Friday, December 18, 2009

Winter Sailing

rev. 10-14-2013

I'm always a bit confused when I see the winter storage yards of the Chesapeake Bay sprout hundreds and even thousands of sturdy sailing craft, starting the first day temperatures dropped below 60 F.  I sail all year, wouldn't have it any other way, and only once in 25 years of sailing have I placed my boat winter storage. Each season is different, and I wouldn't want to miss any one of them.

December 17, 2009

Yesterday I sailed from Deale to Annapolis and back in great 20-knot reaching conditions. I wouldn’t call it an adventure—nothing went wrong. I had spent the night on the boat, to get an early start; still combined with a short stop at the city dock, it took all of the brief winter daylight. On the water, I saw only four boats: some rockfishing not far from Deale, a lone sailing dingy near the South River, and a workboat tending buoys off Ego Alley (the local name for the narrow town wharf in Annapolis).  Oddly, the harbor area seemed nearly as busy as a summer day—Christmas shoppers bustled from store to store and live-aboard yachts in winter storage fill the bulkhead and transient slips between mid-November in mid-April.

Why would I sail to Annapolis for the day, in December? Well, some friends of mine, a Precision Yachts group, are planning a rendezvous in the summer and I needed to scope things out for them. From the water seemed best, though not nearly as prudent as simply driving there. However, it had its advantages: the Harbormaster was not busy and had plenty of time to speak with me; parking was easy - I was able to use the loading-only area for no charge since there was no boat traffic; because of the holiday shopping, parking a car was nearly impossible and dozens circled like vultures, ready to swoop on any open space.

 Hundreds of migratory birds. Scoters take over the coves in flocks of a hundred or so, taking off like many black bullets when approached within a few hundred yards.  Quiet, except for the wind. No crab pots to dodge, only the pound nets, but they are easy to see.

It was a nice day, nearly warm once you get used to it (high of 39F), but the temperature dropped like a rock as the sun faded. Thank goodness for a generous dodger. We are to get 20 inches of snow over the next 2 days.

There's no question that a bright spring day, a warm summer's day, and the dependable winds of fall make for better sailing than a nasty day mid-January.  Well, maybe a different sort of day. I'm not a big fan of drifting in hundred degree soup. Some say that they would rather put sailing away for a season to pursue other interests, like skiing.  I can buy that, though I do both.  Some lament that they have projects to take care of. Baloney. The temperatures below 50° F neither paint stripper nor epoxy nor paint nor caulking function properly, or least not without undue preparation and aggravation.  What we're really doing is procrastinating on those projects until spring when we will actually do them. Then, of course, we end up working around marginal weather, sometimes half ruining a job triggering great fruustration, and missing fine early season sailing, when we are at our most anxious to get on the water.  I always pull my boat for project work in the summer at some point, and seldom have I been out of the water for more than two weeks. I pick dependable weather and work fast.  For those of you from truly cold climates where the water turns hard for months, yeah, I'd haul out too.

Disclaimer. As always, my experiences are from the Chesapeake Bay area in catamarans with outboard engines. I make no effort to speak to a broader audience.
Weather. Yes, it is colder and in general windier. However, there are no thunderstorms, so there is less unforeseen wild weather; you can know what’s coming. Do watch for icing conditions; it can be a bugger to lower the main or furl the jib. Watch the main track and the jib furler line for ice. Using Sailcote or other lubes reduces the ability of ice to stick.

Choose an Ice-Free Harbor. While there is no such thing during a tough winter, in most years there isn't much sustained cold, the Bay is brackish, and some harbors ice before others. Fore example, in Deale there are 2 creeks: the north branch gets good tidal flow because the creek is long, and seldom freezes while the southern fork goes only a very short distance, experiences less tidal flow, and freezes somewhat sooner, thicker, and longer. A flight over the area in mid-winter is very telling. On approach to BWI you can often see a sharp line somewhere around Annapolis, separating frequently-frozen harbors from the generally ice-free harbors further south. The very worst marinas are those simply carved out of the side of the Bay with no through-circulation.

Ice Bubbler or Ice Melter. While these won't free the channel of ice, many use them to keep the area around their boat ice-free. Sometimes it is the difference between getting to the channel or not.

