In-The-Water Winter Boat Storage: Yes, You Can

Having lived on a 30-foot sailboat and various powerboats year-round in northern climes for 12 years, I’m no stranger to winters afloat. It’s been a way of life for me, and I can tell you truthfully that keeping a heated boat in the water all winter while sleeping aboard and tending to every issue that arises is different than “setting and forgetting” one at the dock for the duration of those cold months. If you just tie up your pride and joy and walk away from her for the winter, bad things will happen.

There's nothing wrong with keeping your boat at the dock all winter long, as long as you take the proper precautions. Photo courtesy of BoatUS
There’s nothing wrong with keeping your boat at the dock all winter long, as long as you take the proper precautions. This owner likely didn’t. Photo courtesy of BoatUS

That said, with a little planning and the right mindset, there’s no reason your boat can’t safely spend the winter in the water. Here are some tips to help maximize your chances of success:

Regular Inspections

If you’re toying with the idea of leaving your boat in the water all winter long, plan on checking her at least once a week, every week, through the whole season. Most big problems on boats in the winter start as small ones that could have been fixed early, had the boat owner just looked in regularly.

A general weekly boat inspection should include taking a look at dock lines and their condition (check for wear and fraying, especially on pilings and cleats/chocks) as well as making any necessary adjustments. Also check hoses and through-hulls, the bilge, engine, and any other potential problem areas. Always look to see how the boat is floating in the water and how much water is in the bilge. If your cockpit or deck areas are holding melted snow or ice, check to see why and fix the issue.

Keep the Ice Away

Areas as far south as Chesapeake Bay often have to contend with frozen creeks and rivers. While ice has to get pretty thick to cause any real damage to your boat, I never have, and likely never will, store a boat at a dock without a de-icing system of some sort.

Some marinas, especially those up north, usually have bubbler systems or de-icers of their own, but if you’re at a private dock, the onus is on you to keep ice at bay. Normally all that is required is a de-icer (Google Kasco, for an example), an AC electrical connection on the dock, and at least three to four feet of water.

Cover Your Bases

Probably the worst thing you can do is leave your boat uncovered all winter. Not only does it expose it to the general shine-robbing weather and UV rays of the sun all winter, it opens you up to some pretty common problems in regard to sinking.

If you can afford to, the absolute best option is to have your entire boat shrink-wrapped with an access door so you can check in on things over the winter. Next on the list is a custom canvas or similar cover. At a minimum, you can always use a canvas tarp to help keep snow and ice out of your cockpit or deck areas. Those blue poly tarps you see at marine stores? Not even worth your time; don’t bother.

If for some reason you can’t keep your boat covered, make sure you head down to the docks as soon as possible after a snowstorm to remove any heavy ice or snow buildup. If a particularly severe storm is forecast, I go down (if it’s safe to do so) part-way through a storm to clear off what’s already accumulated.

There’s No Substitute for Winterizing

Lots of folks think that you don’t have to winterize your boat as thoroughly just because the boat is suspended in a medium that isn’t completely frozen. It just doesn’t work that way. Engines, water systems, air conditioning units, batteries, you name it; everything should be winterized just as thoroughly as it would if the boat was being stored on land.

If you haven’t begun the winterization process on your boat, now’s a good time to get brushed up on all the basics regarding how to protect your investment over the long, cold winter. Check out these other articles to find out how:

Winter Storage Basics

Five Winter Lay-Up Tips for Your Boat

Boat Storage: What’s Right for Your Boat?

In-the-Water Winter Boat Storage

How to Cover Your Boat

Should You Shrink-Wrap Your Boat?

Outboards and Outdrives

How to Winterize a Four-Stroke Outboard

Outboard Expert: Five Lay-Up Mistakes to Avoid

How to Change the Lower Unit Oil on a Boat

How to Winterize Your Stern Drive and Pressure Water System

How to Winterize a Small Outboard

Five Steps Often Overlooked When Winterizing Your Outboard Motor

Fuel Tank

Winterizing Your Boat’s Fuel Tank


Battery Winter Lay-Up Dos and Donts 


How to Winterize Boat Air-Conditioning

Diesel Cooling System

Winterizing Your Diesel Engine: Cooling System

Diesel Lube Oil Change

Winterizing Your Diesel Engine: Oil Change


Written by: Gary Reich

Gary Reich is a Chesapeake Bay-based freelance writer and photojournalist with over 25 years of experience in the marine industry. He is the former editor of PropTalk Magazine and was the managing editor of the Waterway Guide. His writing and photography have been published in PassageMaker Magazine, Soundings, Fly Fishing in Salt Waters, Yachting Magazine, and Lakeland Boating, among others.


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