While the idea of winter sailing, especially in places like our home port of Belfast, ME may feel more akin to a polar bear swim than a fun leisure activity, there are in fact a few great reasons to get on the water year-round.
The novelty of exploring and enjoying your favorite passages and coves without the congestion of the summer season traffic is almost reason enough. Winter waters also provide different sightseeing experiences including unique migratory wildlife, incredible celestial star shows, and a fresh take on known landscapes. Ultimately, however, we feel that getting to spend more time on the water is reason enough to venture out throughout the year… even in the chillier months.
The key to enjoying wintertime sailing comes down to a few key components. These include ramped up safety measures, the right gear to stay warm, and ensuring that your vessel is properly fitted-out for a cold-weather cruise.
Don’t be Freezin for No Reason
Look no further than the fishermen who go out in some of the most inclement weather to recognize the importance of dressing the part. The key to safety is going beyond the comfort level needed for casual cruising and to provide enough foul weather and MOB gear to endure a worse-case scenario.
Let’s start with clothing. Because sailing generally requires exposure above deck, we recommend wearing a fully waterproof jacket and bibs as well as waterproof bibs and jackets specifically designed for winter sailing.
Depending on conditions and boat size it may be worth considering a wetsuit or drysuit. A drysuit offers the ultimate form of protection from the elements. Drysuits have waterproof fabric that seals at the wrist and neck making it fully submersible. For cool but not extremely cold conditions, a heavy-weight wetsuit and complementing neoprene top or breathable waterproof shell can be more comfortable, flexible, and less expensive. Adding a waterproof spray top over the wetsuit can help cut down on spray and wind chill.
Layering is an essential strategy that begins with a good base layer. This layer should be a lightweight garment and crafted from either natural or synthetic fibers with excellent moisture-wicking capabilities. This foundational layer acts as a shield, ensuring that moisture is efficiently drawn away from the skin. On top of that, we recommend a mid-layer composed of natural or synthetic fibers like wool or fleece, both known for their moisture-wicking prowess. It’s important to avoid cotton, which once soaked, relinquishes all its insulating magic.
We also recommend purchasing thick waterproof sailing gloves (warm and grippy) and a pair of heavy-duty boots with a good amount of tread and stickiness.
Up your communications and situational awareness game
Knowledge is everything when it comes to staying safe in cold conditions. Never push beyond your comfort zone or push beyond the limits of your experience.
Before heading out, make sure you’re tapped into the most accurate weather info. This includes pre-trip evaluations and having access to real-time weather information onboard. Technologies like Starlink provide high-speed internet connectivity, however, lower cost options such as the Garmin GXM™ 54 Receive provides real-time weather reporting and increased situational awareness.
It’s also important to document and inform others of your travel plans and to provide regular updates on your location, conditions, and changes to your itinerary once en route.
Keep’n it close
In cold conditions, the amount of time a situation can go from bad to worse is substantially shorter. Keeping MOB and safety gear on hand (closer proximity than usual) and communication or SOS beacons ready to go is paramount.
Another safety strategy should include planning shorter passages. A shorter trip provides a great escape, but mitigates many of the challenges of risks associated with the rapidly changing conditions of winter sailing. It’s best to start small and work your way up to longer or more complicated journeys.
Getting your boat winter ready
The most common injuries in cold conditions come with slips and falls on deck. Seawater, with its lower freezing point, provides a great solution for rinsing away snow and ice build-up. While there are off-the-shelf de-icing products, getting the decks cleared often comes down to a good bucket, shovel, and a bit of elbow grease.
Freezing lines is another big challenge. A proven solution used by ice-climbers who constantly deal with frozen ropes is to treat their lines by soaking them in a water repellent. Off-the-shelf products such as wash-in Nikwax can substantially reduce water absorption in ropes and reduce the likelihood they stiffen like a pair of frozen jeans. The product has been tested as effective on ropes while still maintaining strength, impact force, static elongation, sheath slippage, and knotability.
Another great product to reduce snow and ice build up on various surfaces is Sailkote Dry Lubricant, which is specifically designed for marine use. It’s easy to apply the lubricant which helps make sails, hulls, rigging, deck hardware, and anything that moves on your boat run smoother and more efficiently, which is particularly helpful in the cold.
Minimize condensation buildup with dehumidifier
Condensation is one of the trickiest things to avoid in winter. A warm boat interior and colder temperatures outside are a perfect recipe for condensation inside the boat. Leaving condensation unaddressed can lead to mold, which is dangerous and expensive to remove. Flowing air is condensation’s nemesis, so maintain the airflow through your boat whenever possible. Insulate your boat’s interior and windows, and consider using a dehumidifier overnight.
Winter can be really tough on batteries so we recommend keeping them topped off with a battery tender. A battery tender is a low-power battery charger that trickle-charges the battery and keeps the battery full all winter long. This will help prevent any issues starting your vessel after months of sitting idle. There are a number of great solar options, which have become affordable and minimize maintaining a trickle system.
Engine Room Essentials
The engine room is one of the most vulnerable areas of the boat for cracked pipes and equipment. It houses water and pump-out tankage, the engine-fed calorifier, hot water immersion heater, and all the delicate and vulnerable plumbing associated. These components all contain water and are as such prone to freezing, cracking, and causing costly damage. A good bilge heater is your best defense. We recommend a self-regulating unit with automatic thermostat control. The PTC, 400-watt Caframo Pali Bilgesage Heater is a good option.
Avoid freeze thaw cracking
Check drains, potholes, and seacocks for any water or moisture build-up. The freeze thaw cycle can cause havoc. Regular inspections of the boat for water build-up can significantly reduce damage, especially in the early winter and late spring months. A cabin heater keeps temperatures high enough to reduce this risk. While there are a number of propane, solid fuel, and forced air options available. We highly recommend purchasing and installing a purpose-built marine boat heater that has been specifically designed for use onboard a boat.
Other Expert Tips
- While we hate reading the fine print of our insurance policy, it’s important to verify your insurance covers winter sailing. When in doubt…. Reach out and check your coverage before heading out.
- Check hours of marinas and fuel docks along your route. Many marinas and fuel docks close seasonally.
- Extra padding in the cockpit goes a long way to keep your bottom warm. Install thicker cockpit seat cushions and store them in a dry place.