Maintaining Your Yacht in the Winter

Boatyards are miserable places in the winter. Generally, it is raining sideways and just above freezing and the normally busy waterfront is deserted leaving you feeling cold, wet and lonely. However, maintaining your boat during the winter period is very important if you are to properly enjoy the long and hopefully sunny summer days. As always good planning is the key to a smooth operation and the best thing to do is to break the process into bite-size chunks. For a fiberglass cruiser/racer these include:

  • Hull above the waterline
  • Hull below the waterline
  • On deck
  • Engine and propeller
  • Dinghy and outboard
  • Instrumentation and electrics
  • Safety Equipment
  • Mast, standing and running rigging
  • Sails
  • Through hull fittings
  • Interior

Hull above the waterline

A good clean goes a long way and helps to show up areas of damage or cracking that you may have not noticed before. Any damage or cracking that cannot be readily explained should be investigated thoroughly including from below decks if required. Polishing the hull helps to protect the gelcoat and maintain an attractive appearance on the water.

Hull below the waterline

The most important thing to do is to prepare the hull properly before antifouling it for the coming season. Sand back the old paint so that the substrate is well keyed and free of loose paint and then wash it down to remove any dust. Inspect the keel and the rudder carefully for any signs of damage. Any damage on the keel should lead you to carefully check under the floorboards around the keel for any signs of further damage. If there is damage to the rudder it is advisable to drop the rudder so that the through hull fitting and bearing can be properly inspected.

Mask up the hull using a good quality masking tape otherwise, it will be difficult to peel off. Make sure the weather and temperature conditions are within the limits described on the paint tin and then apply as per instructions. Always wear a dust mask, goggles and an overall to protect your clothes. If possible, have the yacht held in the slings before relaunch so that you can properly antifoul the patches which were covered by the cradle.

On deck

Deck maintenance should start with a good clean, this helps to show up any areas of damage or cracking that you may have not noticed before. Any unexplained damage or cracking should be investigated including from below decks if required. Cockpit tables and the like should be well covered or better yet removed ashore for storage.

Winches may require servicing, if so, make sure you have laid out a dust sheet to protect the deck from the greasy components and above all know how to put it back together before you take it apart and don’t lose any of the ball bearings. There is no shame in reading the manual first.

Teak decking should be scrubbed across the grain with a soft brush and preferably a specialist teak cleaning solution. Any areas of open gelcoat should be polished. Windows should be carefully inspected for damage and cracking, especially at any corners. Sealant around the windows should also be inspected and renewed as required.

Hatches should be checked for damage and cracking and the rubber seal inspected and cleaned, if it is brittle it should be renewed. All blocks should be cleaned with freshwater, checked for free operation and if possible, removed for storage ashore.

Stanchions should be checked to make sure their fittings are tight. If rope lashings are used to secure the guard wires at their terminations, these should be renewed at least annually. Cleats should be checked to make sure their fittings are still tight.

If you have a bowsprit with a rope bobstay, I would always suggest renewing the bobstay at least annually.

It is always worth emptying out your lazarette completely if only to see what junk you can throw away. I would also recommend getting the anchor out as well, especially if you do not use it regularly. If your anchor tackle includes poor quality shackles, these are likely to have rusted and should be replaced with good quality galvanized shackles.

Engine and propellor

Before bringing the boat ashore, make sure the fuel tank is topped up to prevent condensation building up in the tank which will clog your fuel filter next season. Fuel, oil and air filters should be cleaned/replaced as required. If you remove any filters from the boat for whatever reason, make sure you put them back in before you relaunch the boat. I have seen professional engineers forget to do this, resulting in engine damage that cost thousands of pounds to repair. Drain and replace the oil if required and check that the coolant level is sufficient and that the belts are sufficiently tight. It is also worth inspecting your impellors to make sure they are still in condition and have not become brittle. If you are going to leave your engine battery onboard, check the connections are still tight and put some petroleum gel on the contacts for protection.

Check your propellor for any signs of damage, if you can see damage then a further inspection of the stern gland and gearbox is required because when the blades were damaged, a torqueing motion may have been transmitted back to the gear box that can result in further engine damage or leaking.

Check your anodes, they should have corroded slightly at the very least. If they are completely gone then they need to be replaced more often. If they show no corrosion at all then this should be a cause for concern as it means your propellor is probably corroding instead. Remember not to paint over anodes when you are antifouling.

It is also worth checking your engine spares and tool kit to make sure that you have sufficient filters, belts, impellors, etc. and the tools to change them.

Dinghy and outboard

The dinghy should be inflated and checked for leaks, after which it can be stored in a clean and dry condition. It is worth making sure you still have a puncture repair kit to hand and that it has everything you need. The outboard should be run in freshwater to remove any salt from the cooling system and then stored the correct way up ashore. If you have wooden oars or paddles, these may require varnishing. If you don’t use the dinghy regularly it is also worth checking that your dinghy has the correct bungs and rowlocks.

Instrumentation and electrics

Check your instruments for damage and ensure that any left on deck over the winter are properly protected, including liquid magnetic compasses. If possible, remove instruments so that it can be stored ashore. Check the sealant around any instruments that are fitted through the coach roof to prevent any leaks.

On relaunch check that all instruments and electrics are working before leaving the dock, including the navigation and deck lights. It is no fun getting caught out at night without your navigation lights. With all our electronic aids the magnetic compass gets very little attention these days, but it is likely to be the only thing you have onboard that can be used for navigation without a power source and as such demands your respect. Check it points in roughly the right direction and if it doesn’t get a compass adjustor to have a look at it, or if you are feeling really brave have a go yourself at correcting it.

