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Boating in Winter

This is the time of year where many of us reluctantly winterize our boats and put them away for the season.  But not all of us have to.  Fortunately, I live in an area where that water does not freeze and my boat stays in the water year round. I use it year round.  Boating in cold weather, of course, is different than summertime boating but it is still very enjoyable and you don’t end up spending your winter frowning and fretting because you haven’t seen your boat in several weeks. 

Here are some tips that can make wintertime boating enjoyable and safe:

1.        Keep your Tanks Topped Off – In cold weather, it is easier for condensation to build up in your fuel tanks.  Keeping them topped off reduces the space for air and the moisture that can come with it.  This is also a good idea considering the fact that fuel docks typically have reduced hours in winter months.

2.       Keep Your Engine Warm – If your boat stays in the water and the water does not freeze, then it is not likely that you have to worry about freeze damage to the engine.  However, a cold snap where the temperature drops below freezing for an extended period can be an issue.  If you have shore power available, consider a bilge heater to protect your power plant.  

A bilge heater is a great way to keep your engine from freezing in sub-zero weather.

3.       Keep Your Cabin Warm – In addition to your boats engine, you want to make sure that your fresh water system does not freeze either.  Again, if you have shore power, keeping the heat on in your cabin will help prevent this. It does not need to be set at 75 degrees.  A 55 degree setting is just fine.  Again, the objective is to keep things from freezing.  You can use a space heater if your boat does not have a heating system, just be sure to use one that has a safety feature that will shut it down if it tips or overheats.

4.       Take Advantage of the Sun – If your boat has a camper top, even a 45 degree day can be an enjoyable day on the water.  With the top zipped up, the camper top and the sun work together to create a nice greenhouse effect and the temps on deck will still be in the 70’s or above.

Having a camper top on your boat makes winter boating much more comfortable.

5.       Stay Warm When the Sun Goes Down – A propane heater is a great way to keep warm when the sun goes down.  Just make sure you have one that is approved for indoor use, make sure you maintain proper ventilation and do not leave it unattended.

A portable propane heater is a great way to keep warm after sunset.

6.       Keep your Batteries in Shape – An engine, especially a diesel, will be harder to start in cold weather.  Make sure your batteries are in good shape to prevent any issues.

7.       Dress in Layers – It can be difficult to move around in thick bulky clothing so if it is cold outside, dress in thin layers.  You will still be warm and you can remove layers as necessary if it warms up.

8.       Don’t Forget the Shades – It may be winter time but the sun is still out.  In fact, it is lower in the sky which typically means you will be looking towards the sun a lot more.  Sunglasses will make this a lot easier to deal with.

9.       Wear Your Life Jacket – In reality, a lot of boaters have life jackets but do not keep them on when afloat.  Life jackets are even more important when winter boating.  Even if you do not wear it at all times, consider putting it on when doing things like docking or setting and retrieving the anchor.  It may be easy to recover from an unexpected fall into warm water in summer but it can be a very different story in winter and the water is 40 degrees.

Life jackets are even more important in cold weather.

10.   Watch out for Ice – If the temp is below freezing, watch out for ice on the deck.  Getting around deck while underway can be difficult enough, especially on a sailboat.  Don’t let a patch of ice cause you to end up injured or to take an unexpected swim.  If you boat in salt water and it’s not freakishly cold, you can use a bucket of salt water to eliminate the ice on the decks. 

11.   Fix it Now – Don’t let minor mechanical or electrical issues go without fixing them right away.  Minor issues that are ignored can become bigger ones.  You don’t want to be out on the water in any weather dealing with issues, but especially not cold weather.

12.   Get some Waterproof Gloves – Waterproof gloves that provide a good grip are great to keep your hands warm and dry when retrieving the anchor or handling lines.

Don’t forget, these are some of the ADDITIONAL things you can do to make cold weather boating comfortable and safe.  All of the other recommended safety precautions for boating (carry a VHF, check the weather, file a float plan, etc.) still apply.  Yeah, it may be winter time but for some of us, that does not mean we have to put the boat away.

Happy Boating

Captain Frank
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  1. Looks Like Miami in the 80s!!!!

  2. Great tips! Wish we could boat all year ☹️

  3. I sail in the winter also. Looking forward to New Year's on the water if not too cold.

  4. Who writes this crap? They're condoning using propane heaters

    1. Most propane heaters have two important safety mechanisms – it turns itself off if tipped over or if it senses low oxygen. The third item is common sense dont leave it on overnight. Watch it and I think it is perfectly safe better than a generator with C02.

    2. A propane system made of high-quality components, properly installed and maintained, can provide safe and trouble-free cooking and heating but like anything you need to be careful. Gas is highly combustible but we take precautions and use gas in boats too !

  5. I don't miss those days in upstate NY and NH


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