I was originally going to post about living on a sailboat during winter closer to winter, but here in Alaska, it’s already here. Additionally, I was reminded that this is the perfect follow up to last week’s blog about living on a sailboat in a marina. If you are interested in living on a boat year round and live in a colder climate or just curious about how it can be done, you will get a lot out of reading this post.
When I announced to my friends and family that I was buying a sailboat and going to live aboard year round, the first thing everyone asked was “Even during the winter?” Let’s face it, I live in Alaska, land of ice and snow, so that’s a legitimate concern. To be honest, I didn’t think it would be an issue and hadn’t really put much thought into it. It certainly wasn’t one of the things I researched.
Living on a sailboat during the winter does pose its unique challenges, but nothing that can’t be overcome. There are hundreds and probably even thousands of people doing it. Here in Sitka, Alaska, there are a lot of people who live on their boats year round, mostly due to the incredibility high cost of housing.
So, how do you living on a sailboat during winter, what are the challenges, and how are they overcome. We’ll get into all that, but first we have to get a few basic things out of the way.
Is your boat capable of winter living?
Is your boat able to survive a winter? That is the first and leading question you have to ask yourself before wintering over in a sailboat. To answer the question is rather simple; do you have to haul your boat out for the winter? If you do, you probably can’t liveaboard year round.
In Sitka, Alaska, the harbors stay, for the most part, ice free. Considering the majority of sailboats are either wood or fiberglass, whether or not your harbor is ice free is going to be the biggest issue for living aboard year round. When water freezes it expands and as it does, it crushing anything that is trapped in it. The book Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing about Shackleton’s attempted expedition to the South Pole gives a gut wrenching description of what ice will do to a boat. It will just crush it to pieces.
If you have a Steel boat, you can get away with being iced in a bit, but you better consult with the manufacturer as to how much ice the boat can take. Remember, the Titanic was steel.
If you are able to keep the boat in the water year round, you can live aboard year round. If you can’t, you may still be able to on the rare instance where you are allowed to live aboard on the hard.
Do You Have Heat To Survive The Winter?
Once you’ve determined that your boat can survive the winter, the next question is, can you survive the winter in it? The ability to live on a boat in cold weather will generally come down to whether or not the boat has a heating system. If you don’t have a heater in your boat, you will freeze.
Heating systems for boats are typically going to be one of three things, diesel heat, propane heat, or electric heat. On a rare occasion you will come across a solid fuel system on a boat, but as flames and boats don’t mix, it is not a typical thing.
In my opinion, diesel heat is the best way to go. You get a lot of dry heat and today’s heaters sip fuel. My particular heater uses around .2 gallons per hour for 17,000 BTUs (British Thermo Units). You can buy diesel heaters in various sizes and different BTUs. You can also get both air and hydronic heat systems, much like a boiler, for a boat which gives you even more options. I’ll admit the air heat is nice to keep the boat dry, but being able to have hot water at a cold winter anchorage is a benefit I would not give up. The hydronic heat system is capable of doing both air heat and hot water, providing you have a hot water tank for the system. Additionally it acts as an engine heater.
The next best option, most will disagree with me, is electric heat. Electric heat isn’t going to be built into a boat; you will have to bring in a portable electric heater or two to accomplish this task. I’ll admit that electric heat isn’t the best and has its own inherent issues.
The biggest of those issues is the amount of power it draws. A boat’s wiring isn’t made to support the massive loads a heater can put on a system. I, myself, have seen that in both my winters on board. As pictured below, you can see my shore power cable is the worse for wear due to the load.
Luckily for me, after inspecting the wiring though the system, It is only the shore power cable and outside of the plug that looks like this. All the interior wiring is good and isn’t getting hot when in use. If you use electric, make sure you are checking this; the number one cause of fire on boats is electrical.
Additionally, electric heat is limited. Most electric heaters come in a maximum of 1500 watts. When comparing that to diesel heat, the electric at 1500 watts is equal to 5118.2 BTUs. That is a far cry from my diesel heater. With the electric heater if the temperature drops below the freezing point, I generally have to kick on the second heater to keep up. If the temperature drops below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, even having both heaters struggle, though I am hoping my diesel heat will be back up and running by then.
My last choice is propane. Propane heat puts out a lot of moisture and moisture equals mold issues. I have used propane heat after my diesel heater went out and I wanted to still sail and anchor out during colder months. When I did, everything in the boat was damp by morning, everything. The sheets were damp, cushions were damp, and the condensation could have been my shower for the morning. Maybe it was just the system I had, but for me, it is emergency use only.
