Lay Up, Close Up or Cozy Up
How to batten down for winter
story & photos by Alice Snively
One afternoon this month or next, driving home from work along the main street of your neighborhood, you pass by large empty spaces where houses used to be. Other homes are encased, gable to foundation, in white plastic and some of your neighbors are packing the contents of their homes into large moving vans. But your house comes into view and looks like it always has, and there are a few others around that seem perfectly normal. Alarmed, you wonder what’s going on with these shrouded, disappearing and seemingly abandoned domiciles.
Then you wake up, laughing. Just a crazy dream … or a metaphor for what happens to Chesapeake boating communities in preparation for winter.
A Pair of Three
There are three primary categories of boaters, according to my own unorthodox, unabridged acronym dictionary. The largest group is weekenders: Wenders, who have their boats strictly for recreation on weekends, holidays and vacations. Stabs are stay-aboards, boaters who live on their boats most of the time during the main boating season but who also have homes on land. Labs, or live-aboards, are people whose boats are their fulltime homes. Each of these groups winterize somewhat differently.
Three is also the number of approaches to winterizing a boat. If you have to take your boat out of the water, then you will need to lay up, either on your own property or dock, or commonly at a boat yard. If you intend to leave your boat in the water, and you don’t plan to spend time aboard over the winter, then you can close up. Live-aboards will just cozy up their boats in the water.
Wenders and stabs who lay up or close up their vessels have the most work in preparation for the chilly season.
The Do’s of Winterizing
Whether you lay up or close up, water lines need to be protected from freezing. Flush all water lines and tanks as completely as possible, then pour nontoxic anti-freeze into the tanks, turn on the pump and faucets and run until anti-freeze begins to come out. Shut down, and make sure there’s still a layer of anti-freeze covering the bottoms of the tanks.
If your boat has a fresh-water cooling system, flush it and fill with anti-freeze as well. Be sure to use enough anti-freeze; its cost is minimal compared to the cost of repairing freeze damage.
Fuel tanks and engines need attention, too. Most experts agree that changing oil and filters at season’s end is a smart thing to do. If you use diesel fuel, adding biocide is a good idea to help keep your fuel healthy over winter. As for gasoline engines, if you are using ethanol-gasoline mix, the general advice is to drain all your fuel tanks for winter. This will save you from two dangers: sediment fallout and the natural separation of water, which could subsequently freeze and cause damage to the tanks.
Clean and dry your bilges and either remove the pumps or run anti-freeze into them, as with the water systems.
To keep your batteries from freezing, remove them to a safe place (like your garage), and keep them charged with an inexpensive charger. If your boat’s in the water and you have access to shore power, then you can keep them charged as you would through the summer. Placing a small inexpensive heater in the battery compartment will prevent freezing.
A Pair of Don’ts
1. Don’t blow your lines using compressed air. More than one boater has discovered this is a great way to blow out critical connections, resulting in serious clean-up and repair costs.
2. Don’t use gin or vodka in place of anti-freeze. Yes, sadly, there were some old salts who claimed this is a cheaper way to keep lines from freezing. Some even said you could drink it come the spring thaw. Alcohol is both corrosive and flammable. Thus there were some old salts.
Clean everything you can before closing up your boat, whether in or out of the water. This includes refrigerators, freezers, all cabinets and drawers and other bulk storage spaces. Leave cupboard, closet, cabinet doors and drawers open to maximize ventilation and reduce mold and mildew formation.
After cleaning the head and pumping out the holding tank, fill the commode with nontoxic anti-freeze and pump through into the holding tank.
Make sure that all deck drains and scuppers are clean and unobstructed. More than one boat has suffered serious water damage from storm water that ended up in the cabin because of clogged drains.
If you have a sailboat, remove sails and store them properly, being careful to not fold or crease tightly, and keep in a dry place. If you are laying up your sailboat, then it’s generally wise to remove the mast and rigging. In any case, lines should be removed, cleaned and stored.