Bubblers are nothing more than an electric motor and propeller that pulls warmer water from the channel depths and pushes it up, under your slip. Always position the bubbler at the channel end of the slip and angle it (by varying the rope attachments per the instructions) so that it hangs at ~ 45 degree angle when energized (it will move) and thus pumps water through the slip. Make certain it cannot strike bottom if the water level drops. While they can run very near the surface, even breaking the surface, without damage, they throw a lot of spray that can cause substantial ice to form on nearby surfaces. Use a thermostat that only activates it when temperatures are below freezing; this saves power and a lot of wear on the unit and the prop. Check them every few weeks; the prop can pick up plastic bags and the like. Take it out by March 1st and save on corrosion.

I use mine only about one winter in five; generally the conditions don't warrant it. I'm not certain that in 25 years that I would have actually seen any damage without it; it's more of a convenience. I've never so much as scuffed the boot-top. Because of the salt, the Bay ice generally freezes a little mushy. However, I am in a very well protected marina protected from wave action and flows. More exposed locations can be an issue, if slabs of ice can drift through. These are a poor choice for winter storage, or perhaps for mooring in general, what with nor'easters and hurricanes. I witnessed too many "new" marinas destroyed during Isabel.

Automatic Bilge Pumps Must be Freeze-Proof. In boats with an enclosed and protected cabin the bilge and the bilge pump itself may not freeze on the Chesapeake Bay, because they lie below the waterline and it just is not that cold. However, the discharge hose will freeze unless care is taken to eliminate all low spots and loops in the hose. The hose should be as short as practical and the plumbing cannot incorporate a check valve. These common and easily avoided causes of winter sinking took three boats in just one winter, out of only 8 in our marina; two were derelicts, and one a nice boat. While all three hit the mud before they went very under and were easily floated, the damage was substantial.

Engine Exhaust and Bilge Pump Outlets Must be Well Above the Waterline. When loaded up with snow a boat can easily sink 2-4 inches below the normal load line--remember 2010? Additionally, the Bay is less salty in the winter, causing boats to ride as much as 1-2 inches below their summer lines. Thus, all open discharges should be at least 8 inches above the water line. Several winters ago a power boat in my marina went down because the exhaust ports were pushed under by snow load, there was a small leak in the piping, and the bilge pump failed (a loop in the discharge line allowed it to freeze, the pump running continuously but to no effect).

Ice Floes in Mid-Bay. It is very rare to see them; certainly not on days when you can get out. However, faced with even the thinest layer of ice or flows, I return home for fear of prop damage; even thin ice will be pressed under by the forward motion of the boat and into the prop, which is not made for chopping.

Smaller Sails. Some years I switch to a self-tacking jib, down from a 150% genoa. It is generally windier in the winter and I don't press as hard either. Spray is cold and I reef earlier in the winter.

Winterizing the Boat.

