Why would anyone boat in the winter? Are you nuts?
I may be a bit nuts, but that’s normal for me. I also live up in the Rocky Mountains where most of their high-altitude lakes actually freeze over in winter. So if I wanna get out for a boat ride and go fishing in winter, I’ve got little choice.
But while it’s pretty tough to get a boat out, not every lake freezes and those offer plenty of places to enjoy winter boating in the frozen north.
There’s plenty of winter boating experiences in the winter to explore if you’re one of those boaters who absolutely need to venture out. But if you plan to do so, you need to know a few winter boating tips, safety practices and the right vessels for the weather.
Winter Boating Safety
Winter boating is not for the faint of heart. I’m not afraid to admit I don’t want to go myself particularly all the time. Sometimes, I’d rather stay inside.
But maybe you’re more adventurous than me. If that’s you, then you need a stern warning before you go.
A Lesson in Hypothermia
A quick Boy Scout lesson: When you’re camping in the cold, what do you watch out for?
One of the biggest is hypothermia. What is hypothermia? In a nutshell, it’s when the body gets too cold and begins to shut down completely.
If hypothermia persists too long, you can pass out or worse—Jack Frost has claimed another life.
And no, a flask of Jack Daniels does not warm you up. Instead, alcohol drives blood into your extremities, which is where you don’t need it to be. You need that blood in your core to keep your organs warm.
Wet + Wind = Quick Death
Wind alone can be cold enough, especially when you don’t wear proper winter clothing. Wind can cut through like a hot knife through butter.
But what if you also get wet? Whether it’s freezing rain passed over-head or (more likely) a wave or two that comes over the boat’s bow, with wind cumulation in addition to being soaking wet, the situation becomes much more deadly.
Being wet lowers your body temperature, but add wind and it acts like a swamp cooler. Your body temperature will lower at an unprecedented rate, unless you change clothes and get warm or get out of the elements.
When Weather’s Bad—Go Home!
When in doubt, just get off the water. How important is that fish you may or may not catch that day? How important is it for you to be out there?
At the first sign of trouble, head back to harbor. If you can’t make it back to the harbor, beeline for the closest shore. Don’t be afraid to run the boat ashore; that’s why you have insurance. Insurance can replace boats, but you can never replace your life.
Always Give Trustworthy People Your Float Plan
A Float Plan is a good rule of thumb even in the summer boating months. Tell multiple trustworthy people where you plan to go, when you’re leaving and when you’re coming back. If you’re not back, they can contact the authorities to get help if something has happened.
What to Do in an Emergency
The first rule of thumb is to avoid panic! Panic is your worst enemy in any situation. You lose control and make poor decisions.
The next step is to quickly analyze the situation and figure out your best course of action. If eminent loss of life is possible, aim the boat for the closest shore and make a beeline for it. As mentioned above insurance will help repair or replace the boat. Insurance, however, will not replace a life.
If reaching shore is not a possibility (such as a motor failure or rough waters), stay dry and warm as you wait out the storm. Meanwhile, this is where a marine radio is important. Radio for help to get out to you!
When help arrives, abandon ship. (Again I can’t stress it enough, stuff can be replaced.)
What if help doesn’t arrive or they can’t reach you? Stay dry and stay warm—it’s critical for your survival. Hypothermia can kill a man in a matter of minutes. Staying dry will help you stay warm, and staying warm will prevent hypothermia.
What if someone on the boat goes overboard? The first goal is to get them out ASAP. Cold water saps your strength and muscles cramp and freeze as the body goes into shock. When you contact cold water, it literally keeps you from swimming due to the shock. You’ll more likely drown first before the cold gets you.
1. Get the overboard person back into the boat. And if they’re not able to climb into the boat, it’s up to other passengers. Remember: Reach, throw, then go.
2. Remove all wet clothing. Down to their birthday suit. Yes, you heard me right, get them completely dry or it will be game over due to hypothermia. (Hypothermia lurks around the corner—act quickly.)
3. Warm them up. Once they’re dry, you or someone on the boat needs to help warm them up. Share a blanket together or use skin contact. Yes, what I have said may sound unpleasant, but death is far more unpleasant. So stop being a wimp and be a hero. Time is of the essence.
4. Get home quickly as the person recovers. If the person doesn’t show signs of improvement, rush them to the nearest ER.
