If you want to sail out of season then careful thought needs to be given about winter sailing gear. Rachael Sprot explains how to keep you and your boat comfortable
Winter sailing gear should not be an afterthought as nothing sucks the pleasure from cruising more than being cold and wet while up on deck.
And you shouldn’t just be thinking about what you are wearing. You need to consider how to make the boat as comfortable as possible for sailing in cooler climes.
Heaters, insulation and boat dehumidifiers might sound like a luxury, but often they are a necessity for those who want to extend their cruising season.
The dividend for making the extra effort is some truly memory-making sailing.
Winter sailing gear: the boat
Cold hands slow down tasks on deck, so equipment needs to operate smoothly.
Additional kit can be expensive but some creature comforts become a necessity rather than a luxury.
Sprayhood & cockpit tent: If you haven’t already got one, a sprayhood is the single biggest improvement you can make. Cockpit tents take this a stage further, extending your living space in winter and summer.
They also create a natural drying room for damp kit, and some boats will have a duct for the diesel forced air-heater in the cockpit to heat this space.
Heating: A heater is an important addition. The most popular heaters are the diesel-fuelled hot air systems such as Erberspacher, Webasto or Mikuni (now MV heating).
The diesel heater itself can be mounted in a cockpit locker and doesn’t need to be in the accommodation.
A flexible hose conducts air to the cabin outlets. It draws anything from 0.1 – 0.5L per hour for larger boats, so you’ll need to keep an eye on the fuel tanks during longer trips.
Modern units are very efficient, but they can consume quite a bit of power on start up.
If you’re heading off-grid for long periods of time an old-fashioned stove which runs off diesel, wood, charcoal or paraffin won’t need battery power.
There’s no ducting to run through the boat, but bulkhead space for mounting can be hard to come by.
If you’re simply marina-hopping then a simple electric fan heater may suffice.
Low-wattage tube heaters take the chill off and could run off an inverter if you’ve got a healthy bank of batteries.
Carbon Monoxide: Burning any carbon-based fuel can produce harmful levels of carbon monoxide.
This is exacerbated if there’s limited oxygen or heat for efficient combustion, such as within the damp, closed interior of a yacht.
Good installation and plenty of boat ventilation will go a long way to mitigate this risk but it is important to be vigilant.
Fit at least one CO detector and make routine inspections of your heater, especially around exhausts where corrosion can cause failure. Ensure that fumes aren’t collecting inside cockpit tents or wheelhouses.
Heaters should all be CE/UKCA marked, but not everything you find online is.
Get a surveyor to check your setup if you’re in any doubt.
Condensation & Insulation: The intermittent drip of condensation from a portlight above my bunk used to drive me to distraction.
The water torture was made worse by the knowledge that it was fuelled by my own lungs. Condensation needs to be tackled on a reduction, rather than elimination approach, as you’ll never be able to get rid of it entirely.
Try to reduce the amount of wet kit inside the boat by keeping it on deck beneath the sprayhood.
Don’t boil excessive amounts of water on the hob, and open a hatch to let steam out when cooking.
It may feel counter-intuitive to crack open the hatches but air circulation is essential. It may let warm air escape, but it will be transporting moisture away too.
Don’t be tempted to blank off dorade vents or hermetically seal the cabin; a few draughts and even a small fan will help, quite aside from keeping you alive.
Dehumidifiers are a powerful asset in the war against damp. They’re about the only thing which can tackle wet-weather gear so it’s worth carrying one.
Although some 12V models exist, they are expensive. Unless you’re planning to spend considerable time on board in cold weather, a 240V unit for when you’re plugged in to shore power will suffice.
The desiccant type works better at low temperatures than the condenser variety.
Remember to check your boat insurance policy if you intend to leave one running unattended as they can catch fire.
Moisture-absorbent pouches can help when you’re not on board.
Condensation can only form on cold surfaces, so the better insulated your hull, the less condensation will form. You’ll enter a YouTube wormhole if you start researching this topic.
Although anything is better than nothing, especially if you have a single-skin hull or deck, it’s worth thinking through the long-term implications before starting.
Spray foam would make accessing the hull difficult if repairs were needed, and don’t impede access to deck fittings which may one day need re-bedding.
Close-celled foam is a good material as it won’t absorb moisture and there are specialist products on the market like Armaflex.
On one of my earliest attempts though, I found a yoga mat was cheap and hard wearing.
Hatches and portlights can be insulated with hatch screens which attach with suction pads. If all else fails, covering a portlight with loose-fitting tin foil or cling film has been known to work!
Butane can be sluggish in the depths of winter, especially at the end of a bottle.
Propane performs better in cold temperatures so it might be worth having a dual fuel regulator so that you can switch between the two.
Batteries: Long hours of darkness put greater demands on your battery bank, just at a time when it’s weakened by cold temperatures.
