Many Alumacraft aluminum boat owners are on the water in cold weather for early- or late-season angling or fall waterfowl hunting. Here’s the good news – no insects! But boating when the water or the air is very cold does present some special challenges. Here are some tips for preparing your aluminum fishing boat, and yourself, for cold weather.
In very cold weather or water, some systems on your boat will require special attention.
If your aluminum boat is powered by a four-stroke outboard motor, check the owner's manual for advice on the best grade of motor oil for cold-weather operation. Some motors may require a low-viscosity (lighter-weight) oil in very cold weather.
The most common cold-weather outboard problem is "duck hunter freeze-up." If the outboard is tilted up out of the water, for example when a hunter pulls a skiff ashore and tilts the motor off the bottom in shallow water, water will be trapped within the motor. If the air temperature is below freezing, it won’t take long for that water to freeze inside the motor. When the motor is re-started the cooling passages will be clogged with ice and the rubber water pump impeller could be destroyed. Keep the motor tilted down to let it drain to the water level. Water in the submerged gearcase will not freeze.
Drain livewell and baitwell lines after every outing. Water remaining in these systems could freeze and split hoses or damage the pumps. Remove the transom drain plug, and make sure the wells are empty. Run the aerator and bilge pumps momentarily to ensure all lines are clear of water. Use the trailer jack to raise the bow of the boat much higher than the stern to help drain any remaining water from the well systems and the bilge.
Watch for ice on carpeted casting decks. Even the light spray that happens naturally when running at speed can frost over the carpeted deck and make it slick.
A rugged Alumacraft 2XB™ double plated hull is not designed to be an icebreaker but it can maneuver through skim ice that might form on a bay, or through pieces of ice at breakup. Ice is surprisingly abrasive, however, and running through thin ice at speed can quickly scuff up the boat’s paint. Better to take it slowly so that the ice does not impact the hull with much force and cause cosmetic damage.
A boarding ladder could be a life saver in an overboard event in very cold water, especially if you are alone in the boat. Many new aluminum fishing boat models are equipped with a boarding ladder. If your boat does not have a ladder, an Alumacraft dealer can help you locate and install an accessory ladder.
Alumacraft encourages use of the Engine Cut Off Switch (ECOS, or kill switch lanyard) in every situation but it’s especially important in the event you go overboard when the water is very cold. You’ll want that boat to stop immediately so you can back on board promptly. Use of the ECOS is now mandatory by federal regulation for boats under 26 feet in length on waters under the jurisdiction of the US Coast Guard, including the Great Lakes.
The main concern for you and your passengers is avoiding hypothermia caused by exposure to cold weather or by immersion in cold water. The onset of hypothermia is often so gradual that the victim is not aware it is happening. One symptom is confused thinking which can prevent self-awareness. Another is loss of motor control and a tendency to take unnecessary risks, which is not a good state to be in when trying to operate a boat.
Staying dry is the key to staying warm. Dress in layers in clothing made of wool or synthetic materials that will dry quickly and continue to insulate when wet. Avoid cotton jeans and sweatshirts. Choose top and bottom outerwear that is wind and waterproof, and waterproof shoes or boots. The spray that feels refreshing in August can give a serious chill in Spring or Fall. When it’s really cold, exchange your sunglasses for goggles to keep your vision clear.
Pack dry clothes. Bring along a change of clothes in a drybag. Warm drinks or soup from a Thermos can help cold boaters warm up faster.
Dress for the water temperature, not the weather. It can be a glorious 70 degree spring day, but on a big lake the water may still be 50 degrees or cooler. Get away from shore and the air temperature can cool off dramatically.
Wear a lifejacket. If there was ever a time to ask everyone in your fishing boat to put on a lifejacket, it’s when the weather is cold. The shock of falling into very cold water can literally take your breath away, and in that case, a life jacket can save your life. Body temperature drops 25 times faster in cold water than in cold air. If you are boating often in cold weather or water, invest in a “float coat,” an insulated jacket or coveralls that incorporates U.S. Coast Guard approved Type III flotation.
Make a float plan. Let someone at home know where you are going and when you expect to be back. This is always a good idea, but especially when the weather could be hazardous.
There’s no reason not to extend your boating and fishing season for as long as possible. With a little planning and some precaution, you can add weeks or months to your time on the water. When you’re boating season is finally over, be sure to properly winterize and store your boat so you’re ready to go next season!