How to stay safe on an icy dock

Winter weather brings with it a number of hazards, such as ice-covered docks, to those that live in colder climates. Traveling to and from your boat can become a dangerous task, but there are ways to increase your safety.  With the guidance of the five tips below, I recommend that you develop a winter weather safety plan.

This plan will lay out the hazards expected during the winter, ways to reduce or eliminate the risks associated, and emergency responses. This plan should be unique to your boat, crew, and marina. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it should be thorough. Plan for the worst, and hope for the best.


1. Communication

Communication is vital to safety on a frozen, slippery dock. If nobody knows that you have ventured out into a dangerous situation, they won’t know to look for you. A good policy for winter dock travel is to mimic float plan procedures. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to arrive or return. For example, if I am not home my wife will text me when she leaves the boat, and then again when she reaches the parking lot or visa versa. I know that it takes 5 minutes to travel that distance, so if I don’t here anything within the expected timeframe, I check in with her.

The most important part of this plan is what to do if you can not confirm that your partner has made it safely to their destination. This plan will be situation specific so I urge you to develop a system that fits with your unique scenario. We have an agreement that if we can not confirm the safety of the other, we will take immediate action. If you know that your partner always checks in on time, and you are unable to get ahold of them, it’s time for assistance.

For us, the first step would be to call the marina office. They can check the docks and surrounding area to make sure everything is ok. If they can’t help you, it may be time to consider bigger measures such as the Coast Guard or local rescue services. This is a judgment call that you must make based on the nature of your previously agreed upon plan. There is no right or wrong system of communication here, as long as you have one in place. Consider all contingencies, and do your best to mitigate risk. It will seem tedious at times, but systematic communication could save a life.


2. Traction

The biggest hazard of winter dock travel is the frigid water all around. Along with the routine hazards of wind and waves, winter brings a significant chance of slippery conditions. Beyond the risk of falling and causing injury, is the possibility of sliding into the water.

Traction on the icy surface should be a priority over speed or style. The best way to increase your traction is a pair of ice cleats. There are several versions available that are inexpensive. We recommend having a few pairs, and leaving one in the car or boat at all times so that you are never stranded without them.

In addition to ice cleats, we can focus on technique to improve traction. The natural reaction on slippery surfaces is to become timid. You often see people tenderly sliding one foot out in front of the other, testing the surface before shifting their weight.

While seeming conservative, this is actually a good way to increase your chances of slipping. For you to maximize traction, you must center your weight over your feet. It may seem counterintuitive, but it helps to keep your weight forward on the balls of your feet, with knees slightly bent in an athletic stance. Put this technique to use when traveling down steep grades, such as the ramp down to the dock.

[Tweet “Plan for the worst, and hope for the best.”]

Keep one hand on the rail, and the other available for balance. Lean forward to match the slope; your body should stay almost perpendicular to the ramp. Don’t worry; you won’t start gaining speed and running uncontrollably towards the dock, but you will be much better balanced. The reason this is important is that even with ice cleats, traction is not guaranteed; you might slide. If, however, you employ the aggressive stance I have just described, you will slowly slide down the ramp like a skier, rather than losing your feet from underneath you.

Think about this the next time you are on a slippery downhill grade: weight forward on the balls of your feet, hands up and ready to assist with balance, and knees slightly bent.

Don’t carry too much in one trip! Consider making multiple trips, waiting for a favorable tide, using a dock cart, or asking for help instead.

3. Dock Maintenance

Knowing that one of the biggest hazards to living aboard in winter is the slippery conditions, we must maintain our surroundings to limit exposure to ice.  Shovel your dock as often as necessary to prevent buildup, and salt the icy areas. Fresh snow is easy to remove, and shoveling it immediately is the easiest way to keep your dock ice free.

Living with purpose 2

When snow becomes saturated with water, whether by partial melting, or saltwater spray, it has a tendency to freeze overnight into solid ice. Solid ice, as we all know is much slicker than snow. Rather than working hard to beat the frozen snow and ice off the dock afterward, remove as much as possible while it is fresh. There will always be some left over that will inevitably freeze into a smooth sheet of ice. This is where salt becomes necessary.

