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Preparing Your Boat for Winter
The opening salvos of the great haulout skirmishes have been fired. Labor Day weekend has come and gone. Marinas have mailed out their winter and spring price lists. School is back in session, the fuel oil trucks are making deliveries, leaves are turning scarlet, and nights are already chilly enough that the windows have to be closed and the furnace turned on. The last regatta has been held. It's time to set a date for hauling out the boat
The idea is to prolong the sailing season as long as possible, but you definitely want to avoid conditions like these.
Some marinas don't allow you much latitude. They set a firm date, usually the end of October, for boats to come out. I know a marina in Michigan that enforces this deadline by stringing a barricade of logs across the water entrance to their business.
Last season, here on Long Island, NY, I pushed the envelope and postponed the haulout until the water was shut off at the docks in mid-December. It was my first season as a sailboat owner, and I didn't want it to end. I thought the marina manager was kidding when he said there had been seasons when he needed a chainsaw to get boats out. But a few weeks later, the entire bay was frozen over with nearly a foot of ice. If I'd waited any longer, I would have been reading Alvah Simon's North to the Night as an instruction manual instead of as entertainment.
The onset of cold weather means that anything that can freeze needs to be taken off the boat, emptied, or protected. And many of the winterization chores simply can't be done with frozen fingers.
Winterization begins with a number of decisions. When to haul the boat out, and how and where to store it are the first. To save costs and/or make it easier to carry out repairs, upgrades, and maintenance, storing the boat in the backyard may be the way to go. If your boat won't need any attention during the winter and the cost is not prohibitive, leave it at the marina under a tarp or have it shrink-wrapped. A tarp is less expensive than shrink-wrapping, but it can also require frequent visits to make sure it has not come loose, ripped, or overburdened with snow and ice.
There are alternatives to hauling your boat out for the winter. You can purchase and install a bubbler system to keep the water moving around the boat so that ice doesn't form. Or you can opt for the less-expensive route of hanging some planks at the waterline, which in during a benign winter will prevent ice from chafing through the gelcoat or breaking away the rudder, and allow you to keep the boat in the water throughout the freezing months. However, this approach is generally not an option unless you live aboard the boat. And it doesn't eliminate the need to carry out routine fall and winter maintenance.
Y>In some locations, the extra windage of the mast may be a concern when it blows hard, and the safety of the boat may require that you unstep the mast and place it in a cradle. Ideally, the mast should come down since water wicking down it into the swages of the standing rigging can freeze and crack these fittings. Another benefit of unstepping the mast is that it can be laid lengthwise on deck and serve to support a cover, which would otherwise need a frame of some sort to keep the cover away from the deck and provide air circulation.
Before the cover goes on, however, items that can be damaged by the cold, salt air, or mildew, or that might attract thieves, should be removed. And most importantly, the engine needs proper care.Unlike the parts of the boat that are only animated by wind or muscle, the engine needs special care as the temperature drops. Even an outboard, which can easily be separated from the boat and brought to a warm, cozy place for the winter, needs special attention.
The owner's manual for every engine will describe the tasks that must be carried out to make sure your engine fires up again in the spring. Basically, all the tasks are aimed at preventing corrosion, protecting against dirt, and avoiding damage from the cold. Flush and replace all fluids—fuel, oil, water, and antifreeze—and replace all filters. Loosen belts to prevent them from contracting and breaking in the cold. Close the seacocks and put duct tape over all intakes and exhausts. Pack the water pump impeller in grease or clean fuel, pour oil into the air intake, and change the engine zinc.
|"The onset of cold weather means that anything that can freeze needs to be taken off the boat, emptied, or protected." |
Keep in mind that these are tasks that, if the boat is hauled too late in the year, might not be possible to complete because of the cold. Fingers need to be warm and nimble and fluids need to be fluid, not congealed or frozen.
Most marinas will be happy to do all these chores for you for a price. But, aside from cost, there are at least two reasons why you should try to perform the engine maintenance chores yourself. First and foremost is that the freedom of sailing is closely linked to self-sufficiency. As the captain, you need to be familiar with every part of your boat in order to diagnose and carry out emergency repairs.
Second is that your boat needs regular, reliable, loving care. You should have a checklist of maintenance chores based upon manufacturer recommendations and your own sense of what the boat needs. Most marinas have trained personnel who can reliably take care of a boat's maintenance chores, but they are not likely to be following the same checklist that you would be using. And if this is a checklist that has been handed down to you by former owners of your boat, the resale value of your boat may depend a great deal on your ability to attend to each item yourself every year. Marina invoices are not likely to carry nearly as much weight with prospective buyers as a checklist meticulously maintained by a series of owners.
Winterization is, unquestionably, a burden comprised of chores that may be unfamiliar to you, skills that you may not possess, and a tradition that you are not sure you can honor as well as your predecessors. But you owe it to yourself—and to your boat—to try. Otherwise, you may wind up with a boat that has a record of indifferent care; a boat that future owners will not value as much as one that has had a succession of responsible, loving owners who were willing to get dirty and bust some knuckles to make sure the boat got the attention it needed. The advantage is that you're bound to learn something along the way.
If you are lucky, you'll develop a feeling of stewardship for your boat. She is a living thing that has been entrusted to your care, and if you care for her, she will care for you. The engine will spring to life at the press of a button to carry you safely away from the rocks. When you lean heavily into the water under the force of a gust, you know the lines and sails will hold and you can enjoy the thrill without worry. The two of you know each other. You've mixed blood and grease, blisters and chafe. And you'll know when the time has come for both of you to take a rest, and slumber through the winter, dreaming of the times to come when the air and water are warm again.
Winter Season Checklist
- First, make a checklist of things to do from owner manuals, prior owners' lists, and your own experience.
- Select a date for the haulout while still warm enough to manage maintenance chores.
- Decide on storage, marina, home, or in-water; tarp or shrink-wrap; mast in or out; let marina know when you want to get back in the water.
- Make sure boat is adequately supported by stands or a cradle and oriented to present the least wind resistance.
- Pump out bilge and remove or protect anything that can freeze.
- Flush and replace engine fluids and filters; carry out maintenance as recommended by engine owner's manual.
- Close seacocks, and place duct tape over all hull openings and vents.
- Remove sails, examine for necessary repairs, send to reputable firm with clear instructions and return date, or clean and store at home.
- Remove and store all electronics, batteries, and cushions in clean, dry place.
- Install moisture-absorbent products in cabin and lockers to prevent mildew.
- Cover with tarp or shrink-wrap supported by spars or framework to provide for air circulation.
- Begin planning next season's cruises.