Sailing in winter sounds like a cold and tricky business – but if you take some simple precautions there should be nothing stopping you

Who hasn’t looked enviously from the deck of their laid-up boat in a yard on a crisp, sunny winter’s day at a boat sailing gently by, a steaming mug of tea in the owner’s hand. In the right conditions, winter sailing can be a joy.

But winter weather windows can be small, and you need to act fast if you want to make the most of a day on the water. Your reward will be a low sun, flat water and deserted cruising grounds.

Many sailors make the most of reduced rates and learn to sail or do their Yachtmaster exams in the winter, when the sailing schools take advantage of empty cruising grounds and long nights to school their students in the arts of navigation and night sailing.

If you’re able to keep your boat in the water, you’ll extend your sailing season and be able to break the winter up with some truly memorable sails. But what should you do to keep your boat ready for the off… and do you need extra winter cruising kit?

Here are some tips and tricks to make you and your boat winter-sailing ready.

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1. Keep your tanks topped off
It’s worth filling up with fuel and water as often as you can in the winter: fuel berth opening hours are likely to be reduced, and hoses may freeze or the water supplies may be turned off to protect the pipes – which makes it tricky to refill your tanks!
2. Fuel tank
Another reason to keep your fuel tank topped up for winter is to reduce condensation. A full tank has much less empty surface area for it to form, and thus less chance of diesel bug forming, especially if you also use an anti-diesel- bug additive.
3. Engine
For boats left afloat in salt water, it’s unlikely that the temperatures will dip low enough to cause any water left in the engine to freeze, but it’s worth attending to if a particularly cold snap is forecast. Make sure the coolant is topped up with the correct mix of antifreeze, and if you’re really worried, run some antifreeze through the raw-water system.

4. Batteries
Starting a diesel engine from cold in winter temperatures will require more power than it does in the summer, so it’s worth making sure your batteries are topped up – either by a small solar panel, or by taking them home for a recharge now and then.

5. Bedding
If you’re keeping your bedding on board so you can make a quick getaway, consider storing it in a vacuum bag. These keep linen and duvets dry and mildew-free: the air can be sucked out with a 12V vacuum cleaner if you’re not on shore power.

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6. Keep your pontoon mooring safe
Pontoons grow moss, algae and lichen in the winter months and can get very slippery. Consider scrubbing yours clean, using something like Ronseal’s Decking Cleaner, and then doing a final scrub with salt water. The salt in the surface of the wood will make it less likely to ice up.

7. De-ice your decks
Decks covered in ice can be lethal. Luckily, for boats sailing in salt water, the answer is all around you – use the sea! A bucket of seawater and a scrubbing brush will soon remove ice provided the air is above Arctic convoy temperature.

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8. Plan short passages
With fewer daylight hours it’s best to reduce your expectations and plan shorter sails than you would in the height of summer. A short hop to a favourite spot is likely to be more than enough on a cold day. If you are doing longer passages, then consider setting off in the pre-dawn so you arrive before dark, rather than leaving later and arriving when it’s pitch black and blooming chilly – it’ll improve crew morale and safety.

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9. Drinks
Keep hot drinks in easy reach, but be aware that caffeinated drinks are often a diuretic – which can be a problem when you’re swaddled up in layers like Tutankhamun. A flask is a good way to keep ready-made hot chocolate or your drink of choice to hand.

10. Sustenance
A good supply of food will warm you up nicely. Something that can be heated in the oven is even better – warm up things like pre-bought bread rolls, Cornish pasties or similar to keep the crew happy.

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11. Gas
You might like to consider changing your gas bottle for a propane one for winter sailing – a simple matter of replacing the regulator, which will have a reverse thread to ensure you don’t mix it up. Propane, which is supplied in a red bottle, has a lower freezing point than butane (blue bottles) and won’t be as sluggish or as likely to freeze as butane. Camping Gaz, as used by some boats, is a mixture of butane and propane, so should be OK, but if you’re planning to sail in very cold weather, changing to propane will make sense. Don’t forget to take a spare, full bottle with you – it’ll be harder to source a refill in winter.

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12. Sensible clothing
It can be hard to move when you’re wrapped in layers of bulky clothing – but it’s best to use lots of thin layers as opposed to a few thick sweaters. The thin layers will trap more air, keeping you warmer, and help you move around. Modern base-layers are very good, as are mid-layers – something like a set of mid-layer salopettes will stop gaps opening up at the waist. A fleece ‘snood’ will keep your nose, chin and neck warm.

