Girding for the Silent Season
When your boat’s your home, winter comes early, so button things up and enjoy.
My bubba-brother from Florida flew to Maine to visit Diana and me on board our 36-foot steel cutter, Roger Henry. It was only late September, and it wasn’t particularly cold by northern standards. But we hadn’t even made the dock before my shivering sibling declared to the world that he would never, ever, venture north of the Mason-Dixon Line after Labor Day again! I pointed him to a local bumper sticker that reads “Maine: If you can’t take the winter, you don’t deserve
Diana and I have wintered on board from as far south as Cape Horn to north of Canada’s Baffin Island. Stranded in the white wilderness or tied to the modern amenities of a dock, we love the silent season. It’s a time to read, reflect, and enjoy slow cooking and fast friends.
But there’s no need to take winter directly on the chin. We’ve devised cold-season entry and exit strategies to mitigate the harshness on our equipment and ourselves. This process of winterizing and recommissioning a liveaboard vessel differs from that of boats that are hauled out or even from those left in the water unattended.
Positioning the vessel safely is our first concern. Even in ice-free harbors, swinging at anchor or on a mooring can expose the crew to frigid and potentially dangerous commutes to shore. Except in extremely protected harbors, I highly recommend wintering dockside.
But even dockside, when blustery winds sweep icy docks, the chances of falling into the water are high; the chances of surviving it if you can’t get out immediately aren’t. Especially in areas of extreme tides, floating docks are far safer than fixed docks. In either case, fasten nonskid materials to the dock, ladder, and rails. I lay wooden slats across the deck at the lifeline gates and in the cockpit, which allows us to wear aggressive nonskid devices, such as Yactraxs, without damaging the decks or grates.
The shock of instant immersion in ice water renders our brains useless; one must act on instinct. Dangle one bright safety line from the boat and one from the dock. Even the lowest dock is hard to climb up on from the water once your muscles are frozen into inactivity. Identify and mark the nearest exit ladder, which on a stationary pier should extend down into the water at even the lowest tide.
To prevent death-defying leaps, I secure the boat tightly to the floating dock with what I believe to be robust lines and adequate anti-chafe gear—and then I double them.
Most mountaineering stores sell small, high-tensile-plastic shovels that fit into narrow gangways but won’t chip paint or gouge fiberglass. I regularly clear away heavy snow to prevent potentially dangerous instability, but I always leave some snow everywhere, except at the entry, to act as an insulator.
Extreme cold makes most materials, but especially plastics, brittle. My sturdiest boat bucket ended an Arctic winter as a pile of shards. I now wrap the radar dome and GPS antennas with foam and cloth. I remove the plastic cone from the center of the wind generator and tie the body off in a way that allows it to rotate to the wind but prevents the blades from turning. I remove our Aqua Signal masthead tricolor light and cap the connections. For fixed masthead lights, a small canvas cover will reduce winter wear. Veteran Alaskan sailors go so far as to remove the Windex and speed instruments and install a “wire brush” lightning dissipater—more to keep the eagles off their masthead than to prevent lightning strikes.