Whether you lay up ashore, or stay in the water year round, winter is a good time to plan and start implementing maintenance and improvements to your boat. But it’s important to ensure that the continued reliability of essential systems is taken care of first (see: best boat laying-up and winterisation tips). These jobs are much less exciting than the new projects you have in mind, but before starting anything new, the engine, electrics, rigging, deck gear, sails, safety equipment and steering gear should all be carefully inspected and any deficiencies put right.

Winter yacht projects: creating a shelter

With short winter days and frequent inclement weather it’s worth creating shelter to work underneath if you have a large number of jobs to complete outside.

The essentials: gel coat, deck and through-hull fittings, rudder bearings

Problems in these areas can have a significant lead time to source spares, replacements, or even just advice. It therefore makes sense to address them as early as possible in the laying up process – some are even best checked during the last few outings of the season. While a few weeks’ delay in the autumn may not feel as though it will make a difference, don’t be tempted to delay for too long - every type of boating-related business gets seriously busy in the spring, which makes getting work done then more expensive, subject to longer delays and risks you missing out on time afloat at the start of your next season (see: Choosing the right boatyard to work on your boat).

It’s also important to look at the structure of the vessel itself – both for minor damage such as gel coat chips that may have happened during the season and for evidence of more serious problems developing. Check all mouldings for scratches, chips, stress cracks and other damage to the gel coat. Cracks in particular should be investigated to ascertain how deep into the structure they penetrate. Open the crack into a v shape using a sharp chisel; if it does not extend beyond the gelcoat, a cosmetic repair of the gel is all that is required. However, if damage extends into the laminate below a professional repair will be needed. Examine the keel and rudder for impact and other damage and fair as necessary, paying particular attention to leading and trailing edges.

Winter yacht projects: skin fittings

Out of sight shouldn’t mean out of mind, so don’t neglect skin fittings – they are critical to the safety of your boat.

One problem that’s all too often overlooked is leaking deck fittings – while interior water damage is often the only damage these create, they also have the potential to let water into foam or balsa cored decks. Eventually these will delaminate, resulting in a significant loss of structural strength that will require relatively disruptive and expensive repairs (see: How to deal with fibreglass deck leaks).

If there’s any play in the steering now is the time to fix it (see: How to replace rudder bearings). Start by checking rudder bearings by tightly holding the bottom of the foil and moving it both fore and aft and side to side. Don’t worry about exerting too much pressure on the system – you won’t get close to the dynamic loads encountered at sea, but do make sure the boat is securely chocked first. If any slop is detected the bearings should be replaced. With wheel steering systems, all linkages and wires in the mechanism should be checked for wear or slack due to stretching and adjusted as necessary.

Through-hull fittings are potential causes of sinking, and yet are all too often neglected. Damage to metal through-hull fittings is often caused by electrolysis – a white powder inside the hull around the fitting is a possible sign of dezincification and in many cases the fitting will need to be replaced, particularly if it has taken on any kind of a pink hue, which indicates loss of zinc from the alloy. In any case, check all seacocks operate freely, and grease them before launching. Also, check the log and depth-sounder transducers for damage.

Winter yacht projects: winches

Servicing winches regularly can significantly reduce friction.

Safety equipment

All safety gear should be given a full check and service. Examine lifejackets for any chafe or damaged stitching, confirm operation of lights if fitted and blow them up check they retain air for at least 24 hours. Auto inflate lifejackets should have the water-sensing actuating device replaced annually. Alternatively, they can be taken to a life-raft service agent for professional servicing. Harness lines should also be checked for chafe, damage to stitching and correct operation of the clips. Also check expiry dates on flares and fire extinguishers and that the liferaft is not due for servicing.


Electrical systems, especially those of older boats, can be notoriously unreliable, so it’s worth spending time to ensure all is well – often failures of items that are rarely used go unnoticed. If the batteries were tired at the end of the season they should be replaced before launching. One area that’s certainly worth upgrading is changing from traditional halogen or incandescent light bulbs to LEDs, which will save a considerable amount of battery drain. It’s also a good time to plan improvements to charging systems, whether via the engine or fitting solar, wind or towed generators (see: Marine electronics: the 10 commandments).

Rig upgrades

These might include fitting self-tailing or electric winches, but before you do this, check whether it’s possible to reduce friction in the systems. Start by ensuring existing systems are working to their full potential – all too often kit doesn’t get the care it really needs. Servicing winches a couple of times a season, for instance, can reduce friction by more than one third.

Next identify the areas in which new developments mean that fittings or layouts can be improved – the past few years have seen rapid development of new deck systems and rope technology. At one time, for instance, clutches were arranged on the coachroof in wide banks of identical units – but this thinking was driven solely by aesthetics, and involved routing lines through friction inducing turning blocks.

Many layouts are now optimised for efficiency, with clutches sited in single units, rather than banks, so that they can be angled correctly for leading to winches, rather than relying on turning blocks to give a viable lead. Clutches in up to date layouts also tend to be of mixed types and sizes, with each optimised for its specific use.

Similarly, the backstay adjusters of many cruiser racers are no longer up to the job. Yet a cascade with a minimum 16:1 purchase led to the mainsheet trimmer is easy to fit and will facilitate accurate trimming and near-instant depowering of the sail on fractionally rigged boats.

Interior care and improvements

Keeping the interior of the boat in good condition is equally important whether the vessel is laid up ashore or kept afloat, with banishing damp being the key objective. This means that any deck leaks or dripping hatches or windows should be attended to. Traditionally, good ventilation was always seen as being the key to banishing damp – it works really well for a boat kept on a swinging mooring in a non-tidal area, as it will always lie head to wind.

However, boats on alongside moorings spend much less time head to wind, so effective ventilation is more difficult to set up although this can generally be easily set up with solar vents. Given access to shore power, a dehumidifier is also a good option. These are fantastic at drying out a boat, but require it to be perfectly sealed, otherwise the unit is permanently drying fresh air from the atmosphere as it passes through the vessel.

Any improvements to the interior tend to be disruptive during the boating season, so this is a great time of year to plan and implement changes, whether you want to upgrade headlinings and upholstery, add heating or a hot water system, or install a fridge.

Written by: Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes has more than 70,000 miles of offshore cruising and racing experience, in waters ranging from the North Sea to the Southern Ocean and Cape Horn. He writes about all aspects of boat ownership and marine travel, including destinations, seamanship and maintenance, as well as undertaking regular new boat and gear tests. He currently sails around 5,000 miles per year and in the past couple of seasons has cruised from the UK to the Azores, as well as winning his class in the 2014 two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. He also owns two yachts, one based in the Mediterranean and the other in the UK.