The Liveaboard Life – A guideline for winter liveaboards
Toronto Harbour, Canada
We’ve had four successful years spent wintering aboard our sailboat in Toronto. This fall my wife Lynn and I will be hauling our Niagara 35 Mk1 sailboat out on Toronto Island for an extensive pre-cruise refit. We’ll rent a small apartment on the island in order to be close to our boat before re-launching her next April. This should be our last winter in Canada before we head south in 2008 for tropical waters. Lynn and I will certainly miss spending this coming winter with our friends and neighbours in our usual winter marina.
Here’s a (very) concise guideline for prospective winter liveaboards in eastern Canada and northeastern United States.
You’ll be just fine with two 3/4 hp “Ice Eaters” suspended on lines under the boat. They will maintain relatively clear water around the boat and keep the thick ice from freezing against your hull. In our experience, they should be run continuously from the first freeze up until the water thaws in March. Putting them on timers doesn’t really work because they drift down into the weeds when switched off. Weeds and plastic bag debris near the bottom can stall the de-icer’s motor upon startup, blowing a fuse or twisting the AC cord into a pretzel, often causing the de-icer’s blades to cut the (expensive) waterproof cord.
Purchase two 1400W electric/oil style heaters for the saloon, plus one 400W electric/oil heater which will heat the aft area near the bottom of the companionway. Winterize the engine (we didn’t) and place a 1300W fan forced air heater beside the engine. It should have a frost-watch setting which will keep the whole engine and cockpit lockers around 15C all winter. If there ever was a long-ish AC power failure in the marina or general neighbourhood, we just started the engine and put it into reverse to prevent ice buildup and to help keep the boat warmer.
You’ll need two parallel 30A shore power connections to the dock. One cord feeds the usual boat system’s AC connection while the second one supplies a “pony panel” which you can probably build yourself. It’s a piece of plywood in the cockpit locker with a double pole main switch with 30A cartridge fuses protecting both the hot and neutral (switching and fusing both the hot and neutral wires is a recognized ABYC marine standard practice.) It feeds into a second box containing three circuit breakers, 15A each, outputting three cables to three duplex outdoor GFCI receptacles. It’ll supply two 4.7 amp de-icers, the fan forced heater inside the engine compartment as well as the 400W electric/oil heater at the companionway. At Christmas you can illuminate the inside of your plastic enclosure with colourful strings of low-power LED lights. In addition we have a magnetically attached block heater on the engine.
The regular house AC system will run your DC battery charger, two 1400w heaters, the microwave, toaster, and coffee maker. Of course you will need to do a circuit breaker “dance” when making toast or microwaving; temporarily reducing or switching off various heating loads when cooking.
I recommend the electric/oil radiator type heaters because they are quiet, have manual low/med/hi settings and an adjustable thermostat. These heaters will come on by themselves after a power interruption, while those fancier digital LED-controlled heaters wake up “Stupid” after a power interruption, a real hassle in the middle of the night or while you’re at work! With winter systems, simple is best. Multiple fan forced heaters are drafty, have fewer power settings, are dangerous and the sound of three fans will drive you crazy. The fan forced heater next to the the engine won’t be heard. You need fan forced heat here to drive the hot air around inside the engine compartment and cockpit lockers.
Make a wooden framework from 1×1 lumber, connected together with plastic brackets from a building centre. It’s a good system which is made for temporary shelters, carports etc. Some folks use electrical conduit but it’s heavier and harder to store in summer.
Buy semi-clear heat-shrink plastic from a marine supplier or just Google “Dr. Shrink.” Do not use white or blue plastic. You’ll really appreciate the cheery daylight and the solar heating effect under semi-clear shrink. Some folks have a heavy cloth or plastic tarp sewn up, usually silver in colour. It’s an easy job to cover the boat with a ready sewn cover in Fall but but it’ll make your life miserable living like a mole underground with zero natural light available. Use semi-clear.
It’s shrunk with a purpose-built propane heat gun. Rent one from a marina or boatyard. We use a 1300W electric heat gun instead. This takes longer but is easier than finding someone to rent you a propane gun.
You can do this work yourself. We buy a 100ft roll of shrink 30 ft wide. We use only 50 ft each season so the roll provides plastic for two winters.
Having this done professionally will cost you anywhere from $900 to $2,200 !!!
We install a rigid plywood door on the enclosure, right forward of the jib sheet winch. Zippered doors in the shrink wrap will frustrate you and ultimately fail by New Year’s!
