There’s no need for the end of the summer to be the end of your sailing season says Jake Kavanagh, yachting journalist. If you follow these top tips, you’ll be comfortable whatever the weather brings.
Why put the boat ashore when there is so much great cruising to be had during the winter? Many berth-holders are now opting to keep the boat afloat from November onwards, and only have a brief lift out in early spring to scrub-off and change the anodes.
As one sailing instructor remarks: “With modern clothing, great insulation and blown-air heating systems, there is no real end to the boating season.”
Extending the boating season is one of MDL Marinas’ specialties as its extensive network offers some really attractive winter berthing packages, with fully serviced pontoons allowing a boat to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Dry stack customers are particularly good at making the most of a sunny winter’s day, as one phone call has the boat afloat and waiting for them as soon as they arrive at the marina.
The speed of service means that when settled weather arrives, those crisp, sunny days can be exploited to the full, even though the daylight is relatively short. It’s been known for UK boaters to go sailing in T-shirts in January when a clear sky allows the sun’s radiant energy to warm the decks, with perhaps a gentle southerly breeze wafting up from the Sahara. As winter boaters cruise along the coastline, they will find popular summer anchorages largely deserted, harbour moorings plentiful, and vast expanses of water with not another boat in sight.
So although daylight hours are shorter the spirit of exploration and adventure can remain the same, especially if owners take advantage of schemes like MDL’s Freedom Berthing. This offers complimentary stays in over 120 marinas in the UK, France, Italy and Spain allowing passages between marinas during the short hours of daylight before enjoying all the comforts of home at your destination.
Here are some top tips to get the most from your boat with off-season cruising:
1: Have the right clothing
Most boat owners already have a good set of wet weather gear, but it pays to invest in a layered system underneath. Many manufacturers have their own dedicated system of breathable fabrics for maximum effect. Several thin layers beneath a fully waterproof outer layer are much better at trapping heat than a couple of thick ones. Most heat is lost through the head, so don’t forget a comfortable wooly hat!
2: Keep a well-stocked galley
Winter sailing requires regular hot food and drinks, especially on a longish passage. One-pot meals are always popular, and usually comprise of tinned ingredients that can be poured into a pan, heated quickly, and served in a bowl so it stays warm in an exposed cockpit. There are plenty of good cookbooks that suggest these instant meals.
3: Switch to propane
Boaters who cruise all year round – or who are planning a blue water adventure - often change their cooking gas from butane to a propane system instead. This is because propane has a higher calorific value and freezes at a very respectable minus 40oC, whereas butane succumbs at just minus 4oC. If there was an overnight frost, the butane in the regulator would freeze and there would be no gas until it had thawed. Propane, however, will still light easily, even if the sea itself has iced over! Most cookers will happily use either gas, although a different regulator will be needed. Long range cruisers often carry both types of bottle and regulator to cover their options.
4: Keep those fingers warm
Cold fingers stop working very quickly; not good when it comes to handling ropes. Invest in a good pair of gloves, and keep those extremities warm. Fingerless gloves are a sort of compromise in summer, but ideally the finger tips should be protected at all times in cold weather. A mitten works well, as you can still steer, throttle and wind winches, but the hand can be easily slipped out of it for tasks requiring more dexterity.
5: Embrace the hot water bottle
The hot water bottle is a major asset afloat. Choose a fleece-lined one, and keep it tucked under your jacket to warm the inner core. Also great at night – as the thicker the bottle’s coat, the hotter the water you can use and the longer it will stay warm. They are great around your feet under the duvet if you haven’t got a heating system.
6: Why not fit blown air heating?
