It's that time of year again... your boat's been hauled out of the water, and you're recovering from the after-effects of the club Laying-Up Supper. But the nights might be drawing in as winter takes hold, but it isn't wise to forget about your boat completely. Take some care as you pack it away and protect your investment, otherwise it could prove rather costly in the spring.
1. Make sure your boat is safe
Preventing damage is the single most important aspect of winterising a boat. If the boat is laid up afloat, ensure that it is in a sheltered location, with ample fendering for the most severe of gales. Equally, mooring lines should be duplicated up so that should one break there is another to do its job.
If the boat is onshore, the boatyard should support it securely – ideally in a cradle, or with cross braces between the shores. Make sure that covers are not tied to the shores. In exposed areas it’s worth lowering the masts of sailboats – the windage on the rig can be enough to topple the boat in severe winter storms. Similarly, all canvas work should be removed, including dodgers, sprayhoods, biminis and sails. As well as reducing windage, this will prevent damage over the winter and prolong the life of these items.
2. Don’t leave laying-up tasks until the spring
At the end of the season it’s tempting to wrap the boat up for the winter, and leave it until the spring. However such an approach risks both damage occurring during the off season and storing up problems for the start of the new season that can easily result in unnecessary expense.
As well as avoiding potential problems, getting things fixed early will pay dividends when it comes to recommissioning. In addition, marine engineers, sailmakers, riggers, and other specialists are often very quiet in the autumn and early part of the winter so should be easily able to fit your work in. If you’re lucky they may even offer a discount, however, if you delay booking work until the spring, contractors may not be able to meet your desired timescale.
3. Look after your engine
This is perhaps the single most important item to pay attention to when laying-up. At the very least ensure there is an adequate antifreeze in the cooling system to prevent freezing and that the raw (salt) water side of cooling systems are flushed through with an anti-freeze mix. It’s also worth filling the fuel tank so that condensation can’t form within it – the diesel bacteria that all too easily clogs fuel filters thrives if there’s water in the tank.
This is also the best time to give the engine an annual service, including changing engine oil, plus oil and fuel filters. That way it’s ready for spring and the motor will benefit from the protection offered by the new engine oil.
Ideally you should also check out whether any other work is needed on the engine/drive installation. Start by checking for wear in the cutless bearing that supports the propeller shaft either at the P bracket or the shaft log. The bearing should be a snug fit around the propshaft, but if there is more than 1mm of movement when the shaft is moved either up and down, or from side to side, it should be replaced.
The propeller should also be examined. Is there any damage to the outer edges of the blades? Are there any areas where the metal has a pink tinge? This is a sign of de-zincification due to inadequate anodic protection. Also check that folding or feathering props operate smoothly. If it needs replacing, you'll find help here about in our feature How to select the right propeller for your boat.
For more on engine maintenance and troubleshooting, see Outboard engine troubleshooting: cooling system problems and Marine diesel engine fault finding: overheating and charging. For advice on winterising your outboard, see How to winterise a four-stroke outboard: video. Also read Top 10 diesel engine tips for trouble-free power.
4. Pamper your electrics
Batteries are easy to look after, but will deteriorate if given no attention over the winter. Ideally they should be charged monthly, unless you have a mains charger of the type that can be left permanently connected. Alternatively, a small solar panel may be enough to keep them topped up and replenish the natural self-discharge rate.
Beyond that, check every electrical item works – it’s not uncommon for small defects go unnoticed. For instance, if you’ve not sailed at night for the last three months, failed interior lights, or even navigation lights, may not have been noticed.
5. Keep your yacht's interior fresh and dry
If the interior is not kept dry over winter, mould can quickly permeate through the boat, damaging upholstery and woodwork. If there’s access to mains power, a dehumidifier is by far the best solution – look for a model that’s designed for marine use. Otherwise, it’s essential to ensure there’s adequate ventilation to keep the boat aired. Cabin and locker doors should be left open wherever possible and berth cushions propped on their side to improve air circulation.
If the boat has a history of developing condensation and mould growth over the winter, wash all exposed surfaces with a mould repellent. However, this shouldn’t be necessary on a boat that’s properly ventilated. Empty the fresh water tanks to prevent the water in them – and in electric pumps – from freezing.
6. Check your boat's structure
Mouldings should be checked for impact damage, including scratches, chips and stress cracks. Any damage should be investigated to ascertain how deep into the structure it penetrates by opened the crack into a v shape using a sharp chisel. If the damage does not extend beyond the gelcoat, a colour-matched cosmetic repair of the gel is all that is required. However, if damage extends into the laminate below, a professional repair will be required. Needless to say, this is best arranged well before the rush to get afloat in the spring.
If deck fittings leak, as well as allowing water into the interior of the boat, the balsa or foam core of the deck can become damaged. This will compromise the integrity of the structure, so it’s worth removing any suspect fittings and re-sealing them with a marine adhesive sealant.
Examine for damage to stitching, as well as nicks, chafe and tears in the fabric, both when sailing – the smallest damage will show clearly against the sun – and when packing the sails. Pay particular attention to high load zones, such as the areas around the head, tack and clew, as well as the leech, batten pockets and spreader patches. If there are several small areas of damages mark each one with tape, so all can be easily found by your sailmaker.
Leaving your sails onboard for the winter is not a good idea, you need to store them somewhere dry and secure. Many sailmakers will offer a winter sails, clean, repair and storage service, which can be a very good solution if you want to guarantee that your sails will be in pristine condition once spring arrives.
8. Deck gear
Examine all deck gear for correct and smooth operation. This is also the perfect time to discuss any modifications to the deck layout and fittings that will take place over the winter – it’s much easier to work out exactly what is needed when the experience of sailing the boat is still fresh in your mind.
If anything needs servicing, like your winches, get it sorted - see our essential guide to How to service your winches.
Halyards, sheets and other lines will become caked in dirt and salt over the season – they should be removed (without forgetting to reeve a mouseline in their place if necessary) and washed in fresh water. At the same time examine each for chafe or other damage and replace (or end-for-end) as necessary.
A full check of the rig is worthwhile – it’s much easier to solve any problems now than in a last minute rush at the start of the season. Pay particular attention to the area around fittings, including swages, spreader roots, and rigging terminals. Spreader ends should be checked to ensure they are smooth. Check the halyard sheaves run smoothly and lubricate them with silicon spray.
10. Safety and emergency gear
The complete inventory should be examined – check the expiry dates on flares and EPIRBS as well as booking services for the liferaft and lifejackets. Jackstays and harness lines should be checked for chafe and if the jackstays are more than 10 years old (five years for boats kept in sunny climates) they should be replaced due to likely UV degradation. Read more in 14 tips to make sure your safety gear is in order.
The best bit about laying-up, even though it may feel a little tedious, if you've done your job well then your spring fitting out will be a walk in the park (see 15 best boat fitting out tips)! So remember every hour invested now will be saving you lots of time and money in the new year.
For more top boat maintenance tips see Boat maintenance: how to look after your boat and Preparing a boat for sale.
Rupert Holmes has cruised and raced more than 60,000 miles, between 60 degrees north and 56 degrees south, in a wide variety of boats. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular boat and gear tests. He owns two yachts, one currently based in the Aegean and the other in the Solent.
This article was first published in 2012.