Some winter marinas offer bi-weekly pump-out. If you disconnect your electric pressure water pump you can go up to four weeks on your water tanks! We boil a kettle or use the microwave to heat water for washing dishes. On sunny weekends folks get together and fill their water tanks with a community garden hose supplied from an inside faucet in the marina’s laundry room or washroom facility. We shower at work on weekdays to avoid the morning rush at the marina. I do not recommend showering in the boat, the humidity created will kill your interior teak and frost up the enclosure and the propane demand water heater is dangerous in any season. You’ll be forever filling your water tanks. It’s not the nicest work on a cold winters night!
Strong dock lines with rubber snubbers and leather or plastic chafing protection will keep your boat from going sailing without you when those 45kt northwest winter winds swoop down on your marina. Double bow lines, two or three long spring lines and two stern lines are necessary. Our double-braided dock lines are 3/4 inch thick! A 100ft stretchy nylon laid line extended across the water to the opposite finger dock spine will hold the hull off the dock and help prevent your boat from chafing against the finger dock. We learned to secure our three large fenders to the dock, rather than to our boat. This means that only in the strongest winds will your hull ever touch the fenders, reducing hull chafe and those annoying fender squeaks when you’re trying to sleep at night.
Clothing may be kept in large Zip-lok bags inside lockers. We insulate the interior of our lockers with bubble pak sheets to keep things away from the moisture that inevitably collects inside the hull. We have a clothes hanger bar in the focs’l for clothes. A small fan in this relatively cooler area keeps the moisture away. To save space, our five large zippered pillows on the settees in our saloon each contain, not stuffing, but tee shirts, shorts, spare blankets, sweaters and other bundle-able clothing. Winter parkas and boots are hung up in the shrink-protected cockpit.
It’s quite warm and cozy when those icy winter blasts swirl around your boat. You’ll most certainly feel much warmer than your friends who live in houses, since you’ll have plenty of flexible heating choices in a relatively small space. We never get tired of the cozyness. Lynn and I sit together on the same settee to read at night. We can never go to bed angry in our narrow-ish “double” quarter berth. Microwaving a few “buckwheat” bags warms up the bed before we retire for the night. The coldest temperatures that we have ever experienced overnight occurred during a month-long deep freeze in February 2007. One night it was -28C outdoors, -16C on deck under the winter enclosure, but +15C in the boat. Asleep in our double sleeping bag covered with a cotton duvet, we were totally warm and happy.
Some boaters augment their electric heaters with diesel fueled forced-air truck heaters or a a diesel burning fireplace. Others install metal propane or solid fueled fireplaces to help make the saloon even more cheerful. Great care must be taken to make sure that exhaust and fresh air vents for fuel burning appliances are frost free and unobstructed. Exhausts must be well vented outside the hull and plastic enclosure. The only interior venting exception is your galley hatch, which must be opened up fully when cooking on a propane stove. A smoke alarm, or as Lynn calls it “our toaster detector” is mandatory. Other critical gear includes a CO alarm and propane detector/shut off system controlling the flow from your outboard-mounted propane tanks. An automatic bilge pump will rid your bilges of the water collected from accumulated condensate inside the hull.
Please note that I’ve been commenting on LIVING ABOARD in winter. You need to be on your boat full-time in order to monitor water systems and most importantly, electric and heating systems. In our opinion, parking your boat in the water for the winter and retreating to a borrowed condo is not recommended. In fact, frequent absences are dangerous, both for your own boat and especially for your live-aboard neighbours. Bilge water levels, propane systems and especially electrical cords and connections require frequent inspection to keep you and your neighbours safer. Hi-tech on-board computers which e-mail boat environmental parameters to your shore based computer is just that; Hi-tech! See “Simple is Best” in paragraph four above.
Power cords can overheat in continuous duty such as de-icing or electric heaters. One needs to be super-vigilant with electricity and fuel on a boat in winter.
Living aboard over a northern winter is not very difficult. We’re not crazy! It just takes some planning and preparation in late October and early November to prepare for the three coldest months ahead. Your winter neighbours will be in “the same boat,” and there’s quite a co-operative atmosphere on the dock. We all look after one another. You should be detail-oriented, and have a flexible outlook on life and enjoy being close to nature.
Lessons learned over-wintering in your boat while maintaining a reasonable level of self-sufficiency in a cold northern climate are incalculable.
The close friendships that you’ll make while wintering aboard will be long-lasting.