Should we keep our boat in the water through winter and spend time on her? Alex Whittaker thinks we should to enjoy even more time afloat
Alex Whittaker says enjoy your boat and keep her in the water all winter long …
When we traded up from our previous line of cuddies to a mini sports cruiser, comfortable winter boating suddenly became within our grasp. In the past, to control costs, we had kept our boats at home all winter, but seven years ago we decided to make the change.
Luckily, we only live about 40 minutes from the marina, so we found it immensely enjoyable to visit the boat if the winter sun shone, take a cruise and maybe sleep aboard for a night or two. Now it is true that I enjoy being cold much more than Mrs Whittaker, and soon I was staying aboard for three days per month every winter, happily ‘boat bonding’. If you sort yourself out, keeping the boat on her berth all year has real advantages: chiefly, she stays in commission and you do not need to ‘winterise’ your boat in the autumn and ‘dewinterise’ in the spring. You also retain the ability to make the boat ready for sea at 10 minutes’ notice. This means that if the winter weather is pleasantly surprising, you can just turn up and cast off. After seven fulfilling years, it has worked out very well for us. Here are our 20 tips:
1. Costs & paperwork
There is a cost difference, of course, and one that you will have to research for your own vessel. Most marinas try to make it attractive for you to take a 12-month contract; however, first of all, make sure your insurance policy covers you for winter boating. A quick telephone call will clear that up. Just make sure there are no restrictions or limitations of which you should be aware. Make a similar call to your marina, outlining your winter plans and asking for comments. You will find them helpful. Most marinas offer a 12-month contract that includes a mix of staying in the water and being hauled out onto the hardstanding. You can decide when.
2. Know the ropes
Winter weather is often stormy and puts an increased strain on your boat cleats, mooring tackle and pontoon ropes. Check them thoroughly and, if necessary, replace them for the winter. I double up on all my ropes each winter. I also have special thicker ropes that I use only in winter. In addition, if your boat has one, it is important to get a spring on that breast cleat. Make sure, at least, that all your cleats on the pontoon side of the hull are used.
3. Attend to your fender
I have affixed a line of commercial plastic bumpers to the pontoon where my boat nestles all winter. These are in addition to my row of large fenders attached to the boat. Tune each fender’s position so that it hangs exactly where you want it. You are after minimum scuffing at any contact points, in line with maximum protection. I suggest putting out fenders on the offside of the hull too. A couple over the stern will not go amiss either. Then, if another boat is accidentally blown onto yours over the winter period (and it does happen), there is a saving cushion.
4. Choose your canvas
Our Bayliner 245 came with both a simple slant canvas cockpit cover and a ballroom of a double bimini camper top. The big top is great if you never plan on leaving the marina all winter, but frankly the slant cover is the better bet. This is because a vast camper canvas is a mass of zips, panels and versatility, just waiting to irritate your winter fingers. It takes far too long to demount, whereas if some fine winter weather presents itself, a simple slant cover can be stowed in minutes. Most significantly, it is also easier to refit at the end of a cold winter’s day with icy digits. I had mine made by Brookes of Penmaenmawr with extra strapped tie-downs to supplement the usual press stud poppers. Many windy winters on, these tie-downs have stopped the cover lifting or being blown off. Finally, one of the unexpected advantages of such a cover has been the complete lack of black mould on the vinyl cockpit cushions. Keeping the boat in commission has stopped all that, which used to be an annual issue when she was stowed on our front path under layers of tarpaulins. I think regular winter use, coupled with the huge air gap under the Bayliner’s transom door (which is the cockpit’s self-draining scupper), has kept the back deck well aerated.
5. Shore power
The single best thing you can add to your boat for winter is 250 AC mains power. This connects to your marina berth’s power point. Our Bayliner 245 had its shore power fitted at the factory. However, on our previous smaller boats, I have used special inexpensive carry-aboard trailer sockets. Check out camping stores and expect to pay around 50 quid. These items have earth leakage, overcurrent and thermal protection built in. They come in a sturdy weatherproof box. With shore power you can drive all the winter essentials, such as a mini electric stove, a fridge, a microwave and a TV. Most importantly of all, you can drive a 2kW fan heater (though usually not all the above electrical items at once!). I used to sleep aboard my 21ft cuddy over winter weekends thus equipped. It was a form of glorified winter camping, but it really was great fun.
