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Anke and I live aboard WAYWARD, and wrote about it's design and construction at

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Fair winds!

Dave and Anke
triloboats swirly gmail daughter com

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Winter Sailing

Heading Out


Hope ain’t a tactic.

– From Deepwater Horizon (the movie)

Winter Sailing

Winter covers a lot of ground. Pretty much a whole hemisphere at a time. Arctic sailing techniques and equatorial call for radically different sets of tools!

Our home waters are the islands of the Southeast Alaskan archipelago. Very roughly from 55 to 58 degrees North. At this latitude, daylight hours grow short and the nights long.

We’re warmed by the Japanese current, which keeps our temperatures moderate relative to continental cold air masses. But this thermal energy, exacerbated by pressure gradients between offshore lows and continental highs, makes for some mighty winds. Worse, they can huff up from nothing at a moment’s notice. They can hurl down-slope from icefields and on high. They might blow out quickly, or they might settle in till spring.

We can get a lot of early snow, then warm abruptly with copious rain, causing flooding and freshwater outflows over the surface of denser, salt-water tidal movements. Things get lumpy.

Cold snaps can freeze any surface water holding still. Or can blow freezing spray which can cripple and sink the unwary. Lines can freeze stiff, refusing to run and resisting any handling, while strength drops to the snapping point. A warming turn can cause ‘break up’, which can strip anchors and carry a vessel from shelter. Skim ice can slice a boat along its waterline, clean through the hull.

And, y’know, it’s cold!

Winter Tactics

Winter sailing can be a different kind of a beast anywhere outside the tropics. All the hard stuff is harder. More fail-dangerous. More apt to sap our energy and mental acuity. Ice and snow are strident factors.

Warmer, moist maritime air carries a load of heavy water vapor, which packs a whallop; as much as X times the force in the sails. Cold, dry interior air has less of a punch, but dries and freezes exposed skin, even at low speeds. Both can lead quickly to hypothermia and bad decisions. Protect yourself!

Here’s a handful of the things we do in the face of winter. These are all considerations (despite all the DOs and DON’Ts)... they’re stated as imperatively as we observe them:

Clothing and personal gear:

  • Layer Up – Moisture wicking near the skin, then thinnish, lofty (air trapping) layers until warm, topped off by a waterproof layer (PVC isn’t breathable, but it’s impermeable). Have lots of standby clothes to trade out if they become wet or damp, and don’t put off getting dry!

  • Headgear – Lotsa heat leaves via the head. Hats, balaclavas, neck gaiters, scarves… these help keep it in.

  • Gloves and Mittens – Rubber gloves with inserts keep hands warm and dry while getting under way, but then sweat and chill. We switch to mittens, ASAP, so our fingers can huddle together.

  • Insulated Boots – Felt lined rubber boots are great for cold weather. They’re fully waterproof and, like PVC, non-breathing. Slipping plastic bags over (the first layer of) socks still gives damp feet, but preserves outer insulation for warmth.

  • Goggles – These warm your eyes and keep snow, ice and slush out of them. A swipe with mittens clears them pretty well, unlike glasses.

  • Sailing Harness with Lanyard, Clips and Jackline – A little insurance for slippery decks and surging hulls. We like our lanyards short with a quick release shackle inboard and caribiner to the jackline. Short enough to keep us bruised but on deck, should we stumble, rather than drowning in our own bow wake alongside.

    We like inflatable vest/harness combos with whistle, survival kit and strobe light attached.

A Hole in the Weather

  • Warm Interior – We like to keep our fire going for winter sailing. We trade off frequently and get warm below. A hot water bottle in the foot of a sleeping bag helps with toes.

    NOTE: Make sure ahead of season that the smokehead draws well in all winds and at all angles of sail!

  • Warm Food and Drink – Making up a stew ahead of sailing and keeping our vacuum bottle topped off lets us keep hot energy flowing.

  • Hot Stones – Warming in the oven, these make great hand and pocket warmers. Watch out for any that are too hot, and wrap as necessary. A larger, flat stone works great for feet. Water bottles work, too, but they're a little harder to keep renewing underway.

Weather and Sea States

  • Check the weather before heading out! – Forecasts are fairly accurate for big winds, but diminish proportionally. In winter, anything up to Force 5 could be from about anywhere. But check.

    And use our own eyes and knowledge! We are privvy to local knowledge the forecasters and their models can only infer. Doesn’t matter what the forecast tells us if actual conditions are shouting otherwise.

  • Avoid (Strong) Wind or Surface Outflows against Tides – These conditions cause the seas to stack short and sharp. Hard on us and our gear. Whatever else is going on is that much harder to handle.

