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As a live aboard winters can be a bit challenging, well that is if you are anywhere north of 20°, if you are South of that just know the rest of us hate you and wish we were there too. For those of us stuck further North the winters can pose some interesting challenges. Winter has barely started and already they are talking about that damn polar vortex thing heading down to mess with our mellow and try to freeze us off our boats.

Anyone who has lived on a boat during the winter knows it is not easy and poses some opportunities not found on land. Staying warm, fighting condensation and not getting cabin fever are all something we deal with on a daily basis during the winters aboard. Most bots are not really set up for living on and fewer still for living aboard in the winter. There are, however some things we can do to help make life a bit easier as we wait for the spring and a return to drinks in the cockpit at sunset.

The first thing to think about is of course staying warm. Personally I am a wimp and hate the cold so try to keep things toasty aboard. This is not always easy on a boat as most have little or no insulation from the cold. This is one area where caution needs to be used as some methods of heating can be dangerous. As I am far enough South that the water never gets too cold I can use a reverse cycle air conditioner or heat pump. This works well for me and is very efficient at keeping me warm. For others further north where the water gets colder of freezes this may not be an option.

Electric heat is a good alternative but is not the most efficient and can be a fire hazard. Care needs to be taken with shore cords, inlets, and outlets as well as the heaters themselves. Overheated power and shore cords have been the cause of many fires on boats. Even little space heaters will draw a fair amount of power and can over heat a shore cord inlet. What most do not realize is that fires start more often from a poor connection over heating than from a short that would trip the breaker. It also pays to check the inside back of your shore power inlets as overheating is common there as well.

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Generally I discourage the use of fossil fuel heaters unless they are specifically designed for use in a small enclosed space. Cheap propane and kerosene heaters can be the most dangerous. These heaters use oxygen from the living space and product CO an odorless gas that kills many people each year. If a fossil fuel heater is used it should have a closed combustion chamber, meaning the chamber where the flame is, is sealed from the inside of the boat and the heat is transferred through metal housing. With an enclosed combustion chamber the air used to burn the fuel is drawn in from the outside of the boat and the exhaust gases are vented overboard as well. Do not kid yourself that a cheap heater designed for ice fishing or a garage is safe, it is not. You may think you are getting a good deal but you are risking your life over saving a couple hundred dollars. Do not be fooled by so called experts and well-meaning boat owners found online. Unless the heater is approved for marine use it is not safe. This is not a case of something label “marine” just being more expensive there is a real difference and you are paying for your safety. If using propane the fuel supply must comply with USCG regulations. Propane when done right is a very safe fuel but when not done right can be very dangerous.

No matter what type of heater used it is important to make sure it is not close to anything flammable. As we all know this is not easy to do on a boat as we have little space to start with. Many fires are started by something falling into or near a heater so it is important to make sure there is nothing near or over the heater that could become a fire hazard. It is also important to make sure the heater cannot be tipped over either by accident, the rocking of the boat or any pets aboard.

After heat the next biggest challenge is fighting condensation. Condensation is the result of warm moist air coming in contact with something cooler. Few boats are insulted so pretty much the whole boat is cooler than the inside air so everything starts to get wet with condensation. This can be very difficult to deal with and almost impossible to fully control. If you add a thin layer of insulation to the worst areas that will help but that is not always practical. One of the most effective things you can do is to keep the air moving inside the boat. Small fans help but also make you feel colder. Ventilating under bunk matrasses will help prevent moisture from building up there as well. If things get wet inside cabinets try leaving the doors open or slightly ajar to allow some air moment within the cabinet.

For those further North where it gets really cold, I often see temporary tents or enclosures built on or over the boat. This provides some insulation and often increases winter living space. This makes a lot of sense to me (not as much as moving further South!) and can make life aboard easier. Even for boats not so far North a cockpit enclosure whether permanent or temporary will add to living space. If made of clear plastic these enclosures can get surprisingly warm when the sun is out saving on heating costs as well.

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Finally some thought should be made to getting on and off the boat with ice, snow or frost on the dock. Docks, steps, ladders, and ramps can be treacherous with even a thin layer of frost on them. That first step off the boat can be hazardous indeed. You cannot always count on marina staff to clear the docks for you so being ready to deal with this will help. Keep a bit of salt or sand on your boat so you can at least treat your own steps and finger pier to prevent slipping.

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This also brings up another important thing to think about. How would you get out of the water if you fell in? Make sure you have a ladder on your own boat that can be deployed if you are in the water. If the marina has emergency ladders know where they are and if they do not ask if they can install some. Falling in in the water when it is cold and you are wearing bulky cloths is a real hazard so think about how you would get out ahead of time.

For those hardy souls that choose to stay aboard during the cold months life may not be easy but it can be worth the effort. Land dwellers face many challenges from the winter as well but they do not get the summer rewards we do. A bit of preparing ahead of time can make your stay aboard during the winter just a bit more comfortable. When cabin fever sets in just make a tropical rum drink and imagine your bow pointed to the next tropical island!

Capt. Wayne

Comments suggestions are welcome and if you have any tricks that help live aboard in the winter please share them!

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