Saving Lives and Your Boat: 5 Steps to Ready Your Vessel for Winter Storage

By Yasmin Ghahremani

For boaters in many parts of the U.S., as the days grow shorter and the first NFL game kicks off, it’s time to say goodbye to boating season. No one likes getting their boat ready for six months of hibernation, but consider it a fond farewell that will preserve your prized possession until spring. 

It will save you money in the long run, too — and potentially save life and limb. Winter can cause serious damage, from cracked blocks to corrosion, which can leave you stranded on a sinking vessel. Improper storage can lead to wiring damage caused by gnawing rodents who happen to like the taste of metal.     

John Dixon, product management director for the USAA Insurance Agency, recommends boat owners start with a plan that includes five main areas. While this list is by no means all-inclusive, it’s a good place to start. “These steps are good practice from both a loss avoidance and safety perspective for something that you’re counting on floating with properly working electronics and safety equipment,” he says.

1. Drain the water from the engine 

Water expands when it freezes, and that can crack the engine block and manifolds. Drain the engine completely, then fill the cooling system with an environmentally friendly marine anti-freeze to protect the components from freezing and corroding over the winter. Eco-friendly anti-freeze contains propylene glycol, which is not poisonous, unlike the toxic ethylene glycol used in traditional anti-freeze. 

2. Change the oil and oil filter

This will help prevent damage to engine components from residual acids and moisture left in the crankcase. It helps to first run the engine for a few minutes to make the oil less viscous and let it flush out impurities. Shut off the engine to replace the oil and filter, then restart it and run it for a few minutes to circulate the new oil and make sure the filter isn’t leaking.

3. Fill the fuel tank and add stabilizer

Filling the tank helps prevent condensation from building up while the boat is in storage. Once the tank is mostly filled, add a fuel stabilizer, then run the engine for about 10 minutes to circulate the stabilized fuel through the engine. The stabilizer will help the engine perform at peak levels when you take the boat back out of storage.

4. Make sure the boat is sufficiently covered

It’s important to keep your boat protected from moisture and vermin while it’s in storage. Moisture can cause all kinds of damage, including mildew. You do not want to uncover your boat in the spring to find it infested with a black plague of mold. That’s why you need to make sure your boat is thoroughly dry and covered while in storage, but also adequately ventilated.

Polyvinyl tarps are relatively inexpensive covers, but you’ll need to make sure the tarp is securely tied down or taped. Shrink wrapping is another option. It can cost hundreds of dollars but if properly vented to let condensation escape, the shrink wrap can protect your boat better than a tarp, which may allow ice to form at the edges.

Besides moisture, your other biggest storage enemy is vermin. Make sure there are no openings in your boat cover for birds, rats or other animals to make the boat their home. These pests can damage the upholstery and eat through fuel lines. “Imagine what a nest of mice living in the engine of your car can do,” says Dixon. “They can do worse in a boat.”

If you start your car and have a problem half a mile down the road, you can usually get out of your car and walk to safety. But if you get half a mile from shore and your engine freezes up and dies, you can’t get out of your boat and walk to safety. “Safety concerns get magnified on the water,” says Dixon.

5. Remove the battery

Disconnect the battery and store it in a safe, dry place that stays above freezing during winter. This preserves the battery and ensures it won’t leak acid into the boat. Take care of the battery while it’s in storage, too. An unused battery deteriorates faster than a battery that’s regularly charged, so it’s best to top off the charge once a month.   

USAA wants you to be safe and enjoy time on your boat. To help members be safe, the USAA Insurance Agency has alliances with leading boat insurers. 

To learn more, go to our boat insurance website.

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