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Winter on the water

The joy of winter sailing can be rewarding. Glorious crisp days, sparkling seas, uncrowded cruising grounds and après-sail pub stops with roaring fires are just a few of the pleasures to be found.

A group of sailors onboard a yacht

Photo: Andrew Parish

Watery wonderland

According to a survey by Practical Boat Owner, almost 75% of its readers keep their vessels afloat all year round and use them at least once a month. While a third use their boat most weeks during the winter.

If you’re planning to carry on cruising this winter, a few sensible precautions and preparations will ensure that you – and your boat – navigate between seasons safely.

Safety first


'Automatic lifejackets are essential; wearing your lifejacket can increase your chance of survival by up to four times when immersed in cold water,' says RNLI Water Safety Delivery Support Manager Mike Hannam. 'To keep yours in lifesaving condition, get them serviced regularly by the manufacturer or one of their agents. And if your lifejacket’s wet, open it up and dry out the inside. Left wet, automatic firing tablets will begin to dissolve and cylinders start to corrode – stopping your lifejacket from working when you need it most. It can also run down the battery of any water-activated lights fitted. Additionally, always carry a reliable means of calling for help.'

A man wearing a yellow lifejacket in the RNLI's Sea Survival Centre in Poole

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Service and wear your lifejacket so it's ready when you need it most

Passage planning

A short hop to a favourite spot is likely to be more than enough on a cold day. Plan shorter sails in sheltered waters that have a choice of anchorages within reasonably close proximity. Look for high-pressure weather systems providing settled conditions and sunshine – rain is far worse than cold in terms of morale. Once the sun dips the temperature does too, so aim be back alongside by sunset.

Be conservative in your winter sailing planning. And always put your least hardy crew members’ needs first.

Getting comfortable 

The right clothing, and a chance to warm up belowdecks, can be the difference between a pleasant day out and an unenjoyable endurance test.

Avoid bulky clothing. Thin layers trap more air and allow you better freedom of movement. Invest in a good base layer – merino wool is wicking, thermal and breathable. Mid-layer salopettes will give more warmth than a standard fleece. And choose brightly coloured outers – they’re easier to see than blues and greys at dusk and in fog.

Up to 70% of body heat is lost through the head, so a warm sailing hat is a must. A snood, buff or balaclava covers the neck and can be pulled over your ears and nose to prevent the Rudolph effect. A spray hood will give protection from wind chill and flying water.

Dry hands are warmer than wet ones. Thick, thermal gloves are good for passages but can be tricky if you’re fiddling with knots and adjusting sheets.

A woman dressed for winter sailing, walking down a dock

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Mid-layer salopettes will give more warmth than a standard fleece

If you do remove your gloves, dry your hands before replacing them. Fingerless gloves improve dexterity – wear a pair of rubber gloves underneath, dinghy sailors swear by them! And always take a set of spare clothes and gloves.

Choose comfortable, waterproof, breathable boots with good grip – big enough to accommodate thick socks. 

Regularly rotate crew between tasks – 15 minutes on the helm and 15 minutes below – each hour. For longer passages, a windvane steering system – which steers to a wind angle rather than a compass course – will stop you crash-gybing during a sudden wind shift.

Nobody likes a cold bum! If you don’t have cockpit cushions, invest in some.

Warm and dry

You don’t need a heater to sail in the winter, but it makes life much more comfortable onboard. There are several options available – from solid-fuel stoves and diesel-fired warm air heaters when away from marinas, to fan heaters and oil-filled radiators if using shore power. All have their pluses and minuses. Of course, nothing beats an old-fashioned hot water bottle for a good night’s sleep!

A yacht sailing around the Solent

Photo: Andrew Parish

Plan shorter sails in sheltered waters

Never use open-flame gas appliances – such as the cooker – for heating. And whatever type of heating you use, make sure you have a carbon monoxide alarm – and that you test it regularly.

Condensation is inevitable on a boat in winter, as warm air settles onto cold surfaces, and can allow mould to grow. In an unheated boat, open vents and windows to keep humidity levels on a par with outside. If you run a heating system, open windows and vents so moisture can escape. If you’re at a marina, run an electric desiccant dehumidifier while you sleep.

Take wet sails home and air them – belowdecks they can become mouldy and make the interior damp. When you leave the boat, prop cushions on their sides to allow the air to flow around them.

The right rigging

Air is colder and denser in winter and winds are stronger. In challenging conditions, the ability to tuck a reef into a sail quickly and efficiently is invaluable. If you’re unsure whether your sail wardrobe is up to the job, now’s the time to look at fitting an extra reef or investing in a storm jib.

A sailor sits by the water with the contents of a grab bag, inclduing food, water, and a VHF radio

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Navigate the winter season safely with some sensible precautions

Winter mooring and maintenance 

A good winter mooring offers all-round shelter, with as little fetch as possible. Mooring lines must be stout, protected from chafing and snatching, and doubled up so that there’s a backup if one breaks. Boats on a well-specified swinging mooring may withstand bigger waves, but reaching the boat by dinghy can be difficult and dangerous in the winter. 

Be careful with mooring locations fed by fresh water – such as estuaries – where there may be brackish water that can freeze. Make sure your coolant is topped up with the correct mix of antifreeze.

Readying your boat for a storm every time you go ashore only takes a few extra minutes. Don’t skimp on the number of big fenders you use.

Fuel berth opening hours are likely to be reduced in winter, and water supplies may be turned off, so keep your tanks topped up. A full fuel tank also means there’s less surface area for condensation, reducing the chance of diesel bug forming.

Diesel engines require more power to start in cold weather, so keep your batteries topped up too. Resist the temptation to rev the engine as soon as it fires – let it warm up at around 1,000rpm once it has oil pressure. Cold running diesels are short-lived diesels.

Rather than laying up in the winter, consider late April to early June, when many boatyards offer discounted rates. You’ll get more work done in the longer daylight hours and the hull will remain cleaner for late summer cruising. 

Don’t forget your shades

A woman steering a yacht, wearing sunglasses and a blue jacket

Photo: RNLI/Nathan Williams

Contrary to popular belief, the sun does shine in the winter! It’s a lot lower in the sky, which not only means you’ll be squinting to find that channel mark unless you pack sunglasses, but your eyes can suffer more UV damage in winter than summer. A good pair of sailing sunglasses is as important as your sunscreen, hat, and gloves; keep them fixed to your head with a floating safety strap. If you leave a pair onboard, you’ll never be without them. 

A good clip: Harnesses are vital

If you fall overboard and aren’t attached to your boat, you can rapidly become separated from the vessel, greatly increasing the difficulty of rescue and reducing your chance of survival. Make a policy of clipping on to suitable points around the boat at night, when alone on deck, or in rough conditions. Especially on sailboats where the motion and angle of heel are unpredictable. Ensure you have a harness line with a hook at both ends. If someone falls overboard while attached to a safety lanyard, stop the boat immediately – being dragged through the water alongside a vessel is life-threatening. Get more information on lifejackets.

It’s the season for winter sailing. Stay safe out there!

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