Protect Your Boat’s Deck From Ice Damage This Winter

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It is the first day of fall, and that means winter is right around the corner, which is no fun sailors who live in the northern slice of the planet, unless, of course, youre an ice-boater or frost-biter-in which case, Im happy for you (spoken like a true Floridian). Of all the many evils that winter visits upon our boats-mold, mildew, snow, ice-one of the most insidious is also invisible. Im talking about the water, soon to become ice, that could be trapped in the core of your deck.

If you had niggling leaks at your mast, your forward hatch, or deck hardware this summer, those niggles can become nightmares when freezing temperatures begin to do their sledgehammer work upon our boats-as well as our psyche. Most decks these days are sandwich cores, which have a stiffening material, usually foam or balsa, or plywood, sandwiched between two fiberglass skins. (For a more in-depth picture of the pros and cons this construction process, check out our report on core construction.) For the moment, however, all you need to know is this: Once water enters the core of your deck through a small leak, it can often spread unnoticed. Bring on winter, and its freezing and thawing cycles, and the core begins to break down, and our light, stiff deck starts turning to Jell-O.

The freeze-thaw cycle can also break the bond between the fiberglass and the core, further weakening the deck structure and introducing new problems. In a worst-case scenario, you return to your boat in the spring and find bubbles, bulges, and cracked gelcoat or fiberglass where water has pooled and frozen, pushing your deck’s outer skin upward.

Bottom line is this: Of all the fall maintenance fun (dont call them chores) youve got to deal with in the weeks ahead, take some time to address the leaks. Much of what youll need to carry out your own leak-repair project is right here in our archives. Our most recent report on caulks and sealants can help you find the right sealant for the job. Owners of teak decks will want to consider our tests of teak sealants. For a good do-it-yourselfer perspective on sealants and caulks, checkout PS contributor Scott Rosenthals account of his seasonal assault on leaks aboard his boat Willow.

Better yet, if you want to prevent leaks to begin with, follow the time-tested technique for sealing through-deck penetrations to prevent leaks from reaching the core when you add or re-install deck hardware. Although not a complete remedy against the scourge of winter, our boat winter-cover project can cut down on the damage done. This last article is available to non-subscribers as well. (Pass it on!)

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and his girlfriend Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

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