Cold Comfort

The younger, dumber me survived many winters living aboard a small boat
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Ice and snow choke Kent Narrows on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Ice and snow choke Kent Narrows on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

It was a bitterly cold January day on Chesapeake Bay. Trees were dancing like marionettes in a northwest gale that had been howling between 30 and 40 knots for the past 17 hours. I bundled up, hopped on my motorcycle and raced away from work toward the marina where my 27-foot sailboat was tied up.

You may already see two things wrong with this picture. One, I was using a motorcycle as my primary mode of transportation in winter. Second, I was living on a 27-foot sailboat during winter. Like most twentysomethings, I had a brain that was hardly drowning in common sense or life experience. 

As I pulled into my marina, I noticed that my boat’s deck wasn’t visible. My mind focused on leaky keel bolts, old ball valves and other things that could have sunken my inexpensive fixer-upper. As it turned out, she was high and dry, stuck in the mud and leaning 30 degrees, supported only by her port bow and stern lines, which were as tight as banjo strings.

She had leaned so far out that I had to throw myself onto the foredeck. The impact twisted my ankle. I spent the rest of the night trying to sleep in a poorly heated cabin that was heeled over while my ankle protested. By the time the morning arrived, the water had refloated the boat. I licked my wounds and hobbled down the dock to work.

This was the first time I’d ever questioned the sanity of selling most of my possessions and shoehorning what little I had left into a 27-foot sailboat. With the $1,000 I’d paid for the boat, and the monthly overhead of only $150, I’d had more financial freedom than most 22-year-olds. Still, everything is a trade-off, and living aboard in winter was never easy.

Most memorable was a February 1993 all-day bout of freezing rain. A nasty cold front then flash-froze everything in ice. I slid my way down the icy dock in the darkness toward my boat, which was encrusted in thick ice. I had to launch myself into the cockpit.

I landed in the cockpit in a heap of pain. I bashed the combination lock against the companionway a few times to get it open before realizing that every opening into the boat was frozen shut—the hatches, lockers, companionway, all of it. The ice was too thick to break with covered arms or hands, or with shoed feet, and all the tools I needed were inside. So, I turned to the only implement I had at my disposal: a 1-inch-long motorcycle key.

It took an hour to free the companionway and get inside. By 3 a.m., it was 6 degrees below zero outside and in the mid-20s inside the boat. I was shivering, even after I’d wrapped up deep inside my sleeping bag.

I fired up my portable propane heater—a Coleman stove—to warm up the cabin. I dozed off while it was still on. Four hours later, I awoke to find the 1-pound propane cylinder exhausted, astounded that carbon monoxide poisoning hadn’t finished me off. Miraculously, I’d survived both my stupidity and the record-setting cold.

The next winter, I added a second ceramic heater. One night, I unwittingly laid my sleeping bag on top of the power cord, which was coiled in the V-berth. I hadn’t realized the cable would heat up and melt itself, and the sleeping bag. I woke up at 2 a.m. with a cabin full of smoke, again wondering how I was still alive. I had to come up with a better way to survive these winters or give up on my liveaboard lifestyle.  

I installed a vented propane cabin heater, and I learned how to prepare the boat for wind and ice. I found a nicer winter marina with  better power options and bought a deicer.

Still, living aboard during winter was never without surprises. There was the New Year’s Eve when I got back to the boat late, only to find five strangers partying in my cockpit. There was the evening when my  inebriated slip neighbor fell from the icy    finger pier and crashed onto my cabin house. And of course, there were many blizzards that turned my boat into an igloo.

Despite the hardships, I wouldn’t trade those 12 years for anything. As strong as those miserable winter memories are, I can laugh at them now and think more about the quiet nights at anchor grilling dinner in the cockpit, or the unplanned after-work sails I enjoyed with fellow liveaboard friends.

Gary Reich Photo

Gary Reich

Most of all, I fondly remember being intimately connected to that little boat and the water around her, feeling independent and being less anxious about life in general. There’s an upside to everything.

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue.