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Baby, it’s cold outside

It takes a hearty soul to live aboard when fall turns to winter

Being cold on a boat is a lot like being drunk in church. The two just don’t go together. But there seems to be an increasing number of brave souls who do go for pleasure boating in the cold climes. I’ve read a lot lately about the finer points of folks freezing for fun. Well, I’ve done some subfreezing boating close to home. I can tell you what it’s like, but I’m not going to tell you I liked it.

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We spent some cold winters on Chesapeake Bay when we first started living aboard. You could tell how cold it had been the night before when you stepped into the shower in the morning and found icicles hanging off the porthole. We were plugged in and had hot water. The hot water, as it coursed through the plumbing, did a great job warming up all those inner crevices between the water heater and the shower. You could almost hear the cockroaches cheering. But by the time it reached the shower, the water was just warm enough to make those little dangles of ice break free from the portholes. Standing naked with icicles sliding down the body does very little to inspire one to polar expeditions.

We used electric space heaters, and they gave warmth, but did nothing to rid the boat of all the humidity that came from cooking, breathing and the normal and natural moisture of living aboard. The shower ice came when this moisture condensed on the inside of the frigid aluminum porthole frames.

We also had aluminum hatch frames, and one was right over our bed. One thing they did exceptionally well was condensate. By the time the drops were big enough to fall off the hatch over the bed, you never knew whether they were going to fall hard or wet. Either way was a real thrill at 2 a.m. Sleeping with your head under the covers didn’t really help. It delayed the shock at first, but we soon found it was far better to have the icy drips hit your face so you could shake them off, rather than wake up in the morning under an iceberg.

Our fiberglass boat was Florida-built, without insulation for cold weather. There were some advantages to this. As I think about it, this is the only time we have had refrigeration aboard that really worked well. We had refrigeration in almost every cabinet. You could store all the cold beer you wanted. Problem was you didn’t want any. We could also keep a variety of other things cold. There’s nothing like a nicely chilled deodorant stick to add an extra underarm kick after you warm up from the shower. And the toilet paper roll under the aluminum porthole provided a unique excitement I’m not interested in describing.

The Neals sisters play in the

When we ventured ashore it was often to go to our jobs, where we had to fit in with all those folks who had come from a warm home, gotten into a warm car, and were wearing well-groomed clothes. Although you might think it would have been a problem to fit in with our colleagues, the well-groomed clothes part worked out well. Our hanging locker provided a freshly frozen shirt every morning.

Hose play

Even though there was plenty of rain and frozen precipitate inside the boat from condensation, getting water inside our tanks was a major problem. The water pipes on the docks were about as useful as a snorkel and flippers in the desert. Marinas like to turn off the water when it’s cold.

I’ve read books about hearty boaters hanging out at the top of the world, melting snow in a saucepan for water. I guess this works pretty well at the North Pole, but I’ve noticed that snow of the “pure driven” variety is a bit hard to find around most docks stateside. It never took long for even a nice new layer of white stuff to develop various colored stains from the wildlife of which we are so fond. I guess it may have been a little more acceptable if I were sure what the wildlife was, but I was never sure. The only thing I was sure of was that whether the stained snow came from a raccoon, duck, fox, deer, dog or whatever, I didn’t particularly want to melt it on my stove.

So we had to have lots of hose to reach all the way to a building with heat and a working spigot. The problem lay in the fact that all this hose had to be warm so the water wouldn’t be frozen inside. Most folks don’t give a lot of thought about keeping hoses warm, especially long hoses. It’s an art modern technology has somehow overlooked.

If you consider this to be a trivial matter, consider for a moment wrestling with a totally stiff hose, trying to work it back and forth to break up the ice in its lengthy inside without breaking the thing in two. If you’re lucky, you may hear the ice starting to crinkle in there, so you apply water at one end of the hose, hoping that it won’t freeze before it gets to the other end. You try to massage that hose with your glove-covered hands to keep the ice inside broken, but you feel like you’re in a losing battle as the water just doesn’t seem to be making it to the end. This, of course, means you’ve got to start all over again. When you finally decide that all the effort’s been a failure and look into the end, the icy mess spews forth like a volcano in an iceberg. (Actually, I’ve never seen a volcano in an iceberg and hope I never do, but you get the point.)

