Sailboat Winter Covers: What to Look For

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 12:28PM - Comments: (22)

Shipshape Canvas
Shipshape Canvas

Careful measurement for a snug fit is essential if you want the cover to last (Shipshape Canvas photo).

The onset of winter in the northern hemisphere brings with it that age-old problem: How best to protect the boat from snow and ice? Already boats on Lake Superior are being pulled from the water, and sailors as far south as the Chesapeake are beginning to think about buttoning up for winter. While many power boats choose shrink-wrapping over a more permanent solution, sailboats—with their masts stepped or unstepped—are perfectly suited for reusable custom, or semi-custom covers.  

Several seasons ago, Michigan sailor and Practical Sailor subscriber Alan Hyde posed that age-old question in our PS Advisor column, which I have reposted below.

We now have a boat—an Allied Seabreeze 35 sloop, hull number 23, from 1965—and overall, it’s a well-kept and sea-kindly boat. Winter is coming, and a winter cover seems in order. The do-it-yourself conduit-frame-and-tarp described in an an archived PS report is an option, but a fitted canvas (Sunbrella or better) cover is another, which will perhaps pay for itself in about three seasons. What is your view on this?

 Alan Hyde
Wolf Hound, Allied 35
Dover, Mich.

This is a big topic worthy of a larger article. For a snapshot view of the custom-cover options, we talked to Jim Welinski, co-owner of the family-run Shipshape Canvas shop (www.shipshapecanvas.com) in Duluth, Minn., where stored boats face some of the country’s harshest winters.

Most custom covers today are frameless, making them easier to stow and install than the excellent DIY frame-cover described on our website. In either case, a reusable cover will save money in the long haul. A robust, frameless winter cover for a Catalina 30 costs about $1,800 and can last eight to 15 years (with a re-stitching after about eight years), depending on how you treat it. Lighter-weight covers for less-harsh climates sell for just under $1,300 and can last about eight years. A single-season shrinkwrap job will cost $650. You do the math.

For cold-weather covers in dark northern climates, Welinski likes Top Gun, an acrylic-coated polyester that is tough, low-stretch, mildew-resistant, and abrasion resistant, just what is needed to stand up to fierce wind and cold. The material has two cons: It has a tough industrial finish, so a softer material is used to prevent chafe where the cover meets the hull, and it is not breathable, so good vents are essential.

For sunny climates with milder winters, Welinski recommends the UV-stable synthetic blend Weathermax, a breathable fabric that helps prevent mildew and condensation, but is not as strong and abrasion-resistant as Top Gun. Coated acrylics like Sunbrella are another option. Although not as tough or abrasion-resistant as Weathermax (see PS sailcover test, December 2011), Sunbrella’s 10-year warranty (pro-rated) against UV damage tops Weathermax’s five years.

Welinski also recommends using the UV-resistant thread Tenera in sunny places. Some canvas makers charge extra for Tenera, which carries a lifetime warranty, but others like Sailorstailor (www.sailorstailor.com) use it in all their products. Tenera’s downside, Welinski said, is that it can allow water to seep through needle holes when sewn into Top Gun, making it less desirable in this application.

For maximum lifespan, the devil is in the details. (Welinski abhors metal grommets, notorious points of chafe.) We recommend using a reputable local canvas maker that will measure your boat and help you fit the cover properly. All it takes is one fierce winter storm to shred a poorly fitted cover. Proper rope tension is critical.

If no local option exists, look for a company that has already fitted your model boat or has a template on file. Insist the company make adjustments for free within the first year. A high-quality cover should carry a four to five-year warranty for workmanship on top of the warranty for materials.

Comments (22)

Our 2000 Hunter 420CC came with a cover from Custom Cover in Buffalo, NY. The well-fitted cover is now in it's 18th winter and going strong. It has required re-stitching and a couple of zipper repairs, but it's remarkably durable. I have to say thank you to Rich and Dave who run the shop and the on-road crews. For a minimal fee they drove to Rochester, NY, picked up the cover, did minor repairs and re-installed it, all with a great smile and excellent communications. This is mounted on a 1.25" galvanized steel frame that they originally built. It goes on in about an hour and is super strong. Highly recommended!

Posted by: DayDream | November 17, 2018 6:36 AM    Report this comment

North Shore Canvas made my Noreaster cover for Tartan 37, fits like a glove. 4th season still in great shape. I have a painted hull, previous owner framed and tarped the boat first season I owned it, paint on hull was really damaged by chafe, major project to bring it back. Tarp cover seemed pretty tight also, but still chafed the paint..

