Nothing absolutely guarantees against gear failure whilst sailing but you can greatly mitigate the chance of this happening by investing some time and care. Expert writers and sailors Jon Emmett and Rupert Holmes have this advice…
Dinghies: What can dinghy owners do now to get ahead? Jon Emmett breaks down some key tasks
Boat work can be a little bit like injury: people often don’t think about it until it stops them sailing. Preventive boat work takes far less time (and therefore ensures far more time on the water) than waiting for something to break and then fixing it. That said, winter often brings more time on shore, making this a great time to get your boat in tip top condition so you can enjoy the rewards with confidence once you get back on the race course.
The winter months are also a great time to get ahead on jobs that you know will need repeating, are looking for consistency, or where you will need a spare; for example, when making up tapered spinnaker sheets, rather than making one at a time, why not make two. Another good activity is to make an inventory of your equipment to see what needs replacing, and decide what equipment to downgrade from racing to training use.
It pays to get into the habit of washing the boat down, after every sail, to keep it clean (even in fresh water environments) and salt free. This helps prevent corrosion, especially around rivets. At the same time, check for scratches that need sanding and note any repairs required.
Cleaning the boat can often be easier if the boat has been polished (check your class rules for what is allowed). This is especially good for keeping diesel/petrol fumes from sticking to the boat, even if the boat has an under cover and is on the roof! Two polishes within about four weeks of each other at the start of the season, should last the year.
Remember, a leak free boat is dry inside to touch; water in the hull can seep in and even the smallest amount can gradually increase the weight of the hull. So, any water inside the hull needs to be investigated and fixed as soon as possible, and the boat needs to be emptied ASAP after sailing.
Leaks are most likely not from a hole, but from a fitting. Every screw means a hole in the boat, and every hole is a potential leak. To identify any leaks, wash the boat with soapy water whilst putting air into the bung hole (with all other holes taped over), then look for bubbles. In any case, it may be worth resealing all the fittings in one go, because if one piece of sealant has aged out then it is likely to be happening in lots of other places. Use good quality marine-brand sealant, which will be long lasting and have a slight amount of movement in it.
Whether you are using marine filler, gel coat, or epoxy, the area needs to be clean and dry. Rough-sand lightly so that there a good surface to apply to.
Temperature is important: too hot (not a problem in the UK winter!) and it may set too quickly, too cold and it may not set at all. The answer is not just to add more hardener, because in the long term this creates an inferior bond. Instead, stick to the exact ratios, using measurement syringes to be precise or pump-packaged products. To increase the strength of epoxy I recommend using microfibres; if it is cold outside try to bring the job inside.
To avoid a mess always tape the surrounding area and eliminate the excess. Use a variety of grades of sandpaper to get that perfect finish gping from 400 grade to 2500 grade (or even rubbing compound), and then give a final polish.
To protect that now-perfect hull, top and bottom covers are a must whilst travelling, or if leaving the boat for any length of time. Covers have a finite lifespan, and should be replaced when they no longer repel water effectively.
Ropes and blocks
Ropes similarly have a finite lifespan and should be replaced, not shortly before they break, but before their condition becomes detrimental to performance.
The technology in ropes has improved no end and so there really is something suitable for most tasks. Ropes should be as short and thin as possible for the task they do – there are very few exceptions to this, adjustable toe straps being one, where you want to create as much friction as possible to stop the rope slipping on itself. It may be appropriate to taper ropes; in some places you are looking for super low friction whereas others you need to ensure that the rope does not slip in the cleat. It really is a false economy to try and make savings here.
Investing in good blocks that are, again, appropriate to the task, can help prolong the life of your rope. Replace regularly, and stock up on spares of key components.
The conditions of sails are not binary: fast or slow, racing or training. It is a gradual progress from perfect (or as good as they get) to useable. Keep a diary (can be app based, very easy to do) – just record how many strong wind regattas a suit of sails does and not3e their condition. Sails wear out at different rates, with those sails which flap more like spinnakers and jibs tending to have a shorter working life than mainsails, for example. The useable life varies a lot from class to class and is not just about usage; it depends upon the material of the sail, its construction, etc. Talk to your sailmaker for more advice.
A fully stocked toolbox is a must! Having everything required to be self sufficient saves you time having to borrow equipment – and worse-case scenario, not being able to borrow when you need it! Items like rivet guns, electric screwdrivers and even the drill bits are well worth buying to a high standard. Unfortunately though, tools can and do go missing. Now is a good time to replace them and to have a spare for the most important components.
If you aren’t going to be using it for while, remember to allow power tools to completely discharge lithium batteries.
Trial and error
Whether training or club racing, winter is a great time to review your boat set up and try new things. For example, you could try to reduce the purchase in a system to create less rope; change where blocks and cleats are positioned to get better angles; or maybe if you have been struggling to get the adjustment you need, add purchase.
Use boats at the front of your fleet as a starting point, but remember there is often more subtlety, depending on your crew weight, sailing style and preferences, so take the time to work through variations.
