Quicksilver Blog

Cold Weather Boating Basics

For many dedicated anglers the season never ends, even when the calendar indicates it’s winter. Cold-water boating requires some special attention to both the boat and engine and to those in the boat. Here are some tips for making your extended boating season safe and comfortable.

Boat Care

Boats powered by a sterndrive or inboard engine are not self-draining and should be prepared for an off-season in sub-freezing climates by evacuating all water from the cooling system by flushing with anti-freeze. If the boat is put back into the water during freezing temperatures, it will require this anti-freeze flush after each use, a major inconvenience for most boat owners. If the cooling system is not flushed with anti-freeze, water left in the engine can freeze and cause significant damage. If you are confident the temperature will never drop below freezing, this is not an issue.

Because outboard motors are self-draining they can be used even in sub-freezing weather with a few precautions.

Engine Oil: If you have a four-stroke engine, check your owner’s manual for the best oil viscosity to use in cold weather and water. Most modern synthetic and semi-synthetic marine oils can be used in temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lower Unit: Changing the lower unit lubricant is a standard winterizing service. Any water that has accumulated in the lower unit could freeze and crack the case. If you are going to use the boat in cold weather, change the lube before freezing temperatures arrive. If there’s a significant amount of water in the gear lube, you may have a failed prop shaft seal, which should be addressed.

Drain It: After each use, tilt the outboard down for a few minutes immediately after retrieving it from the water to allow the cooling system to drain completely. Keep the motor trimmed down while the boat is stored in freezing weather. If you keep your boat in a slip, leave the motor down in freezing weather.

Avoid “duck hunter’s freeze-up”: Waterfowl hunters who often boat in sub-freezing weather may beach their boat near a blind and tilt the motor up to get it out of a mucky bottom or to pull the boat ashore. This traps water in the motor, which can freeze quickly. If the water pump freezes up, the rubber impeller vanes may tear apart when the motor is restarted. In an extreme case, the expansion of freezing water could damage the pump housing. When the air temperature is below freezing, always keep the motor in its down position when it’s not running. This will allow water in the motor to drain to the waterline. Water in the submerged portion of the motor will not freeze.

Keep steering clear: Ice on the outboard motor steering mechanism can be a hazard when the temperature drops. Keep the steering tube and swivel tube well greased and operate the steering through its full port-to-starboard range to clear any ice before you put the motor in gear. Then turn the steering lock-to-lock after each outing to keep the steering from freezing up overnight.

Frozen Pumps: Freezing water can damage bilge and livewell/baitwell pumps and fittings. After each outing, pull the hull drain plug and use the trailer jack to tilt the bow up to drain water from the bilge. Then run the bilge pump to make sure it is clear of water. Livewell pumps and lines can be harder to drain completely, so it may be wise to avoid using the wells at all in cold weather. Many boat owners treat the livewell system with a product like Quicksilver Water System Anti-freeze and plug the livewell water intakes to keep water from entering the system. It’s often possible to plug the transom intake with a threaded water hose plug after the intake screen is removed. Water splashing on deck can freeze up hatch latches. Spray them with a water-dispersing lubricant before heading out and keep lock de-icer on board to thaw stubborn latches.

Frozen Fuel: Condensation in the fuel system can freeze and disrupt fuel flow to the engine. Extreme cold periods followed by short bursts of warmer weather cause increased condensation, and long periods between use can allow ethanol in the gasoline to separate and destabilize the fuel. Prepare for this by installing new water-separating fuel filters before cold weather sets in and carry extra filters on board as replacements in the event filters become clogged. Use a quality fuel stabilizer product such as Quicksilver Quickstor to prevent ethanol-blended fuel from breaking down, which can cause gum and varnish to form in the fuel and settle in fuel lines, tanks, carburetor and injectors. Keeping the fuel tank filled reduces the opportunity for condensation to form.

Baby Your Batteries: A battery loses about 30 percent of its cranking power at 32 degrees, and even more when it’s colder. Some late-model outboards require up to 100 amps to start. Use a battery maintenance charger between outings to keep cranking batteries fully charged, especially if weeks may pass between your cold-weather outings. Batteries may self-discharge even if the boat is not used if they are not on a charger. If you keep your boat in a slip, a charger may not be an option. Onboard batteries can be discharged by an active bilge pump and in cold weather their charge can diminish quickly. When the battery is dead, so is your bilge pump.

Remove Electronics: Although chart plotters and other marine electronics are tested to withstand extremely cold temperatures, storage in a controlled climate and environment may be preferable for longer periods of time. Check the storage temperature specification ranges in your electronics operator’s manual – it may be different from the operating temperature range. Some units should not be powered on in temperatures below a certain threshold. Cover electronics if they cannot be removed from the boat. If snow melts into the electronics and re-freezes, it may expand and cause damage. Save your waypoints and other data to external media.

Avoid Ice: Never attempt to run a boat through ice no matter how thin it looks – it could get a lot thicker in a hurry. Ice is sharp enough to damage gel coat and can even cut through a boat hull. It can also damage a fish finder transducer or speedometer pitot. And consider this—how thick will the ice be when you return? You could become stranded in very cold weather.

Crew Care

Dress for the Water, Not the Weather: You are not going to be very active, especially while the boat is moving, which makes wind chill a significant factor. Check the thermometer, then dress like it’s 20 degrees colder. If you are heading out right after the ice melts in the spring, remember that the water is still very cold. It might be 60 degrees at home, but out on 34 degree water it’s going to be much colder. The United States Coast Guard – which knows a thing or two about cold water – requires that everyone serving on a small boat wear a full dry suit if the water temperature dips below 50 degrees.

Mandatory Life Jacket: Of course you should always wear a life jacket while boating, but there is no “it’s too hot” excuse for not wearing one in cold weather. If you fall overboard in 40 degree water, your body temperature will start dropping immediately. Experienced cold-weather boaters wear a “float coat” that combines features of a winter jacket with built-in flotation.

Goggle Up: A pair of ski or motorsports goggles will protect your eyes from freezing air and keep them from watering when the boat is moving.

Frost Bites: Watch your footing. A thin layer of frost or ice on a white boat deck can be almost impossible to see and can make even a non-skid surface or deck carpeting very slick.

Pack Spares: A person in soaking wet clothes is a case of hypothermia waiting to happen. Pack a set of spare warm clothing in a dry bag on the boat to change into in case someone gets wet from spray or, worst case, happens to fall overboard.

Navigation Issues: Navigate with extra caution if floating markers and other navigation aids are removed for the winter. Some may be replaced with smaller markers, but in some areas they will be removed for the winter. Also be aware that many reservoirs are drawn down in the fall and don't refill until spring. Be extra cautious in these scenarios, as the drawdown can create more shallow-water obstacles. Research the body of water before going out, and stay in navigation channels.

File a Float Plan: You may not be the only boater bold enough to be out in the cold, but if you have a mechanical issue there may not be other boaters around to lend a hand. Emergency towing service and law enforcement assistance may also not be readily available. Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return. Share your cell phone location data and plan to call someone when you get back to shore. Make sure all your emergency gear is in working order, including an EPIRB or personal locator beacon (PLB).

Icy Ramps: After launching a boat in sub-freezing weather pull the trailer up the ramp just far enough to get the frame out of the water, then stop and let as much water as possible drain off the trailer and into the lake. If you let all that water drain off on the ramp, it could ice up and make it difficult to drive back up the ramp when you – or another boater – need to retrieve the boat.

To learn more about boating and marine maintenance topics, visit Quicksilver-Products.com.