Boat Buying for Absolute Beginners, Part VI

Learn the best way to store your boat

17th August 2001.
By David Brown

More than transportation for your boat, a trailer offers a storage area for it during the boating season and in the off season. (Photo by Randy Scott)

More than transportation for your boat, a trailer offers a storage area for it during the boating season and in the off season. (Photo by Randy Scott)

Based on average size alone, even a “small” boat is a unique possession. Other sporting gear such as golf clubs and tennis racquets or baseball bats can be stored in a closet. Except for the smallest of inflatables, this is not possible with boats. They are large and bulky, and require special storage solutions.

For the purpose of this discussion, “storage” will refer to where the boat resides when it is not in use. A surprisingly large number of storage choices exist. Which one you choose will depend upon the size of your boat, its intended purpose and the depth of your wallet. And, since these factors may change over time, you may choose several different methods of storage.

In most of the United States, storage needs are dramatically different during the summer (boating season) and winter. In summer, you want quick access to your boat so you can get in every possible minute of on-water fun. During the off season, your interests lie more in the security of the boat from both the winter elements and thieves or vandals.

Summer Storage

What follow are some of the most common options for storing your boat during the summer. As you’d expect, these options vary with the size of the boat.

Small-Boat Storage (Boats less than 20 feet long)

  • Upside-Down on the Round— Although it sounds like a crude method, storing boats upside down is common around the world. The hull then becomes its own boathouse. Be sure to block the boat off the ground for plenty of air circulation. This type of storage works best for dinghies and other small boats.
  • Trailer— A boat on a trailer can be stored inside a garage or in your backyard. Obviously, some sort of cover is needed to keep rain, falling leaves and undesirable critters out of the boat. A boat on a trailer can also be moved to a fenced storage yard or stored inside a warehouse building.
  • Dry Rack— This method of storage uses a forklift truck to hoist boats into multi-story storage racks. Depending upon overall size, boats can be stacked three or four high when using this method. The racks are normally inside a building that protects against precipitation and theft.
  • Boat Lift— Boat owners lucky enough to have waterfront property often install equipment to pull their boats out of the water between trips. Boat-lift designs range from small derricks to what amount to floating dry docks.

Midsize-Boat Storage (Boats 20 to 32 feet long)

  • Trailer— Same as above. Boats up to 8 feet, 6 inches wide can be trailered during daylight hours in most states (check local laws). In theory, this means boats up to 32 feet (and longer in the case of some high-performance deep-V boats) are trailerable. In practice, trailering generally is best suited for boats up to about 26 feet before the costs of tow vehicle and trailer make this option too expensive.
  • Dry Rack— Most dry-rack buildings are capable of storing boats up to 26 feet. However, there are some huge forklift trucks available that can lift boats more than 30 feet long. The limiting factor is height. Boats with flybridges are too tall to stack in this manner.
  • Wet Dock— This remains the most popular summer storage. A wet dock is called a “boat well” or “slip” in some parts of the country. Wet dockage allows you to get under way with a minimum of fuss.
  • Boat Lift— See above. It is possible to purchase lifts for boats 30 feet and longer. Obviously, cost and space are the limiting factors.

Large-Boat Storage (More than 32 feet long)

  • Wet Dock
      — All exceptions noted, big boats must remain afloat between uses. It is impracticable to haul them out and then launch them again when the owner requests. Wet dockage allows the boat to be used as a cottage because most marinas today have full electrical and water hookups. Many also provide telephone and cable TV service.

    Winter Storage

    Off-season storage is not the most exciting aspect of boating, but it is necessary anywhere the snow flies. Boats are typically removed from the water (“hauled”) by the first of October and stored ashore until after the first of April. Most marinas offer a package deal for hauling, storage and what is termed “winterizing.”

