night aboard, to find your boat still on its poppets at the rear of the yard. This situation is most common to marinas that aren't provided either a firm launch date by the owner, or do not store boats with consideration for spring launching. If your boat is stored behind several others at the back of the lot, the marina may delay launching because they will need to first move out those boats in front. To avoid this pitfall, make it a point to discuss boat placement in the yard with the yard manager before the boat is hauled.
And don't forget to check on the perks, such as discounts for early payment, priority consideration for an in-season berth, or an invite to their annual Customer Appreciation Party! It's the willingness to please and attention to the little things that make the difference between a good marina and a great one.