25 tips for keeping your boat prepped, your crew warm, and adventures flowing over winter
Winter can be a blissful time to be at sea. With the low sun sparkling off the water, deserted cruising grounds and short hops to pubs with roaring fireplaces, there’s every reason to stay afloat.
The weather windows are smaller and the challenges bigger, but with the right kit and a boat that’s prepped for the off, there are many glorious sails to be had.
But even if you have laid up for the season, there are still a host of ways to have fun on the water, from enrolling on RYA courses to crewing across the Atlantic.
1. SHORESIDE ESSENTIALS
Insurance & berthing
Many insurance companies insist that yachts on swinging moorings are brought into marinas over the winter. If that’s the case, it’s worth looking around as some winter berths can be as cheap as hard-standing. Check when the mooring was last inspected, and double-check mooring lines, cleats and fenders after strong winds.
If necessary you can lift, scrub and anti-foul in a day before getting back on the water in Spring. Some boat owners clean the hull between tides then anti-foul a few days later on a warm, dry day, preferably with a breeze.
Using an autopilot will prevent exposure on the helm for hours on end. For longer passages, a windvane steering system – which steers to a wind angle rather than a compass course – will stop you crash-gybing during a sudden wind-shift.
These steering systems are experiencing something of a renaissance amongst cruisers, as Yachting Monthly reported in October 2018. In winter you’re more likely to encounter more mist and fog conditions, and with longer hours of darkness, radar or AIS can be a huge help.
Diesel engines will be harder to start in cold weather, so it’s worth keeping your batteries topped up – either with a solar panel or even by taking them home to trickle charge every now and then.
Not all fuel berths are operational in the winter so keep your tanks full. This means there’s less surface area for condensation, reducing the chance of diesel bug forming.
Using an anti-diesel bug additive will help. Seawater freezes at -5°C so it’s unlikely your engine’s raw water cooling will turn to ice.
However, if you’ve found a sheltered mooring, where the water may be brackish, there is a chance of this happening. If a cold snap’s forecast, ensure the coolant is topped up with the correct mix of antifreeze.
Robust sail wardrobe
Air is colder and therefore denser in winter, and winds are stronger. The UK Met office gives an average of 8.2 knots in the summer compared to 10.8 knots in winter, with most major storms occurring in January. Of course, this is a mean average, and figures vary according to where you live.
Wind-strength in northern Scotland, for example, averages at 13.1 knots, compared to 9 knots on the South Coast. At sea, the wind will be much stronger.
Is your sail wardrobe up the job? If it’s not, now’s the time to look at fitting an extra reef or investing in a storm jib, especially if your crew are likely to go AWOL on the first frost.
Keep pillows and duvets stored in a vacuum bag. These are inexpensive and the air can be removed with a 12V vacuum cleaner or an electric dinghy pump with the setting on ‘deflate’.
Some types allow you to simply roll out the air.
If you prefer a sleeping bag, opt for a 4-season or 5-season sleeping one. Mummy-shaped sleeping bags are tapered at the bottom to help keep warm air close to your body, rather than circulating and cooling down.
Decks & pontoons
The last thing you want is to sustain a nasty injury boarding the boat. Give slippery algae-covered pontoons a scrub with a deck cleaner such as Ronseal, and finish with salt water.
If your decks are icy, a bucket of seawater and a scrubbing brush will do the trick.
A cockpit tent or enclosure means you can keep a hatch open for ventilation without letting in huge amounts of cold air. It also means you can stow wet sails and clothing outside.
If a tailor-made cockpit tent seems too costly this season, consider an ‘off-the-shelf’ alternative such as the Habitent, which is a compact and adjustable cockpit enclosure that will fit most boats.
Look for high-pressure weather systems that will give settled conditions and sunshine. Don’t be too ambitious; halve what you consider to be a good summer passage.
A short hop to a favourite pub or anchorage is a realistic day’s sail when daylight hours are dwindling and the temperature’s dropping.
For longer passages, pre-dawn departures are much better than arriving at an unfamiliar destination in the dark.
2. ON THE WATER IN WINTER
Don’t be tempted to wear thick, bulky clothing. Even in winter, thin layers are best, as they trap more air. Invest in a good base layer – fabrics such as merino wool are wicking, thermal and breathable. Mid-layer salopettes will give more warmth than a standard fleece.
Choose brightly coloured oilskins, which will stand out better than blues and greys at dusk and in fog. If you’ve not replaced your waterproofs in the last couple of years, you’ll be surprised how technology’s moved on.
Gone are the fleece linings that soak up water and the bulky outer shells. Today’s oilskins are lighter, more waterproof and durable, with new brands causing a stir at the budget end of the market, such as Decathlon’s Tribord range.
Thick waterproof, thermal gloves are good for passages, but can be tricky if you’re fiddling with knots and adjusting sheets.
Dry hands are warmer than wet hands, so try to keep your lines dry. If you prefer fingerless gloves for dexterity, wear a pair of rubber gloves underneath – dinghy sailors swear by them!
When cold, numb hands need a quick fix, air-activated hand-warmers are just the job. A 40-pack of Little Hotties costs less than £20.
Up to 70% of body heat is lost through the head, so a good sailing hat is essential. Buffs are good too, and can be worn as neck-warmers or balaclavas.
Don’t forget your shades. When the sun’s lower in the sky, a good pair of sailing sunglasses is essential to stop you having to squint to see the channel mark.
Oversized glasses with wide-view wraparound lenses are good. Keep them fixed to your head with a floating safety strap, which costs about £10.
