If you live where it drops below freezing and your boat is more complex than a dinghy, you need to winterize. Failing to winterize can cost yourself money and time with avoidable repairs and make you miss the start of the boating season. You'll want to learn from these mistakes.
If You Don't Winterize Your Boat, Here's What Happens: Water freezes and expands and can damage anything it's trapped inside. Water may seep into unprotected spaces to do this. Acidic and corrosive wastes, salt and corrosion buildup can damage delicate parts in engines. Fuels break down or grow dirty. Mold and mildew take root, and you may come back to a boat in the spring that you can not use because of multiple system failures.
System by system, there's a lot that can go wrong, and most of it is about water freezing where it doesn't belong. Below, We'll go over each potential complication in depth.
Winterizing includes most of the following, though the exact list will depend on your boat and there may be additional tasks.
Draining everything that holds water, from plumbing lines and tanks to engine blocks and cooling systems.
Flushing everything out that comes in contact with salt water.
Adding non-toxic antifreeze to everything that held water including plumbing, toilets, fixtures, engines and bilges.
Changing oil in engines and fogging them with oil.
Draining gasoline tanks and/or treating with stabilizer
Filling diesel takes and treating with antimicrobial stabilizer
Disconnecting batteries and charging them (lead acid) or discharging them to 50% (LiFePO~4~).
Covering the boat or moving it indoors.
With all that to do, what could possibly go wrong?
Cracking and breaking
Raw water and fresh water cooled engines where the seawater lines are not drained can suffer from cracked parts, anything from heat exchangers to the engine block itself could crack and split open. Salt water will freeze, albeit at a lower temperature, and expand into closed spaces. If you are lucky, you’ll only blow a hose off its fitting or split it open, at worst you'll destroy the engine.
Freshwater cooled engines with inadequate anti-freeze can also freeze and crack. If only water is used for cooling the risk is much higher, a mix of anti-freeze and water can prevent this.
Corrosion and Dirt
Dirty oil contains acidic contaminants, and salt can cause a host of problems with corrosion. Leaving unchanged oil and an unflushed engine may not break your engine right away, but it can cause damage which may shorten the life of your engine or reduce its efficiency. Cleaning and fogging engines cuts these risks.
Mechanical systems left sitting with corrosive waste products and dirt on them will suffer from it. Even if you are bringing your boat into a heated garage for the winter, the lack of motion in the engine can cause buildup and problems where that waste sits if the oil isn't changed and the engine flushed.
Over time gasoline degrades as different weight compounds separate and evaporate. If you have ethanol in your fuel, it can absorb water if left for the winter. Un-stabilized fuel can lead to gumming, deposits, dirt in the engine and difficulty starting and running.
Diesel has different risks - algae can grow in it and cause clogged filters and injectors. Dirty filters will get growth and clog. Tanks left almost empty or half full are more prone to biological growth than tanks filled with biocide treated fuel.
Water left in hoses leads to burst lines, water left in shower and sink fittings results in cracked and destroyed fixtures over the winter. A pump which isn't left dry will break if it freezes up, or chew itself up if activated while frozen. Holding tanks that aren't emptied may freeze and expand, and the waste may dry out and solidify over the winter.
Hot water tanks and heat exchangers face the same risks of water expansion and cracking of tanks and heating elements if not winterized. Fixtures left closed with water in them may freeze and break.
One fall I winterized my freshwater system, but did not run anti-freeze through one showerhead in my boat. I'd done the sinks, but I forgot one shower. The hard-to-find and expensive Swedish fitting split open during the winter because I'd failed to get all the fresh water out of the inside of the shower mixer.
Batteries are an oft-neglected risk area in winterizing. Lead-acid batteries like flooded wet cells, AGM and Gel will self-discharge over time. Batteries that are not fully charged at the start of winter may completely be discharged before the spring, which can damage a battery’s life span.
The chemistry of batteries causes a much lower freezing point for charged batteries than discharged batteries. Discharged batteries freeze at a temperature not much lower than water. Even if it doesn't crack the battery case, freezing may cause internal damage to the lead plates, which kill the battery or reduce its life or capacity. The risks are highest for flooded cell batteries, but any lead-acid battery can freeze.
Failure to disconnect all loads from the battery will discharge it, and leaving a discharged lead-acid battery in a freezing storage area is a certain recipe for damage.
Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO~4~) batteries have different storage issues from lead-acid, as they should be stored at 50% discharged with all loads disconnected. Storing lithium batteries fully charged or discharged may affect longer term life cycle length and charge capacity.
While lithium batteries will not freeze like lead-acid, their performance degrades at low temperatures and charging a LiFePO~4~ below 32°F (0°C) may damage the batteries.
Deck Fittings & Hardware
Water seeps in everywhere on a boat. An uncovered boat with snow and ice piled up on the decks may let water into through deck fittings, stanchion bases, and other areas exposed to the elements. At the risk of sounding repetitive, water which gets into tight spaces and freezes can cause damage by expansion.
The deck areas around fittings may develop cracks and water can seep below and behind expanded openings and cracks. Water can seep in windows, between window seals, or between the window and the hull to cause damage and further leaks.
Mold, Mildew and Dirt
An unventilated boat will trap moisture, leading to mildew, mold and rot. Left alone and sealed for the off season, a boat may become a riot of mildew and bad smells by spring. While mechanical risks to systems are low, upholstery, curtains, boat canvas and sails are all at risk from trapped, still moisture.
An uncovered boat will accumulate dirt over the winter. If you're unlucky enough to have storage near trees, you may find brown stains, filth, and a cockpit full of rotted leaves and a stained deck in the spring. Even without trees, atmospheric buildup from air pollution and rain will leave a patina of dirt and grime on a boat left uncovered for the winter.
A frozen bilge can sink your boat if you leave enough water in it at the end of the season. If through-hulls are in the water and it freezes they can get cracked or damaged - terrible below the waterline. If your boat has a hull plug for draining, ice in the bilge this could force it out or loosen it.
Bilge pumps in frozen water do not fair well. If they are run while frozen they are likely to get damaged, and expansion and crushing forces from water can break the casing or damage the pump mechanism.
Avoiding Spring Disasters
This is a list of what could happen if you don't winterize, not what will. Your boat is a complex machine and a lot can go wrong fast in freezing weather if you don't take care of her, but you can get lucky.
In the spring, inspect everything carefully. You can't tell if something has frozen and thawed, but you can see visible damage. If you didn't winterize, be prepared for surprises when you commission things. I found that broken shower mixer in the spring when I pressurized my water to flush the system and it started spraying water all over the forward head.
If you think you missed winterizing something, inspect it closely before trying to use it.
Better still is to make a good fall checklist and hire someone competent to do the work you don't feel comfortable with. With winterizing, an ounce of prevention is cheaper than a few pounds of cure in the spring.