As a wild card, let’s talk about solid fuel heat. If I weren’t planning to sail around the world and do so in warm climates I would definitely install a solid fuel system. I have seen boats with them and like a wood burning stove, they put out nice dry heat. Kimberly puts out one that generates 40,000 BTUs and can be fueled by a walk in the woods. Since I like exploring and hiking anyway, that would be the way to go for me.
Regardless of what system you have, make sure you have a back up. If you are living on your boat, losing your heat can be catastrophic for both you and you boat. I actually have a diesel heater, which is backed up by electric, which is backed up by propane. I also keep plenty of candles on board just to prevent freezing in a dire situation. You probably don’t need to go that far, but always have a back up if you are wintering over, even if it’s just a friend’s house to stay at.
Living Onboard Through Winter
Now that we have established that your boat is suitable for winter living, let’s talk about actually living aboard during the winter. I’d like to say all you have to do is turn on the heat and all is good. That is not the case, there is much more to it.
First sailboats are built with air circulation in mind. A typical sailboat will have several dorades that direct air from the outside to the inside while sailing. The air picked up in the front pushes air out of the rear dorades and helps keep things fresh inside even if the cabin is otherwise sealed up.
This is all great, until winter. Hot air rises and therefore, runs right back out the dorades rather than staying in the boat. The first thing I do when the nights start getting colder is plug off the front dorades. The reason I only do the front is I still want air to circulate in the boat. So, I point the heat forward and let the natural tendency of hot air to rise circulate it around to the back dorades where it can slowly escape.
Another tip to contain heat is a fan. I know that sounds counter productive, but a circulating fan will keep the heat moving around the boat and actually keep it warmer.
Keeping It Dry
Keeping some circulation helps with the second issue a little, but certainly doesn’t cure it. Condensation is a huge issue in the winter. A boat isn’t exactly insulated like a house. If you do insulate a boat, which I would do if I were going to live in the cold forever, you have to be careful. If condensation gets behind or in the insulation, you will soon be pulling out a moldy mess. And there will be condensation.
As you breathe you expel moisture. That is just a fact of life. Another fact of life is this moisture will condensate on the inside of you boat along with any other moisture because the hull will be cold enough to take that damp air and make it water again.
To cut down on condensation, I run a dehumidifier a lot. I typically run it the entire time I am at work, which keeps the dripping from the ceiling type of condensation at bay. I have run it all night, and use it to double as a circulating fan, but despite benefits and the white noise helping me sleep, I worry about the extra strain in the electrical system if I’m running both electric heaters.
Sealing It Up
Going back to ventilation, Sailboats are far from air tight. I found my first winter aboard I was losing a lot of heat form some pretty easy to fix spots, There was a vent in the companion way door that needed to be covered and the gap between the door and hatch needed filled. Both were easy fixes that also keep the bugs out during the summer.
If you take a good look around, there will be plenty of places you can seal up or even put in temporary barriers to heat loss. If you are planning on staying at a place for the entire winter, you can even wrap your boat to keep all that warm air in. It all depends on how far you want to go. Personally I only do enough to be mildly comfortable; this keeps me motivated to head south.
You will also need to look at what you wear. During the winter months you will mostly need to wear some sort of sweatpants or sleep pants when you lounge around. I have some nice warm flannel sleep pants, and yes those are little sailboats. A good house coat will also help keep the chill off. The most over looked item is a good pair of house slippers. The sole of the boat, the floor, will get really cold during the winter. I am here to tell you, if you don’t have house slippers, your feet will go numb while you do dishes.
In addition to nice warm cloths, I also keep several blankets around. On nights like tonight, where it’s a bit chilly, but not cold, it’s nice to just cover up rather than crank up the heat. I actually do this all year; anything below 75 degrees is too cold to me. In addition to the blankets, I also have a down comforter on the bed so I can keep the heater lower while I sleep and stay plenty warm all night.
After my first winter on board I read several blogs and watched many YouTube videos about living on a sailboat during winter. There was advice that ran the gamete of what needs to be done, everything from full winter preparedness to tearing the boat apart and insolating every square inch. When I first thought about this post, I was thinking, I will be able to write so much more than anyone else, but the reality is winter isn’t as big a deal as you think.
Yes you can insolate, and I probably would if I could afford it, but it isn’t necessary. If you have a good heater, some warm cloths, and have taken a few steps to prevent heat loss, winter is completely survivable in a boat. I am not going to say they are the warmest, or that it is something I look forward to, but If it’s doable or me, you could do it too. As I said, I am in Alaska, and though the ocean current keeps it rather temperate here in Sitka, it still gets down into the teens every year. As I said, if you don’t have to pull your boat out of the water for winter, you are probably good to go.