Putting Your Boat to Bed for Winter

If your boat sits out in the back yard up north, it will soon look like this -- make sure it's ready to go in spring by winterizing.



I’ve never been a big fan of northern winters.


Hunting is fine with the frosty mornings (so long as I have a heater in the blind) and the flights of mallards and watching pointing dogs work quail and the chance to see a big whitetail that you’d never see in warmer weather.


But when it comes to fishing, I don’t want to live where they have six months of gray skies and spitting snow and slush. (I grew up in northern Ohio, where they have all of those.)


But, a lot of us do live in that territory. Part of it, besides getting out the ice shanty and the snowmobile, is putting your boat to bed for the winter.


Taking a little care with your boat now will mean a lot fewer headaches come spring.

Drain the Engine


Step one is to drain any water out of the engine, the live well and, on cabin boats, the fresh water system. Any water left on board will turn to ice, expand and probably break something. Worst cast your powerhead.


Draining an outboard is simple—with the boat out of the water, simply trim the motor all the way in toward the transom, and any water that’s inside the powerhead and mid-section comes out.


Inboards are more difficult to drain thoroughly, and most boaters add anti-freeze to the cooling systems rather than drain their engines in closed cooling systems. Starbrite and other companies offer kits with instructions on how to do this.

Treat the Fuel


The ethanol-mix fuel left in your tank will be setting there trying to separate all winter long, and the water that comes out will sink to the bottom of the tank where your fuel pickup is located. That water will be the first thing that goes into your fuel system when you try to start up in spring.


The engine won’t start or run on water, surprise!


The easy and inexpensive way to avoid this is to put fuel stabilizer in the tank. Sta-Bil is affordable and effective—I’ve used it in my boats for years. Chevron, Sea-Foam, and Mercury and Yamaha all have their own brands, and all do the job.


The stabilizer basically prevents the fuel from separating, so no water goes into your cylinders when you first crank up and the engine starts the way it’s supposed to.


It’s a good idea to put the stabilizer into your tank before you head out on the last trip of the season. That way it will get into the fuel lines and injectors as well as the tank, and you’ll be good to go.

Protect Your Batteries


Batteries don’t like cold weather. In fact, if your battery gets fully discharged, it can freeze, and may crack open the housing.


If your boat doesn’t spend the winter in a garage or other enclosure where it will be considerably warmer than in the back yard, it’s a good idea to remove the batteries and store them where they can’t freeze.


It’s also a good idea to put a trickle charger on them for the winter. These inexpensive little gizmos feed a tiny bit of current steadily into the battery, and since no current is being taken out during winter, they keep the battery at or near full charge. It won’t freeze and will be ready to start the engine come spring.

An oil change before putting your boat to bed for the winter is highly recommended by all outboard manufacturers. (Suzuki Marine photo)

Service the Engine


Mercury, Suzuki and Yamaha recommend changing your four-stroke outboard oil before putting your boat into winter storage to get rid of dirt and acids, and all have videos on their websites on exactly how to do it.


This is not a fun job, but if you get the appropriate oil collector pan, filter and funnel, it’s not difficult. You do then have the issue of taking the used oil to a legal disposal center—don’t dump it in the back yard. If you don’t like getting your hands in goo, your outboard service center will do the job for $150 to $200 in most areas.


This is also a good time to replace the lower unit gear oil, another drippy, messy job, but not difficult with the appropriate pump and catchment. Here’s a how-to from West Marine.

Cover It Up


If you live in Viking country where they measure snow in feet instead of inches, you’ll want to stow your boat under a shed or in a garage—otherwise, hundreds of pounds of snow and ice are likely to do bad things to the boat or to any cover you put on it.


In more moderate snow country, a good tight cover supported by bows or stays and brushed off after every snowfall of more than a couple of inches can keep things in good shape.

That’s about it—hey, spring is only five months away. Or so . . .

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