You people in Florida and Texas shouldn’t stop reading now. Yes, I can hear your obnoxious laughter all the way over here in Virginia. “Winterizing? What the hell is winterizing?” If you’re going to use your boat 12 months out of the year, there’s likely no reason to take winter-specific precautions, but even if you live on the equator, there could be a reason why you’d need to put it up for a while—maybe due to a deployment, to care for a dependent, or just because work is kicking your ass. When this happens, you’ll need to ensure that everything will be functional when you return.
In fact, taking some time off from your trophy-snatching schedule to keep things running properly is essential if you want to keep your time on the water comparatively expletive-free.
Trust me. There’s nothing worse than finally getting a beautiful spring day, driving to the ramp, dumping it in, turning the key, and…nothing.
Yes, wintry conditions add a layer of complexity and sophistication to the process, and some of you may not need to read those particular steps. But everyone needs to take some steps to keep everything in top shape.
As I said above, I live in Virginia and I’ve only truly winterized my outboard once in 25 years of bass boat ownership. I don’t mind fishing in mild winter conditions, and we usually get one or two gorgeous days in January and February. For those of you who live further north, if you’re not going to make a mad dash to Florida once the water gets hard, you should take care that everything gets buttoned up properly.
High and Dry The number one thing to remember is that when water freezes, it expands. Simple, right? Well, think of all of the places that water can accumulate in the boat: hoses, bilge, livewells, and a host of other places. If it expands enough, it’s going to crack or break something. That’s when the trouble starts. When you park the boat for the season, take the plug out (if you’re like me and never take the plug out otherwise, there’s about a 95% chance you’re going to forget to put it back in on next year’s inaugural launch, so make sure your bilge pumps work), raise the tongue jack as high as it’ll go and let that water drain.
Some old-timers put one end of a rag through the drain hole and hang the longer end outside of it so any remaining drops will leach out. Don’t forget to trim the motor all the way down, too, to get any remaining H2O out of the lower unit and prop hub. Otherwise that’s a big bill in the springtime, and with supply chain issues still ongoing it could put you out of commission for much longer than expected.
The Motor Because I’m about the least mechanical person ever, I consulted outboard dealer and mechanic Kyle Perkerwicz for some more advice. He first said to remember that every outboard is a little bit different. There are carbureted, electronic fuel-injected, and direct fuel-injected models; two-strokes and four-strokes; propellors and jet drives; and all ranges of horsepowers and configurations for cylinders. Be sure to consult the maintenance plan for the one you own. If you own a Chrysler from the ‘70s or a Force that’s only slightly younger than your AMC Pacer, you may have trouble finding one, but in the case of most semi-modern engines it should be on the company website. For example, Honda has a simple maintenance page that answers most of the questions about things you can do at home, including winterization. Most brands also have downloadable owner’s manuals and shop manuals.
“Before you take the boat out of the water the last time, put fuel stabilizer in it,” Perkerwicz said. “You can even run it year-round if you don’t use the boat that much. It allows the engine to get treated fuel throughout, which is important if it’s going to sit. That prevents the breakdown and the oxidation of the fuel. This is something that’s very easy for the customer to do.” He also reminded those who use their boats in saltwater to flush them out with freshwater after every use, but to take extra care on the last trip of the year.
If you have a four-stroke, this is a good time to change the engine oil. The guidelines may say 100 hours, but it should be done once a year at a minimum. No matter what engine you have, you should change the gear lube. Modern engines make this increasingly easy to do, even for the mechanically-challenged, Perkerwicz said, but “if water comes out, you should definitely take it to the dealer.”
Next, if you’re going to put up Old Bessie for an extended period, you should fog the cylinders. Remove the spark plugs and spray marine fogging oil directly into the cylinders. On direct fuel-injected motors, use appropriate outboard oil instead of the fogging oil, and squirt it through the spark plug hole.
As long as you’re at the back of the boat, check your propeller. Take it off and make sure that there’s no line around the shaft, which can damage the seals and allow water into the lower unit. If you’re like me and by the end of a season running the river the prop edges have been filed down or mildly mangled, send your prop off to get refurbished. It doesn’t cost much and not only will it increase your performance, but an unbalanced prop can be a nightmare–it could throw a blade on a morning run, causing temporary panic, or it can bend your prop shaft in a nasty way. Before you put it back on, lubricate the prop shaft and then tighten it to the specified torque.
The Rest of the Boat The engine, of course, is kind of a big deal but it’s just part of the whole ensemble—in a “head bone connected to the neck bone” kind of way. There are lots of other parts that make fishing much more enjoyable and practical. For example, unless you have a flux capacitor, you can’t run that outboard–or your electronics, or your trolling motor–without batteries, which have a tendency to suffer in extreme temps.
“Battery maintenance is a pretty big thing,” Perkerwicz said. “If you discharge them too far, it can damage the battery. If it’s going to be sitting for a long time, remove them from the boat and store them in the garage on a trickle charger.”
Also remember that you and your boat are not the only creatures hiding from frostbite. All critters great and small look for places to burrow when it gets chilly. “That’s why a lot of dealers who store pontoons outside shrink wrap them,” Perkerwicz said. “You can also put tape over the exhaust housing of the motor to keep anything from getting in there, including preventing water from getting into the lower unit.”
At the very least, get a quality, custom cover and ratchet it tight. A friend of mine once left his on too loosely in a field and a herd of feral cats moved in. You’ll have to believe me when I tell you that the smell of cat piss is really hard to get out of boat carpet. Close up any gaps in the cover or consider putting a tarp over it—if it doesn’t naturally “tent,” then find a way to make it do so. You can put a dowel or even an inflated beach ball on the deck to keep the precipitation away and draining down to the sides. Of course, snow is remarkably heavy when stacked up in volume, so if your boat will be unattended, make sure you or someone else can get there and sweep it off the cover.
Indoor or Outdoor Storage? Obviously, the best place to store the boat is in an enclosed, temperature-controlled building. If that’s not possible, then some sort of enclosure or carport is second best. True story: I was single when I bought my house and all I cared about was a garage big enough to store my boat. The place could’ve had no kitchen or bathroom (fortunately it had one of the former and three of the latter) and I would’ve been fine as long as I could back 20 feet of fiberglass into a building, press a button, and have it be hermetically sealed for the night.
I recognize that some of you may not have similar priorities and must keep your boats outside. If that’s the case, make sure you take care of everything else. For example, trailer tires take a beating from the elements. Ensure not only that they’re properly inflated, but also that you treat them with some sort of protective coating to keep them from cracking. Loosen the winch strap to take tension off of the hull. Lubricate everything that can and should be lubricated. While you’re at it, it’s a good time to put a coat of wax on the top and sides of the boat. Get on a creeper under the boat and look for any fiberglass or aluminum damage. Again, this is a good time to get that fixed. Boat shops are a lot less busy in the winter.
Yes, all of this is a mild pain in the ass, but it’s really not that time-consuming. When that engine starts right up in the spring, it’s all worthwhile. When that first big fish gets dropped into a still-percolating livewell, it pays for itself.