Another mains device that you might consider buying for winter is a portable dehumidifier. Dampness and high humidity can spell serious trouble for your boat and could encourage mould, which prospers in conditions where air humidity exceeds 68%. Iron will rust with a relative humidity over 50% and steel is attacked above 80%. Therefore, reducing this dampness becomes especially important. The Meaco DD8l Junior Dehumidifier has found favour with a number of my boating friends. They fit theirs in the cabin and ‘vent’ the condensed water down the galley sink. The Meaco is a compressor unit, the type generally considered most efficient for boats. I have not yet bought a dehumidifier since my boat only seems to get damp windows when I am exhaling aboard! However, I have bought a cheap radio-controlled remote-sensor Weather Station to monitor humidity and temperature both in the engine compartment and the cabin. This is a useful accessory for about 20 quid from eBay.
7. Engine heater
Since I was not going to winterise the engine, my prime responsibility was to protect the whole engine compartment from frost damage. This was because the engine compartment also houses our fresh water and pump-out tankage, and all its vulnerable plumbing. In addition, this compartment is also the location for the engine-fed calorifier (which supplies hot water to the taps and shower heads when the engine is running), and our hot water immersion heater (which heats the hot water when we are on the marina berth). Remember that all these items contain water all winter, which, if frozen, could destroy them and their plumbing. Indeed, such items would normally have been drained in the annual routine winterising process prior to boat storage on the hardstanding. Since we were staying afloat and thus needed them, protecting these key assets formed the central plank of our anti-frost protection strategy. The solution was simple: I fitted two white cylindrical 250V AC low-wattage (60W) ‘Greenhouse Anti-Frost Heaters’ in the engine compartment. These were bought off eBay (or Amazon) and live either side of the V8. I have fitted an inexpensive mains digital thermostat (from B+Q) to control these two white tubular heaters, so it really is a ‘fit and forget’ solution. Provided you check your mains supply regularly over the winter, all will be well. I set the thermostat to +4°C, which provides the best economy. This also gives some leeway for the tubes to heat up if the thermometer is falling fast on a cold winter’s night. On our Bayliner the engine compartment is surprisingly draughtproof, so the background heat builds up nicely.
8. Battery charging
Winter is hard on both engine starter and domestic batteries. Luckily, our boat has a factory-fitted 12V ‘float charger’ that runs 24/7 from shore power. This means that both batteries are topped up all the time. That’s all well and good, but on our two previous smaller cuddies there was no such luxury, so I just fitted encapsulated 250V/12V chargers sourced from Halfords car shop. These worked well when set to trickle charge all winter. If your boat has no shore power, fret not – you can just employ the simple ‘carry aboard’ 250 AC solution suggested earlier.
9. Auto bilge pump
Inevitably, your boat will be left unattended more in winter than in summer. In such cases, it is nice to have a bit of insurance. Our 245 only had manual bilge pumps fitted from the factory, so I retrofitted an Attwood Sahara automatic bilge pump. This has a capacity of 1100gph, a 1⅛” outlet spigot and draws around 4-6 amps. Expect to pay around £80. Of course, you could just add a float switch to your existing manually switched bilge pump. Frankly, I found that a new auto pump was easier to retrofit with a simple 12V DC fused supply.
10. Clothing & eyewear
For our winter boating we pay great attention to clothing comfort. We adopt the well-known layer principle: a base layer, shirt, zip fleece, waterproof trousers and a windproof shell top. If it is really cold, I wear my trusty American snorkel parka, with my life jacket on top. Gloves and good socks are vital winter boating accessories. Boat shoes just don’t cut it in winter – you need soft rubber-soled boots, or even posh neoprene wellies. A neck snood or a good scarf is a must. No wonder the Victorians called them ‘comforters’. I also wear ski goggles when standing at the helm at 40 knots on a bitter cold morning. Finally, do not forget your sunglasses – a low winter sun can prove extremely unpleasant to squint through in a seaway.
11. Sleeping arrangements
Astoundingly, when compared to all our earlier boats, our current Bayliner 245 doesn’t actually get damp. This also means our bedding stays fresh. However, there are commercially available mattress airers/lifters that will aerate below your mattress. Mind you, I have seen the same thing done with 20 empty 1L Coke bottles! Our under-the-cockpit double back berth is carpet lined, so it is pretty cosy at night. However, in deepest winter we will sometimes use our four-season sleeping bags with the duvet on top!