Keep an eye on the state of charge and be prepared to upgrade the battery bank if it’s starting to show its age.
You may have to run the engine more to keep them topped up, but beware running the engine without load for too long.
Mould and mildew: The creeping bloom of mould and mildew soon sets in if the interior of the boat is left damp. Prop up bunk cushions, leave sole boards up and lockers ajar to prevent stale air from collecting in one area.
Dry bags or vacuum bags are essential to protect sleeping bags, pillows and clothes from mildew, and take home whatever you can to wash and dry.
Salty waterproofs will attract moisture and mould too.
Lights: Be prepared for long hours of darkness, even if you’re only planning to day sail.
Make sure you’ve got good torches on board and invest in a decent search light to pick out moorings or obstructions in the dark – ideally a 12V Aldis Lamp, although some modern LED searchlights are 12V chargeable and extremely powerful.
Consider switching cabin lights and NAV lights to LED bulbs to save power, but beware the colour change on green- and red-sectored lights.
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I’m a wimp when it comes to the cold. As soon as the temperature drops below 20°C I transition straight from shorts to foulies.
It’s a drag because I love the rugged coastlines of the North, so I’ve had to learn about winter sailing gear, and how to dress for cold weather.
There are three rules: Number 1: Forget about looking cool. We’re aiming to achieve the exact opposite and look warm and toasty. Number 2: Embrace your inner Michelin woman. Number 3: By the time you’re cold, it’s too late.
Wind chill: We rely on a layer of air trapped against our skin to keep us warm. If this disperses we cool down, and on damp skin the effect is even more pronounced.
Wind chill is often overlooked by clothing manufacturers who focus on making things waterproof yet lightweight.
But in my experience it’s the weight which keeps the wind out. A big collar to hide behind, warm pockets and well-sealed cuffs all help keep the warmth in.
Outer layer: Good quality waterproofs are a must. You need a substantial barrier between you and the weather with enough room for layers beneath.
Musto HPX has long been the benchmark for offshore sailing kit, although other big names have equivalent products.
I’ve had a set of Guy Cotton Dremtech foulies for years and found them equally waterproof and more robust than the high street brands.
Alternatively a fisherman’s neoprene lined Fladen floatation suit is incredibly warm and windproof for less than £200.
The finish isn’t stylish, but see Rule 1!
Mid layers: Next you need to insulate yourself. Functional mid-layers take many different shapes and don’t need to be specialist marine garments.
I’ve had many years of good service from a set of ski trousers from Aldi paired with a top of the range Henri Lloyd primaloft jacket.
Both have an outer shell which provides a second layer of wind-proofing. Together they saw me through Arctic gales and winter refits alike.
In less extreme conditions winter-lined walking trousers are a good option.
A second midlayer, such as a chunky fleece, is often necessary in very cold weather.
Base layers: It took me a while to discover merino wool, but once I had I was completely converted.
What you wear against your skin is vitally important and natural fibres are much more comfortable than synthetic ones.
Against all the advice, I regularly double up on thermals with a close-fitting merino underneath and a slightly looser synthetic one on top.
Gloves: Gloves are a controversial topic. As soon as you handle a line they get wet.
Waterproof gloves tend to be quite bulky and less effective at keeping in the heat.
I’ve found the best solution is to have several pairs of thick, warm gloves and to be disciplined about taking them off when handling lines.
They don’t need to be expensive – basic ski gloves and cycling mittens are often cheaper than their marine equivalents.
Neoprene gloves, designed to be effective whilst damp, are not as warm, but if you’re sailing hard they may be the only solution since you can leave them on in order to handle lines.
On very cold night watches where you’re helming and your hands are exposed, a lightweight pair of running gloves beneath bulkier gloves adds considerable extra warmth to your hands and makes it easier to take them on and off.
Sailing Boots: There’s no denying it, leather boots are warmer than rubber boots. Although I’ve been grateful for mine over the years, there’s no question they’re a major investment.
Good socks go a long way to keeping feet warm, regardless of what boot they’re in.
Boots that are too snug, especially with thick socks, will squash your feet, reduce circulation and insulation, and make your feet cold.
A pair of waterproof socks in case the inside of your boots get damp is a lifesaver on long offshore passages.
Lifejacket: As water temperatures drop the consequences of falling overboard mount up. Cold water shock kicks in when water drops blow 15°C, which is some time in the autumn through to early summer.
Be proactive about clipping on and be careful in dinghies. It’s worth noting that with lots of extra layers to trap air, a lifejacket with more buoyancy will be required to turn you right-side-up if the worst happens.
Sleeping: Staying warm in your bunk is another challenge entirely.
A sleeping bag liner can add 5°- 8° to the sleeping bag performance for a very small addition to a kit bag.
A hot water bottle is a good cure for cold feet.
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