As I write this article, boatyards are starting to think about prepping for the onslaught. of boats destined for winter storage. The jack stand threads are greased, the keel blocks stacked and the travel lift serviced and ready to go. As sure as death and taxes, the winter is on the horizon. For those of us in the northern climes, that means storing our boats for the winter.
Wet vs. Dry Storage
One of the first points to consider is whether to store your boat wet or dry, i.e. in the water or on the hard. Each has its pros and cons.
Wet storage has some basic requirements for it to be practical. There has to be either little or no ice or the dock will need some means of keeping the ice at bay. Two common methods are in use; bubblers and ice eaters. Both work on the same principle, warm water from the bottom is circulated up to warm the surface, thereby keeping the area above free from ice. Both options work best where the water at the dock is deep enough to allow a –plentiful source of warmer water.
Bubblers rely on compressed air pumped down to tubes laid on the bottom. Holes in these tubes allow the air to escape and the rising air bubbles carry the warmer water upwards.
Ice eaters, on the other hand, are waterproof electric motors suspended from the dock. Spinning propellers send the warmer water to the surface. Typically, ice eaters are categorized by the horsepower of the electric motor, 1/2 and 3/4 hp being the most common.
The dock, of course, must also be substantial enough to survive the winter. One common problem with the wooden pilings used in many docks is that of “pile jacking”, where the ice freezing around the dock pilings and rising with the tide will actually pull the pilings out of the bottom.
Boats left in the water also experience chafe problems on the fenders and dock lines. Significant snowfalls can also be a problem. Covered slips can collapse under the weight of a heavy wet snowfall. Ice freezing in the scuppers of a boat can allow ice and snow to build up until the boat sinks.
On the other hand, boats are designed to be in the water where the hull is evenly supported. There are no stresses from being pulled out of the water and placed on boat stands and blocks. Wooden boats in particular are often better off in the water.
Dry Storage involves pulling the boat out of the water and placing it in a storage yard. You will be at the mercy of the yard schedules concerning pulling the boat, re-launching and the location of the boat. Remember FOLI, First Out, Last In, when scheduling.
Proper blocking is essential for boat survival. Keel blocks need to be placed appropriately and enough boat stands used to stabilize the boat. The surface of the yard is also important. Keel blocks have been known to sink into soft ground during winter thaws as well as the spring thaw. This can place added stress on the hull where the boat stands land. Deformation and even hull cracking can occur.
The boat stands should be chained together from side to side. The wind hitting and rocking the boat can walk the boat stand out from under the boat, damaging the boat or even the ones next to it. DON’T TIE ANY PART OF THE WINTER COVER TO THE BOATS STANDS! That will just walk the stands out even faster.
Some people will place various kinds heaters aboard to keep things warmer and mildew free. This can be dangerous if the surrounding materials overheat and start a fire. There are some marine heaters that are designed for this service. Check with your yard to see if they are allowed.
Covered vs. Uncovered
Once you have decided the wet vs. dry issue, the next one to decide is covered vs. uncovered.
With shrink-wrapping the boat is covered with plastic film that is strapped in place and then shrunk with a propane burner. You can have a shrink-wrapping firm do the job for you or you can do it yourself. Marine stores have shrink-wrapping kits available. They contain everything from the film, to the propane heater and even a video of how to do the job. Often several boaters will band together and buy one kit and extra film, splitting the costs.
Several things need to be done before the actual shrink-wrapping takes place. All sharp corners should be padded so as not to tear the film. Carpet scraps or foam taped in place work well. If you have folding antennas, place a length of PVC pipe over them when folded. This will prevent the shrink-wrap film from bonding around the antenna.
Large cockpit or open areas may require a support structure to keep from allowing snow, ice or water to pool. Vents should be added after the wrap is in place. This allows airflow into the boat and helps prevent mildew and condensation. If you want access to the boats interior, a zippered door is available.
Another option is to have a fitted cover made for the boat. It won’t be cheap but it should last many years if properly cared for. The same preparations used for shrink-wrapping should also be done, i.e., covering sharp projects, etc.
Many people with fitted covers also use a tarp over the cover, well tied down. These usually are the common blue tarps, inexpensive and sacrificial. They allow snow and ice to slide off easily as well as protecting the real cover from your feathered friends.
We’ve all seen the plastic tarps covering some of the boats in the yard. These tarps are available in a wide variety of sizes and three different materials. Most tarps are made from sheet plastic with some sort of reinforcing grid fused in place.
The blue tarps are the most common, cheapest and shortest lived. A step up from the blue tarps are the white ones. The top performers are the silver/black tarps. While still reinforced plastic, they will hold up for several years, most likely from the improved resistance to UV degradation.
Many boats will require some sort of frame to support a winter cover. These frames support the cover above the deck, allowing water, snow and ice to slide off easily.
Wood frames are common. Sometimes they are simply tacked together from cheap lumber and torn down in the spring. Often they are elaborate structures, assembled and disassembled year after year.
Another frame option is PVC tubing. Ingenious frames have been designed and built using the wide variety of PVC fittings available. Many of the joints are held in place with screws, allowing disassembly and storing in the spring.
Metal is also used for some frames. Electrical conduit is widely available and cheap. Several companies make clamps and accessories to make building the frame even easier.
Care must be taken in attaching the frame to the boat. Both to keep from damaging the boat and to make sure the frame stays in place.
Whatever style of cover you decide on, the method of tying it in place will have a great deal of effect on its longevity as well as your boats. The cover needs to be securely tied in place to avoid storms and winds from getting under the cover or letting the cover flog against the hull. A winters worth of storms and wind chafe can extensively damage the hull of a fiberglass boat.
The cover needs to be anchored to the boat, not the boat stands or blocking. Covers and tarps with grommets can have the tie down ropes looped from grommet to grommet under the boat. Try to keep loose material at a minimum; it is a prime cause of chafe.
The cover can be tied to weights, such as cinder blocks, placed on the ground or suspended from the grommets. Estimate how much weight you think you need, then double it. The wind is stronger than you think.
There is a portion of the boating population that believes boats should be left uncovered. Looking at hull damage from chafe, mildew under too well sealed covers and the general cost, in time and money, of the covers and associated hardware lends credence to their position.
The boat needs to be well prepped if you plan to leave it uncovered. Provision should be made for draining any of the water from the boat. A cockpit scupper frozen shut can allow ice and snow to build up in the cockpit, causing structural damage. Exterior doors, hatches and windows need to be well sealed and fastened against working open in winter storms.
Whatever storage option you choose, proper winterizing is a must. It will protect your boat during the winter and make spring commissioning much quicker and easier.
Selecting the proper method of winter storage depends on a great many variables. Discussion with owners of similar boats will give both good and bad stories about winter storage options. My personal choice for winter storage is being safely tucked in a snug anchorage in the Bahamas, where they can’t even spell antifreeze.