Winter Storage Primer
By Rich Finzer

Twenty years ago, my wife and I fulfilled a dream. We purchased a property that included a vintage Victorian house and two large pole barns. Our home is located roughly halfway between Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes in Central New York, in the midst of a sailing paradise. Three nights after we moved in, we discovered that we owned a business too. That night, a stranger appeared, asking if I rented space for winter boat storage. Now mind you, I had not purchased the property in contemplation of starting a storage business. I had no idea how much to charge, no rental agreement, and not a clue what renting storage space entailed. So naturally, I said ďYesĒ. Weíve been in the storage business ever since.

That first winter, I only had one customer: the following year, a few more. Now, some two decades later (wow, it has been that long), we are usually booked in advance to capacity. All in all, itís been an interesting and rewarding little enterprise. And, while I donít operate a chandlery or a proper boatyard, I am a tiny part of the maritime industry. I like that. And, because Iím both a sailor who stored his own trailerable sailboat for many years as well as a storage facility operator, Iíve seen the business from both perspectives.

No business can expect to survive, much less prosper, without a solid customer base and mine is no exception. Fortunately, 99% of my customers have been gems. They come back year after year, and recommend my facility to others. But that still leaves 1%: the customers from Hell. If you own a trailerable boat and live in a climate where winter storage is an unfortunate necessity, what follows will help you avoid becoming part of that dreaded group So here are some (but by no means all) of the things you should keep in mind.

Donít wait until the last possible moment to call and ask about storage. Thereís nothing worse than dealing with a desperate boat owner who waited till mid-December to try and find a billet. If youíre fortunate enough to secure a spot, try not to show up after dark when itís snowing. And, be sure to take the time to read your storage contract. It lists the terms and conditions binding you and the facility. It should also list any miscellaneous charges such as an additional fee for storing your boat past your scheduled departure date. Itís a real contract, not a meaningless piece of paper. After you sign, make certain you list your home, work, cell phone numbers and e-mail address. The storage guy is not clairvoyant. If there is a problem with your boat, he canít contact you telepathically.

If youíre storing your boat for the first time, be sure to do your homework in advance. Check/compare storage prices/payment terms at several facilities. Ask for a blank copy of their storage agreement(s). Make sure you understand their rate structure. Some facilities operate on a strictly cash basis, others will accept checks but usually only from repeat customers. Most do not accept credit cards. Ask fellow boaters what their experiences have been. Most places base their storage charges on the overall length of your boat and trailer, but a more recent trend in rates is to charge by the square foot. To calculate your charge, multiply your boat and trailerís overall length in feet (including the rudder), times itís width at the beam, times the charge per square foot. If you can, remove your rudder/tiller assembly. It will shorten your boatís overall length and might save you a few $$$, while at the same time help prevent it from being accidentally damaged.

And donít be shy about asking if the facility has any special rules. As an example, some places will grant you access to work on your boat during the off-season. Others may not, usually citing liability concerns.

While weíre on the topic of due diligence, steer clear of any barn or building that plays host to pigeons. Pigeon droppings will ruin boat canvas. If they get wet, they are corrosive enough to begin eating away at metal! No respectable storage operator will tolerate even one pigeon, and no responsible boat owner should either.

When you arrive, remember to bring cash or your checkbook. But if you somehow manage to forget your money, square your account as quickly as possible. Donít wait several weeks before mailing your check. Float applies to your vessel, not the storage guyís cash flow.

As you prepare for winter, inspect your boat trailer and perform any required periodic maintenance. Make sure the tires are adequately inflated, the wheel bearings are greased, the trailer tongue latch is free of rust, and that your swing-up jack wheel is not a frozen mass of corrosion. The storage operator probably has an air compressor, WD-40ģ, and the expertise to free that latch and wheel, but he might not have the inclination to perform work which is essentially your responsibility.

And while weíre on the topic of maintenance, make sure to bring along whatever tools you might need. The storage operator will probably be willing to loan you a wrench or pliers, but itís not his responsibility to do so. He stores boats. He doesnít run a tool factory. As an aside, be sure to winterize your engine and add stabilizer to any fuel you have onboard. It wonít affect the storage operator if your engine is damaged by winterís cold or moisture tainted gasoline, but it might condemn you to a protracted stay at some boatyard while your outboard motor or diesel engine undergoes repairs. The Great Lakesí boating season is far too short as it is, you donít want yours squandered while waiting for your kicker to get fixed.

If your boat has a small outboard (like most trailerable sailboats do) you might consider removing your gasoline tank/tanks before you store the boat. You can always use that gasoline in your chainsaw and buy some fresh go-go juice come springtime, and you wonít need to purchase any fuel stabilizer either.

