Boating Fun When Its Cold

By Tom Neale, 11/23/2011


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

Some of the nicest times we’ve had aboard have been when it was very cold. Everyone talks about storing the boat for the winter. In some places you must. But in many you don’t have to if you can keep a close eye on the boat and do what you need to do to keep it, and more importantly, you, safe. And you can enjoy your boat even more.

Once long ago Mel and I took a trip up a long beautiful river in our Seafair Sedan. This was an 18’ fiberglass outboard boat with a cabin and two bunks. We anchored out in a beautiful still, stark world with temperatures already below freezing. The current gurgled swiftly around the little hull…swiftly enough to keep ice from forming. Needless to say we didn’t have reverse cycle air conditioning or any other type of heat. But we had warm clothes and warm sleeping bags. We had a gas stove for cooking and a tad of good bourbon for the evening. The world around us seemed frozen in grayness but it was still beautiful. Only the geese, settling down in the fields ashore and in the marshes joined our quiet conversation. The sharp freezing morning awakened us like no cup of coffee could ever do, but that hot coffee was extra good and the bacon and eggs were incredible. We had to gobble them down before they got frosty cold, but that was OK.

Tom and Mike heading out for rockfish.
Another time, also long ago but not quite so long, we were cruising in the Chesapeake Bay with our two very young daughters. We beat over to the Maryland Eastern Shore from one of our favorite anchorages near Solomons. We thought it would be a great sail, although a little close hauled, because the wind was supposed to be stiff out of the northwest. The wind that day, as always, did its own thing. It didn’t listen to the weather people. It funneled down the bay from the North and then developed a bit of a nor’easterly slant. We had to tack and the arctic gale drove freezing drops of water over the boat. We got in, finally, to an anchorage near Oxford. That night it snowed. Lots of snow. We did have a generator and reverse cycle air that time, because we were on our Gulfstar 47. The snow began as flurries as night settled in and then changed to what seemed like a blizzard. We turned on the spreader lights and watched it swirl around the mast, to settle on the deck. It was like a blanket, helping to trap in our precious warm air. And it muffled the sound, not that there was much of that anyway, except for the wind.

The next morning we awoke to another world than that in which we’d anchored the evening before. The shore was smothered in white and the marsh grasses gracefully bowed with the weight of their pristine covering. Even the water around us had changed. It was a white slush, not frozen, but still. It held the winter’s magic. We remained at anchor. The weather on the VHF told us that the front was going to back up, and southwesterly winds would move warm air in soon. This happened. The water around us cleared as ripples melted the slush, and the snow melted on our decks. We beat back to the other side, but on a much longer tack, heading for the Potomac. It was good.

Another time we left the Chesapeake Bay heading south after Christmas. It was cold. Some pipes burst on our boat in the forward head a day or so before we left. We beat the snow, but there was so much frost on the deck that our young daughters, clad in snow clothes, boots and mittens, built a frost snowman. It looked just like the real thing, only small. Later they went “sledding” town the heavy frost covered bottom of the inflatable, which was stored upside down on the deck, slanting down. Our decks then were surrounded with strong secure netting, making it impossible for little ones to accidently go over.

Tom’s Tips About Cold Boating

1. Boating in cold weather requires many extra precautions. Here are but a few.

2. If you go on the water in cold weather understand thoroughly the hazards of hypothermia. Cold water can kill you very quickly. Allowing yourself to get too cold in air alone can rob you of your ability to take care of yourself and lead to death directly or indirectly.

3. If you go in the water, you’ll lose control of your body in moments or less, depending on the temperature of the water, air and wind effects.

Click Here for More Tips

On one trip when we headed south in the winter we tried to put out our forsail as we headed down the Chesapeake on a nor’westerly breeze. It was a roller furling rig and we had to untie the stop knots at the blocks so that we could let it out. They were frozen solid. I knew there was no way on earth I’d be able to untie those knots until Mel had a thought. A few minutes later she came up from the galley with a pot of steaming hot water. I poured it on the first knot, slowly, and it thawed enough to loosen. The water on the line soon froze, but by then I was working on the knot on the other side of the boat. Soon the sail billowed out, with crinkling ice falling to the decks and into the Bay.

Recently my son-in-law, Mike, and I went rock fishing in the Rappahannock River a few days before Christmas. We were in my 20’ center console 1985 Mako. It’s a great boat and I love it, which is why I was only joking when we walked down the dock and I said we might need to build a fire in it. It was brutally cold and the wind made it ten times worse. They use the term “wind chill” on the TV broadcasts. They want to get the most they can in terms of shock value and advertising bucks by the drop of a few degrees. Well, this wasn’t wind chill. This was wind deep freeze. We’d known it was going to be this way before we left, so we’d dressed well. But this was nowhere near well enough. We didn’t own that kind of equipment. But we wanted to catch some rock fish. We had visions of serving it for Christmas, covered in bacon and cooked over a grill seasoned with wood smoke.

On the way out to the hole we began to doubt that we wanted to catch rock fish. By the time we got the lines over, fumbling with gloves, daring to take them off only occasionally, we knew damn well that we didn’t want to catch rock fish. Or anything else. The thought of getting one aboard and off the hook and then of cleaning it made our already cold blood run colder. We knew fingers wouldn’t work and that no taste of good rock fish, even with bacon, would be worth the pain of the cold water.

As we soon headed in, I had to stop and fill the tank because I figured this would be the last run on that boat for the winter and I wanted to store it full of gas. Mike helped me and then I went into the warm building to settle up. Mike disappeared into the men’s shower room. I spent some time inside the marina store talking and bragging about how cold it had been out there, and finally began to notice that Mike hadn’t come back out yet. I found out why. He’d headed straight for the warm air hand dryer on the wall near the sink, hit the button over and over again, and for some time had been holding hands and feet under the air. A brilliant idea, I thought as we headed home feeling the cold of the stainless steering wheel through my gloves, and, wishing I’d thought of it. But it was fun. We had not fish but we had lots of bragging to do when we got back.

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