If I were hauling my boat out for extended storage, no doubt I would do a bit more; my winter checklist is brief reflecting the fact that the boat will not be alone for more than a few weeks.
*    Pump out the potable water tank. Vacuum out the remains with a shop vac.
*    Add a shut-off valve and tee just down stream of the tank and upstream of the pressure pump. Add a second valve on the tee's side branch and a length of 1/2-inch ID hose. Suck a 30% propylene glycol antifreeze mixture into all of the lines using the pressure pump, opening the taps one at a time (hot and cold) and letting them run; the clear water goes down the drain until it's as pink as the feed (you can recycle some of this by boosting it with with concentrate). When finished, remove the suction hose from the antifreeze container and blow out the lines with the pump by letting it run dry for just 20 seconds per tap (the glycol lubricates the pump, so it will not be damaged in a minute). If you have a tank water heater you should drain it and bypass. I have an instant heater and the above works well.
*    Don't leave the glycol in the system longer than needed. Don't winterize until consistent light frost and break  winterization as soon as the frost leaves. Glycol is less inclined to go biologically active if it's only in the boat when it's cold. However, glycol is biodegradable and can turn into a nasty soup of bacteria and yeast if left in place in warm weather.
*    Don't winterize with weak glycol.  Not only is freezing possible, but a nasty water system is a common result. If the glycol is stronger than 25% bacteria and yeast cannot grow; if it is less than 25% they thrive, feeding on the glycol like sugar.
*    Be careful which glycol you use. Neoprene and nylon don't like PG. Best to leave nylon strainers off to drain. PG in potable systems, of course, but black water and engines  can be EG. Note that glycol for non-potable systems can be either propylene glycol (the pink stuff) or ethylene glycol (ordinary antifreeze) because both are essentially non-toxic to fish and to the sewage treatment plant.
*    Pump out the holding tank.
*    Pull the top off the head pump mechanism, lubricate the piston, and pour glycol into the chamber. 
*    Remove the inlet hose from the head and hold it above the water line. Open the sea cock and pour enough glycol in the hose for it to back flow out the sea cock. Close the sea cock.  Replace the hose on the head inlet. Alternatively, install valves so that you can simply suck glycol into the head. Do remember that pouring glycol into the bowl does not winterize the intake side.
*    Flush the head with a 15-20% glycol mixture until March. Place a gallon jug in the head compartment labeled “for flushing only" filled with this glycol mixture.  This will keep the holding hank, discharge side of the pump and the bowl freeze-proof.
*    Keep the gasoline tank full. Actually, this is my practice all year long to reduce moisture absorption into the e-10 gasoline and to prevent separation, all the more important the winter, because e-10 separation is primarily triggered by low temperatures. See the EPA document to this effect
( Alternatively, consider a silca gel vent filter.
*    Engines. All that is required for an outboard that will be used every few weeks is to tip it up.  The engine will drain, so antifreeze is not required. No fuel additives are required since you will be burning through gasoline just like you do in the summer. There is no need to run the engine out of fuel, or to fog the cylinders as many suggest.  In fact, simply running the engine out of fuel is probably the worst thing you can do; that will leave the carburetor partially empty and what remains will certainly evaporate and turn into gum.  The carburetor should either be left full (as you do with your automobile), or drained completely by pulling the drain plug. There is no need to disconnect the fuel line, though closing a valve might be prudent. This is been my practice for 25 years and I've never had a problem.  The only carburetors I've ever had to rebuild were those on secondhand engines that other people had run dry religiously after use.  I wonder if the practice is an urban legend started by repairmen? There is no logic.
*    Engines, starting. Expect to allow a longer warm-up. Manual choke is nice.
*    Ropes.  If you are a frostbiter or truly intend on sailing in bitter cold weather, treat all of your running rigging with Rope-proof by Nikwax. It's a water repellent and anti-freeze treatment that is used by ice climbers to prevent their climbing ropes from turning into frozen sticks while climbing frozen waterfalls (I use this on my ice climbing ropes and it is marvelously effective).  It does make the rope just a bit more slippery until the surface coating wears off, but after that it's simply leaves the rope a bit more flexible and a bit less likely to absorb water.  The treatment lasts one season and will need to be redone each year.  I find it is adequate to treat only the sheets and traveler line.  However, if my intention was to sail in extreme winter conditions I would treat everything.  The instructions are on the bottle. Please read this on washing lines.
*     Storm Windows. It is simple to replace most screens with a piece of 1/8-inch acrylic or Lexan cut to fit. They add some warmth and over my bunk keeps the window frame from dripping condensation at night.
*    Window covers help too. Window Covers 
*    Cover your tender, if stored on davits. The combination of snowfall and ice blocking the drains can make it very heavy. A slippery cover material that can shed snow, rigged as a peaked tent, is best. Additionally, even the most leak-free tender can be expected to lose pressure in the cold. If you are not going to check the inflation of the tender every few weeks, then it should be removed from the
davits. Trice it up with lines cris-crossed underneath.
*   Deep Snow. 30 inches of heavy snow changes all of the run-off patterns, the Winter of 2010 serving as example. The fuel fill may see standing water, not just rain. Cockpit lockers that are normally exposed only to splash may be in standing water, after the cockpit drains plug with ice. Since the deck will not warm with the sun, condensation will be worse. Some extra visits are worth the time. Don't forget the collapsible plastic shovel!
*   Melting Ice. The gentle application of warm water is one of the more versatile aids to melting ice from frozen drains and stuck lockers; much better than chipping or forcing. Don't boil the water and stay away from Strataglass (it will distort), acrylic (crack), and regular glass (shatter). Easy does it and no warmer than a hot shower.
*   Trice-up the tender. The snow loads can really wreck havoc on inflatable tenders. All Triced-Up. Yup, I repeated this one, but I've seen quite a few trashed tenders.