Salt will increase traction and slowly melt the ice away. With a good layer of salt and a few hours of sun, your dock will soon be ice free. So remember, when it comes to dock safety, procrastination is the enemy. Work smart, not hard.

Most docks have ample lighting at night, but if lights are not functioning be sure to ask the marina to make repairs. Even with properly functioning dock lights, it may still be difficult to see the dock well enough to ensure good footing. A headlamp is a handy item that easily fits in a jacket pocket and can drastically improve visibility.

4. Flotation

No matter how diligent you are about maintaining your dock, improving traction, and communicating, there will always be a risk of falling into the water. When conditions deteriorate, and the dock is slippery, wear additional flotation.

As a boater you should already have access to a PFD (personal flotation device) and it’s a good idea to wear it anytime there is a risk of falling in the water. Walking across a frozen dock is a prime example of that. There are many types of PFD’s, but we are large advocates of inflatables which are less bulky, less restrictive, and easier to wear. If a PFD is less cumbersome to wear, it will be worn more often. Needless to say, a PFD won’t do you any good if you aren’t wearing it.

If you are in the market for a new winter jacket, you may consider another option that kills two birds with one stone: a float coat. A float coat is essentially a winter jacket, filled with flotation. They are designed specifically for working in cold weather and are USCG approved Type III devices. Like other PFDs, they come in a variety of styles and price points with numerous additional features.

Ensure that you buy a properly fitting float coat so that you won’t slip out of it in the water. Fashion aside, always consider bright, reflective colors and materials. A shiny yellow jacket is much easier to spot than a black one in the dark water.

Whichever flotation device you decide on, attach a whistle to attract the attention of your neighbors for assistance in an emergency.

5. MOB Recovery

Even with a flotation device, it will be very difficult to get out of the water. This is why communication is so important. It will be a lot easier to get out of the water if there is someone there to help you.

Some marinas will have ladders disbursed around the docks, either permanent or just for winter. If your marina has such ladders, be sure to take a good inventory of where they are, what type they are, and the easiest way to access them from the water.

If your marina does not have such ladders, it may be worth installing your own if allowed. Not all ladders have to be permanently mounted though, and a collapsible rope ladder hung over a cleat is a good safety precaution. If ladders are not available, take note of docks that are lower to the water or that offer handholds such as cleats. Sometimes the fastest way out of the water is not the dock at all. Scout out small skiffs,  tenders, or a nearby shore. It may be less effort to swim 50ft to shore, then to climb onto a tall dock.

If you do fall in the water, the most important thing to do is stay calm! The severity of the cold will quickly take your breath away and set into motion your bodies automatic panic response. Take a deep breath, scan the area, and plan your route out of the water. Having a PFD on allows you to float momentarily while you adjust to the situation. If you have already practiced this in your head several times, you will have a much better chance of executing the plan.

When rescuing another person from the water be mindful of your safety as well. Do not overextend over the edge of the dock, or risk sliding into the water yourself. If you can not safely recover the person alone, call for help, but do not leave the scene. Consider using a piece of line with a bowline at one end as a step hung from a cleat, or as a harness slung under the armpits. As a part of your winter weather safety plan, explore various resources available to you that can aid in the recovery of the man overboard.

Make a plan that addresses your specific hazards, and lay out a variety of responses based on your resources. The plan doesn’t have to be formally written, or elaborate, but it should involve a discussion with all involved so that should an emergency ever occur, everyone is prepared.  

This blog contains affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission if you make a purchase using the link. This incurs no additional cost to you. I am in no way influenced by incentives to recommend certain products. 

Matt Garand

About Matt Garand

Lifelong Mainer, and professional mariner, Matt Garand is the creator of A Life Aboard, a look at year-round living on a sailboat in Maine. Matt and his wife, Skye, live aboard in South Portland and use every available chance to throw off the lines and explore the coast.