17 November 2022 — Preparing Historic Ships for Winter Weather

Is it November already? It feels as if it were just yesterday that we were talking about summer maritime events and outdoor festivals. 

Until our recent move to a space in the historic Hat Factory building in Peekskill, our NMHS headquarters was adjacent to a marina on the Hudson River, and in the fall we would often look out the window to see boats being hauled out of the water, or shrink-wrapped and ready for wind and weather. While a lot of us in North America are trading sandals for sturdy boots and digging out the sweaters and gloves, what are heritage community ships’ caretakers doing to get ready for winter? I asked around to find out. 

Shanna Schuster is visitor engagement & program manager for the WWII-era destroyer escort USS Slater (DE-766) just up the Hudson River in Albany, NY. Shanna shared with us the job list they use to make sure Slater is ready for the chilly New York winter:

  • Cover all guns
  • Clean and service furnace and fill oil tank
  • Close off all ventilation with sheet metal 
  • Disconnect fresh water and sewer hoses 
  • Drain the fresh water and sewer systems and blow antifreeze through the systems 
  • Rig Casco circulators on the inboard side to prevent ice buildup from putting strain on the mooring lines
  • Seal weatherdeck doors with weather stripping 
  • Keep heat trace on the one usable sea valve

Slater will be open to the public until 27 November; then the volunteers will dig in to these tasks, and it’s expected they will have them wrapped up by the beginning of December. 

It won't be long before volunteers will be weatherproofing the last destroyer escort afloat in the country. Photos courtesy Destroyer Escort Historical Museum.

Claire Herhold is community outreach coordinator at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, on the shore of Lake Michigan. Just ask them to tell you all about “lake effect” snow! She had this to share about preparing for winter:

Most of the vessels in our fleet come out of the water in September and early October for storage near the museum. This includes the 1941 U.S. Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat 35460, the 1929 Chris Craft Cadet Merry Time, and the 1921 R Class racing sloop Bernida. The replica 1900 Truscott electric river launch Lindy Lou will give fall color tours on the Black River before also coming out of the water in late October for winter storage. For our replica 1811 square-topsail sloop, Friends Good Will, our public sailing season ends at the end of September. Downrigging takes place during the first few weeks of October, and we spend the winter performing maintenance on the rigging as well as our other vessels. 

The maintenance and care of all of our vessels is conducted by the Commander of the Fleet, Captain Bob Harnish, and a dedicated team of volunteers. The Padnos Boat Shed on our campus is a hub of activity all winter, and a great place for museum guests to learn about all that goes into the restoration and maintenance of historic vessels.

A green-hulled schooner at dockside; one man stands on the dock, and fourteen people in casual work clothes, some in safety helmets, stand on board the schooner.

A crew of volunteers, gathered for the downrigging of the schooner Friends Good Will. Photo courtesy Michigan Maritime Museum.

The Maine Windjammer Association is a fleet of eight traditional sailing vessels offering multi-day, all-inclusive cruises along the Maine coast. The association’s public relations manager, Nicole Jacques, told us about the steps they take:

The windjammers go through a similar process that many recreational boats do for the winter. All the water systems are drained (pumps, heads, tanks, etc.) and filled with non-toxic antifreeze. Sails are removed and stored on land. The interior is cleaned, the exterior is washed. Each boat has custom-made hoops that line the deck before they’re shrink-wrapped to keep out the elements for the winter. The vessels stay in the water for the winter; since most of our fleet is wood, the moisture is good for the hulls. In the spring, most of the windjammers are hauled for short maintenance periods when they make any necessary hull or system repairs, paint the bottoms, and touch up topside paint as well. Not long after relaunching, they begin their cruising seasons.

What does it look like under that shrink wrap? Here's a peek at the Maine Windjammer Association's Mary Day. The one trees and wreaths atop the masts are added to spread a little holiday cheer. Photos courtesy Maine Windjammer Association.

Finally, we heard from Mystic Seaport Museum, home to the last surviving wooden whaler, Charles W. Morgan; the 100-year-old fishing schooner L. A. Dunton; and the 1908 passenger steamboat Sabino, to name just a few of the vessels in a remarkable fleet. Senior Vice President of Operations and Watercraft Chris Gasiorek explained Mystic’s process:

Every ship is different, and we have so many! As the season starts to get cold we do the basics to all the boats, such as shutting down water systems that might freeze, and ensuring that storm mooring lines are in good condition and set. Vessels with engine systems are winterized. Then we get into specifics, such as taking down small yards on the square rigged ships, and cockbilling the large yards so that snow and ice does not accumulate and potentially drop on visitors. Vessels hauled out for the winter might get a coat of linseed oil on the wooden hull to slow drying, and vessels in the water get ice-eaters set up to keep the water around the vessel moving to prevent freezing and ice damage. Offshore anchors are set on some vessels to keep them kedged a few feet off the dock. Stocks of salt are set near gangways to ensure a slip free visit, and to ensure safe passage for our staff making daily ship checks. A close eye is kept on weather forecasts and storm surge forecasts in case we need to disconnect gangways. The most important step is ensuring frequent checks- each of our in the water vessels is visited every day, weekends, holidays, blizzards, floods—every single day one of our staff makes rounds, checks lines, gangways, bilges to ensure the safety of our historic fleet.

The whaling ship Charles W. Morgan, painted black with gold and white trim, at the dock in winter.

The 181-year-old whaler Charles W. Morgan, and the rest of Mystic's fleet of historic vessels, are monitored regularly by the dedicated staff. Photo courtesy Mystic Seaport Museum.

Clearly, a lot of effort goes into protecting all of these vessels from winter’s worst. And thanks to the planning, hard work, and careful management, they’ll be waiting for us in the spring. In the meantime, we’ll be visiting indoor museums, tucking into the newest maritime history book—or re-reading Two Years Before the Mast or Moby Dick—and reading Sea History over these winter months. 


Sea History Today is written by Shelley Reid, NMHS senior staff writer. Past issues can be read online by clicking here.

National Maritime Historical Society

1000 N. Division Street, Suite #4

Peekskill, NY 10566

(914) 737-7878  



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