Safety Equipment

Safety equipment kept on deck should be stored below or ashore and any equipment that requires servicing should be serviced by a professional. If equipment does not require a service then as a minimum inspect it for signs of damage. It is always worth testing lifejacket lights as these have a habit of switching themselves on when stored and running down their batteries. Stitching on webbing harnesses should be inspected carefully, if the harness includes an indicator strip, check that this has not been activated. Wind, weather and sunlight can be surprisingly destructive to things like horseshoe lifebuoys and jack stays. Retroreflective tape may need replacing on safety items, and generally, if a piece of safety equipment floats, it should have the boats name on it as well. A permanent marker is very useful for doing this, although you can do a more professional job with either stencils and paint or stickers.

You should also test your EPIRB and AIS MOB beacons if you have them and the manufacturer recommends that you do so. In my experience few people like testing their beacons for fear of accidentally sending out a real signal but if you have read the instructions this should not be a problem.

Flairs should be checked to ensure that they are still in date. If not, replace them. Disposal of flairs is increasingly difficult and, in my experience, the best thing to do is to seek local advice from the marina office or harbor master. Flairs should never be disposed of by setting them off or throwing them away in public bins.

Mast, standing and running Rigging

Inspect the terminations of your standing rigging thoroughly for cracks, damage or deformation. It is always advisable to renew your standing rigging in line with the manufacturer’s recommendation, this is typically every seven years. Gelcoat cracking around rigging termination points on deck is quite common, it is worth checking below deck that this has not become more serious. Check that split pins and the like are in place and properly secured. If you use tape to do this, renew this at least annually. More suitable in my experience is silicone sealant. With the main sail removed, you should be able to make a very good inspection of the goose neck arrangement, if you have bearings make sure these are still in good condition and that there is no play around the mast/boom joint.

Remove as much running rigging as possible from the boat, as wind, weather and sunlight can be very destructive. Mousing line can be used to run your halyards down from the mast, this can be left in place over the winter and used to remouse the halyards when you relaunch the boat. A rig inspection by a rigger can give you extra confidence that all is well aloft. If you are going to do it yourself, firstly make sure you do it while the boat is still in the water. Check the ends of the spreaders are secure and that all fixings are still firmly in place, along with the rigging termination points. Any halyard rollers should be carefully checked to ensure that they still move freely and have not become brittle or broken. If you are feeling really keen and have a painted mast, you can polish it. It won’t make you go any faster, but it will look good!

If you have the mast taken off the boat for the winter, I would strongly recommend that you have the mast properly lashed down, even if it is in a dedicated cradle. I had a mast for my 32-foot cruiser racer blown off a mast rack in Hamble during a storm and it completely wrote off the mast. If possible, remove any lights or instruments from the mast and store these ashore. If you cannot do this, at least make sure that any instruments/lights/cabling is well protected from the elements.

Sails

Remove the mainsail from the boom and unbatten all sails. Make sure the battens are properly labelled otherwise it will be very difficult to put them back correctly. Sails should be stored dry and free from salt. It is normally best to store sails ashore because if they are left onboard, they invariably prevent proper air circulation around the interior of the boat. Salt can be particularly damaging if you have hank on sails as the hanks will corrode if let wet and salty. It may be advisable to have a sail maker inspect your sails at their loft so that any areas of damage can be found and repaired. If you need a new sail the winter is a great time to have one made as sail makers normally face a rush of work at the start of the new season so lead times can be longer (and prices higher!).

Through hull fittings and plumbing

All through hull fittings should be exercised to make sure that they move freely across their entire range of movement. Any that are difficult to move should be worked upon or replaced. Make sure that each through hull fitting has a softwood bung immediately next to it for emergency use. Check any piping for any leaks or splits. It is also worth checking the fittings from outside the boat to make sure that they have not become fouled with anything.

The heads should be left in a clean condition. Do not use regular toilet bleach as it is bad for the environment and if left in the heads will eat through the rubber piping. There are specialist cleaning materials available for marine heads and holding tanks which you can use instead. Holding tanks should be emptied before the boat is brought ashore and water tanks should be run down as well.

Interior

Interior maintenance should start with a good clean, which will help to spot any areas of damage you had not noticed. Floorboards should be lifted, both to aid the cleaning process and to spot any unusual leaks or damage that may have occurred. If possible, all loose items and cushions should be stored ashore in a dry place as this will not only protect the loose items but will help air circulate properly around the boat. Having a dehumidifier and heater onboard helps to keep the boat nice and dry. It may be advisable to use a timer so that they do not run all the time as otherwise, you may find you have a horrific electricity bill.

It may be worth storing and charging your engine battery ashore if you do not have access to electricity while on the hard standing. Any doors or cupboards should be left open to aid air circulation, as should the fridge. Gas valves should be shut and the gas bottle removed ashore, make sure you store it in a suitable location as generally commercial storage companies will not allow you to store flammable materials.

Conclusion

When it comes to winter maintenance, you get out what you put in. No one likes going out for the first sail of the season only to find that your instruments don’t work or the engine won’t start. While regular maintenance will not increase the value of your boat, it will help maintain its value and when you come to sell it, the best maintained boat in its class will generally be the easiest to sell. You can also take pride in the fact that your boat looks good and everything works. Above all, a well-maintained boat is one that can keep you safe in the conditions it is designed for.

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