When fall arrives, many owners haul out their sailboats to store them for the winter. Months of nothing but exposure to the elements gives rust, mildew, marine fouling, and chafing time to claim new territory in the battle for ownership of your sailboat. But you can keep the enemies at bay by doing these simple maintenance tasks every year when you dry dock your sailboat. They’ll help you to keep it top shape and ready to go when the first bright days of spring arrive.
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If you’re fortunate enough to be able to sail year-round or you leave your sailboat moored over the winter, these tips are for you, too. You’ll just want to plan an idle time to do them, maybe during the holidays.
Staying current on your sailboat’s maintenance is one of the stingiest ways to save money. It’s more economical than repairs, replacements, or restorations. Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Some of these tips won’t apply to every sailboat either. If that’s your situation, skip them or do the equivalent or special maintenance for your particular sailboat.
1. Deep clean below deck
If you deep clean your home in the winter, you know what I mean. This is more than just tidying up and cleaning away the obvious dirt. This is when you remove everything and clean as far as you can reach, including the bilge. If you can’t keep the bilge dry and you live in a cold climate, add antifreeze to prevent ice damage.
While you’re unloading everything, replace any undercharged or expired fire extinguishers, CO² cartridges in life vests, emergency flares, and other time-sensitive consumables. Remove, clean, and store all cushions, curtains, and other fabric items in a clean, dry, well ventilated space over the winter.
Deep cleaning isn’t just for looks, either. This is how you keep your sailboat free of mildew and funky odors. This is a good time to Remove and Prevent Mildew for Pennies.
And when you’re done, leave all lockers and enclosed spaces open to promote ventilation. Leave behind a Dri-Z-Air Dehumidifier Pot, two if you live in a humid region. If you don’t do this, warm, moist air can get trapped inside your sailboat. When the outside temperature drops, the internal moisture condenses on cold external surfaces like dew, which drips and runs onto everything that you want to keep dry. This cycle can repeat all winter long.
2. Drain all tanks
Empty the fresh water tank and pump in your galley and flush it with a mild biocide. To make the job easier if you have a C-22 sliding galley, see How to Add a Galley Water Tank Drain.
Remember to empty and flush the head holding tank too. Come springtime, you don’t want to discover that it was used one last time the year before that you didn’t know about. If you have a portable toilet like the Dometic 970 Series Portable Toilet, also drain the clean water tank and be sure the flushing mechanism is completely dry.
If your sailboat has any water lines with low spots that don’t drain by gravity, either blow them clear with compressed air or fill the low spots with a 50/50 mixture of environmentally safe antifreeze.
Clean, dry, and store opened the ice chest and/or portable cooler.
3. Close all seacocks
Don’t give water, rodents, or insects anywhere to gain entry to your sailboat. This is also a good time to exercise those valves and to follow The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Ball Valve Maintenance. Cover all other openings with screen material. Birds, wasps, spiders, and more like to stake claims inside masts, vents, cowlings, and trailer frames. Also clean and inspect scupper, anchor locker, and bilge pump drains, tubing, and clamps. If your drain tubing is hard and cracking, see How to Replace Old Drain Tubing.
4. Charge the batteries
First, inspect all the house and starting battery connections to be sure they are clean and tight. Attach a battery maintainer like the Battery Tender Junior or recharge monthly until Spring.
Opinions differ on whether to remove batteries and store them in a heated space or to leave them installed over the winter. Technically, so long as the electrolyte and charge are maintained, a battery won’t freeze but it does no harm either if you move them to a heated space.
Personally, I’ve always left my batteries installed and haven’t had a failure even in sub-zero temperatures.
Remember those battery operated electronic devices too: handheld VHF radio, flashlights, headlamps, and so on. Store them indoors and remove the batteries to prevent corrosion.
5. Service the auxiliary motor
Whether it’s inboard or outboard, this is the time to keep it in tip-top shape, especially the fuel system.
Drain all fuel and run the engine until it’s empty. While you’re at it, remove any propane bottles from the sailboat. For your motor’s own checklist, see 15 Outboard Motor Maintenance Blind Spots You Can’t Afford to Miss.
6. Clean and inspect all rigging
Wash all spars, standing rigging, and lifelines with soapy water and rinse, especially if you sail in salt water. Besides removing salt and dirt, this gives you a chance to inspect all hardware and fasteners. Remove all rigging tape and covers and check for wear, cracks, and Beware of Galvanic Corrosion! Remove the windex and store it in a protected place.
Wear suitable gloves and carefully wipe down every inch of the shrouds and stays with a soft towel to find broken wires (meathooks). While you’re at it, clean and lubricate all turnbuckles. If you find any damage at all, see How to Replace Your Standing Rigging for Less for tips on replacing the affected parts.