Winterizing the Sailor.

Frost biters: I'm not talking to you; it's the territory of wetsuits and dry-suits and does not relate to cruisers, for the most part. I used to do that, I remmber it was tough on a windy day, and that it teaches you to keep the boat right side up.

I see an odd mix of sweatshirts, ski jackets, jeans, and foul weather gear on the Bay in the fall and winter. Most of it is not terribly appropriate.  Amazing. People spend $100,000 on a first-class sailing boat, and the only thing they know about foul weather gear is to buy raincoats from West Marine. Unless it's blowing so hard that there is spray in the air or it is actively raining, conventional foul weather gear makes very little sense, and few people choose the sail in those conditions anyway. The best gear for ordinary sailing conditions in the winter is often mountaineering gear, which is based around windproof soft shells and fleece. Go to REI instead of West Marine.
*    Windblocker fleece (Polarteck 2000). Although this material looks like ordinary fleece, is nearly waterproof and completely windproof. Only the seams leak because it is not possible to seal them.  There are other windproof softshell materials; all of these work very well. A fleece pull-over goes under the Windblocker fleece, as needed.
*    Under layers.  More fleece.  Cotton really has no place outdoors in the winter with one possible exception; cotton turtlenecks.  Yes, a high-tech undershirt would provide better moisture management be a bit more comfortable… but they stink. If I'm cruising overnight or multiple lights, a shower is not the cards; the water system has been winterized.  The last thing I need--or my guests need--is for me to wear a polyester undershirt.
*    Feet. Sea boots are fine if you have a wet boat. Mine has a very dry ride so I'm perfectly happy with deck shoes and fleece socks. Sea boots are an essential if you are taking the dingy to a beach.
*    Hands. I've never found a pair of winter sailing gloves that I liked. Most are too skiff, the rest are not warm.  I like mountaineering gloves designed for ice climbing, which are breathlessly expensive.  However, they typically have full leather palms, Gore-Tex linings, and are designed for holding lines and handles. They are also designed with thin inner gloves that can be left on when doing something fiddly. I replace these with thin leather faced gloves; this is the best solution for ice climbing and I have found it to work very well on the boat. Pick your gloves as carefully as you would fit shoes; they are your link to the boat (for climbers they are their link to the cliff, so they take this very seriously!). Alternatively, I often use Atlas-fit insulated gloves; they have superior grip and are great for working with wet lines.  They are not water resistant, except for the palms, but they dry fast. They are cheap and available at commercial fishing supply houses. ( I got mine at SeaGear in Cape May, but they stopped carrying them. Often I use them only for handling lines, then switch to something dry.
*    Hand warmers work very well inside ski-type gloves, for a good 8 hours. They do not work well inside knit gloves or Atlas-fit type gloves; the heat dissipates too rapidly and the excessive oxygen supply causes them to burn out too quickly.
*    Head.  Ski goggles and a Powerstretch fleece balaclava, perhaps topped with a fleece cap. Few sailors have realized that ski goggles and make excellent sunglasses as soon as the temperature drops below about 45°.  They are not just for the Southern oceans.  They also contribute much to warmth; they help keep the whole face warm by reducing the amount of surface area exposed to the wind and reducing the distance that warm blood needs to flow. They will help keep your nose warm, as odd as that seems. When I see a sailor without this arrangement, I assume they enjoy a cold nose. Weird.
*  Learn to work with gloves on.  I hear all the time, the "I just can't work with gloves on." They have not tried to learn. There should be VERY FEW tasks on deck that require bare fingers. Do you see Alaskan fisherman working bare handed? If there is a common task that gives you trouble, either modify the task or learn a better way to do it. Practice. Put lanyards on snap shackles. I ice climb and have learned to tie knots and clip carabiners with double mittens. Easy, after learning the ricks.
*    Legs.  I see either jeans, or jeans with longjohns under them.  Silly.  Your legs should have the same basic insulating layers that your upper body has; a softshell and thin fleece pants under that.  An advantage of wearing fleece pants under a softshell is that in the cabin or on the drive home, if you strip off the shell you are still well-dressed; no changing of clothes. Bibs are better than waist-length pants, for both soft shells and more conventional foul weather gear. The only times I wear longjohns is when it is damn cold, perhaps zero to single digits. This is the sort of clothing that a climber wears for an active day of amounts in sub-freezing or even sub-zero temperatues.  This is the sort of clothing I find comfortable for all day sailing, in the wind, at low temperatures.  I will be just as comfortable as I would be sitting in the cabin. Clothing needs to be selected with just as much care as sailing gear for the boat.
*  Always a spare set of clothes on-board. Extra hats and gloves, too.

