It’s becoming increasingly common to keep cruising yachts in the water year-round, so late season sailing can be enjoyed and improved with a few sensible precautions. Rupert Holmes reports
Ask a dozen boating enthusiasts what they do over the winter and you’ll get a wide range of answers. Some value the escape from the water to allow them to get on with everything else in their lives. Many will, however, enthusiastically recount tales of glorious crisp sunny days, followed by a convivial evening in front of a favourite pub’s log fire.
What’s more, the proportion of people who sail all year has been steadily growing. When I was a Yachtmaster instructor in the early 1990s it was possible to spend an entire week in the Solent in January or February without seeing another yacht under way. That doesn’t happen any more.
We asked a selection of PBO readers around the British Isles about their approach to winter. The overwhelming majority – almost three quarters – keep their boat afloat all year, with a similar percentage of those using their vessel at least once a month.
Almost a third of readers say they use their boat most weeks during the winter. I’ve been one of them for as long as I can remember; with the right clothing and a sensible attitude, winter sailing can offer as much fun, challenge or relaxation as anyone could want. It also reduces the amount of time your boat – an asset into which both time and money is poured – is tied up and unused.
Cooler weather and shorter days don’t need to mean a long, enforced break from spending time afloat, but there is more chance you will use your boat in winter if it’s kept somewhere that has a choice of harbours or anchorages in reasonably close proximity. Even better if it’s in relatively sheltered waters.
In general, I try to keep passages short – it’s really hard to stay warm on deck on the very coldest of days for more than a few hours. The East Coast rivers, for example, can be fantastic in this respect. While the West Country is more exposed to prevailing southwesterly winds, larger or faster yachts can hop between the many ports in a few hours in decent conditions. Equally, even in inclement weather smaller vessels have plenty of options between the Helford and Fal estuaries, within Plymouth Sound, the River Tamar and its various branches, or in the Dartmouth-Brixham-Torquay-Teignmouth belt that benefits from better shelter in westerly winds.
The Solent, with its excellent shelter and plethora of closely spaced harbours and numerous marinas, is a winter paradise. Granted you don’t want to be out in winter when it’s properly windy, especially with wind against tide conditions, but in favourable weather it gives a glorious range of options.
But winter sailing doesn’t have to mean only short sails interspersed with time spent warming up and drying out in a hostelry on shore, particularly if crew members can pop below decks for a bit to get out of any wind chill and warm up. A couple of years ago I enjoyed a magical sail to Cherbourg a couple of days after Christmas, with the Eberspächer providing enough gentle heat to stay toasty. We returned up the Solent on a crystal clear night at New Year, with fireworks on both sides as a big flood tide powered us up the western Solent at speeds close to 10 knots over the ground.
A few years earlier we spent Christmas itself on the previous boat, a 24ft Quarter Tonner, in Newtown Creek. It was such a gloriously sunny day we cooked Christmas dinner in the cockpit, before rowing ashore to give my young nieces, who live in Shalfleet, their presents. We returned to Minestrone early evening – ahead of a belt of heavy rain – for a cosy evening watching films below deck.
On all but the very best of winter days some form of heating will transform comfort levels. At the very simplest this can be a £10 fan heater to plug into the shore power at a marina. This can work well for occasional use, but can restrict the choice of destination and quickly becomes expensive if you spend a lot of time on board and might otherwise choose cheaper mooring options.
Solid fuel stoves are by far the fastest form of heating to fit, requiring only a heat shield on the bulkhead, four securing bolts and a hole in the coachroof for the chimney. The Bengco and Pansy brands of charcoal heater were once popular and have an advantage over multifuel heaters in that they have a small-bore chimney, which simplifies installation on many boats. Neither is produced any more, although there’s a slow but steady stream of them available second-hand. An alternative is the North American Newport solid fuel heater that will burn wood or charcoal.
Properly practical boat owners can weld up their own solid fuel stove for less than £50, as my friends Martin and Roma did for their 32ft home built steel Wylo II. However, it’s most important to understand how to design the unit to eliminate the risk of carbon monoxide being emitted to the cabin.
Advantages of solid fuel heaters include simplicity, low upfront cost, ease of installation and that no electrical power is needed. In addition, the promotion of airflow through the boat helps to dry the interior. On the downside the fuel is bulky, heat is not instant and it may not be possible to use the device when under sail. The Taylor’s paraffin heater solves the bulky fuel issue, but at the expense of a little extra complexity and cost.
For most boats in the 26-45ft bracket, a diesel-fired warm air heater is the preferred choice, providing there’s sufficient battery power to run the fuel pump and air fan. This is much more akin to domestic central heating and can even be specified with a seven-day timer. Downsides include much more complexity and a higher maintenance requirement. The cost is also significantly higher, although newcomers to the market have reduced the cost of this type of heating.
