Winter Sailing – Tips to Sail in Colder Weather

frozen water

Leaving the boat in the water over the winter so you can go cold weather sailing requires forethought to be safe and protect your sailboat

boat gear shop

Living on the Chesapeake in Virginia’s Northern Neck, I noticed last winter that there were a significant number of days that seemed warm enough to go winter sailing: 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit. This year I decided to leave my boat at the slip and try to take advantage of potentially “good” weather.

frozen water sailboatLike most sailors, I like lists. I made an extensive list of things I needed to prepare to make sure that I could sail in colder weather.

However, it boiled down to three primary issues:

  • Insurance
  • Ice
  • Inspection

I keep both hull coverage and protection and indemnity (P&I) coverage on the boat. However, my previous insurance policy had a layup period, so in order to use the boat over the winter, I had to pay more to get a full years’ coverage. Finding hull coverage for the winter was difficult, but not impossible.

I was told that on Cockrell Creek it never froze, so I didn’t proceed with the purchase of a bubbler or agitator unit.

That – in fact – was a mistake. She didn’t suffer any damage to the hull during the winter “bomb cyclone”, but it was a lesson learned.

I have an electric engine, so winterizing the boat is really just draining the water tank and making sure the batteries are charging. However, I usually don’t truly inspect the boat during the winter, that’s always been for spring commissioning.

Trending Now: Custom Boat Life Gear

Winter Sailing Prep List

In December I went through the boat with a formal checklist and identified some pretty basic things that I should have noticed before. I’m meticulous about inspecting the standing and running rigging, but apparently less so with other things.

The following is generally what I looked for:

  • Ground Tackle: Primary and secondary anchors and rode ready to go?
  • Electrical System: wires and connections without discoloration/damage; batteries are well secured …etc.?
  • Bilge Pumps: does automatic bilge pump work; are bilges clear; does the manual backup work?
  • Through-hulls: sea-cock handles work; hoses are in good condition; double hose-clamps; thru-hull plugs attached; and stuffing box functioning?
  • Safety at Sea: nav lights; horn; VHF; PFD’s; fire extinguisher …etc. all in good repair?
  • Standing and Running Rigging: wire, line, blocks and fittings in good repair (aloft and on-deck)?
  • Sails: damage to sail seams and slides?
  • Mast and Boom: corrosion or damage at fittings, joints and spreaders?
  • Maneuvering: prop shaft; throttle; transmission; zincs; and rudder operate?

After fixing the missed items, I took the boat out in January, when the temperature was supposed to be in the 50’s and the wind 10-15 knots from the south.

I convinced a friend to join me on the sail, largely because I don’t think it’s safe to sail alone in the winter. Don’t get me wrong, most of the time I’m a solo sailor. I enjoy being out on my boat alone, but not in the winter…

ingram bay chart

winter wind conditionsAs we motored south on Cockrell Creek to get out into Ingram Bay and potentially the Chesapeake, the wind was rising and I tucked the second reef into the main.

In my youth, and in a much smaller boat, I’d been dismasted because I was pushing an old boat beyond her limits. As a more experienced sailor, I am much more cautious and reef early.

The wind had shifted more to the southeast and after raising the mainsail, we were able to fall off and enter the Great Wicomico. The wind had also gusted up to 20 knots sustained, so we unrolled a little of the jib to ease the weather helm.

My sailboat is only 26 feet, but she has a full keel and balancing the sails is necessary for her to sail well. Additionally, tacking her can be a chore. Done well, it looks effortless, while done wrong it’s like watching Napoleon Dynamite dance.

Winter sail soloAs we tacked out of Ingram Bay, two things became apparent:

  • It was GREAT sailing! With no more than 120 SQFT of sail up, her top speed that day was 5.2 knots and we kept her above 4 knots most of the time. Her water line length (LWL) is 21.25 feet, so as a full keel, displacement boat, her hull speed should be around 6.1 knots. In short, we were flying!
  • We were also cold! More layers and potentially a thermos filled with coffee or soup would have come in handy.

After the cold got too much for us, we headed back to Cockrell Creek. At the entrance we rounded up into the wind, rolled up the jib, then fell off and sailed her back to the dock with the wind on the quarter. All in all, a good day and one that I hope to repeat.

Chart 12225. Office of the Coast Survey. Recovered from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Trending Now: Must-Have Boat Gear for Your Boat Life

Trending Now: Custom Nautical Decor for Your Boat Life

Disclosure: This site may contain links affiliated with companies where we receive compensation. Also, as an Amazon Associate we may earn from qualifying purchases we refer but it does not impact the price you pay. Full disclosure policy.

Tom Briggs

View posts by Tom Briggs
Tom Briggs is a competent mariner with experience on traditional and modern sailing vessels. He holds a Master’s license for power and auxiliary sail vessels of less than 50 tons on inland waters, plus his OUPV for near coastal waters. He has experience with traditional vessels including as relief and volunteer crew on the skipjack Claud W. Somers of the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum and the schooner Pioneer of the South Street Seaport Museum. He also has traditional rigging and maintenance experience on the Somers and the schooner’s Pioneer, Lettie G. Howard and Quinnipiac. Having acquired most of his sea-time on Florida’s Gulf Coast, he now makes his home in Reedville on Virginia’s Northern Neck. His boat is Tula, a Frances 26, one of the small sailboats that John Vigor has written can take you anywhere. Additionally, he is a reservist and Chief Petty Officer in the US Navy and a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Scroll to top