The problem led to the formation of a warm-hose commune among the liveaboards. We all pooled our hoses and found someone with a warm shop who would store them. Periodically we would have tank-filling parties. This required a lot of well-coordinated people — an oxymoron when you consider the circumstances. You fortify yourself with whatever works for you and then go ashore. You assemble the warm hoses in some warm place indoors and then race them to a working spigot, slipping and sliding on the frozen mud puddles as the warmth quickly fades away. The trick was to stretch them to the first boat so quickly that the water inside wouldn’t freeze up before you turned on the spigot. If it did, everybody got down on their knees to bend the hose in the suspect spots.

All decked out for Christmas.

Group hose-massaging not being one of the more enjoyable ways to spend an afternoon, we always shot for high noon on a bright day to get as much heat help from above as possible. When one boat was filled, you rushed the hose to the next, keeping the water trickling out just enough so it wouldn’t freeze. Of course, the dribbling water froze as soon as it hit the ground or anything else. The people running and massaging in the middle and tail end of the hose train had their special set of problems, not the least of which was to avoid the newly minted ice spots as best they could. One slip and you could bring down the whole train, and by the time you all got going again the hose could have frozen. But you could always tell the new guy in the party. He would be the one racing along in front, with the dribbling end.

Dog-day afternoon

Getting off the boat to the shore presented many other unique issues, none of which were particularly fun. Jumping onto a dock covered in sheet ice is about as fun as hanging from a cliff with dental floss. Sometimes the boat would freeze in the water so far away from the dock you had to jump unless you had a gangplank. We always had one rigged and standing by. The better gangplanks bent in the middle when you teetered across them. This would crack the sheet ice on the plank — at least that was what you were hoping was cracking as you slowly inched along. Then came the journey along the dock to hard ground.

Different people used different techniques for walking on ice-covered docks. One was the custom-fitted cockpit cushion. If you sit on your ordinary cushion while it is freezing, you create a nice concave cavity that is tailor-made for your backside. This is easy to do and presents few issues. Some even enjoy the thrill of frozen hind parts, not to mention the joy of having an excuse to sit.

But often these folks have so much fun that they fail to get up before completion of the freezing process. When this happens you can’t always just pull the cushion off your pants. Sometimes you have to walk to a warm shop or marina office with the thing stuck back there until the bond melts. But once the job is done, you then leave the cushion out in your cockpit in its contoured, frozen state. When you want to traverse the pier, you put it on the dock, sit down and push or pull yourself along.

I tried this once. But the time I tried it, an exceptionally large local dog I happened to know bounded out on the pier to lick and romp. Of course, the dog couldn’t stop on the ice. He tried — I’ll have to give him that. My friend, Alvah Simon, has told me all about the perils of chasing off polar bears in the Arctic during the time he was frozen-in up there one winter (“North to the Night, A year in the Arctic Ice,” McGraw Hill, 1998). Alvah was and is a very brave and tough guy. But I don’t think he has any idea of the perils of sliding backward down a slippery dock underneath a big, happy dog. The danger of shooting off the end of the dock crossed my mind, but only briefly, as we fortuitously hit a large piling that, to one of us, apparently resembled a fire hydrant.

I didn’t invite the dog aboard, even though we were definitely having some three dog nights. These are the extra cold nights when you need not one, but three dogs in bed with you to keep you warm. Our bed was over the empty space around the rudder quadrant, and this space was almost as cold as the water outside the hull. There was always a little water under the bed around the rudder supports, and sometimes it would freeze. The mattress collected condensed water on its bottom, and this also froze on colder nights. Those were the better nights.

On nights that weren’t quite so cold, it permeated up through the mattress. We put extra insulation between the plywood bunk base and the mattress, but the problem persisted. Despite all this, Mel wouldn’t let me invite the dog aboard. She said I was the only dog she could stand to put up with, and she wasn’t at all sure about that. Not having a real dog and without many heavy clothes, I suggested we use layering to keep warm at night. This was the only time Mel said she preferred being cold.