Remove all running rigging from the sailboat and inspect it for chafing. Soak it overnight in a bucket of soapy water, then agitate and rinse the next day. Hang it to dry thoroughly before coiling loosely and storing in a dry, ventilated place.
Inspect all blocks and sheaves and lubricate lightly with a dry lubricant like McLube Sailkote. If it’s replacement time, see Lead All Lines to the Cockpit for Safer Sailing. This is also a good time to check out The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Winch Maintenance.
Clean, inspect, and repair as necessary your ground tackle. See How to Maintain an Anchor and Rode for tips.
7. Wash and wax the hull
The bottomsides and the topsides. Inspect for and repair significant scratches, blisters, and cracks. I like IMAR Yacht Soap Concentrate for cleaning bottomsides and Star Brite Non-Skid Deck Cleaner for topsides. Don’t use them while your sailboat is still in the water, though. They are not environmentally safe.
Collinite Fleet Wax goes on easy and leaves a long-lasting, glossy shine. Wet a 2′ square area, apply a thin film with a bare hand, and buff with a clean microfiber cloth before it dries. If it’s time for fresh bottom paint, see What to Expect From a Professional Bottom Paint Job.
8. Freshen up the brightwork
Inspect all your topside wooden parts and if they have any nicks, scratches, or dents that penetrate the finish, touch them up with fresh varnish now before they get worse. The danger isn’t so much the initial damage but the moisture that gets trapped under the finish. It will discolor the wood and weaken the bond with the finish until it starts to flake and peel.
If your brightwork needs more than a simple touch-up, see Restore Your Exterior Teak to Better Than New. It’s a good winter project.
9. Inspect the swing keel hardware
This should be done annually at least, more often if you retract your keel frequently.
Inspect every part and replace anything not in good condition:
- Keel winch
- Winch cable (rewrap tightly and evenly to prevent kinks and chafing)
- Through-hull hoses and clamps
- Turning ball and pin
- Cable fork, clevis pin, and cotter pin
- Keel eyebolt
- Pivot pin, hanger brackets, and bolts
For step-by-step instructions on maintaining this critical system, see Five Swing Keel Maintenance Blunders and How to Prevent Them.
10. Clean and inspect the sails
Hopefully, you got lots of use out of your sails over the past sailing season. If so, then your sails have worked hard for you and now it’s time to show them some care in return.
Start by giving them a good washing to remove salt, grime, and organic residue that feeds mildew. To do it yourself at home, see How to Clean Sails at Home.
After they’ve dried completely, lay them out on a clean, dry surface and inspect all the stitching for frayed or chafed stitches and loose threads. Examine the head, tack, and clew areas for wear and corrosion. Also look for chafe spots and pinholes in the sailcloth. Basically, you’re looking for any damage that resulted from The 6 Worst Things You Can Do To Your Sails. Apply sail repair tape over damaged areas or take the sail to a competent sailmaker for evaluation.
Flake and roll each sail as shown in the video in the post linked above. Store them in their sail bags in a dry, well ventilated space that’s safe from rodents and insects.
11. Service the trailer
If you’re a trailer sailor, now’s the time to show your humble trailer some love too.
Most trailer repairs are expensive, so don’t neglect these important maintenance checks:
- If your trailer will be parked more than a month, put blocks or stands under the frame to unweight the tires. This will prevent damage from flat spots and also make it easier to do some of the following checks.
- Check wheel bearing tightness by rocking the unweighted wheel side to side. If you feel or hear noticeable movement, tighten the spindle nut. Lubricate the bearings with a high quality grease. Bearing protectors make this easy to do without repacking. If you put on a lot of miles, do a full disassembly, clean, repack, and adjustment every few years.
- Bleed the brake system to purge all moisture and dirt.
- Inspect and adjust the brake shoes or pads.
- Inspect and test all lights, connectors, and wiring for damage and repair as necessary.
- Inspect the tires for excessive wear, damage, and expiration dates. Most trailer tires time out before they wear out. This goes for the spare tire too. You do have one, don’t you?
12. Cover and monitor
When you get all of the above done, you’ve earned a well-deserved break!
Cover your sailboat with a tarp and store it in a dry space if you can. If you must leave it outdoors, tie the tarp down tightly and prevent rain and snow from accumulating on or in it. Ensure the interior is ventilated and check up on it monthly until it’s time to recommission her for a new season.
Tackle that to-do list!
If you’re anything like me, you’ve built up a list of repairs, adjustments, and upgrades that you’re waiting for the time to take on. Don’t put them off until spring. Prioritize and plan them now while they’re relatively fresh in your mind. Then, roll up your sleeves and make them happen! If that’s hard for you, see 10 Tips on How to Make Time to Work on Your Sailboat.
Don’t be a stranger here either. I’ll be posting more stingy projects and tips all winter long to inspire you.
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