Posted by: Todd M, Long Island, NY | October 25, 2018 4:44 PM    Report this comment

We purchased a Hunter 44AC in August of 2016. During the marine survey I asked for recommendations for winter covers. One name and company came out, Jim and Shipshape Canvas. Jim had to measure the boat and I was skeptical about how well it would fit. The cover fit PERFECTLY, was delivered on time and we are extremely happy with the investment. The boat is in the snowbelt of Lake Erie ( we measure snowfall events by the foot), and the cover has performed flawlessly. Last winter had wind gusts to 60 knots. Several other club members now have Shipshape covers and are as happy as I am. 90 minutes to install each season, off and folded in less than 30 minutes. No mildew or moisture buildup.

Posted by: Kindred | October 25, 2018 3:37 PM    Report this comment

I have a 3 piece cover made of TopGun from North Shore Canvas, Huntington, NY, for my 50 footer. It fastens to the stanchion bases. They use Tenara thread so it should last longer than the 15 years my first cover lasted.

Ronbo

Posted by: Ronbo | October 25, 2018 2:50 PM    Report this comment

I have purchased covers from The Canvas Store out of Huntington, NY. They have patterns to fit most boats. They are frame-less, Top Gun faberic, 3 parts, easy to install. Have used them on my current boat (Beneteau 38) and two previous boats. Good price and easy to work with.

Posted by: GreatLakesSailor | October 25, 2018 11:28 AM    Report this comment

Very informative and timely blog. Thank you!
I still use a faircloth. Erecting a frame with ribs made of transversal electrical metal tubing, I use dozens of zip cable ties to secure it to the stanchions. I am perplex at what to use for the longitudinal "spines". Up to this year, long 1"X2" 16ft furring strips created the squeleton. would anyone have a better idea ?

Posted by: rcolesny | October 25, 2018 11:27 AM    Report this comment

I purchased a Catalina 445 a few years ago and decided to have a cover made Vs shrink wrapping each year. I am in the Mid Atlantic area, Annapolis, MD to be specific and looked into the different materials and pros and cons of each. Also, talked to several vendors and listened to their pitch. In the end, I had a custom cover made of Top Gun by North Shore Canvas. They are actually one of the few who do come and meticulously measure your boat and produce a custom cover to your specs. I was initially leary of the fact that Top Gun does not breath. I have not found that to be an issue, even without vents. I am in the fourth season with this cover and it is not showing any wear, chafe, or deterioration of the material. I am very pleased with the the decision I made and the great support North Shore has provided.

Posted by: Moxie2010 | December 10, 2017 5:25 AM    Report this comment

Well....I guess that I am the odd man out.
After using a tarp for 40 years on several boats, my new boat did not come with a tarp, so I tried shrink wrap.
I put up the 2x4 framing which is basically a ridge pole supported by saw horses. It takes me about an hour. Then I have my local boat maintenance guy shrink wrap it. It takes him about 2 hours. He even puts in a zippered door.
There is lots of room under the wrap to work on the boat in winter, and the plastic is set up as a high angle tent shape. Because the taught plastic is drum tight and very slippery, snow and ice do not collect.
In spring, a sharp knife opens the boat up in 20 minutes with minimal effort. The only work is taking down the frame.
Yes...over time the cost is more, but the work is soooooo much less.
Did I mention that I am 71? And increasingly lazy?

Posted by: taxwizz | December 9, 2017 10:27 AM    Report this comment

I'm a canvas convert. After a lifetime of pridefully DIY-tarping, I've found a custom frame & canvas well worth it. It's easy, effective, long-lasting... and definitely cheaper than tarps considering as someone mentioned, the time and expense of going to the yard to check and adjust; never-mind the perpetual worry after witnessing "fails" resulting in gargantuan cockpit ice blocks and other damage.

An unexpected bonus was that the frame is tall enough to comfortably work off season under cover on the deck, cockpit and below. I string some overhead lights and add a small electric heater to create an indoor workshop. On occasion, an intrepid sole checking their boat on a cold winter's afternoon will be drawn to the sounds of Jagger, Coltrane or Pavarotti, and are invited up to join me for a cigar, a nip and some tales of the sea. Don't tell my wife about my off season man cave!

I confess I didn't convert willingly. A dozen years ago, our Connecticut yard's new owner issued an edict; "Shrink wrap or custom cover. No more tarps." He feared the insurance fallout after reading about wind-flapping blue tarps pulling boats over, starting a domino-tumble of boats in the tightly packed yard.