Whatever type of heating you install, make sure you have a carbon monoxide alarm. And never use open flame gas appliances, including the cooker, for heating – as these use up oxygen in the air they gradually start to produce increasing amounts of carbon monoxide – a gas that is clear, odourless and, as some boaters have found to their cost, fatally poisonous.
Shelter and clothing
A change in conditions in winter can be more challenging than in summer, so it’s worth being prepared for all eventualities. A decent sprayhood will give some protection from wind chill as well as from flying water, but it’s also helpful if crew members can get some time below deck.
On occasion, where conditions have been more arduous than expected, I’ve rotated people regularly between tasks to ensure they get at least 15 minutes on the helm and 15 below decks each hour. For a short-handed crew a decent pilot will enable more time to be spent below decks if necessary.
The best of today’s technical clothing is impressively efficient, but eye-wateringly expensive. However, there are more cost-effective ways to keep warm. A key factor that’s often overlooked is to keep legs warm as they have a lot of surface area. Base layers can be bought cheaply from non-marine sources – if you have the budget look for merino wool, which is very comfortable. Equally for shorter sails, where undressing to use the heads is not an important factor, all-in-one fleece ‘woolly bear’ suits are effective and won’t break the bank. An insulated gilet will help keep the heat in without adding too many layers on the arms for easy movement.
Two factors I won’t compromise on are waterproof and insulated hats and gloves – these make a huge difference to warmth and comfort in wet conditions. Equally, waterproof socks can keep your feet toasty even if your sea boots are a little past their best.
A short sail on a winter’s day is a perfect time to try out new arrangements and ideas, both for reefing and for other tweaks and improvements. Given that a greater proportion of time in winter is likely to be spent in stronger winds, it makes sense to improve your boat in this respect.
Efficient mainsail reefing makes a huge difference and there’s no reason why one person, working alone, should not be able to tuck a reef into a sail of any boat up to 45ft within 90 seconds. Single line systems for the first and second reefs can be retrofitted into many existing booms, however separate leech and luff pennants are still needed for the third reef. Alternatively, luff pennants can be retrofitted for the first and second reef. Having tried both, I prefer the latter as there’s less friction, particularly as the system ages.
Roller furling genoas with heavy UV strips on the leech and foot set has all the efficiency of a sack with more than a handful of rolls. The best solution for upwind work in anything more than around 15-20 knots is a removable inner forestay for a hanked-on heavy weather jib. In the past this invariably meant a cumbersome stainless steel stay, with a bulky and expensive, yet inefficient, Highfield lever to tension it. However, a better arrangement is a Dyneema stay, with a 2:1 purchase on at the tack, that’s led back to be tensioned on a coachroof winch.
A good winter mooring will offer all-round shelter, with as little fetch as possible. Boats on a well-specified swinging mooring can withstand bigger waves than those in an alongside berth, but the drawback is that reaching the boat by dinghy will be more difficult – for a lot of the time it may even be positively dangerous.
Many marinas, however, offer significantly reduced rates for four or five winter months, which can be a great benefit to those who sail all year. Even so, few owners see their mooring in storm force conditions, so don’t experience at first hand the importance of taking extreme care with mooring arrangements.
For a start, don’t skimp on the number of big fenders you employ. Equally, mooring lines need to be stout and protected from both chafe and snatching where necessary. In addition, they should be doubled up in number so that if one breaks, or the deck fitting or pontoon cleat fails, there’s still a backup. If you think this is overkill, remember, readying the boat for a storm every time you leave it takes only a few extra minutes, yet saves both significant worry and anxious last minute trips to the coast.
Back in the days that most boats were wooden and tended to be laid up for the winter, it made sense to carry out all other maintenance tasks while the boat was ashore. However, winter in the UK is the worst possible time to be working outside – it’s cold, wet, uncomfortable and the days are short.
By contrast, in a couple of weeks ashore any time between late April and early June, you get long daylight hours and better weather, meaning it’s frequently possible to get twice as much done in a single day. And the hull will be cleaner for a longer cruise later in the summer. Even better, many boatyards offer discounted rates at that time of year.
Whether or not to winterise the engine, particularly seawater cooled models, is an important consideration for a boat that’s kept afloat all year, yet it’s one that is all too often overlooked. On the South Coast I tend to take a chance that the temperature won’t get so cold that sea water freezes – and have been lucky in this respect for more than 20 years. But the decision is more difficult for those further east and north. Even in the warmer parts of the UK it’s important to be careful about moorings in locations fed by fresh water sources where there may be brackish water that will freeze more easily.