Heat of the moment

We had reverse-cycle air conditioning/heating compressors, but they stopped heating around November because the water was so cool. One December morning, it was so cold that I tried them in desperation, and when they started tripping the circuit breaker, I looked over the side to see if water was coming out, thinking that perhaps something had clogged the sea strainer.

From each of the holes arced a beautifully rounded column of ice. The sea water had frozen in place as it flowed. This caused me to forget about using them after mid-October and to reconsider the oft-favored practice among male seapersons, referred to in various ways — such as, for example, “hanging it out over the side.”

So our next line of defense was the electric space heater. There were several things wrong with this. For starters, “electric” was the prime component in this system, and we downloaded enough electricity through those yellow shore cables to power New York City. Also, when we were unplugged and out at an anchor, these wouldn’t work without the generator running — something we don’t like to do all the time, definitely not at night.

Another problem was that, as mentioned above, while the space heater warmed up the interior, it did nothing for the moisture in the air. And even though we bought only “marine grade” space heaters with all the protections and safety devices, we had two incidences when they melted down — one when the unit was turned off. We were afraid to run them unless we set them on big cookie sheets to protect from another meltdown, and we wouldn’t run them when we were off the boat. This meant we always returned home at night to a boat only slightly warmer than the great outdoors.

There were then, as now, some very nice diesel-fired boat heaters. These, I was told, were not only very effective and relatively safe if installed well, but they also helped immensely with the moisture problem. We wanted one desperately, but, as has so often been the case since we moved aboard, we couldn’t even begin to afford it. We had both grown up with fireplaces and loved them. The house we had moved from had one, and we loved it.

So we finally installed a wood-burning stove. It was stainless steel with cast-iron firebox, it was highly “marinized,” and it was great. It put out a lot of heat and, almost as importantly, sucked a lot of the moisture in the air up its chimney. Out on the stern deck, we carried two large plastic garbage cans of wood we foraged from the forest. The wood had to be split or chopped into small pieces to fit in the mouth of the stove, but it worked out nicely. We learned early not to take on the wood too early in the season, when it was still full of spiders and other bugs and creatures.

We loved to lounge in the saloon on winter nights, turn on the spreader lights, and watch the snow drift down past the mast and stays, settling on the deck and the ice around us. The fireplace crackled and glowed, diffusing the smell of burning wood throughout the boat, and the smoke drifted up from the tall chimney to mingle with the snow. When the decks were heavily covered, our little world was not only warmer but so much quieter. Even the gales of winter were muted by snow on the boat and the quiet crackling of the fire — and the occasional popping of a spider that had fallen asleep in the wood before we brought it aboard.

Soon, however, Melanie, our first baby, began to crawl. And as soon as she did, she began to explore. That stove could get red-hot, and one little inquisitive touch could have caused an incredibly painful injury, so we sadly removed it and used the space to make a safe playpen of sorts for her.

We came up with other tricks to help control the cold and the wet. We cut Plexiglas and fit it into the frame outside our portholes. We also built wooden frames, tall enough to clear the frames and handles of our hatches, and screwed Plexiglas onto them. We thus had storm windows of sorts, and they helped with the loss of heat and greatly diminished the condensation dripping from the aluminum frames.

Some of the others in the small group of liveaboards built tents of tarpaulin or other material over their booms. This also helped, but we didn’t like this. It made us feel claustrophobic, and we couldn’t look up at night and see the snow drifting down past the rigging. I read a lot these days about people using shrinkwrap, and I suppose it could be very helpful, but I wouldn’t care to live in a shrink-wrapped boat, thank you.

A homemade ice-T

I’ve mentioned ice earlier, but there was a far more sinister problem with it other than the stuff sliding down my back in the shower or dropping on my face from the hatch over the bed. One winter it grew so cold that the creek froze — not just a slushy, thin layer, but hard and deep. The dog could walk across the creek. This wasn’t unusual at that time. A few winters earlier, most of the Chesapeake had frozen over. Supplies had to be airlifted to Tangier and Smith islands.