Whether it’s a racer, cruiser or somewhere in between, don’t be tempted to wrap your yacht up for the winter without considering the work that will be needed for commissioning in advance of next season. A bit of careful attention at this time of year is the key to quick and hassle-free preparation for next summer.
Most marine trades are very seasonal businesses that are quiet at this time of year, yet are invariably fully maxed out with work from early spring to mid summer. In addition, many marine manufacturing companies operate on small margins, so only hold limited stock, which means any spare parts needed may not be immediately available.
Waiting until March to book in essential work therefore inevitably results in delays. While maintenance should be a continuous process with a constant eye kept on anything that may need attention, the winter period offers a chance to cover anything that may have been missed earlier and to delve into greater depths to identify any potential unexpected problems.
Checking sails out is a great excuse for a late season sail in sunny weather. One of the best times to see damage, especially to spinnakers, is when there’s sun behind the sail.
In any case, even on a cruising yacht it’s worth removing the sails at least once a year and giving them a really good check over. Look for chafe on stitching – or even weak stitching due to sun damage. If it succumbs to the pressure of a thumbnail being dragged across the stitches the seam clearly needs resewing.
Also check the leech of sails particularly carefully – these are the areas that experience the greatest flogging. The inboard end of batten pockets can also present issues, as can the edges of reinforcing patches, such as reefing points, especially on high tech sails.
Rig and deck gear
Even a boat that doesn’t get used a great deal should have a full rig check each year, covering both standing and running rigging. Offshore raceboats that are pushed hard in heavy weather ought to do this both before and after each event.
With wire rigging pay particular attention to where the wire enters the swage – this is the most common place for strands to break. Also check all terminals and fittings for visual condition and security, paying particular attention to spreader roots and rigging attachment points. At the masthead check the halyard sheaves run smoothly and lubricate them sparingly.
Every few years it’s also worth taking the rig down, dismantling components and removing spreaders. Everything can then be cleaned to inspect for hairline cracks, while any broken strands of wire may be more obvious.
At the very least, other deck gear should be washed thoroughly with fresh water to get rid of the salt and grit that can cause corrosion and wear. Check the operation of winches and windlasses – if they need servicing now it won’t pay to leave them over the winter. This is particularly true for windlasses, which are rarely used, yet live at the wettest end of the boat where they are frequently dunked in salt water.
Hull and deck structure
A regular polish and wax will help to keep mouldings looking like new – this is especially important for coloured gelcoats, which tend to fade relatively quickly. Large areas on badly faded topsides are best done with an electric polisher. At the same time as doing this it’s worth keeping a careful eye open for any dings and scratches, or cracks that may be a sign of more significant damage.
All safety gear should be given a full check and service over the winter. With yachts becoming ever more complex in this respect, and different items having different service intervals, it can be hard to keep track of every element. Are the flares up to date? Lifejackets, including their lights, PLBs and personal AIS units serviced? Are the bilge pumping arrangements up to scratch and working? What about the gas and carbon monoxide alarms? When does the liferaft next need to be serviced? Are charts up to date? For most yachts this is now an extensive list that requires a methodical approach.
Engine and other systems
Diesel inboard engines will benefit from a service including changing oil, oil filter and fuel filters immediately before the winter lay up. The engine should also be winterised at the same time – it’s important to ensure that raw (salt) water cooling systems are flushed through with an anti-freeze mix to prevent damage in sub-zero temperatures. Fuel tanks are best left topped up full, as this reduces the condensation which enables the bacteria that have potential to block fuel filters to thrive.
It’s also important to consider what to do with fresh water systems in the event of a hard frost. Draining tanks (including the hot water calorifier) and ensuring there’s no water remaining in electric pumps, will ensure they cannot be damaged.
Keels and rudders
Keels and their supporting structure should be examined for damage every time the boat comes out of the water, whether or not it has been aground. The first place to look is under the floor – if there are cracks around the ribs near the aft end of the keel this indicates a serious structural failure due to the aft section of the keel being pushed upwards into the boat.
Any evidence of such damage needs to be investigated by a surveyor and repaired professionally. Similarly, any sign of water ingress around the keelbolts also requires immediate professional advice. An early tell-tale sign of problems is often external rust stains in way of a keel bolt.
Any play in the steering reduces feel and control and adversely affects control so should be rectified as quickly as possible. Linkages, cables and other elements of wheel steering systems should be checked for wear or slack due to stretching and adjusted or replaced as necessary.
It’s also important to check rudder bearings for play. This can be done by moving the tip of the foil from side to side with the boat well chocked up. Anything more than the tiniest amount of play needs to be investigated further.
For offshore racing in Category 3 races such as the Rolex Fastnet there’s a forthcoming requirement to have the rudder and keel checked by a competent person. This was due to be implemented for the 2021 season, but has been put back by 12 months. Nevertheless anyone planning major works or a survey over this winter would be strongly advised to bear these requirements in mind.