Extend Your Season
Imagine barefoot water skiing on a lake still half-covered with ice. While growing up, my pals and I put on the drysuits and did this every spring as soon as the lakes began thawing. We’d keep a big cooler filled with hot water on board so we could swing in on the ski boom, warm our bare feet and swing back out for more chilling action. Were we crazy? Yes, arguably insane. But when you have a relatively short summer like we do in Minnesota, creative thinking (and a little courage) is required to get the most out of the boating season.
Since then, I’ve found a way to spend as much time in a boat as possible, making my living as a marine photographer. This can be a cold job. Scraping frost off the windshield at 4 a.m. is common. To keep clients, models and my crew comfortable aboard my photo boat, I use the tips I’ve learned since youth — and share them here so you too can enjoy spring and fall afloat.
One of the best things about off-season boating is having the whole watery world to yourself. Gone are the droves of boats, PWCs and crisscrossed wakes. There is a tranquility to boating that you won’t find in summer. Experience it once and you’ll never let the opportunities pass again.
Fortunately, there are plenty of tricks to make boating in the bracket seasons safe, comfortable and fun. Rig your boat, your tow vehicle and yourself with these tips, and let the adventure begin.
Boating on chilly days is best enjoyed when you’re prepared. Warmth is the key, and more is always better. What do I mean by that? If you think a sweater is all you need to be comfortable, bring two. Think tennis shoes will keep your toes toasty? Bring winter boots. Dress in layers so you can add or subtract clothes as conditions dictate. Be prepared for sun, rain, wind and even snow. Weather can change on a dime any time, but when it does so in spring or fall, it can be dramatic. Temperature swings of 30 to 50 degrees can happen in the span of a single day. Modern technology can keep you warmer than ever, thanks to heated outerwear that plugs right into the 12-volt power outlet in the console. Gerbing’s is one brand I recommend, as do fellow boaters, motorcyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Because water temperatures aren’t exactly balmy, I highly recommend wearing a life jacket rather than just having it aboard. In addition to saving your bacon if there’s a mishap, a life jacket provides thermal insulation for your core — and a warm core helps keep all your parts and pieces toasty.
Another accessory that’s great to have on board is a pair of goggles, like those worn by snow skiers and motorcyclists. Two reasons why: Watery eyes from cold wind aren’t pleasant and they’re not safe. Even with sunglasses, it can be like trying to see through a rain-spattered windshield. Sharp vision when you’re at the helm is a safety characteristic you owe yourself, your passengers and other boaters.
You can do many things with your boat to make it more conducive to cold-weather adventures. Adding a canvas enclosure creates one sure-fire advantage, as does having a lower partition — aka a wind blocker — for boats with walk-through windshields.
To keep clients, models and my crew comfortable on my photo boat, an onboard heating system is an absolute must. But when I picked up my current boat, it wasn’t rigged with a heater. So installing an aftermarket kit was a necessity.
Onboard heating systems, like the Heatercraft I installed, take the edge off anything Momma Nature throws at you. If you don’t want to go with permanent, engine-generated heat, there are electric and propane alternatives to consider. Even a bulkhead-mounted marine oil lamp, like the Weems & Plath 600 ($119, westmarine.com), will give off a surprising amount of heat while bringing a hint of nautical charm to your boat’s cabin.
Depending upon what type of boat you have, consider ways to quicken the winterization/de-winterization processes. Inboard and stern-drive owners might consider installing a Groco “safety seacock” that allows for quick winterizing, bypassing the raw-water intake line and providing a place to fill with antifreeze without pulling hoses. Groco also offers a kit that converts a standard seacock to the same dual use ($77 and up, jamestowndistributors.com).
If you run an outboard, check out how Evinrude E-TEC engines winterize with a built-in process and the push of a button. With any outboard, trim the engine down when not in use. When on the trailer, this allows water to drain; when in the slip, it keeps the gear case under water, which could be warmer than the air.
Make sure your boat has extra life jackets and blankets on board. I like an emergency blanket and often carry a space blanket ($13.50, campingworld.com). Naturally you’ll want the necessary fire extinguishers, a weather radio for up-to-the-minute information or, better yet, a VHF marine radio, and a complete first-aid kit.
One of my favorite “great ideas” for off-season boating is spill-proof mugs. I want my coffee hot and not in my lap. I never hit the water without mine. Another smart idea is a large container of sand in the tow vehicle. This will provide traction at boat ramps that get slick with skim ice.
While I don’t recommend dodging ice floes while barefoot skiing, I urge you to experience more early- and late-season boating. The memories will warm your heart, and you’ll see boating, the water and scenery like never before. It’s boaters first to launch and last to haul that win these prizes.
What You’re Missing
Wildlife Watching Migration!
Miraculous things happen in spring and fall. Waterfowl fill the sky, raptors ride the thermals, and seals haul out on islands, beaches and bars.
The Best Fishing
Avid amateur and pro anglers know spring and fall represent two of the best times to fish. Pre-summer means pre-spawn, and autumn can host a feeding frenzy.
Few sights stun like autumn’s blazing orange, yellow and gold colors mirrored on the water’s surface and viewed from the cockpit of your properly equipped boat.
Installing Aftermarket Heat
I won’t get into all the step-by-step directions when installing a Heatercraft heater. You can learn more about that at heatercraft.com. Long story short, this unit operates just like the heater in your automobile: The engine coolant circulates between the heater and an inboard or stern-drive engine, using fans to send all that warmth where you need it in your boat. The entire job can be completed in a day with hand tools and common power tools like a drill. It’s the best investment I’ve ever made for cool-season boating.