Prepping your Sailboat for Winter

Thorough winterizing keeps your boat in good condition so it'll be ready to sail in the spring.

Ready for winter
Celeste is ready for the ­coming winter: The sails are stowed ashore, the decks are stripped and the solar panels have plywood covers.Ellen Massey Leonard

While full-time year-round cruising is the goal for some sailors, part-time voyaging is often more realistic, or even preferred. For the past few years, my husband, Seth, and I have been lucky enough to be part-time voyagers, working ashore for nine months at a time and sailing for three. It’s made for a perfect balance between everything we love about shore life and feeding our need for the open ocean, drawing canvas (well, Dacron) and new landfalls.

Part-time voyagers, whether sailing for six months or one, face an important process at the end of each season: laying up the boat. If we do it well, we return to our boat, Celeste, in much the same condition as when we left it, which means we can quickly get out on the water instead of doing repairs.

Depending on your location, the boat can either be hauled out of the water or left in a secure marina. There are pros and cons to both scenarios. Hauling eliminates growth on the hull and allows work to be done, such as painting the bottom, changing anodes and servicing seacocks. When coupled with indoor storage — as is common in Maine, for example, where heavy snow on the decks can be a real problem — it's an ideal wintering solution. Outdoor storage on the hard is generally cheaper and more readily available. In some places, in-the-water storage can be a better option, and sometimes it's the only option.

We have left Celeste in wet storage several times. The first time was during our circumnavigation, when we left her in a marina outside Cairns, Australia, for the cyclone season while we returned to the United States to work. The other times have been in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, the port in the Aleutian Islands made famous by the TV series Deadliest Catch. Despite the very different climates and locations of Dutch Harbor and Cairns, the laying-up process was surprisingly similar.

The tasks involved can be broadly broken down into these categories: hedging against wind-induced risks, caring for the engine, keeping the batteries happy and preventing boat funk.

Wind Protection

Every time we leave our boat, Seth and I pay close attention to anything that could go wrong in high winds. We start by trying to reduce windage, thereby lessening the strain a storm would put on the boat. The obvious windage culprit is the roller-furling genoa and mainsail, which we store either in the saloon or with friends ashore. We also remove everything on top of the mast — VHF antenna, tricolor and wind indicator — although this is more because of perching birds than high winds. Next to go are the halyards, which we replace with very thin feeder lines. We also remove our canvas dodger. Initially, we did this as yet another measure against general windage, but after seeing a friend’s dodger get torn to shreds in a Dutch Harbor storm, we now think this is more a measure to protect the dodger itself.

Dutch Harbor, Alaska
Celeste in her winter berth in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.Ellen Massey Leonard

In the same vein, we lash plywood to our solar panels to prevent breakages. Last winter, this turned out to be essential: A typhoon hit Dutch Harbor, and rocks flew through the air, breaking car windshields and house windows all over the island. Happily for us, our solar panels remained intact. We no longer have a wind generator, but when we did, we removed its blades. We also strip the deck, storing oars, boat hook, grill, stern anchor and extra propane cylinders ashore. This is partly motivated by rumors of theft off unattended boats.

Perhaps most important are the dock lines and fenders. We’ve learned from hard experience — our boat heeling over in that same typhoon and getting caught under the dock — to use many more fenders than seem necessary. For dock lines, we use thick nylon rope with good plumbing-hose for chafe gear. This seems to work well; we’ve never had a problem with our dock lines.

Plastic tubing
Plastic tubing worked well for dock-line chafe gear.Ellen Massey Leonard

Engine Care

Decommissioning our engine for in-the-water storage consists of changing oil and filters, checking the transmission fluid and antifreeze, and running fresh water mixed with antifreeze through the raw-water intake as a precaution against freezing and corrosion. It’s also important, whether ashore or afloat, to top up the fuel tanks completely to prevent condensation. The same applies to the cabin heater’s fuel tank, if you have one.