Talking of which, why not fit a blown air heater? Arguably the safest way of heating a boat, it is free from potential carbon exhaust emissions within the cabin. (Running the gas stove all night is highly dangerous, unless there is excellent ventilation, which rather defeats the object.) A blown air heater burns small amounts of diesel from the boat’s main tank, with the combustion gasses exhausted over the side. A small electric motor then drives the hot air from a heat exchanger throughout the accommodation. A good tip is to insulate the heating duct between outlets, and to reduce the diameter of the duct as it travels further from the heater to maintain velocity. (The duct can be left un-insulated as it passes through hanging lockers to help damp clothing to dry). Check out products from manufacturers such as Eberspacher and Webasto, to name just two, with prices highly competitive due to the volumes made for the trucking and RV industries.
7: Indulge in a luxury sleeping bag
Warm bedding will make a big difference to your comfort afloat, so look for winter sleeping bags or duvets with a high tog rating. This rating is a measure of thermal insulation, and the higher the number, the warmer you will be. A lightweight summer duvet, for example, will have a tog rating of between 3.0 to 4.5. A spring/autumn-weight duvet will score between 7.5 to 10.5tog, and the one you will want for mid-winter will be between 12.0 to 13.5.
8: Run a dehumidifier
Condensation can be a problem in the winter months, especially when the warm air inside the boat meets the windows. With little insulation from single-pane glass (although you can make insulated covers) the cold air outside promotes condensation and can cause annoying runs. The same thing can happen on uninsulated headlinings.
If you are taking advantage of MDL’s Freedom Berthing, you can expect to connect to shorepower every night and run a small dehumidifier. These inexpensive machines strip all the excess water from the air and transfer it to a built-in reservoir, whilst some can drain directly into the galley sink. It is best to get a reputable make, and keep an eye on it, as some cheaper ones have been known to burn out if used excessively. Even a relatively small unit will make a big difference aboard and some 12-24V versions are also available for use at anchor.
9: Get the most from Freedom Berthing
MDL’s complimentary berthing scheme allows you to check out marinas in the UK and participating marinas in southern Europe with a series of free visits. In addition, some of MDL’s marinas have partnered with hotels ashore, such as Southampton’s Ocean Village and the 5-star Harbour Hotel within the marina complex. If your partner is reluctant to sail in the midst of winter, then a stay ashore in such luxury should make a chilly sail worthwhile.
Plus, when you use MDL’s network, you’ll benefit from 24/7 marina staff and security, and great onsite restaurant and bars. All the marinas are experienced with looking after off-season cruisers, and offer warm showers, warm clubhouses and a warm welcome.
10: Don’t forget to take pictures
The winter offers some dramatic seascapes, with brooding skies, glassy reflections and spectacular sunsets. For those who hate getting up early, then the late sunrise is rarely missed. Keep your phone and camera handy, as the winter offers some excellent photo opportunities. If you are into astronomy, then crisp clear winter nights reveal the magnificence of the Milky Way and other northern constellations away from the light pollution of towns and cities.
11. Keep the tender available
The downside of a winter cruise is that some of the summer services, such as a water taxi, may not be available. Make sure your tender is accessible and easy to deploy, as this will allow you access to the shore when you have no choice but to anchor off. However, such will be the lack of crowds that some quayside pubs and restaurants may also throw in alongside overnight berthing even through they usually have strict time limits during the summer. The dinghy is also a great way to go creek crawling, and explore those places you missed during the season. But if you’re staying at an MDL marina you obviously won’t need a tender as you can step straight from boat to pontoon.
12: Take a course
Many sea schools do a brisk trade off-season as students like being able to practice their skills in empty harbours and anchorages. There are very few onlookers, and plenty of room to manoeuvre. Another big advantage is the short daylight, allowing them to practice night navigation for several hours and still manage to get back in time for a leisurely pub supper. Prices are generally cheaper, too, and will allow new boaters to gain confidence and skills before the busy summer season. MDL marinas always has a list of approved RYA sea schools available, with many operating out of each marina. Ask the dockmaster who they can recommend. Or visit www.mdlmarinas.co.uk/services-directory
And that’s it. You’ve invested a lot of money in your boat, so make the most of it by enjoying every fine day during the winter.