Engine Starting. Some are dependable; I loved my old Nissan 18 hp 2-stroke. Some--my current pair of Yamaha 9.9 4-strokes--can get cranky in the cold. Pumping the throttle gently can help, as it works the accelerator pump. Ether is also good and there is no reason to be shy about 1 or 2 squirts in the winter; it's better than grinding and grinding. Certainly expect to let them run for 10 minutes before trying to put them in gear. I generally have to leave them on fast idle for 5 minutes of that period. Check for water flow. Between the greater air density and e-10 gasoline, they tend to run lean in the cold. Certainly running the engines for 15 minutes every few weeks though the winter should be good for them.

Cabin Heat. I added a Dixon P-9000 vented cabin heater this season, and I’m quite happy with it. It seems to be equivalent to 2 x 1500 watt electric space heaters. There is no odor and the monoxide detector has never chirped. A central heating system would be much better; the heat doesn't really reach the sleeping cabins and the head compartment is like ice. However, the sleeping cabins are quite comfortable if enough blankets are piled up, and the salon stays a comfortable 70° when it's 32° outside and blowing.  That's enough for me. It does take a full 2 hours to reach that temperature. If my boat were any larger or if I lived aboard, I would chose an installed forced air system.

Amp-hours Reserve Capacity vs Temperature

Power Consumption. Because battery voltage is reduced in the cold, you need to keep an eye on this and know the minimum voltage that will start the engine. Solar cells will generate less because gray days are common, the sun angle is low, and the day is very short. Because nights are longer you need to keep an eye on how many light are on. Don’t run instruments you don’t need. If the heater requires power during the night, allow for that. Can you hand start the engine? Do you have ether, just in case? Pull-starting an engine with ether is much easier. The adjacent table illustrates that of the 100% capacity available at 70F is only 75% is available at 20F. Also note that battery voltage drops below the listed values by about 0.075 volts for each 10F below 70F, so at 20F you may only have about 12.3 volts at full charge. With just a little draw-down, this may not be enough for some electronics; in my experience the autopilot goes first.

Slider Weatherstripping. This is PDQ 32-specific, so the rest of you can skip on ahead to the next topic.

When the heat is running a substantial portion rises up and escapes through the gap between the slider in the cabin roof.  I slit three bath towels length wise and sewed them up into long hot dogs. These fit nicely in the gap between the slider in the cabin roof and increase the temperature in the cabin by about 10° F. Do be careful not to open the slider while they are in place; they could be drawn back into the mechanism and cause a jam.
I've found that draping huge beach towel over the cabin door helps too.  It leaks a bit in the wind. This hangs from a pair of pad eyes that are used to hang mosquito netting in the summer.

Wet Suit. Keep one on board in the winter.  You never know when you might have to dive to clear a line or such.  A standard suit will do for water temperatures into the 40s, as long as you're quick about it.  Below that, I would rather not give advice.  You need to pay attention and be quick about it.  Clearly, it is not prudent to go into cold water alone, though I've done it more than once.

Jacklines and Harness. A definite safety essential in the winter. There can be no exceptions to wearing a harness in open water when single handing in the winter. The deck can be absolutely treacherous when covered with frost or a glaze of ice; do not underestimate the danger. At least realize that if you fall off, you're a dead man. Perhaps you're okay with that. Perhaps I've done enough mountaineering to become all too comfortable with that.

Sailing Hardware. I've never had any real trouble with pulleys or cleats or winches.  I have noticed the clam cleats are completely unreliable and icy conditions must be replaced with either horn cleats or cam cleats.

