Despite the exceptionally mild start to the winter, the threat of a sudden cold spell may be just a forecast away. If we get another beast from the east, or even just a standard seasonal cold snap, is your boat prepared? asks Neale Byart, editor of Motorboat Owner.
Winterising is the act of protecting your boat, its equipment and contents from the ravages of the winter weather. Failing to carry out any preparation for winter can result in expensive damage to the engine, domestic water system and even your soft furnishings.
While many marinas, such as MDL, offer lifting capabilities and boat yard services at heavily discounted berth holder prices to help keep your pride and joy in tip top condition with hull scrubs, anti-foul and other maintenance, there are practical steps you can take while berthed.
Here we break down the process of winterising your boat into three categories. First, there is the ‘must dos’. These are the jobs that you should carry out as an absolute minimum, and look after the areas most likely to be affected by a cold spell and most costly to put right. Next we have the ‘good to do’ list. These are jobs that it would be worth considering, as they will keep other parts of your boat fresh and undamaged by winter ravages. Lastly there is the ‘also consider’ list. These are jobs that are good to get done at this time of year. Possibly because they will give you an early ‘heads up’ if anything is wrong, allowing you plenty of time to get things fixed before next season, or maybe just because it means your boat will be in a better state of readiness to go in the spring when the weather finally breaks, meaning you can get back on the water with the minimum of work.
The most important, and expensive, item on your boat is its engine or engines. Seriously cold weather can cause water in the cooling system to freeze and expand. This in turn can crack any part of the cooling system, including the engine block itself.
On a raw-water cooled engine you can choose to simply drain all cooling water, but if the water is salty, you will still be leaving behind a certain amount of potentially corrosive mixture. Far better is to mix up a solution of antifreeze and run it through the engine, either by pouring it into the raw water strainer, lowering the sterndrive into a container containing the mix or by using some engine flush muffs.
Engines with an enclosed cooling system will still have some raw water inside certain parts of the cooling system, such as heat exchanges and raw water pumps. Again this can be drained or purged using the same method as above.
Even though engine blocks with an enclosed cooling system are protected by the antifreeze that the coolant should have within it, it is worth remembering that this should be changed every couple of years to ensure its efficiency. On an engine with an enclosed cooling system, you should, at least, test the enclosed antifreeze mixture to ensure it is capable of doing its job.
Domestic water system
Perhaps the most common form of frost damage experienced is to the boat’s domestic water systems. The best thing you can do to protect this part of the boat is to completely drain it. You can simply run your taps until the tank runs dry, and this will remove most of the water from the system, but there will still be enough trapped water inside the pipe work and taps to cause damage. Once the tank is empty, take the supply hose from the tank and using a dinghy pump blow water out of the system by opening one tap at a time. Don’t forget any taps out in the cockpit or on the transom, as these are the most vulnerable. You can then leave all taps open to allow any remaining water a bit of expansion room, if required.
Don’t forget to drain your water heater. If you have a calorifier, just take off the lower hose. If you have a gas water heater, it should have a drain cock that you can simply undo. Check your owner’s manual for its location.
If the worst comes to the worst and something does goes awry, many marinas offer boat maintenance and engineering. MDL’s network even welcomes outside contractors onto marinas with its open yard policy, plus for MDL members there is often substantial discounts from onsite tenants.
Good to Do
Make the most of winter offers which are offered by marinas like MDL and get ahead of the game with a quick lift and check for hull damage, scrubbing and anti-fouling. Plus, your marina manager or onsite chandlery will be able to tell you which anti-foul you should be using in the local area.
Soft furnishings can take a bit of a beating in a cold and potentially damp environment. If you can, take them off the boat and store them at home somewhere dry. If you can’t take them home, or have nowhere to store them, you need to ensure the boat remains as dry as possible. Fix any leaks, ensure all covers are in good condition and all cover fixings are in place. You could consider running an electric dehumidifier for a few hours a day if you have access to a reliable source of power. If not, you may be better off ensuring good ventilation through the boat by leaving a hatch or porthole or two open. Just make sure that they are ones that won’t let rain in.
The boat’s exterior is fully exposed to the worst of the weather so consider giving the boat a final wash and then apply a generous coat of a good quality wax. You don’t have to polish the wax off until the spring, when doing so should reveal a nicely preserved and shiny boat beneath.
If you have any grey or black water tanks, have them pumped out and flushed through, leaving them empty and clean ready for the next season. Don’t forget the little grey water shower sumps. These should be emptied, which also gives you an opportunity to clean the filter to ensure another year of trouble-free service.
Using a good corrosion protection product, give the engines, mechanicals and any exposed electrical items a good spray. While you are working in these parts of the boat, perhaps also grease any movable linkages and squirt some grease into any grease points.
The subject of fuel tanks is a thorny one. Our recommendations would be to leave petrol tanks as empty as possible and diesel tanks full. A full diesel tank will ensure there is minimal internal tank surface left for condensation to form on, keeping your fuel as free of water as possible. Petrol, on the other hand, does not keep well, particularly in a vented tank, so you would be better off starting the new season with a fresh tank of fuel. Adding a fuel stabiliser to any petrol that does remain in the tank should help ensure it keeps it fresh enough to start the boat in the spring and get you to the fuel berth.
To ensure that your batteries make it through the winter, check the electrolyte levels, top up if required, and ensure that they are fully charged. If possible, give them a trickle charge, or a sporadic short charge, during the winter to keep them in top condition.
These are not really winterising jobs, but are good to do now for a number of reasons, but mainly because it means that, come spring, the boat should be in a ‘ready to go’ state with no nasty surprises lurking.
Change the engine oil. Old engine oil contains contaminants that can harm the internals of your engine. If you change the oil now, the clean fresh oil will coat and protect the internal running surfaces. It will also provide an early ‘heads up’ of any problems such as water or fuel contamination.
Change your sterndrive or outboard gearbox oil. It is not uncommon to find water contamination here, so you don’t want to leave that water in contact with your gears all winter. It will also give you a few months to get the source of the problem fixed, making use of a quieter time of year for most marine engineers. If you leave it until spring, you may find yourself at the back of a very long queue.
Check your props for damage. Like good engineers, the people who refurbish propellers get very busy in the spring, so get the prop off and in for repair early, if required.
Lastly, check your safety equipment. Items such as lifejackets, liferafts, PLBs, EPIRBs and firefighting equipment all have service requirements and/or expiry dates. Winter is a good time to get these items serviced, or hunt out some well-priced replacements.
If you’re berthed at a great marina, you can always ask for advice from the marina staff. MDL’s marinas offer members a a 30% discount on boat yard services and have 13 boatyards across the UK network – with lifting capabilities for all types of boat. The company offers inclusive storage ashore and with 500 tenants across its network, MDL always knows someone who can help.