Changing the engine oil and filters
Changing the engine oil and filters is important because contaminants in the dirty oil could harm the engine during a layup period.Ellen Massey Leonard

Battery Power

On Celeste, keeping the ­batteries happy is simply a matter of plugging into shore power and turning on the smart charger. It regulates the charge to the optimal level for AGM batteries in a cold climate. The charger's initial installation was a bit of a project, but now it's easy to keep the batteries healthy all winter. When we sail to a warmer climate, we'll have to adjust the charger for warmer temperatures, but otherwise it's fairly maintenance-free. When we left our boat in Australia, we did not have an adapter for Aussie shore power, so we simply turned everything off and switched the batteries off once they were fully charged. This seemed to work fine, but would have been less ideal in a cold climate.

AGM batteries
AGM batteries need little maintenance besides staying well charged.Ellen Massey Leonard

Fresh Boat

Preventing boat funk is probably the most time-­consuming job. But since I hate that mildewy boat smell, it’s well worth it. First, we sort through everything we have on board. This is a great opportunity to thin out the junk that tends to accumulate. Any open or perishable food that we haven’t eaten by our departure gets tossed, and if possible, we store all the nonperishables ashore. (We added this to our checklist after hearing rumors of rats in Dutch Harbor.) Any items that have a hint of mildew smell — blankets, clothes, cushions and towels — get laundered and, if feasible, stored ashore. Things that can’t be laundered, such as mattresses or books, just get dried out and stored ashore.

drying the bilge
Completely drying the bilge helps to keep the mold down and the boat smelling fresh.Ellen Massey Leonard

Then we deal with various areas of the boat. Starting at the bow, we wash down and dry all the anchor chain and rode before replacing it in the anchor locker. The holding tank gets pumped out, and the head gets a good scrub and a hefty dose of vinegar. The vinegar breaks down any mineral buildup and keeps the head free of odors. We preserve the membrane of our Katadyn watermaker and run it dry, just in case of freezing conditions. We empty the water tanks and plumbing to prevent growth, and flush them with a small dose of diluted bleach for sterilization. Any bleach should not be pumped out into the ocean, of course, but disposed of properly on land. Following another flush of water, we add a little antifreeze and water to prevent anything from bursting in case of unexpected freeze-up. It’s important to use antifreeze that’s approved for drinking-water tanks; either marine or RV works fine. All the way aft in the galley, we empty, dry and clean the refrigerator and leave the top off it.

drying the bilge
The watermaker membrane was pickled and the system run dry.Ellen Massey Leonard

Because we have a cold-molded wooden boat (and also because we loathe boat funk), we’re fanatical about keeping our bilge dry. We sponge it out thoroughly and then take paper towels to it until we’re just getting dust. Then we leave several of the floorboards open to circulate air.

Right before departure, we wipe down all surfaces with either Simple Green or white vinegar to prevent mildew. Then we plug in our big General Electric active dehumidifier to one of our AC outlets. It drains continuously into our sink and keeps the boat’s humidity at 50 percent, a huge reduction from the ambient 85 to 90 percent that persists in Dutch Harbor. Of course, leaving a big appliance running like this means it’s imperative to have someone check on the boat regularly. We’ve been lucky to have close friends in Dutch Harbor who’ve watched over our boat, but it’s quite possible to hire people to do this. Many American marinas require that you have a boat caretaker if you are leaving for an extended period. This seems a sensible requirement on all fronts, not least as it provides peace of mind for you as the owner.

Seth and I generally finish laying up the boat in about five days to a week. Yes, that's a week that we can't spend sailing or anchored in a beautiful, deserted cove, but it's time well spent. With it complete, we feel comfortable leaving our Celeste for a whole winter — even in the Bering Sea — and it means we return in the spring to a clean, fresh-smelling, functional boat. Additionally, it's a systematic, biannual (since we recommission each summer too) overhaul of the whole boat and its systems, enabling us to keep close tabs on its condition and what might need upgrading or repair. So, in some ways, despite the amount of work involved, laying up is yet another advantage to part-time cruising.

Ellen Massey Leonard and her husband, Seth, recently sailed their classic cutter to the the Alaskan Arctic. You can check out their video series at cruisingworld.com/gone-floatabout.