Winterizing Your Boat

If you live in one of those nice, warm places where you can take your boat out for a spin year-round…  well, congratulations. You can stop reading. May your worst worries be UV and mildew. For the rest of us, the onset of winter and sub-freezing temperatures means that we have to take precautions to protect our floating investments.

There's snow on the dock and the underwater ice-prevention gear is hard at work. In-water storage can work in protected marinas, but engines and all water systems still have to be winterized.

There’s snow on the dock and the underwater ice-prevention gear is hard at work. In-water storage can work in protected marinas, but engines and all water systems still have to be winterized. Doug Logan photo.

Quick Tips for Winterizing

  • Thoroughly flush engines with fresh water
  • Change lubricating and lower-unit oil
  • Fog carburetors and engine cylinders
  • Replace zincs
  • Top up fuel tanks and use proper additives
  • Run treated fuel through engines
  • Drain all freshwater systems or fill with nontoxic antifreeze
  • Set up batteries for trickle-charging

Everybody knows that water expands when it freezes, but not everyone has seen the damage it can do if it freezes inside an engine, or in a galley hose, or between a toerail and a cabinside, or in a bilge. It can be bad. And expensive. Meanwhile dirty oil left in an engine over the winter will degrade the metal it’s meant to lubricate. Uncovered cockpits will collect leaves and debris that will cause clog drains and cause stains.

Winterizing your boat properly isn’t a bad chore – it’s a satisfying one.  You’ll rest easily over the winter knowing it’s protected, and in the spring there’s little to do but take off the cover, renew the wax – and relax.

BASICS

If this is your first winter with a new boat, you’ll need to decide, first of all, where the boat will be stored after it’s winterized. Depending on the size and type of boat, this could be in your own driveway or beside your garage, or in a storage area run by your dealer or repairer, or in a full-service boatyard or marina. If you have a wooden boat, or one that you plan on using occasionally during the winter, in-water storage might make sense. In many areas this can be cheaper than being hauled out, but make sure your insurance company allows it; many require boats to be hauled out for the winter months.

Boats can be professionally shrink-wrapped for the season, or covered with a high-quality tarp. A good framework is needed either way.

Boats can be professionally shrink-wrapped for the season, or covered with a high-quality tarp. A good framework is needed either way.

After haul-out, the bottom should be pressure-washed. This is typically part of the haul-out fee in most boatyards, and some yards will go the extra mile and remove barnacles and fouling from your running gear. After that you’re on your own, so you’ll need to decide how many winterization steps you’ll want to take on yourself, and how many you’ll want to hand over to the pros.

COVER UP

Fiberglass and aluminum boats are amazingly resistant to water intrusion from any direction, but, as mentioned above, they are not immune to the effects of ice. Even more important over the long run are the effects of ultraviolet rays from the sun, in both summer and winter. Sunlight eventually degrades most plastics, making them chalky and brittle, so even though some people say that boats can be uncovered for the winter, it’s much better to cover them, either with professionally applied shrink-wrap or with a high-quality tarp (not the cheap blue plastic kind). Both methods require making a high-quality framework that will shed water and resist the winter winds while allowing for some ventilation and air-flow inside the boat.

ENGINES, OUTDRIVES, FUEL SYSTEMS

Winterization procedures will vary depending on what kind of engine or engines you have — inboard or outboard, gas-powered or diesel, big or small, four-stroke or two-stroke. But the basic principles are the same. For example, winterizing a four-stroke outboard involves carefully flushing with fresh water and (where needed) salt remover. Both the main lubricating oil and the lower-unit oil should be changed, so that dirty oil doesn’t cause corrode the engine over the winter, and any water that might be in the lower-unit oil doesn’t expand and cause damage.

For inboard engines, oil-changing gear includes a pump and reservoir, new filter, and plenty of oil-absorbent pads to prevent messes.

For inboard engines, oil-changing gear includes a pump and reservoir, new filter, and plenty of oil-absorbent pads to prevent messes.

If you don’t plan to run the engine occasionally over the winter, the engine should be brought up to temperature to remove any moisture, then the carburetor or air intake and cylinders should be sprayed with fogger.  Zincs should be replaced, and the whole engine checked for salt deposits, loose connections, and other gremlins that might cause a problem in the spring.  Winterizing small outboards, two-stroke engines, and stern-drive inboards all follow the same basics, with some variations. Outboards and all outdrive units should be completely drained of water, while inboards and diesels with raw-water cooling need to be stored with non-toxic antifreeze distributed throughout pumps, hoses, and heat exchangers.

No matter what type of engine you have,  it’s vital to set up your fuel system for a successful return in the spring. This means using the correct additives in the right amounts  in gasoline to mitigate the bad effects of ethanol, and in marine diesel fuel to ward off microbial growth and fouling. Make sure to run your engine for a few minutes after putting in the additives, so that the treated fuel will run through the whole system. And don’t leave your tanks partially filled. Top them off to prevent condensation (leaving a bit of room for expansion in warmer  weather) and make sure deck-fill caps are snugged down for the season.

Freshwater pumps, hoses, and tanks need to be fully drained or else filled with nontoxic (pink) antifreeze to prevent ice damage.

Freshwater pumps, hoses, and tanks need to be fully drained or else filled with nontoxic (pink) antifreeze to prevent ice damage.

FRESHWATER SYSTEMS

Now take a look at any and all freshwater systems, sources, and reservoirs on board. These all need to be prepared for winter. Tanks, pumps, and water lines serving the galley and head (and any other system that uses water, including air conditioning) either need to be completely emptied or filled for the off-season with non-toxic water system antifreeze (the pink kind, not the toxic antifreeze meant automotive radiators).

BATTERIES

It used to be that boat owners and yards would painstakingly remove batteries for the winter, but the advent of more sophisticated batteries and electrical systems, “smart” charging systems, and cheap solar trickle-chargers has changed the common wisdom. Now there are much better arguments for leaving batteries in place. Winterization is straightforward: make sure that batteries are fully charged after haul-out and set them up to be maintained with a smart-charging system from an outside electrical source, or with a low-wattage solar trickle charger. If you have traditional wet-cell batteries they should be topped up with distilled water and checked a couple of times during the cold months.

Winter can be a long season for northern boaters , but if you take the right steps to protect your boat in the cold months, you’ll reap your reward in the spring with a sound boat and an early start.


A previous version of this article appeared on Boat Trader in October 2016.

 

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