Food and drink
Keep a flask of coffee or thermal mug within reach – it’s easier than going down below. Flasks of water can also be used for keeping hotdogs warm (but don’t get them mixed up!).
Alternatively, bring a wide ‘food flask’ for pasta or soup (Wilko does a good one for £7). Food that can be heated in the oven – such as Cornish pasties – is great for keeping up crew morale.
At least you won’t have to worry about using the fridge in winter. Turn it off to save power and use a cockpit locker instead.
The only thing slightly worse than cold hands and feet is a cold bum! If you don’t have cockpit cushions, invest in on one.
Buoyant deck cushions have waterproof outers and polyethylene foam. Attach them to your boat through a nylon hook at the back.
They start at about £40 per pair. Some waterproofs also now come with padding in the seat and knees, which adds a surprising amount of comfort.
Condensation is inevitable on a boat in winter. Moisture in warm air settles and condenses onto cold surfaces, which can allow mould to grow.
In a non-heated boat, opening vents and windows will keep an ambient moisture level equal with the exterior. If you run a heating system, you’ll need to open windows and vents so moisture can escape.
Another option is a dehumidifier. A basic chemical desiccant will work well for a limited period. On a boat, an electric desiccant dehumidifier is the one to go for if you have power, as this will work even in a cold boat, but limit the ventilation.
The normal condenser-type will only work if the ambient temperature is reasonably high.
Many crews sail happily through winter without heating. However, temperatures plummet at night – especially in high pressure conditions without cloudform.
If you want to stay comfortable there are a few options worth considering. If you have shore power onboard, a fan heater will warm the cabin quickly, but it will be cold again as soon as you switch it off. An electric heater will draw heavily on your power.
Other options to explore are diesel forced air heaters, made by Webasto and Eberspacher, or gas heaters made by Propex. However, both a diesel heater and a gas heater need fans to circulate the heated air, so again consume moderate amounts of power.
Propane/butane heaters blow hot air around the boat and can hook up to the electrics when you’re in a marina. An oil-filled radiator can be left on overnight, which will keep the chill away and reduce condensation if you allow ventilation.
On the water, there’s a range of traditional stove-type heaters that run on gas, diesel and paraffin. However, the dangerous gases, especially carbon monoxide, need to be vented via a chimney.
Whatever you do, make sure you have a working CO alarm on board (it costs as little as £10). Finally, nothing beats a good old-fashioned hot water bottle for a good night’s sleep.
Before you leave your boat, prop up the cabin cushions so they can air whilst you’re away, and either take home your bedding or repack it into vacuum bags.
Sails and lifejackets
Take home wet sails and air them – don’t leave them stowed below, where the interior can get damp and mouldy.
Also, if your lifejacket’s wet, open it up and dry out the innards, otherwise the cylinders may eventually start to corrode.
3. ALREADY LAID-UP
Do an RYA course
If your boat’s on the hard but you’re not ready to hang up your oilskins, now’s a great time to look at RYA courses.
Sailing schools reduce their prices in winter, and throw in deals such as free hire of wet weather gear. Shorter days mean more night hours, which are required for progressing through the RYA courses (4 for Day Skipper, 8 for Coastal Skipper and 12 for Yachtmaster Coastal).
Some courses are held on consecutive days, others are spread over weekends to suit work schedules.
If you’re thinking of chartering abroad, now’s also a good time to get the required paperwork in order.
Many European countries require the skipper to have an international certificate of competence (ICC), which you can achieve on either a 4-hour assessment, or 1-day course at an RYA centre.
Become a delivery crew
Yachts get delivered all year round, and professional agencies such as Halcyon Yachts are always keen to hear from would-be crew and skippers.
Typically deck crew must be qualified to RYA Day Skipper as a minimum and capable of solo night watches.
If you’re after some winter sun the Caribbean has lots of options for bareboating, flotilla sailing or skippered charters. Some operators also offer sailing in Southeast Asia.
The Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) is a great way to escape the winter and cruise in company. New for this year is the ARC+ St Vincent, which includes a stopover in Cape Verde, and finishes in St Vincent.
The organiser, World Cruising Club (WCC), runs nine different rallies altogether throughout the year (www.worldcruising.com).
Many boats will be crossing the Atlantic well into January and will have last-minute crew positions available, starting in the Canary Islands.
Sign up to crewing websites such as Ocean Crewlink (the official WCC site), Crewbay and Find a Crew, to hear of the latest opportunities and register your interest with skippers.
Boats will be looking for crew for next year’s ARC as early as January. Another tip is to offer to help deliver boats to Las Palmas in Gran Canaria.
Often skippers have greater need of delivery crew than Atlantic crew.
Yacht clubs often run a ‘frostbite’ racing series through the winter for anything from dinghies to large cruisers.
Crew can be thin on the ground at this time of year, and skippers are grateful for last-minute crew, even if inexperienced.
Check out the noticeboards and website for your local club or email them with your details. Also, check out www.boatbuddys.co.uk to find crewing opportunities near you.
Sailing dinghies throughout winter is a great way to polish your wind awareness and ‘pure sailing’ skills without the aid of electronics.
Many clubs offer ‘Pay-as-you-go sailing’ or discount winter memberships. For example, Hengistbury Head Adult Sailors Club in Dorset charges £12 membership per year, and you can take out a dinghy during an organised session for £10 at the weekend. On weekday evenings the club holds free RYA theory sessions.
Queen Mary Sailing club in south-east London offers monthly gym-style membership where you can sail their dinghies whenever the club’s open.
Typically, dinghy clubs require you to have a minimum of RYA Dinghy Level 2, or demonstrate you can sail competently round a course.