I’ve noticed these periods of colder and warmer winters have come and gone over my years on the water. I prefer the warmer winters. But this cold winter, we noticed the ice forming around the boat and weren’t too alarmed at first. The boat is warm inside, and it’s always moving a bit, I thought, so it’ll keep a border of open water around the hull. I was right, but only for a few days. That liquid border grew narrower and narrower until the ice was right up against the hull. With visions of severe damage to our new home, and with nights of laying awake listening to the strange sounds sea ice makes as it cracks and groans with rising and falling of tides and subtle swells wrapping around the point, I knew I had to do something.

That “something” was to slide down the gangplank, inch across the dock, get the car started, and drive into town to find a hardware store. I bought a 10-foot-long, 2-inch galvanized pipe and a T joint, which I screwed to the end. Getting it back home to the boat with both ends sticking out the windows of the Volkswagen Beetle in the frigid temperatures was like riding a midget wooly mammoth across the plains of Siberia.

I knew there were fancy gadgets like bubblers and water agitators, and I knew they worked well, but they were also expensive, both to buy and to run. So I began a new regimen in my life. Twice each day, morning and evening, I’d walk around the decks of the boat pounding the T head of the heavy pipe into the ice on the surface of the water. I’d do the same around the dock to keep the ice from pulling up the pilings. I’d have to wear gloves to keep my hands from freezing to the pipe, and, all in all, it wasn’t much fun, but it worked. The open water would rapidly skim back over, trapping the chunks of broken ice, and the skim ice cut into the gelcoat around the waterline a little, but Chez Nous remained free to move about in her slip.

Remaining free not only was good for the hull, it had great therapeutic value for us — because we had a plan. We had in mind the really perfect way to stay warm in the winter. We’d known it was there all along. But we wanted our babies, while they were tiny (Carolyn had joined Melanie and our family), to remain close to doctors and medical facilities that we knew. We also wanted their grandparents to have time to get to know them in their early days and vice versa. But one winter, just after Christmas — we’d gone not “over” but “up” the river to Grandmother’s house — we headed south, Bahamas bound. For a long while the ice and the cold hung with us as we plied the Intracoastal Waterway.

Skim ice in the Virginia Cut, bordering the great Dismal Swamp, plagued us just south of Chesapeake, Va. The anchor chain cracked with ice as we pulled it up, morning after morning. My gloves froze around my fingers so I could hardly bend them. We had to boil water on the propane stove and pour it on the sheet lines so we could untie the frozen knots in the mornings.

In South Carolina the frost was so thick and frozen on the decks one morning that Melanie and Carolyn built a small “snow” man and had fun “sledding” down the bottom of the overturned Avon stored at an angle forward of the main saloon. But we kept warm inside Chez Nous and kept plugging on. I’ll never forget the first signs of the tropics as we passed Florida’s Jupiter Inlet and saw the magic color of the sky, the unique clouds, and the light blue, clear waters flowing out from the Gulf Stream. It’s a great way to stay warm in winter.

*     *     *

As I write this, we’re in the Chesapeake again, and it’s getting cold. We’re actually enjoying it after so many winters down South. It’s fun to see the geese settle down to the fields and creeks for the night and to feel the bite of cold air when we go up on deck. It’s nice to hear the hounds, excited and baying on the shore as they practice for hunting season soon to come. It’s fun to watch the squirrels scampering among the foliage ashore, panicking that they won’t have enough nuts for the winter.

But soon we’ll begin to head south again. We’ll do it after all the crowds of snowbirds have made their passages, and on days when frost blankets our cockpit enclosure and decks. We’ll do it when the oyster fleet is busy on the cold mornings on the Bay. We’ll do it as icy winter nips at our stern and frozen gales roar down from the North, making offshore passagemaking more challenging. But, God willing, we’ll do it again. It’s our life. And our daughters — who were raised to say, “We don’t do winter” — have both settled down where it’s always warm. So it’ll be nice to be there. But our memories of our worst winters aboard are also nice. It can all be good if you let it.

Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, “All in the Same Boat,” at

This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.