    Winter storage preparation jobs include:

    • Bottom Scrubbing— Boats that have been wet-docked will have an accumulation of slime, grass, algae and barnacles clinging to their bottoms. This is easiest removed with a pressure washer just as the boat is hauled from the water.
    • Winterizing— The engine (or engines), potable-water system and holding tank must be protected against frost damage. Special equipment is used to pump antifreeze through the engine(s) until the required freezing protection is reached. Non-toxic antifreeze is used in potable-water systems.
    • Blocking— In a process called “blocking,” the boat is set on shore using either a special cradle or boat.
    • Shrink Wrapping or Tarping— Most owners prefer to protect their boats against winter storms. This can be done with a traditional canvas cover or by applying a protective “cocoon” of shrinkable plastic, or shrink wrapping.

Storage locations vary, usually depending upon the size of the boat involved. Trailerable boats often are pulled home to spend the winter in the owner’s back yard or garage. The reason is cost: There is no storage charge associated with keeping your boat on your own property.

Larger boats are impracticable to move large distances, so they usually take winter naps at their home marinas. No matter where you store your boat, however, winter storage options fall into five general categories:

  • Outdoor Storage— The boat is simply stored outdoors, either in your backyard or at the marina. Weather protection comes from a canvas cover or shrink wrapping.
  • Indoor Storage— Large storage buildings are common around marinas. These buildings offer weather and theft protection, which are two important considerations. The main disadvantage is that most often you are not able to work on your boat while it is inside one of these storage buildings.
  • Indoor Heated Storage— Large boats with complicated engines, water systems and electronics are extremely difficult to winterize properly. There is always a chance that something will be forgotten. One way to avoid this problem is to store your boat inside a heated building. The cost is high, but frost damage is unlikely if the temperature in the building never drops below 50 degrees.
  • Dry Rack— Contracts for dry-rack storage may cover a 12-month period instead of just summer or winter. A rack-stored boat must be winterized to protect against freezing. Otherwise it simply remains in the same rack it occupied during the summer.
  • Boat owners lucky enough to live on waterways may have private slips, which can be equipped with boat lifts. (Photo courtesy Glastron)

Cradles and Jackstands

Storing larger boats requires specialized equipment. The hull of each boat must be supported evenly to prevent distortion. Improper blocking during winter storage can cause permanent damage to the fiberglass. Fortunately, this seldom happens because marinas are familiar with the variety of equipment available. This equipment falls into three broad categories:

  • Boat Cradles— Not too long ago, all boats longer than 30 feet were shipped on a stout wooden cradle. Owners would keep these cradles for supporting their boats in winter storage. Eventually, the wood deteriorated, and many people had welded steel cradles built as replacements. Today, specialized boat-hauling trucks have eliminated the need for shipping cradles, and marinas often discourage their use because of the summer storage problem.
  • Jackstands— Sometimes called “poppets,” jackstands are metal tripods that support large wooden pads. A screw mechanism allows the pad to be adjusted for best support of the hull. In most yards, wooden blocking is used to support the keel while the jackstands balance the boat to prevent it from tipping over.
  • Styrofoam Blocks— Large blocks of white Styrofoam are commonly used as “pillows” to support smaller boats, usually under 20 feet in length. These blocks may be used in conjunction with jackstands on larger boats. The advantage to the Styrofoam is that it crushes just enough to match the contours of the hull.

Winter Covers

Boats stored outdoors for the winter are traditionally covered to protect them against weathering and vandalism. There are a variety of popular covering methods, and each has its advantages.

