Winter is time for… Sailing!!??
Why not? For many, the arrival of winter comes with a sad lift out of their beloved boats. A long wait for the next season then follows. Unless you leave in the tropics, this is likely to be your story. But, does it really have to be like this? Many people don’t think so. Here are several reasons and tips for you to keep sailing in winter.
Why sailing in winter?
If you ask yourself this question, then you should have a go and ask the opposite one. Why should you only sail for a few months when you can have great sailing all over the year? Ok, I will not deny some of the evident reasons – freezing cold, rainy, overcast and short days. Sailing in winter is clearly not the same as in summer. But it doesn’t mean it’s not fun. You just need to change your mind-set and think that ‘different’ doesn’t mean ‘bad’. In fact, winter sailing can give you some of the most intense experiences you’ve ever had. And believe me or not, some of the world’s most stunning corners are even more especial in winter.
Let’s start with light. It is true that the sun doesn’t shine that often in winter. However, when it decides to show up, the colours it produces are beautiful. These differences are explained by astronomy. The earth’s axis of rotation is tilted on its vertical axis. In winter, the northern hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun, while in summer it is tilted towards the Sun. This changes the angle of incidence of Sun rays. Put simply, the sun shines directly overhead in summer but the rays are at an angle in winter, producing long shadows and a beautiful golden light. Also, as it is rarely sunny in winter, you will also learn to appreciate those sunny cold days more intensely.
Wildlife sighting is another good reason for sailing in winter. Many bird species migrate seasonally, so the population you see in winter can be surprisingly different from what you usually observe in summer. The UK receives millions of winter bird visitors every year. These birds migrate thousands of miles from the north to escape from the harsher weather conditions of the Artic and Scandinavia. Many bird sanctuaries are located along the coast, so as a sailor you are in a privileged position to watch them.
Are you tired of busy marinas and crowded anchorages? Then, welcome to winter sailing paradise. Many popular sailing destinations are so crowded in summer that it is simply not fun to visit them anymore. However, as soon as the peak tourism season finishes and autumn comes, everything becomes much quieter. And this is not only about having free space to anchor or avoiding packed marinas. It’s all about enjoying the authenticity of the places you visit. Think, for example of popular destinations in the Mediterranean. If you happen to be there in summer, most of what you see is fake. Things are specifically arranged to make tourists spend their euros. Essentially, there are tourist traps everywhere. Luckily, most of these traps close during winter, giving you a unique opportunity to see things as they are in the absence of mass tourism.
Winter will also give you a unique touch of adventure to your cruising experience. Yes, weather and sea conditions can be harsh in winter. But it is probably this mix of risk and accomplishment that makes it so especial. So, be prepared to reduce risks, but maximise fun!
Of course, beware of the weather
Winter is usually the time of the year when the highest wind speeds and sea states occur. However, the difference between winter and summer weather is not the same everywhere. Namely, this difference is much more pronounced in the Northern than in the Southern hemisphere. This is particularly true in the North Atlantic, where wind speeds can increase by a factor of two or more from summer to winter. For example, in Southern England the maximum gust speed is about 40kts in July but climbs to almost 80kts in January. In contrast, in some regions of the Southern hemisphere, the increase in wind speed is less than 10%. And it’s not only speed that matters. Cold air is also denser than warm air, so the same wind speed will knock your boat a lot stronger in winter than in summer. This means for the same wind speed you will need to have less sail area in winter. Changes in weather can also be more abrupt and less predictable in winter. Summarising, be prepared to reef early (more about reefing here).
Light, or the lack of it
Winter is also the time of the year when days are shorter, so you will need to adapt your cruising plans accordingly. In general, plan for short passages. Planning is indeed crucial to avoid sailing under difficult conditions of darkness, cold, and potentially fog. If you need to set off with the right tide and it happens to occur too early in the morning, you may have to sail for a few hours before the sun rises. Anchoring will also mean a long evening aboard.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”. Whether or not you agree with this statement, it should both motivate and remind you to prepare for your adventure. Indeed, the right clothing is among the most important things that you will need to think about before embarking on a winter sailing adventure. Technically speaking, even dinghy sailing is possible with the right clothing. But let’s have a look at yacht sailing only.
In a changing weather, it is wise to wear multiple layers that you can quickly pull on and off. When you are working on deck you may not realise that despite the freezing temperatures, you are actually sweating. Hence, it’s not a bad idea to wear breathable clothes and to keep hydrated. Have at least a couple of spare clothes dry in the cabin. You will need them if you get wet. For the outer layer, it is important to invest in high-quality waterproof gear. Sailing jackets are usually very good at keeping you dry. Salopettes are the best mid layer as they will prevent splashes from going under your jacket and trousers. Other accessories can also make a big difference when you are exposed to the elements. Gloves, a warm beanie and even a balaclava, will make your journey much more comfortable.
In winter the risk of a cold shock and hypothermia are extremely high in the event of a man overboard. Although high-end drysuits will reduce these risks, they are very expensive and a bit awkward. In any case, it’s always best to take all possible precautions to ensure that you will stay on the boat and not in the water. This means staying clipped in the cockpit and deck, even when a man overboard is unlikely. Experienced cold weather sailors have their own tricks to keep warm. For example, minimalist sailor Roger Taylor –well known for sailing many long passages in the North Sea– recommends staying in the cabin as much as possible. Most of the time a cup of tea and a few minutes in the warmth of the cabin will be enough to recharge your batteries. So it’s important to split watches and steering in order to minimise exposure. Self-steering devices such as an auto-pilot or wind-vane are also extremely valuable for this purpose.
Keep the boat warm. And dry!
Needless to say that during winter temperatures plummet after sunset. So you will need to be prepared to heat your boat for the long night that follows. And this usually translates into a lot of energy required. If you are in a marina with shore power, warming the boat is not much of a problem. Most heaters used for homes will do the job. If you are at anchor, you will probably need special heating systems. Most marine heaters burn diesel, but there are also heaters that work with kerosene or even wood. A good heater will not only keep your boat warm and cosy but will also reduce the second matter of your concern, condensation. Again, if you have on shore power, you can avoid condensation by running an electric dehumidifier. But if power is not readily available, then you will have to find other solutions. Some of the most popular ones include ventilation (vents with solar cells are becoming particularly popular) and calcium chloride (a salt that collects moisture from the air).
Winter North means summer South!
Well, if you are still unconvinced about fighting the elements on a sailboat, you still have the whole other half of the world to explore. So how about chartering a boat somewhere else and enjoying a couple of weeks of hot weather? Destinations abound, so do your homework and compare what each place has to offer. The Caribbean is probably the most popular destination, especially because the Northern Hemisphere winter coincides with the Hurricane off-season. However, the world is large and there are obviously many other alternatives. Eastern Africa is home to a number of such extraordinary places, including the Seychelles, Madagascar and Mauritius, to mention only a few. Thailand is also becoming more and more popular, with many charters operating in Phuket. If you live in Europe and want to escape from the winter, the Canary Islands may be a good candidate. Average January temperatures in the Islands are around 18 degrees, which will feel like a hot summer for many Northern Europeans. Read more about these and other interesting destinations on the links below:
If all the above doesn’t sound appealing to you, then I have one last suggestion for you to keep the fire burning. Aha! Have you thought about that long boat maintenance list? Whether you will keep your boat at storage or afloat, winter might be the ideal time to get those jobs done and have her ready for the next season. Enjoy your winter boat repair!