We’re surviving our first winter living on our sailboat! Woo Hoo!

Post updated May 1, 2018

Ah, winter. The snow. The ice. The biting cold on your face that elicits a response of “hell no, I’m going back to bed, screw this!” If there are two kinds of people in the world, I’m the one that should have been born in Tahiti because cold and me aren’t friends. 😛

Complaining aside, even though I may be a bit of a squirmy worm when the frigid winters rise up, I’m happy to report that I’ve never felt more warm and cozy anywhere than I have on our little boat.

I know, surprising right?!

Now because this is our first winter having lived on our sailboat, and having lived on one while at a marina, our friends and family (and my coworkers) have all inundated us with some very reasonable questions. I have included the most popular questions – and our answers – here in this article for all to read and enjoy!

So, you live on your boat in the winter. How do you keep warm?

This must be the single biggest question we receive from people… and is an almost daily question from my concerned co-workers, LOL.

And fair enough. Before moving onto the boat, I hadn’t really thought about what we would do when winter hit. We’d been using a plug-in electric space heater for any cold late summer/autumn nights, and that seemed to work fine. But what about later, when the ice arrived? Since we can only run one heater at a time (lest we trip a breaker and lose power), we knew it wouldn’t be enough.

Enter the diesel heater!

As luck would have it, our boat came equipped with a brand-spanking-new diesel-fueled heater. The previous owners had semi-installed it, anticipating they’d need it for these Pacific Northwest winters. However, they put the boat up for sale before ever completing the install.

Thankfully, my trusty fiancé was able to put the thing together fully. And just in time for the first cold snap!

Being the clever guy he is, he also came up with the smart idea to install a makeshift daytank for our heater. Without it, our little fuel pump was on the fast track to burnout by trying to move fuel from the massive tanks all the way to the galley.

So, with some extra tubing, a new pump, some fittings, and a large 5-Gal jerry can, Josh rigged it up so that we could pump diesel from our main tanks into this smaller jerry can. This way, the heater could just draw its fuel from the jerry can. Easy breezy!

Pros and Cons of the Daytank

Click images to view larger version!

In a nutshell, this system has some good benefits for us, as:

  • the fuel pump doesn’t have to work as hard to pull diesel all the way from the large tanks and up to the heater
  • it’s a good failsafe system, so that the heater can’t guzzle ALL of our diesel without our knowledge
  • we can more precisely measure how much fuel we are consuming (which is good to know for budgeting but, more importantly, for knowing when we need to find a fuel dock!)

The only drawbacks I can think of (and there’s always a compromise or two with boats) are:

  • we have to manually jump down into the engine room every other day to refill the daytank
  • the heater could run dry and break (or worse) if the daytank runs out because we weren’t there to fill it (which was my nightmare when we were stranded in Campbell River one weekend!)

Here’s some quick video we captured on our Instagram of our wintry marina

A post shared by SaltwestCo (@saltwestco) on

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Our diesel-heating, cost-savings breakdown

As you’ll see if you watch our video on the heater (Episode 8), it does an AMAZE-ing job of heating our living space. As great as living in a house was, I was always frustrated by how I could never get the house warm enough for me. It was just too big! And if I did crank up the heat, reality would slap me upside the head the next month when we got the heating bill.

Being the nerd I am, I’m fond of breakdowns… so let’s work this out in numbers. If we consume 18.93L (5 gallons) of diesel every 2 days, and diesel prices here average out to be $1.33/L (ouch!), then we’re spending roughly $12.59/day on heat. (Note: we spend a lot more on diesel here in Canada. For instance, just across the border in Washington, prices for a litre of diesel are $0.96!! But I digress…)

$1.33/L x 18.93L = $25.18 every 2 days (divide by 2 = $12.59 a day)

Using this number, if I say that we started heating our boat full time on November 1st last year, by the time of this writing (86 days) we’ve spent about $1,082 bucks on fuel. Let’s compare that with the bills we’d be paying if we still had our house.

Electric heat ran us about $300-480 a month. Add to that the wood stove we used to supplement this (because our house lost all that warmth to the second floor), which works out to an extra $100 a month. If I use the same # of days from my above calculation, it would have cost us between $1,146 to $1,662 by now!

So in the end, we’re getting a 6% to 35% savings in heating by living on the boat (in expensive Canada)!

Wrap-up on this diesel stuff

When it comes to diesel heat on a boat, it really is the bee’s knees. Diesel puts out a ton of BTUs, it’s a “dry” heat*, it doesn’t require electricity to run (only a negligible amount to pump fuel), and diesel is something that is readily available (and cheap!) wherever we go!