  • Canvas and Frame— The traditional method is to build a supporting frame over the boat using wood. Scrap carpet padding protects a canvas tarp that has been cut and sewn to the shape of the boat. This method is time consuming the first time, as all of the wood support pieces must be fitted individually. Once built, the pieces are numbered for disassembly and re-assembly in subsequent years. A heavy cotton-duck canvas is still the best covering for a boat because it “breathes,” allowing excess moisture (the cause of mildew) to escape. A well-made cover can give 10 or more seasons of protection.
  • Shrink Wrap— This modern technique has become the most popular method of covering boats. A framework of 1-inch-wide webbing is put over the boat to support a thin film of plastic. Heat from a propane “gun” causes the plastic to shrink tightly to the shape of the boat. Zippered doors and ventilators can be installed. The major drawback to shrink wrap is that it cannot be reused. The film is cut off the boat in the spring and sent to a plastic recycler.
  • Plastic Tarps— The least expensive method is to build a temporary “tent” over the boat using a few pieces of wood and a plastic tarp. The covering is kept in place by tying the tarp to the boat, or to the jackstands or cradle. Although they’re inexpensive, plastic tarps of this type allow good airflow, which will help prevent mildew. The big disadvantage is chafed gelcoat where either the tarp or the tie-down cords rub against the hull. Plastic tarps usually last only one winter and must be replaced.

Air circulation is important during winter storage. Wooden boats need plenty of circulation to prevent wood deterioration. Mildew can occur in all boats. That’s why it is a mistake to seal the covering too tightly. Shrink-wrap experts routinely install vents in their covers for this reason. However, you need to make sure there is enough air circulation inside the cabins. Open deck hatches so the bilge areas can ventilate. Sponge out any remaining bilge water to reduce the moisture content of the air inside the boat. Cabinet doors and drawers should be left ajar an inch or so for air circulation.

Trailers and Trailering

Boat houses, such as this one at the Lake and Shores Resort and Marina in Mount Ida., Ark., are a popular boat storage choice. (Photo courtesy Atlantic-Meeco)

A boat trailer is a dual-purpose device. Most of the time it provides a convenient way to store the boat between uses. However, the primary reason for buying a trailer is to allow you to explore new waters by taking your boat down the highway. A good trailer must perform both duties equally well. Yet, the sad situation is that most boats are sitting on inadequate trailers.

Perceived value is the reason for this paradox. Boat buyers are buying the boat not the trailer. They are quite willing to put a few more bucks into a larger motor or better accommodations. Often, this money is “found” by choosing a lower-cost trailer. This temptation should be avoided if you want to gain the most boating fun from your purchase. Here are a few buying tips:

  • The weight of the boat, motor and gear should be in the midrange of the carrying capacity of the trailer. Don’t pick a 2,500-pound capacity trailer if you have a 2,500-pound boat. Look instead for one with a 3,000- or 3,500-pound capacity.
  • Choose larger diameter wheels and tires. Larger tires rotate fewer times per mile, thus producing less heat and wear on the tread. The wheel bearings also last longer because they rotate fewer times per mile.
  • Look for a trailer with “drive-on” capability. Drive-on trailers allow you to drive the boat onto the trailer close enough to the winch so that you need only winch the boat a few inches.
  • Pick trailer lights (for use on the highway) that are sealed against water, especially if you will be launching in salt water.
  • Don’t overlook the safety advantages of trailer brakes even if your rig is below the legal requirement for brakes.
  • Choose your trailer for the environment in which it will operate. Most boat trailers today are made of materials suitable for occasional use in salt water. However, if you plan to launch only in briny water, choose a trailer built specifically for that service. It will have extensive corrosion protection not found on trailers intended primarily for use at freshwater inland lakes. No matter how expensive the trailer, it won’t work properly until the bunks and rollers have been set up for your boat’s hull shape. It is critical that the weight of the boat is spread over the maximum number of rollers. This prevents damage to the fiberglass caused by bouncing down the highway.

Few trailers come with a spare tire, but this is an excellent addition if you plan any long-distance traveling. Trailer tires can be difficult to find in out-of-the way spots, or at night and on weekends. A tongue jack with dolly wheel will make it easier to move your boat around when it is not attached to the car.

Editor’s note: This is the final installment for David Brown’s six-part series, “Boat Buying for Absolute Beginners.” The series will run again in February.


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