Roller Furling Jibs. In breezy sub-freezing conditions spray will freeze on the front 2/3rds of the boat, the worst of it at the bow. While you may have no trouble setting the jib (the drum is empty and the line still dry from sitting in harbor), after sailing for a few hours the drum will jam up completely with ice and the luff groove will be full of ice as well; there will be no simple way, or no way short of taking a scotch reef, to douse the jib. Keep a watchful eye on the mast grove and treat the furling line with Nikwax can prevent this.

Strength of Materials and Brittleness. Polyester, arimid, nylon, and high-tech polyethylene (Spectra, Vectran, Demyna) are not affected by low temperatures. This has been proven in the lab, in theory, and by mountain climbers, in practice. However, sail cloth can be a bit more prone to tearing it stepped on; it seems that the resin does get stiffer in the cold and that is responsible. Also, PVC moldings become more brittle, so be careful around small latches and the like.  Take a little easier on sump pump handles, dodger windows (do not roll them below 55F or they may crack, and even don't un-zip them below 45F (yup, I've broken a few and dodgers are expensive), and PVC plumbing. Clear windows in sails are also vulnerable below 50F--not when sailing, but when folding or if someone steps or falls on the sail bag--so make certain the window is not folded.

Ice Buoys. Some private markers are pulled for the winter. Some Coast Guard aids to navigation--particularly in the upper Delaware Bay, upper Chesapeake Bay, and Tangier Sound--are replaced by special ice buoys during severe winters.  They are little bit smaller, and all of them--red, green, and black--resemble nun-buoys more than other types.  They are designed to withstand the pressures of ice and to resist being pulled off station. The light is designed to withstand the vibration without the filament breaking.  In reality, if ice buoys have been deployed to a certain area, you probably don't want to be there.  However, I have seen in the spring when they had not yet been replaced.

Propeller Damage. If the ice in the harbor or on the Bay is thick enough to damage the hull I can only hope the prudent mariner will stay at the dock. However, in very thin ice or broken ice there is a hidden danger; as the hull moves through the ice, even if the propeller is far below the surface, sheets of broken ice will find themselves pressed far under and will be sucked into the prop. You can hear them being chopped to bits. I think it is unlikely anything large enough to do harm can be sucked into the engine's cooling system; the bits should be large and will slide off. However, I'm not so certain the propeller and hub are safe from harm. I have always gone very slowly, no matter how little ice was present, and after a few experiences I now generally avoid any ice for this reason. I have never experienced damage, but I feel sure that it is tempting fate and that high RPMs would be a mistake.Would I feel comfortable entering a harbor with very thin ice? Yes, proceeding slowly, if it were very thin, certainly less than 1/4-inch. There is also the very real chance of becoming stuck, creating a very hazardous situation. It is very surprising how much even thin ice increases resistance. Be extremely vigilant.

Shovels and Brooms. A broom just doesn't get it done when it's deep. A plastic shovel--one of the small folding ones sold for the trunk of the car--works for me. It seems OK on gel-coat, if used cautiously. As for paint, don't do it.

Yes, I've frozen a glove to the mast and I've slid all over the place on frost. Honestly, the biggest challenge is having enough books and movies to get through the long nights. Perhaps you'll never sail the great southern ocean or even want to; you have more sense than that. Still, you can pretend that you have and make Water Mitty proud. It will be a miniature adventure, will give a new perspective on the Bay, and perhaps a breed a new found respect for the watermen to replace the widely-held animosity generated while dodging crab pots in summer.


  1. Your observations about clothing were refreshing and practical. My sailing clothes are the same as I would take to the high country, adjusted for temperature.

    To be sure all i sail is a glorified dinghy with a cabin on a mountain reservoir, but I am learning. Some days though I wonder if climbing ice with one hand wasn't the safer recreation....

  2. At least the ice holds still... generally!

    I used to sail a dingy (beach cat), and then I tried to dress for the water temperature, often in a wet suit or at least farmer john. However, Windblooker fleece is helpful in cold water, as it is something like wet suit material, though it isn't fitted that tightly. Basically, I would try to wear clothes that would help if I got dunked.

  3. ;)

    I sail an old Potter 15- a dry boat, but I worry about rogue gusts, not waves ... and operator error though I sail every chance I get (how else do you learn?) ...I do use the NRS hydroskins top and bottom as a base layer, so not exactly the same as I would dress in the high country...don't know how much time they would buy me...