*By “dry” heat, I am referring to the fact that this is a sealed combustion furnace. The heater draws its oxygen from outside of the boat, and exhausts the same way. It doesn’t affect the air in the boat. And this is a GOOD THING because combustion produces a lot of water vapour, which we don’t want in the boat. 😉

The only problem with this kind of heater, since there is no forced air component, is that the output of the heat is relatively contained. It’s warm in the galley (where it’s installed) and the salon, where the heat rises. Back in the aft stateroom, however, it can be a bit on the cooler side.

Luckily we are at a marina this winter and have access to shore power to run the electric heater back there. Problem solved!

I hear mold is a big issue on boats! How are you dealing with that?

Though our lovely vessel is usually toasty warm, I can’t say it is perfectly dry.

With the temperature difference between the inside and outside of the boat, condensation can and does form. This is when proper air circulation becomes critical. Though we were initially slow to notice where all the damp, mildew-y areas were forming, once we cleared our crap away from the walls and opened up the windows it’s actually been quite good.

Not perfect… but good.

Moisture and still air make for perfect mold-forming conditions. So we’ve been developing several habits that we could now dub our “overwintering routine”:

  • We don’t shower on the boat (shower = more moisture in air = bad!)
  • We lift the mattress daily and aim an electric heater at it
  • We open portholes and windows during the day
  • Weekly, we check the ‘problem areas’ (i.e. cupboards, closets, drawers, bilges) and soak up any water we find while spraying/wiping away mold
  • We covered the top of our pilot house and cockpit with a tarp (this creates a natural air-insulating barrier to reduce condensation and keep rain off the top)
  • We use our Hella fans when cooking, to blow steam out of the open portholes/hatches
  • We use our pressure cooker a lot (not so much steam in the boat plus reduces cooking time)
  • We hang our raingear and other wet stuff in front of the diesel heater so they dry out quicker
  • We use our dehumidifier when necessary… though, to be honest, it hasn’t been necessary that often

I know it’s gross. I know it’s no fun to clean mold on the regular. But to stay healthy and not live like disgusting bilge rats, I’m afraid it’s all very essential.

In the end, I’d rather have a preventative routine like this than discover some massive forest of mold with spores and sentience and then have to wage a war that’d likely end in casualties on both sides. 👾

What about ice? Is it dangerous to live on a frozen boat?

Actually, it’s more dangerous to live at a frozen marina! And a mostly abandoned frozen marina at that!

Thanks to our tarp, our walking surfaces from gunnel to cockpit are clear and clean. Sadly, that’s more than can be said for the docks that we use on the daily.

There was one blizzard that hit, where it coated everything with a thick sheet of snow. And when the clouds parted the next day, they revealed dock-shaped skating rinks! Our hearts sunk. It took much pleading on the emergency line to get the marina manager to even come down and drop off a snow shovel and a little bucket of ice. 🙁

Not to wax dramatic about it, but there were days when I could barely get up the companionway onto dry land. Especially at low tide, when the incline was wicked steep. You couldn’t even grab the metal rails for support – they were icicles!

So, yeah, poor due care and attention to docks is pretty lame and makes for some treacherous treks outside with the dog (or alone). Dude even told me on the phone to “buy some cramp-ons” if I was having problems. Wow, nice.

Luckily, it’s only been that dicey once or twice. Now that there’s a shovel and some salt where us liveaboards can get at it, we take it upon ourselves when the flurries start to clear and salt the walkways.

Good ol’ boat community!

All in all, are you managing to stay happy on your boat in the winter? Or does it totally suck?

I can’t speak for Josh, who does waaayy more of the grunt work on the boat than I do. But no, it doesn’t suck (and who am I kidding… Josh friggin’ LOVES the boat!). In fact, this has been one of the most fun winters we’ve both had in a long time! And our little doggo doesn’t seem to mind it, either. 🐕

I mean, full disclosure, the chores are not always what you’re in the mood for, obviously. And the issue of mold and our moisture-reduction maintenance is something we didn’t have to worry about in a house. And it is kind of lame to have to put on a parka to go take a shower. But there are always trade-offs with these things. And even… a perverse novelty… that makes it… fun??

In the end, our reward for all that work and hassle is that we spend significantly less to be significantly warmer than I EVER remember being in my house. Heating a massive house versus a small boat means we get to enjoy all of that delicious warmth, instead of losing it all up in the rafters. 😀

Come summer, when we finally get to sail off to warmer seas, I think we’ll enjoy looking back on these times. And high-fiving over how badass we were to spend winter on a sailboat. Sweet, sweet victory.

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

Cheers,

  – Morgan