Winter Cruising Essentials

Mushroom Hunting Tools

Beyond the list of essential equipment below, it’s also important to have ‘toys’. Having mastered identification of most of the edible plants in this area, I’m now turning my attention to the mushroom kingdom.

It seems there has been fewer cruisers this winter than any year I can remember. The weather has been typically foul for the months of November and December, so I suppose my observation is not terribly unusual. There is usually a lull in January and February where the winds calm down before picking up again for the months of March and April. If you’ve been cooped up at the dock and thought about heading out, this article will be of interest to you.

For the last three weekends the winds have exceeded 30 mph and I’ve been happily anchored out on my boat each weekend. I’ve mastered the art of winter cruising. My main secret: I’ve been cruising the San Jan Islands for almost seven years. I know where to go. Without this experience though, it’s not hard. Common sense says: if the wind is coming from the south (it usually is), find an anchorage on the north side of an island.

Beyond using common sense to choose your anchorage, being comfortable comes down to having the right equipment. Below is the equipment I consider essential for comfortable winter cruising. Some cruisers may disagree with me or place emphasis on other things. Keep in mind, this is my essential winter cruising gear.

Know How to Reef

Reefed Main

Showing my main sail reefed to the first point. Notice the quick reefing lines hanging from the top reef point? Those make all the difference in quickly reefing in unexpectedly foul weather.

In order to travel safely and comfortably in a sailboat this time of year, you must learn how to reef your main sail. The winds can change violently in a very short time period. Even if you motor, having a reefed mainsail up will keep your boat stable and your progress steady. The best way to learn? Guilt someone who knows into teaching you. That’s what I did:

My sailing mentor was Ken Schmidt. He had a lifetime of sailing experience he was willing to pass on to me. When I told him I wanted to learn how to reef the main, we practiced at the dock. Keep in mind that this is a good idea, but everything you learn in this situation will be forgotten the first time you have to reef in actual foul weather.

After practicing, we waited for a day with 30 mph winds and went right outside the marina. He stayed warm and dry in the cabin, sipping coffee, while coaching me. I was the one running around deck in foul weather gear wrestling with the sheets. Read more about that adventure in my Heavy Weather Sailing post. Nothing beats practice in actual conditions. Staying close to the marina and having another person on board kept us safe. I can’t imagine a better way to learn than this.

There are few thing you can do to make yourself a better sailor than learn how to reef your main sail. You get bonus points if you do the same with your jib sail. I have hank-on sails and carry a 50% and 25% storm jib with me. I’ve never been in conditions bad enough to warrant the 25% sail, but the 50% gets a lot of use.

Pro Tip: Put in the first reef point before you leave the dock. It’s much easier to remove a reef point while cruising than it is to put it in.

Foul Weather Gear

DIY camping gear

This is my typical DIY camping gear and preferred Northwest Coast clothing. Rain, shine, sleet, or snow; I’m ready for anything.

Having good foul weather gear is another essential. And I don’t mean $1K+ mustang suits. If you can afford them, more power to you. Those are widely considered the top of the line. I don’t have that kind of money. My foul weather gear consists of Grundens brand light-weight water-proof pants and a heavy-duty PVC rain coat. Each piece cost $100.

Under that outer layer, I wear alternating layers of polar fleece and polyester clothing. I will typically wear a base layer of cotton thermal underwear. Most of my polar fleece and polyester I picked up on sale at Goodwill or other thrift store. Polar fleece lasts forever and will keep you warm even if it’s wet, but it requires an outer layer to stop wind. Cotton thermal underwear as a base layer will breathe and allow your sweat to dissipate. I wrote more clothing tips in this Northwest Coast Clothing post.

Good muck boots are also essential. Xtratuf is the most respected brand of muck boots for a good reason. Gill also makes a decent boot.

I was wearing all the above gear when I went overboard last spring. After climbing back aboard I continued to sail through howling winds for twenty minutes. At no point, in or out of the water, did I feel cold, despite being totally soaked, with wind chill, and near freezing temperatures. It doesn’t cost a whole lot to have good foul weather gear.

A Good Heater

Propane heater

My friend chills out next to the propane heater aboard Solace

The two categories above have to do with safety. The rest of the gear has to do with comfort. And that starts with a good heat source. I have a Cozy Cabin propane heater that costs $500. It’s more than adequate to heat my boat and I rarely use more than $3 of propane in a winter weekend. My friends have a small wood stove aboard, which is awesome, but I love the set-and-forget convenience of propane. There is nothing wrong with diesel heaters either. The fuel is inherently safer. Any way you do it, you need to have heat.

