Winter sailing tips

Two months ago we were about to set sails from Fairhaven, MA. We launched Tranquility on Halloween and we were rushing with the preparations for a departure day. At that time I was watching all the episodes of the TV show “Games of Thrones” and the mantra “winter is coming” was ringing in my head as a real thing.

game of thrones winter is coming house stark 1920x1072 wallpaper_www.wallpaperfo.com_41

I was scared. I did a winter delivery in the Mediterranean Sea and I rememeber some really cold nights. I also sailed on a late departure in 2012 from Newport, RI. It was the 5th of December when we set sails but that was on SY Aventura, a 110ft sloop, a ship more than a boat, and still the “night watch” (not the military order that watch the Wall in GOT but the shifts at the helm) was terribly cold. How could we possibly sail the North Atlantic in cold weather on a 29ft sailboat with no dodger and minimal living comfort?

© Nadia Uccello
© Nadia Uccello

I opened a thread on Sailing Anarchy to ask experienced Anarchists for good advices on how we could successfully make a winter cruise along the East Coast, leaving from a northern place.

Lots of users contributed to the discussion bringing their point of view and experience. Many thought that we were completely crazy and we should just renounce the attempt and wait for the next year. Others started to debate on how heating the cabin with no electrical power, the risks of CO intoxication, explosions and other amenities. The most feared topic was condensation, absolutely the worst enemy on board a boat, with tricks of any kind to prevent mold growing everywhere. Some folks focused more on the sailing itself, foul weather gear and the route to take.

When we finally left there was an online community following our SPOT tracker and commenting our progress. Soon in the forum the word “nannies” spread out and we couldn’t wait to reach a internet connection to find out what they were saying about us. I am very thankful to all the people that contributed to the forum because many advices were very helpful for our trip and because we felt supported and supervised.

Now we are almost out of the danger area and happy that this “polar vortex” is hitting us in South Carolina rather than in New England. Still tonight the temperature is supposed to go down to 20F, the dockmaster is closing the water on the docks and we are going to seek refuge in Kate cousin’s house who lives nearby and is kindly offering us a bedroom. We are also thinking about delaying our departure by two days because of this frigid cold. “Winter is coming”.


I learned something about sailing in the cold months of the year and I resumed some of this learning in the following list:

1. Pick up good and consistent weather windows and be flexible

We avoided sailing during rainy days and when the conditions were not good. Nothing is as miserable as being soaked, so avoid it if you can! We preferred cold days to warm and wet ones. We had to sit in many places we didn’t like and slow down our pace but that spared us many uncomfortable experiences. On the other hand, we kept going if the conditions were good skipping destinations we planned for our passage.

2. Wear many layers and have many changes of clothes.

We purchased all our winter clothes in Thrift Stores and we are going to be happy to leave them behind when warmer. After experience with the nice and expensive Ocean Gore-Tex gear on fancy sailing yacht I instead got myself PVC coat and overall from commercial fishing. I consider breathable foul water gear an unnecessary expense. They are very comfortable but breathable is not waterproof by definition, no matter what magical expensive technology is adopted, it is not waterproof in heavy rain and gets very heavy when soaked. Also when you have to do some serious deck work you are going to sweat anyway so I don’t see the point. A more important piece of gear is some windproof jacket, and I found mountaineering jackets more valuable than sailing jackets. Another part of equipment that deserves investment of money are good and warm boots.

During the coldest trips I was wearing:

  • Three layers of pants (long johns bottom, corduroy pants, and waterproof pants on top or PVC overalls)
  • Six layers for the body (t-shirt, long johns top, 2 sweaters, 1 windproof jacket, PVC coat)
  • Warm and stormproof boots over double layer of socks.
  • Wool hat, wool neck warmer, neoprene mask (they are uncomfortable but they are cheap and effective against wind chill)
  • Warm ski gloves for steering and work gloves for handling lines.

When sleeping I was taking off the superficial layers and crawling into the sleeping bag. Never attempt to sleep fully dressed or you won’t have any additional layer to put on when you go back to the cockpit and you will feel cold.

© Kate Zidar
© Kate Zidar

3. Open the hatches anytime it’s dry weather.

We didn’t try to keep heat in the cabin because our boat is so poorly insulated that it was a desperate task. Instead we kept the companionway and forward hatch open all the time it was possible to help air circulation. The companionway door was never shut down during passage, luckily the conditions made it possible as no waves ever came into the cockpit . We dried out mattresses and locker as soon as we had a chance, and in few situations we had to fight mold growth with a mix of water and bleach in a spray bottle.

4. Look for shore power.

Our original idea of many nights at anchor changed. We had to face the reality of some extra expenses for good comfort. We have a 30$ electric heater that is simply fantastic, generates dry air and has a thermostat. In wet conditions it’s also good to have a big fan to help move the air in the cabin, especially in the sleeping areas. In New England marinas start to close water at the docks and remove floating pontoons pretty early, but they usually leave shore power. Going South the situation gets better and you benefit from low season rates and you can easily dock at public docks with no drama.

© Kate Zidar
© Kate Zidar

5. Limit night watch shifts to 2 hours per crewmember.

With no autopilot we had to steer all the time so it was hard to be warm for long. During the day it was usually easier to go up to three hours each. We used the change of the watch as a moment to snack and have hot drinks.

© Kate Zidar
© Kate Zidar

6. Eat enough to generate heat.

In cold conditions your body burns more calories in order to generate heat. The diet should vary accordingly. Four thousand calories it’s considered not healthy for the average person but it’s a good daily rate when sailing in cold weather.  It is important to eat often and eat caloric food, including vegetables and fruit. It is very important to be able to cook warm dishes. Don’t worry about your waist size, we lost several pounds even if we were eating pork fat everyday for just sitting in the cold.

@ Kate Zidar
@ Kate Zidar

This list is definitely not exhaustive and represents my current state of thought on the subject. It pays an immense tribute to the Sailing Anarchy posts of various users in the quoted thread. I don’t want to make any claims of ‘best practice’ and maybe in the future I would get more conservative and prudent about some statements. You grow old you grow wiser, or maybe you find yourself developing more extreme and minimalist habits as I like to think.  I also would consider changing opinion about breathable Gore-Tex foul weather gear if any famous manufacturer will sponsor me.

7 thoughts on “Winter sailing tips”

  1. Ah, the Article gear as we sailores in Maine like to call it. Wow, you are now officially a North Atlantic sailor.

    We think of you often and wish you traveling mercies.

    Be safe and Gid bless,

    Stephanie and John

  2. Hey Guys! Enjoyed reading the posts! Hoping you make it back to New England for some good ol fashioned Buzzard’s Bay cruising like the old souls used to do!

    1. We hope to be back by Summer. My phone is dead I need to get a new one. Now we are going to stop in GA for a while. There is some work to do here.

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