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13. Don’t forget the shades
Contrary to popular belief, the sun does shine in the winter, and it’s a lot lower in the sky – which
means you’ll be squinting to find that up-sun navigation mark unless you pack the sunglasses.

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We tested a full range of waterproof, thermal gloves in PBO in December 2015 – and it’s well worth getting a good pair. But they do make handling lines and tying knots difficult. It can be worth taking a glove off to tie a knot, before drying your hands off and replacing it. Some people take multiple pairs of cheap fleece gloves, which they find warmer than waterproof ones – and you can change them as soon as they
get wet.
15. Keep lines dry
Trying to keep lines dry will make life much more pleasant – it’ll keep your hands warmer and stop the lines freezing should it get really cold.

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16. Take wet sails home
Should a spinnaker or headsail that you normally stow below get wet, it’s worth taking it home to dry it, rather than letting it fester and make the interior of the boat wet and mouldy.

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17. Icebreaker needed?
Some marinas situated in locked basins can have brackish water – and can freeze in cold weather! This is Island Harbour marina on the Isle of Wight. Thin ice like this shouldn’t stop you going out and you won’t end up entombed like Shackleton’s Endurance, but proceed with caution and have a boathook handy to break it up if necessary.

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18. Lifejackets
If your lifejacket gets wet while wearing it, open it up and dry out the innards when you’ve tied up. Lifejackets don’t like staying damp as the automatic firing tablets can start to dissolve and the cylinders to corrode, either of which could stop your jacket working when you most need it.

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19. Airing cushions
When you leave the boat, with a dehumidifier on or not, it’s best to leave the cushions propped up on their sides to allow the air to flow around them, preventing them getting damp or mildewy. This pic was sent in by a reader – he used old water bottles to keep the air flowing.

20. Don’t go overboard!
From October onwards, the water temperature around the UK begins to plummet – and with it the amount of time you’ll be able to stay conscious in the water. Cold shock can affect your ability to breathe and swim, so lifejackets are essential.

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21. Insurance
Most insurers will cover your boat to stay afloat all year, but you may need to find another mooring as swinging moorings and exposed berths are often not allowed. Your insurer will be able to let you know.

Avoiding condensation

Condensation is a fact of life on a small boat in the winter, and as stopping breathing isn’t really an alternative, you need to look at other ways to combat the problem. Condensation occurs when water vapour finds a cold surface and condenses on it, leading to a damp environment.

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1. Cabin heaters

You don’t need a heater to sail in the winter – but it certainly makes life much more comfortable on board. If on shore power, an oil-filled radiator can be left on overnight, which will not only make things warmer, but also reduce condensation if you also introduce some ventilation.
Away from marinas, there are options for dry heat. The most common is one of the diesel heaters made by companies such as Eberspächer, Webasto or Wallas. These use the boat’s diesel tank and run from the battery. They shouldn’t be left on all night (the batteries are unlikely to last that long, for one thing) but they are great for keeping boats warm and dry. Other heaters include kerosene and meths heaters, and some boats still use wood- or coal-burning stoves for the ultimate in homely warmth.

2. Insulate to avoid condensation

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PBO contributors Mark and Nicky Green applied insulation behind their headlinings (pic (c) Mark Green)

Improving insulation can reduce condensation, but insulating the hull can involve a lot of work. If you insulate the inside of the fibreglass hull with a product such as Celotex or another insulation, and then stick headlining over the top, the boat will stay warmer and dryer in winter and cooler in summer. If you’re replacing your headlinings this winter, then it might be worth bearing in mind to improve winter sailing in future.

3. Cockpit tent

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A cockpit tent (this one is a Habitent) means you can keep a hatch cracked open a touch and thus keep condensation at bay – without letting huge amounts of cold air into the boat. In rain and even snow, it means you can keep wet sails and clothing outside and generally make the boat more habitable.

4. Window covers

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Boat windows are both a major source of heat loss and, consequently, a prime candidate for condensation. One trick is the one used by PBO contributor Dylan Winter – he cut an old foam camping mat to shape so that it fits inside each window, blocking out light, preventing condensation and improving insulation.
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5. Run a small dehumidifier

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Another option, if you’re in a marina, is to run a small dehumidifier at night to reduce condensation as you sleep. These will dry the boat out and minimise condensation.