Before you lock up, remove all gear that you don’t need, including cushions, bedding, clothing and any other items that might attract mold and mildew.
Finally, there’s the matter of covering up your boat. Durable, reusable canvas is most economical in the long term, and the best way to go, especially if you are leaving your boat in the water and intend to spend any time on it during the winter.
A final word if you leave your boat in the water: Ice-eater. The best and easiest way to assure your hull remains ice-free is to purchase one at any boating supply store. A motor with an impeller that you submerge under your boat, an ice-eater draws warmer water up from the bottom and circulates it to keep ice away from your boat. It’s very economical to use, and just one will do the job for most boat slips.
If you’re hauling out to lay up, then shrink-wrapping is an option. Hire qualified professionals, because it’s not as simple as the finished product makes it look.
Other boaters, generally sailboaters, have removable wooden frameworks they place over their decks and cover with heavy plastic, which can be done whether the boat is in or out of water.
Of course, there are many boaters who don’t cover their boats at all, and as long as the vessel is secure from water entering the cabin, or swamping the hull, then that’s just fine. But most of these people regularly check on their boats, especially after rain or snowstorms, to make sure there are no surprise leaks.
Yes, it takes time and work to do it right. The alternative is a big mess and possible damage to your boat by spring. Of course, if your budget allows, you can hire professionals to do all or part of this winterizing for you. If you aren’t sure what to do or how to do something, then it’s worth paying someone who does know.
Labs Cozy Up
Live-aboards face winter as they do life in general differently from other boaters. For them, winter is simply another season, requiring a few minor adjustments to lifestyle.
Aside from food, heat and water are the top requirements for survival in winter. Some boats have heat sources built in, but many do not. Labs have to arrange for that. There are kerosene heaters, ventless propane units, and electric heaters, useful where there is sufficient access to shore or generator power. Some boats have reverse-cycle water systems usable for both cooling and heating. Like traditional heat pumps, they become less efficient the colder the water temperature becomes, so those who have these systems also have auxiliary heat capability.
Boats are not generally insulated, so Labs will often add insulation for more efficient heating. Hanging light-absorbing tarpaulins over the deck, particularly of a sailboat, will help draw the heat from the winter sun and keep heat inside. Canvas and isinglass enclosed cockpits also help keep heat from escaping the main cabin.
Most boats have freshwater tanks; if there’s access to water for filling these tanks in winter, that’s ideal. Boaters with very small tanks or who dock near no freshwater access buy bottled water. Some Labs use tank water for dishes and bathing and purchase bottled water for drinking and cooking.
With their boats winterized; what do boaters do all winter?
Wenders who have normal lives on the hard land simply trade boating weekends for other pastimes. A few will visit their boats occasionally during the big chill.
Stabs and labs, however, tend to behave differently once the frost moves in. Many stabs keep boats in the Bay through summer; some have homes in the warmer, sunnier south and migrate there in the winter. Others have travel trailers, land schooners as it were, and travel south to RV parks. And many stabs who have homes near their boats simply do as wenders: Go to land and use their wintertime differently.
Labs can be divided into two main groups: those who cruise part of the time and those who cruise most or all of the time. Fulltime cruising live-aboards do just that, and all they do in winter is cruise to warmer climes, like the Caribbean.
Labs who only cruise part of the time, such as people still working regular jobs and in port most of the year, generally just cozy up on their boats and do the same things wenders do. They go out to dinner, movies, sporting events, all the things landlubbers do.
Admittedly, there are Labs who enjoy the solitude of winter, in the now-mostly abandoned marinas. They enjoy the sunsets, snow on the docks, watching ice form on the water, keeping an eye on ducks that winter over and occasionally entertaining a friend or two for dinner. These boat people will tell you that winter on a boat on the water is every bit as wonderful as summer.
Finally, serious boat people will admit that while winterizing isn’t a dream, it’s not a nightmare, either. It’s the process of assuring that come summer, their vessels will be as ready as they are for that first warm, sunny cruise on the beautiful Chesapeake Bay.