When you spend a lot of time around boats, you get to noticing some peculiar things about marinas. They’re like parking lots for boats – but imagine if the cars in the parking lot never moved!
Since I got my start in boating from the Seattle Sailing Club (SSC), I figured most boats get used every week – after all, all the SSC boats did (for the most part). Or if not weekly, at least monthly right? No? Hmm. The surprising truth I eventually discovered is that most boats get used not at all, in the 8 months between September and June. And even in the 2-4 months of summer (the definition of summer depends on who you talk to), most get used weekly or monthly, but a few still don’t get used at all.
So for a while now I’ve struggled to make sense of this. We’re so fortunate to live in an area where it’s possible to cruise year-round – we don’t have to haul out and winterize our boats like people do on the northern east coast and Great Lakes.
There are two big reasons people don’t sail much in the PNW winter:
- Rain, cold, and challenging wind storms.
- Short daylight hours. At its worst, it gets dark at about 4pm (before true sunset, due to the dark, heavy cloud cover we have much of the winter). This rules out weekday sails for people who work during the day.
These are big reasons, and I totally understand why it deters many people. Some years we have powerful weather systems moving through as frequently as every two days, and some of them you really don’t want to risk being out in – 40+ knot winds with short steep waves and cold sideways rain.
Last winter we had a 40 day period without a single rain-free day. Typical weather forecasts show a chance of rain every day of the next 10 days, every week. Yet, it usually doesn’t rain all day, and there are often short windows of nice weather in between each front.
Why Sail in the Winter?
There are lots of benefits to sailing in the winter:
- It’s the only real way to deal with cruising withdrawal.
- It’s a great way to practice sailing skills. When we first started going beyond summer sailing in Puget Sound, we found out we were great light wind sailors, but terrible heavy wind sailors.
- Using a boat keeps it in better shape than if you let it sit all winter (the diesel gets used, the sails get aired out, new things you installed during project work get tested out).
- Enjoying the outdoors is a good way to avoid Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Cruising vs Racing
If you’re a racer, that’s probably an advantage actually for getting out in the winter months. Racers typically have more than two crew for their boats, and that helps a lot with managing the high winds that can move in quickly. Racers also usually get to warm up in a cozy bar, yacht club house, or at home after the race. Cruisers anchoring somewhere overnight have the extra challenge of figuring out how to get heat and dry out rain soaked clothes.
Watching for Weather Windows
The key to still cruising in the winter is watching for those perfect weather windows. A few times every winter, we get 3 days or even a week of high pressure, with blue skies, cool but dry days, and good wind.
It’s easy to forget to watch for the weather windows though. Once the rainy weather starts, many people cross sailing off their list and don’t think of it as an option again until April. Then when the picture perfect days come along, everyone misses them. Like last October at Elliott Bay on a day with sunny blue skies and a perfect 10 kt wind, I saw only 1 or 2 sailboats go out (out of hundreds). And inside the marina it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop – there were so few people around that the blue heron was walking the docks, calmly spending minutes staring at the water before pouncing to grab a fish.
The unused boats are oddly painful to me. It’s like Jessie of S/V The Red Thread said,
“A part of me feels as if we are somehow robbing [our boat] of what she longs for most: company to seek the sea. Like the horse who longs for loving riders to free her from the corral and allow her to run spirited toward the unknowns of the horizon, does The Red Thread yearn for us to keep her lines untied?”
There are lots of reasons someone might own a boat but not spend much time on it. Yet it still makes me sad to see so many idle boats. So, here’s to getting out sailing this winter! Make the effort and you might find it’s not as tough as you expect.
How to Setup Your Boat for Year-Round Cruising
It’s not that hard to use your boat year-round – mostly it takes flexibility, and the willingness / commitment to do it. But a few things certainly make it easier:
- Dodger and/or full enclosure.
- Heat blanket. I bought a 12-volt heat blanket with a cigarette lighter plug on Amazon for Natalie. We can use it from the cockpit, or a berth.
- Cabin heater such as our diesel pot-style heater.
- Good clothing. Really good gloves especially. i don’t buy “sailing gloves”; ski or mountaineering gloves are much better.
- Easy reefing. Getting your reefing system down is more important in the winter, when you’re more likely to need it, and also don’t want to be forward on deck in the rain longer than necessary.
Despite all this, we still haven’t been getting out much more than once a month. A lot of factors have made it tough: life gets busy, and we’ve had a particularly stormy October and November this year – rain nearly every day, and fronts coming through every few days. But we’re going sailing this weekend! There’s a small craft advisory today, as a front moves through, and another one tomorrow; but it’s time to get off dock!
What techniques do you use to increase how often you get out sailing in the winter? Were there any times you went out expecting it to be terrible but it ended up being fun?