With the cost of shrink wrap as the benchmark, I found a custom cover and aluminum frame that happily, broke even in just three years! The folks at Quinte Canvas (The Top Shop) in Ontario are knowledgeable and service-friendly. It helped that they had a template for my '79 C&C 30, which with a minor adjustment for an odd bow pulpit, fit perfectly the first time. Only after over a decade, the zipper threads started to fail. I re-sewed them last year, but just replaced the canvas (at half the price since I didn't need a new frame too).

Posted by: Jib (John) Bourget | December 8, 2017 8:22 AM    Report this comment

After decades of learning the hard way with different types of frames and tarps, I've finally found a solution that I love for my 36-foot sailboat, which is stored with its mast up. First the frame: I've used the Kover Klamps conduit-based system for over a decade with great results. Initial setup is time-consuming, but it's a quick process thereafter. As for the cover: I buy two super heavy-duty tarps (ideally 16+ mil in thickness)with the dimensions I need for the forward and aft sections, respectively. I then relax my lifelines and trim the sides of the tarps so they can be secured to my toe rail but away from my Awlgripped hull. Where the two sections meet and also to secure the tarps, I use some wonderful plastic screw-down tarp clips found on amazon. I typically get 7-10 years out of the tarps and have the satisfaction of having a custom fit, saving some $$ and not contributing wasteful white plastic to the boatyard dumpster. I

Posted by: chuck g | December 7, 2017 8:32 PM    Report this comment

Bob Pulyer's comment above is spot-on. However, he did happen to have the equipment and know-how to make his cover. I helped him to install it once, and can say it is very well made.
We are now in our 7th year with our tarp cover and ready to get a new tarp. On the downside, it does need a frame which we made of PVC pipe. The boom is tied to the top rail of the frame with wire ties and has no other support. The cover runs from the stern to the mast where it is closed in. We used to run it to the bow, but that became too much cover to deal with. We now have a separate piece to cover the fwd deck hatch. Cover is tied down with line from side-to-side that runs under the hull. It's easy to adjust (lines stretch and have to be adjusted a couple of times.) I do use a 3M high-quality duct tape (or maybe Gorilla tape) to connect the cover where split by stanchions and shrouds. It doesn't have to be snow-tight. It takes about 2 hrs. to erect the frame, and another 2 to install the cover and be done, including lunch.
Were we to do it again, probably would have had Bob make us one using Top Gun. So much easier to put up, and store. So much for my two cents.

Posted by: GraySailor | December 7, 2017 5:07 PM    Report this comment

We have a winter cover made of what I'll call a heavy canvas (I understand that that is probably technically correct). Last winter we had a fair amount of snow, and we were not able to get to the marina to remove the snow. When we removed the cover in the spring, we found that the upper section of the SS boom vang was bent.
In order not to have this happen again, I had our canvas guy sew a flap onto the middle of the center portion of the cover and put a grommet in the flap. I'll run a halyard through the grommet to relieve some of the downward pressure on the boom.
If any of you have experience with what I'm discussing, I'd love to have your insight into my remedy or others that you have tried.
mrmac

Posted by: mrmac | November 2, 2016 11:35 AM    Report this comment

Hi this is Jim from ShipShape Products in Duluth, Minnesota. To respond to Matt W's comment about custom covers - we have an inventory of patterns for over 350 different sailboats (and hopefully yours). When taking an order we have customers take a set of basic measurements from their boat. We compare those measurements to our pattern to help ensure a proper fit and finish. We include a Guarantee of Fit, so any modifications are included. Finally if we don't have the pattern for your boat, we do make at least one or two road trips through the Great Lakes and East Coast Corridor (Chesapeake to Maine) every year making patterns for cover orders. Occasionally we get out to the West Coast and the Pacific Northwest. For further information please look up our website (I am unable to post the link).

Posted by: Jim W | March 29, 2016 10:11 AM    Report this comment

Its funny how people rave about the huge savings they have from using a tarp and a dozen 2x4s from home depot. I am always amazed at what a mess they almost always are. Flapping in the wind or how efficiently they hold snow and rain. There is never an account of the man hours of adjusting and re-adjusting or shoveling, and checking on it ten times, just the $30.00 tarp and $25.00 worth of 2x4s. When comparing the cost shrink wrap is clearly better then tarps, But when it comes to a Custom Winter Cover there are only a handful of options. These companies claim to have a pattern for every boat, and it will fit perfectly, some even claim to gaurantee the cover for life ! A quick check of the BBB shows how that works out. It is clear that if you are going to spend the money on a cover, They must come to your boat and measure. How could they possibly know about a radar pole or a davit.