Over seven years we have found nothing to beat a humble 250 AC 2kW dry-air electric fan heater. Ours cost a tenner and has a thermostat, a frost setting and a fall-over cut-off switch. It drones a bit, so we also have a silent 600W mini oil-filled radiator. However, we were told that these can leak oil, so we stand ours in a deepish oven basting tray. Some of our previous boats had Calor gas radiant heaters; however, these produced too much dampness. We then turned to catalytic gas heaters, which burn without flame and produce very little moisture. (Incidentally, propane burns hotter than Calor gas, though you will need a different regulator.) Friends with diesel boats have fitted Webasto blown-air diesel heaters, or cheap Chinese copies. On our 55ft steel boat I fitted a smart all-brass Taylor’s pressure heater (diesel or paraffin) with a balanced exterior flue. This suited that sort of larger vessel and was highly efficient, utterly dry and fumeless. It also produced all our hot water. Incidentally, many modern Scandi boats have diesel heating fitted straight from the factory.
13. Cruise in company
As we all know, like all mechanical objects, powerboats and RIBs can go wrong without any warning. It is also our responsibility to reduce the need to call upon others such as the RNLI. Therefore, wherever possible, it makes sense to cruise in company in winter. In this way, if any issue should crop up, you will have more chance of a speedy resolution. At the very least, you will have a tow partner on hand. Oddly enough, we have first-hand experience of just such a scenario, so the risk is not just theoretical.
14. Hot food and drink
Nothing raises the spirits at sea on a sharp winter’s day more than a piping hot drink. Mind you, when we are away from shore power, our modern all-electric galley doesn’t function at all! In this case, we could stoke up the boat’s backup factory-fitted meths cooker, but we have never bothered. Instead, before we leave the shore power, we fill up our metal vacuum flasks to provide hot water for our on-deck snacks and drinks. (I reckon this is safer practice in a bumpy seaway anyway.) This dodge has worked surprisingly well. Also, modern hot-water snacks are a godsend to winter cruising. However, on winter evenings I do rely on the galley’s microwave to irradiate the odd Marks & Sparks chicken ping. I also use single-use 3-in-1 Nescafé coffee sachets for quick and easy hot drinks. Such sachets cannot get damp. Most significantly, I also keep a stack of individually sealed nutrition bars, chocolate bars and honey bars down below. These have long sell-by dates, last all winter and do not need any refrigeration. They make very handy uplifting deck snacks during the day. Single malt whisky does the same thing after dark, of course.
Shorter days mean longer nights aboard. As I mentioned recently, we upgraded our existing supplied stereo to Bluetooth compatibility with a simple retrofit 20-quid add-on audio box bought from one of the big mail order chandlers. Deganwy Marina has broadband, so Mrs Whittaker upgraded our original flat screen boat TV to one with ‘smart’ operation. Now we can get movies direct from our domestic Netflix, Amazon or Apple TV accounts on demand. However, having marina broadband on our boat means that our iPads get a good kicking on long winter nights too. The extra retrofitted mains-powered USB sockets in the cabin help with charging all these phones and iPads.
16. On deck
Since our boat had no factory-fitted headlamp, I purchased a high-illumination 12V spot lamp for the cockpit. It gets gloomy quickly in the winter, and this lamp has proved a boon when picking back through cluttered river moorings at dusk. However, I would counsel you to keep winter trips short and sweet. We always get home early in winter – it puts much less strain on you and your crew. I have realised that a prudent winter skipper always keeps some daylight spare.
17. Deck and pontoon safety
Our marina pontoons are regularly gritted, and they have a decent non-slip surface to begin with. However, icy decks and marina walkways do need extra care. Frankly, this is my main worry for visiting crew over winter.
18. MOB gear
When winter cruising we always keep our MOB gear, lifebuoy and safety knife easily accessible on deck – much better for ready use than in a locker somewhere down below.
19. Fill up!
The best advice is to keep the fuel tank full to limit the space for damp air. We always fill our petrol tank on the way out for the day, and then endeavour to top up again on our return. In this way, next time we can quickly scoot out on a winter whim.
20. Stay local
As previously mentioned, short trips are the order of the day. It is typical to set off in bright winter sunshine and then find the weather deteriorates quickly – yet another reason to own a fast powerboat.