Shorter days are no reason to stop boating.
For Arlene and me, October through April certainly isn’t an off-season.” We will use Easy Goin’ less frequently than during the summer months, and our outings may not be as long in duration or miles, but assuming the wind is calm to moderate, an off-season cruise can be glorious and fend off a case of cabin fever.
If one of your annual rituals is to put the boat away for the winter after Labor Day weekend, you’re missing out on some spectacular boating and marinas that are nearly empty. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not recluse cruisers looking to live a solitary life by avoiding other boaters. We actually enjoy the company of others and relish the opportunity to meet up with friends as we cruise the Pacific Northwest. But being in Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands or Gulf Islands in the off-season without the crowds of summer is something we embrace. It is magical being alone at anchor in a place that, in summer, would be packed with boats.
Fall brings wonderful autumn colors, and the temperatures are pleasant during the day and the cooler evening temps are an indication of what’s to come. Winter cruising provides serenity and solitude and brings the holiday season and its associated festivities to the seaside communities.
In autumn, the islands, coves, bays and harbors return to their rightful inhabitants: the wildlife. If you enjoy the natural world, places like southern Puget Sound, the San Juans and the Gulf Islands can be exciting places as summer fades. Migratory birds stop or winter here, while year-round residents re-emerge when crowds disappear. You may see loons, grebes, oystercatchers, murrelets, guillemots, herons, geese, eagles and others. Shoreside denizens such as otter and mink are less shy. You may enjoy surprise sightings of whales or porpoises.
As you stretch the boating season, however, there are a few precautions you need to take that will maximize your safety and enjoyment.
1 Before you head out, be sure to check the weather forecast. Pay closer attention to weather than you normally would. Storm fronts occur in fall and winter with more regularity than in the summer. The mix of warm and cold air can quickly spawn high winds and waves that make travel treacherous. Fog is also an issue at this time of the year, making visibility difficult. Radar, GPS and AIS are invaluable.
Match the forecast to your vessel’s capability and your cruising plan. Be flexible. Have a Plan B and Plan C so you’re ready if conditions change faster than you expect.
2 Be sure to leave a float plan with a responsible person on shore who will know what to do if you’re overdue. A marine VHF radio or cellphone will allow you to call for assistance should the need arise. Chose anchorages carefully for shelter and reliable holding. Locations that are popular in the settled summer conditions may not be comfortable or safe at other times of the year.
3 Ensure that your boat engines are in good shape and mechanically sound. Check systems such as navigation lights, electronics, trim tabs, thrusters, winch and anchor rode, and bilge pumps. Having a few tools and spare parts aboard will allow you to fix minor problems that might otherwise cause you to be stranded the water.
4 Safe, reliable heat is essential to enjoy cruising this time of the year. Outdoor activities in particular are more appealing if we can easily warm up inside afterward. Choose a heating system that suits the size and systems of your boat and ensure it is installed and operating safely. We installed a Webasto hydronic diesel furnace. Easy Goin’ is also equipped with a Red Dot auxiliary heater for when the engines are running; it operates similar to the heater in a car. The combination of the two keeps the cabin toasty and dry. The hydronic furnace is plumbed through the hot-water tank, providing hot water 100 percent of the time. There is nothing as wonderful as a warm boat on a cold day.
Please, don’t use unventilated portable heaters. That’s how accidents happen.
5 During the winter adequate ventilation is important. Humidity is higher, and you’ll bring moisture inside with wet clothing. Indoor cooking, particularly with propane and alcohol, also adds moisture to the air. High humidity steams up the windows, encourages mold and impedes wet items from drying. We crack open a couple of interior hatches on opposite sides of the boat to facilitate ventilation, and with the furnace the interior stays warm and dry.
Layering is the way to go to stay warm and dry during this time of the year. Skip the naturals and go with engineered fabrics that wick away moisture and dry quickly. Both fleece and wool retain their warmth in damp conditions.
The base layer near your skin should be light and comfortable, followed by a mid-weight layer. For colder weather, switch to mid-weight near your skin and a heavier layer over that. We toss in a few pairs of long underwear (polypro), all-weather nylon and lightweight Gore-Tex pants, and jackets that fit over the fleece and wool hats. For footwear, choose wool socks (warm, absorbent and fast-drying SmartWool is our preference), deck shoes and boots, and hiking boots. We also like Manzella polartec gloves with their rubber grip palms and fingers.
6 If you’re accustomed to living in a house with many rooms, don’t expect to be comfortable on a boat for at least a couple days. Too much closeness can sour a trip. Have plenty of books, magazines, games and puzzles on board so that all aboard, kids especially, can entertain themselves during inclement weather. Within reason, insist that everyone get off the boat at least once a day, if only to take a short walk or row around the harbor.
7 No matter the time of year, we like to keep our cruising menus simple and easy to prepare. During cooler weather, one-pot meals, hearty stews, soups, pasta, rice dishes and an endless supply of coffee and hot chocolate hit the spot.
8 Be prepared to meet new friends. We always take some extra food to make appetizers for happy hour. With early sunsets, it’s common to want to head inside in the late afternoon, but you might still want to spend another hour or so trading stories with other hardy boaters. You just never know when a spontaneous party will break out.
9 Year-round cruising isn’t just good for the spirit it’s also good for your boat. Unused engines and pumps forget how to work. Condensation collects in the tanks and fuel lines. Everything gets cold and vaguely damp. Keeping your boat running 12 months a year and it’s more likely to be running smoothly right into the spring.