If laying up your boat will involve a good deal of toting and fetching, bring along a helper. The storage guy will probably offer to help as well, but donít rely on that. He might be busy with another customer. Besides, itís not his job to carry your batteries or other gear back to your SUV. Remove as much stuff as you can before you arrive, it will save you time. You might also want to acquire a charger like a Guest Battery Palô which will keep your battery(s) ďtopped off ďduring the off season.

Speaking of time, always plan on arriving on time. Years ago I had a customer who would call me about 30 minutes after his scheduled arrival time and explain that he was running late (duh). Then heíd promise to be there within the hour, and usually show up 2-3 hours after that. He was chronologically impaired. Fortunately for me, he sold his boat and bought one so big that it had to be stored outside on a cradle.

Acquire a cover or tarp for your boat. ďBlue tarpsĒ can be purchased for a pittance at many discount tool stores, and will keep dust and dirt from settling on the deck, winches, etc. In addition, be sure to remove your porta-potti. Be sure to empty and clean it too. That goes double for bottles of water, soda, etc. Remember, water expands when it freezes. Youíve chosen inside storage to protect the vessel from the elements not the temperature. Think, how many times does the mercury drop below freezing during a Great Lakesí winter? And whatever you do, donít call the storage guy on some subzero evening in January and ask him to remove the porta-potti. I actually had a customer do that. Unfortunately, his call came several weeks too late. The contents of his Thetfordģ had frozen, expanded, and burst. Words fail me here.

While weíre on the subject of removing things, be sure to remove any electronics (GPS, handheld radio, CD player, etc). Most likely, the storage facility wonít be heated, and the accumulating moisture will wreck your electronic do-dads. Take them home where theyíll be dry and comfy.

If your boat is fairly heavy (e.g. Catalina 25' or a Capri 26') consider using portable jack stands under your trailer. They will bear most of the trailerís weight and prevent damage to the tires. They will also provide greater stability if you need to climb back aboard during the off-season.

When spring arrives, be certain to show up on your scheduled take-out date. If a late spring snowstorm/freeze delays you, donít be surprised or upset if youíre charged an additional fee for staying a bit longer. That fee was probably spelled out in your storage contract, which is another good reason for reading all of the fine print. The facility is entitled to extra money for the extra weeks of service. Keep in mind that many operators store snowmobiles and other vehicles during the summer months. Their only resource is space, if you are still using it, they canít rent it to others.

As an aside, many of my customers store their empty boat trailers with me during the boating season. Indoor storage prevents the sunís rays from destroying their tires; helps prevent their trailers from rusting, or the paint from fading. Most importantly, it helps protect their tail/brake lights from accidental damage, theft or vandalism. That goes double for the license plate on the trailer too.

Finally, make certain you carry adequate insurance coverage on your vessel. Renting space means just that. You are renting the space your boat and trailer occupy on the surface of the planet: thatís all. The storage contract should clearly call out that insuring the boat is your responsibility, and that the storage location is not responsible for perils like a roof collapse or fire.

Follow these simple guidelines, and come springtime youíll be rewarded with a clean boat thatís been protected from the elements and is ready for another wonderful summer on the water.



Pre-Storage Checklist

  • Remove any perishables/liquids/foodstuffs (water, soda, cookies and the like)
  • Remove your battery(s) and take them home for the winter. 
  • Remove, empty and clean your porta-potti.  Store it in a dry location.  If your boat is equipped with a permanent marine head, have your holding tank pumped out.
  • Remove any portable electronics
  • Remove your tiller/rudder (if possible)
  • Add fuel stabilizer to your fuel tank(s) or consider removing your fuel tank and using up the old fuel in other devices.
  • Lube your trailerís wheel bearings, trailer tongue latch, swing-up jack wheel.
  • Ensure that your trailerís tires are properly inflated.
  • Check your trailers brake/tail lights and replace any burned out bulbs or bad wiring.
  • Verify that you have adequate insurance coverage on your boat and trailer


Storage Checklist

  • Arrive at your scheduled time.
  • Donít forget your $$$.
  • Bring along whatever tools you might need.  Consider bringing a helper along too.
  • Bring a tarp to cover/protect your boat
  • Make sure you arenít sharing the facility with any pigeons!


Rich Finzer earned his power boat operatorís license in 1960 at age 11, and began sailing in 1966. He also runs a winter boat storage business, has worked on a commercial fishing boat, and is an accomplished racing sailor as well. Currently, he cruises Lake Ontario aboard his Hunter 34' ďPleiades.Ē When heís not sailing, he supports his aquatic addiction as a technical/freelance writer.