Sailing in winter: Top tips

27th September 2021 Jack O'Rourke

Sailing in winter: Top tips

When the days become shorter and the temperatures drop, sailing and boating in winter still offers some great opportunities out on the water. Going out in winter means no crowds, deserted cruising grounds and fresh, clear conditions. 

It is not for the faint of heart, but it is easy to brave the elements in the colder months as long as you prepare ahead of time. Setting realistic trip goals will ensure that you and your crew stay safe and enjoy your time together.

Here are some tips for sailing safely and comfortably in winter.

Prepare your boat 

A thorough inspection of your boat before the start of the winter sailing season is beneficial to check whether your boat is in tip-top shape. It gets harder to maintain your boat in winter, so have it ready to go will save a lot of trouble. 

In particular, engines are harder to turn over in the cold because the oil thickens and requires more power to start. Batteries also lose their charge in the cold so it’s worth topping them up. If you plan to do a lot of winter sailing, install a solar panel for power all year round. Fill up the fuel and water as often as you can.

Keep your lines dry as exposed lines can get wet and freeze. Store your lines correctly by coiling and hanging them in a dry and ventilated area. 

If it is freezing, use a bucket of seawater and a scrubbing brush to remove ice from your decks to make them safe to walk on. 

These are jobs that need to be done before leaving the dock. 

Judge the conditions 

Before heading out, set realistic distances and time-frames for your journey, and monitor the weather conditions for any cold fronts. Winter sailing is much more pleasant on light-wind days when it is blowing 15 knots or less. Sailing at fast speeds into freezing cold wind is not as enjoyable.

Plan shorter sails than you would in the height of summer to account for fewer daylight hours. If you do plan on doing longer trips, set off at sunrise and arrive before dark to avoid being in the chill for longer than necessary. 

Wear proper sailing gear

Appropriate clothing is very important when sailing during winter. It can be hard to move around bundled up in layers of thick clothing, so try wearing lots of thin layers. Wear windproof fabrics on the outer layer with plenty of insulation underneath. 

If the weather is particularly bad, wear a waterproof jacket with an insulating hood, or invest in a beanie or balaclava to prevent heat escaping from your head. 

Wear insulated gloves with wrist straps, especially when handling lines and tying knots. 

Have a change in footwear and clothes if you get wet and have some towels handy for your fellow crew members.

Read our article on what to wear on a boat in winter for more tips.

Keep warm when possible 

It goes without saying that sailing in frigid winter conditions has its fair share of challenges and careful consideration should be taken to keep the crew out of the cold as much as possible. Hypothermia can set in surprisingly quickly if not closely monitored. Keep hot drinks in easy reach and a good supply of hot food to keep energy levels up. 

For longer trips have dry protected areas and blankets handy for bedding. Prevent mildew build up by running a small dehumidifier or heater for extra warmth. 

Consider covering the cockpit so those at the helm or assisting with navigation are not exposed to the elements for long periods of time. 

Avoid overboard situations 

Particularly in winter, a person overboard situation could be quite deadly. Cold shock from entering the water suddenly is enough to cause unconsciousness, or can affect your ability to breathe and swim. We recommend you and your crew always wear a life jacket when on deck during the winter.

Make sure guard rails are secure, lines are stowed away properly and you have flotation devices near to hand to prevent someone from entering the water for too long. Movement becomes harder in the cold as joints stiffen and hand coordination is impaired, so practice caution when moving about the boat. 

Winter weather windows can be small so proper preparation is key to getting the most of a day on the water. Keep an eye on the weather, and if there is any doubt that conditions may not be safe, we recommend you stay inside with some hot chocolate instead! 

The Deckee app provides daily accurate weather information on our customisable dashboard, with data on temperature, winds, tides and more.