Posted by: Matt w | February 20, 2016 11:48 AM    Report this comment

I HAVE USED A COVER MADE BY FAIRCLOUGH SAILMAKERS FOR 15 UEARS ON MY SCEPTRE 43. IT IS NEARING THE END OF ITS USEFUL LIFE BUT IT HAS PERFORMED REALLY WELL. I AM NOT SURE BUT I THINK THE FABRIC IS ACRYLIC WHICH STANDS UP PRETTY WELL TO UV. INCIDENTALLY I HAVE A LARGE SOLAR PANAL ON MY DODGER THAT GETS ENOUGH LIGHT THROUGH COVER TO SUPPLY A TRICKLE CHARGE TO KEEP MY 900AH BATTERIES CHARGED.

Posted by: ROBERT F | January 6, 2013 9:45 PM    Report this comment

For my Sabre 28, I spent about $200. on a tarp and some 2x4 lumber for frames (fore and aft) to hold my mast about 7 ft above the cockpit floor (so I can stand up in the cockpit). Drapped the tarp over the horizontal mast, covered the safety line stantions with sponge rubber pipe insulation, then tied the tarp down. Had no serious tarp abrasions last winter (in Marion, MA), and have reinstalled it. Cheap but effective.
Ware Fuller

Posted by: Ware F | December 7, 2012 7:13 PM    Report this comment

I am surprised by the low prices quoted for the custom covers. I was given an informal quote (not based on measurements) of $8-10,000 by a local canvas guy when I asked. I have a Gozzard 36 with a bowsprit and dinghy davits on the back. Does anyone have a tip on where I can find more reasonably priced options? Seems to me it would have to be a local guy to do the measuring and fitting, but maybe there is a DIY option. I have no experience or equipment for sewing a cover myself. I am in Anacortes, WA.

Posted by: Walter G | December 6, 2012 1:49 PM    Report this comment

An ounce of prevention is definitely worth the cost vs. the pond of cure in this area. Quality overkill are worth it in the long run. In 50 years of boat work, the more one can do to protect your "baby", is definitely worth preventing the headaches that shortcuts or cheap fix's cost. That applies to when your boat is being used during the rest of the year. Too many owners only use covers during the winter months being lazy or in a hurry to party etc. after they dock. Take the time to give a thorough wash down and dry and cover your investment. It will save you thousands of dollars in bright work repair and parts replacement, especially if you have someone else doing the labor on top of the parts replacement. Don't forget to wash those covers too, salt air & water help rapid deterioration of those items as well. You can never be too attentive in taking care of the details.

Posted by: Richard S | December 5, 2012 11:50 PM    Report this comment

I recently purchased a ShipShape cover for my 1970 Morgan 33 and it fit perfectly, I am very pleased with the construction and material. I added short lengths of foam pipe insulation on the hold down lines to keep them from rubbing on the hull and since my genoa wire/rope halyard is tight to the mast, I ran 4' lengths of pipe insulation up the halyard past my spreader ( taped together with duct tape ) to keep the haylard from fraying against the spreader and to stop the halyard from "slapping" against the mast.

Posted by: gary g | December 5, 2012 5:30 PM    Report this comment

Wish you had put this article out about a month ago. Has great info I'll save to consider next year.
John G.

Posted by: john g | December 5, 2012 2:00 PM    Report this comment

Medium cost option: For our 35.5" sailboat that is hauled during the winter months on the Chesapeake was to design and construct a full cover using Top Gun. We completed the cover for last year and was very pleased with how it fit and the protection that it gave from rain,snow, and wind. After looking at various commercially made covers it was decided that our would be sectioned off into 5 sections, with each section connected to its adjoining sections with zippers. To increase the UV protection to the zippers a flap was designed into each section. the smaller sections and the zippers really make it so much easier to install in the fall and remove an stow in the spring. It is also designed to extend over the toerails to enable the water to drain off and not collect at the toerail. Yes we use tie down ropes that can be adjusted from the ground and have installed the brass tie down grommets on reinforced tabs that are sewn to the sections.This being the start of our second season we are very pleased with the cover and it is so much better then our old method of using plastic tarps and frames.

Bob Pulyer

Posted by: Robert P | December 5, 2012 12:06 PM    Report this comment

Our low cost option: Our 30' sailboat winters moored at Chesapeake Bay house (ice on the surface is very rare). Since 2008, we cover most of cabin & cockpit with a 20' long tarp over the boom (lowered to top of steering wheel). The heavy white tarp (best we found on eBay)costs

Posted by: John R | December 4, 2012 3:43 PM    Report this comment

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