Appropriate Gear to Wear and Bring
You dress properly for weddings and church, right? You need to do the same with winter boating. Don’t go with a suit coat/dress, though your Sunday best can be warm and lack in the waterproof department. You need to have winter boating clothing that was purpose built.
Take a lesson from Snowmobilers. They know what’s up with winter sports and they know how to dress. Likewise, you’ll dress similarly and use layers. Much like a lasagna with multiple meaty, cheesy layers, you too need many wonderful layers to fight off the cold.
Here’s an order that’s recommended:
Base layer — Undergarments, long johns, wool socks and good boots. The base layer is a last line of defense, that also helps keep blood flowing and keeping that heat moving around. Don’t have anything too tight. Wool is best due to the unique nature to keep heat despite moisture.
Middle layer — Regular clothes, then insulating clothes to retain body heat. The middle layer is usually your street clothing, but it’s important to have your warm insulators like vests, lighter jackets or other warm clothing. Remember extra layers is okay, because if you get hot you can always take layers off. But if you’re cold it’s harder to add layers when they’re back at home and not in the boat.
Outer layer — Waterproof and windproof clothing act as a shield. This is where you need to spend the big bucks. Good waterproof and windproof shells can cost oodles of cash. So you can either rob from your kids’ college savings, or just wait for sales. Clothing goes on sale all the time so just keep a close eye for those deals in the off-season. A good outer shell will go a long way to keep you not only warm and dry, but safe.
Also get waterproof boots. You could get wet feet early in the day and not notice, but then frostbite can become a legitimate danger. No one wants to lose a toe that way, it makes for a really bad day.
Fjord Tough: Vessels Built for Cold Winter Boating
Enough beating a dead horse, I can’t forget one of the most important aspects of winter boating. The boat!
With endless boats out there, there’s truly only a select few that handle the cold.
If a new boat is in the works, here are a few pointers to keep in mind before you go and purchase:
The Advantages of Outboard Motors and Jet Boats
The big advantage outboard motors and jet boats have in the cold weather is there’s no danger of their motors freezing from the cold. To explain, outboards drain via gravity when they’re vertical. With jet drives, you rev them outside the water and it blows all the water out. It’s as easy as that.
Sterndrives, however, are a different story…
The Disadvantage (and Expense) of Sterndrives
Sterndrives are dangerous to use in the colder winter months.
I had a customer who was late-season fishing during one November. His boat ran good and the fishing was good. However, as he was driving home, the cold got to the motor and it cracked. So his little trip cost him $5,000 to replace a motor.
If you only have a sterndrive boat and you wanna get out, just make sure you train yourself on how to drain the block immediately after you leave the water. By doing so, you remove all the water before it freezes. Remember that and you’ll be ok.
Great Boat Brands for Winter Boating
The typical style of boat you want is one that can shield you from the elements. In other words, a fourth super layer to the layers you already have. The first boat that comes to my mind is the walk-around style or cuddy cabin. They have the cabin down below and an area by the helm that typically has means to shelter you from the elements.
Some perfect examples would be the boat builders listed below. Keep in mind, though, not all brands use the words “walk-around” or “cuddy.” Also look for boats with cabins and hard-tops, as these typically are better built for winter weather.
More boat brands are out there, but those are a few. Essentially, you want a boat with the ability to ride through waves and give you shelter from the elements. Hardtops and full windshields really give nice protection from the cold.
How to Make Any Boat Suitable for Winter Boating
If a new boat with a cuddy cabin just isn’t in the cards, don’t worry—there’s still hope!
The easiest way is to install a full enclosure by using a bimini top and then clear acrylic on all four sides. It’s simple to install and can protect you from blistering winds and cold rains.
This set-up can be installed on any boat (not just a pontoon), but you do need a professional canvas shop to do the work. They’ll install it properly and with the proper dimensions so it isn’t too tight or baggy.
And if you don’t already have one, I highly recommend a marine radio as an essential piece of boat safety equipment. It can save your life in those “what-if” scenarios, like an overboard passenger or bad weather conditions that leave you stranded.
Lastly, just remember to pack extra clothing and gear as needed. Clothing gets wet and gear goes overboard. It’s always smart to carry more.
Winter boating, despite the drawbacks, has lots to offer.
Colder months bring some of the best fishing to be had. You practically have the lake to yourself with fewer people around. And the views are breathtaking.
Just use your brain and be wise. If the weather is questionable, it’s best to stay home.
But if the weather’s clear, be safe out there and enjoy the crisp, fresh air.