Stay away from catalytic heaters or any form of direct-vent type heater. These may be safe, but water vapor is a byproduct of combustion. Your cabin will feel like a cold sauna. Everything will get moist and condensation will build up everywhere. It will totally kill the comfort factor. Get a heater with a flu that ejects its combustion byproducts (CO2 and water vapor) out of the cabin.

Practice Building a Fire with Wet Wood

Fire Building Equipment

My ‘backpack of fire!’ contains a fire starter, hatchet, collapsible bow saw, and lighter.

I have a backpack on board that has been playfully dubbed the ‘backpack of fire!’. It has all the gear I need to build a fire: fire starter, lighter, hatchet, and collapsible bow saw. With daylight fading so fast, this is the best time of year to have a fire on shore. It transforms a dark, stormy night into a social gathering or intimately romantic evening.

The problem is that all the wood you’ll find is wet. Learning how to build a fire with wet wood takes practice, but it can be done. The trick is to have a lot of twigs to get your coals built up. The architecture of your larger pieces is also important. The fire starter really helps grease the wheels. Sometimes your only wood source is driftwood that comes right out of the water. Lately this has been what powered the majority of my fires. It can be done.

Run a Stern Line

Stern Line

Hard to see, but this shot shows my Dyneema stern line running to shore. It’s tied off to the cleat that is out of focus.

Using a stern line is not a popular practice in the States. It’s more common in Canada with BCs deeper anchorages. My stern line consists of 300 feet of quarter-inch Dyneema rope with 100 feet of nylon anchor rode at the end. The nylon rode provides elasticity and takes the abuse of rubbing against the shore. Dyneema has zero stretch, so it’s important to have the nylon to act as a shock absorber.

The Dyneema rope is strong enough to lift my entire boat out of the water without breaking a sweat. It’s expensive, but worth every dollar. To get the best deal, I bought a 600 foot spool on eBay. I then cut off 300 feet and resold it on eBay. This allowed me to get the rope for under $1 per foot. I also got to keep the spool, which is handy for running the line out.

Stern Line 2

Same shot, but with the cleat in focus.

Having a stern line allows me the ultimate control in positioning the boat. I’m able to hug the shore and get the maximum protection against wind and chop. Running a stern line has been the biggest factor in staying comfortable in a protected anchorage during a storm. My anchor has drug two times in my sailing career. Both times I had a stern line set and it prevented my boat from drifting away or going aground.


Have a Reliable Engine for your Dinghy

Dinghy Motor

My 2.3 HP dinghy motor is more than a convenience, it’s a safety device.

A lot of sailors don’t have engines for their dinghy. It seems the biggest reason for getting a hard dinghy is to row it and avoid the need for a motor. I have a 2.3 HP air-cooled Honda outboard that I got new for $1000. It came with a 5 year warranty, which is about to expire, and the engine has never failed me. It’s more than a convenience, it’s an essential piece of safety equipment.

Obviously a dinghy motor makes getting around on the dinghy easier, but it does so much more than that. Using the dinghy, I can position my boat at anchor and reliably run the stern line to shore. It’s also my backup engine in case I have engine trouble. I’ve seen more than one sailor strap their dinghy to the boat and limp back home when their engine wouldn’t start.

I’ve taken it one step beyond: I can use my main halyard to hoist my outboard into the cockpit and replace it directly with the dinghy engine. The little 2.3 HP engine pushes Solace around at 3 mph and only burns 1/8 of a gallon an hour. The only caveat is that I can’t go up to the bow or the prop comes out of the water.

Watch the Forecast

The secret to staying comfortable at anchor is to stay one step ahead of the weather. I have a lot of technology aboard to keep me connected to the internet no matter where I’m at in the islands. Cell phone coverage seems to get better every year. I try to check the hourly forecast at weather.com three times a day. I also like to check sailflow.com, and of course I also check the weather radio on my VHF radio. Since the radio can be irritating to listen to, I prefer to get the same forecast on the my.boatus.com website.



Whew! That was a lot, but I think I covered just about everything. These are my secrets to staying comfortable and safe during the worst weather the San Juan Islands can throw at me. I hope you take it to heart. There’s no reason sailors need to put their boats away for the winter in the San Juan Islands. The winter boating season provides some of the best experiences on the water.

Have some of your own ideas for winter cruising essentials? Add them to the comments below!

Related posts:

Controlling Fear While Cruising
Adventures at the Friday Harbor Film Festival
Stepping the Mast
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