  • Don’t head out into rising conditions – In winter, things that are getting worse don’t know when to stop. Even when the forecast calls for a moderate pick-up, things can get carried away. ‘Course, a calm going light gives some margin of error… I’m thinking more of 15 going to 25kts… we might well get 40kts!

  • Don’t head out into freezing spray – Of all the dicey conditions, freezing spray gives us the willies. A little can be tolerated; a lot can roll us under. But which it’ll be is a crapshoot.

  • Don’t anchor in the mouth of vertical valleys, avalanche chutes or off of windbroken trees – Williwaws and avalanches are no joke! Consider a topographical map (e.g., the state Gazetteers) to help spot wind holes.

  • Don’t Sail through Skim Ice – Our copper plating gives a big margin of safety, but ice is patient. Be aware that, if sculling, even a little ice will stop you in your tracks.

  • IceUp Calls for High Alert – We try to keep an ice free moat around the hull with breakout to the point our anchor lines intersect the water/ice. If possible, we neap out above the worst of it.

    Once the weather warms (or melt begins from below), we set a watch, and start breaking things up as soon as possible.

    Worst comes to worst and we are dragged out of shelter (never happened, but it could) prepare to sail. Run for shelter as soon as free of ice. Maybe even before?

Frozen Lines

  • Make Sure Sheets and Halyards are Running Free – This is tricky. If it’s very cold and dry, often iced lines will more or less sublimate free (solid ice evaporates with no intermediate liquid), aided by beating and working. Tails can often be brought below to thaw and dry. We don’t set out until we can raise and lower all sail. If in doubt, stay put when possible. If not, keep working on them once underway.

We start working the lines free as soon as it gets cold enough, even if we’re not planning to sail. It’s a slow process, and ya never know.

  • Install (Temporary) Downhauls – Sometimes our best efforts fall short, and a sail that can’t be lowered is positively dangerous. Downhauls are good insurance. We can usually haul a reluctant sail down by hand, but our winches are handy in case we need more pursuasion.

  • Anchor Lines – these are a skosh more forgiving… In our self-bailing anchor locker, they can be swashed down with seawater before deploying (salt water has a lower freezing point than fresh). Usually, this is a little less time critical, as they have no blocks to run and are gravity assisted. Still, take a look to check they’re not a block of ice before we set out.

  • Dock Lines – Double them up and use wider angles than usual. Where possible, get them working together, rather than one by one, to share loads. Try to minimize shock loading from a surging hull by reducing slack.

  • Fenders – Double them up, too (they can get brittle) such that, should one fail, the hull is still fended off. Consider some non-inflatables such as tires or rope fenders. Consider an off-haul system (anchor set abeam or strut ties).

NOTE: Recently, I’ve seen a type of loosely braided, synthetic line being used for docklines in winter conditons… It shrugs off water so doesn’t freeze so remains pliable and presumably retains strength. Haven’t yet been able to research. Might it be fit for sheets and halyards?

Rules of Thumb

  • Throw Away the Calendar – Scheduled sailing is dangerous any time of year. In winter, it can be deadly. Having to be somewhere pushes us to sail when we shouldn’t. Sailing when we shouldn’t can lead to pushing daisies.

  • Await the Opportune Moment – Wait for a fair wind, in fair amount, over a fair sea, with a fair prospect. This is our best shot at getting on down the road safely. Don’t fight conditions… long money’s on them!

  • Increase All Margins of Safety – Maintain more than ordinary room to deal with trouble. We’ll likely need it. Consider a winter set of heavier anchors.

  • Move in Short Hops – Winter windows are short and snap closed fast… go from one secure situation to the next with dispatch. Don’t long haul for distant shelter.

  • Prepare for Night Sailing – Chances are, we’ll end up in the dark. Be ready with navigation, information, skills and lights.

  • Have Fall-backs and Be Ready to Engage Them – Should conditions change, be prepared to change with them. Even if it means giving up a whole difficult day to run back to where we started or worse. Better safe in a downhill anchorage, than caught out in a rising, night-time gale!

  • Be Prepared to Hunker Down – If we get weathered in, we want to have all the wherewithal to stay for an extended period. Like maybe the rest of the winter? Food, water, books. Some winters, may be best to catch up with friends in a town.

All this is on top of having our selves, vessel, gear and outfit in fine fettle. Winter is no time to let things slide. Of course, knowledge is imperfect so we can and will encounter the unexpected. But we do what we can…

... and don’t sail on hope.

Related Posts:

Tired is Stupid

Night Sailing

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