Cruising Through Winter

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With proper preparation, winter sailing can be an unforgettable and addictive experience

With proper preparation, winter sailing can be an unforgettable and addictive experience

A number of sailors have cruised Labrador, Greenland, Patagonia, South Georgia, Antarctica, Alaska and the Northwest Passage. Some have wintered-over in high latitudes. But fewer have deliberately undertaken winter cruises in high latitudes simply for the pleasures the season can offer.

My wife, Nancy, and I were fortunate to enjoy an extensive winter cruise aboard our 44ft steel ketch, Tamara, in extreme southern Chilean Patagonia, and in 2012 I took Tamara on a solo cruise to Alaska’s Prince William Sound late in a winter that saw record snowfall. I was subsequently honored with the Cruising Club of America (CCA) Royal Cruising Club Trophy for the effort. Since then I have returned to the sound every season.

Most of the equipment and techniques demanded for cruising high latitudes in summer carry over directly to winter efforts, and a good, reliable and simple heating system is, of course, axiomatic regardless of season. Winter, however, offers some extra challenges.

At the head of the list, after a good heat source, is insulation. Tamara was purpose-built for high-latitude work, and following the application of the epoxy coating system inside her steel hull, one to three inches of spray-foam insulation was applied to all interior surfaces above the bilges. A ceiling of marine plywood was then installed to cover it all, after which the interior joinery work was attached to the ceiling. This combination results in an extraordinarily well-insulated vessel, although even Tamara benefits from some additional tricks when the weather becomes truly extremes.

On all boats, there are usually a few areas that provide access to the hull interior sufficient to permit foam sheets to be glued in place, and any addition of thermal protection, even if imperfect, results in a marked improvement. Wooden boats or foam-cored fiberglass hulls inherently offer a modicum of insulation. But all boats benefit from whatever addition it may be possible to make. Keep in mind that all is not lost if it proves impossible to retroactively insulate your hull. It simply means your heating system and fuel capacity must be sufficient for the extra demand.

The author’s ketch lies at anchor in Alaska (left); A thin layer of ice is a common morning greeting for high-latitude sailors (right)

The author’s ketch lies at anchor in Alaska (left); A thin layer of ice is a common morning greeting for high-latitude sailors (right)

On any cruising boat, significant gains in thermal efficiency can also be made by applying inexpensive treatments to every deck hatch. Often constructed of aluminum frames with relatively thin Lexan plastic glazing, hatches present escape paths for precious heat. You can, therefore, reduce this heat transfer by temporarily applying flexible closed-cell foam, such as in the blue backpacking sleeping pads commonly available in the sporting goods section of big-box stores, around the internally exposed aluminum. Taping a few layers of clear plastic bubble wrap to the underside of the hatch’s plastic glazing, then covering the interior of the hatch opening with the special thin plastic material available in most hardware stores for home windows in winter, will further improve the thermal efficiency of the hatch while still permitting a great deal of light to enter. Shrunk drumhead tight with a hair dryer or heat gun, the thin plastic also serves as a vapor barrier, preventing annoying condensation.

Finally, keep in mind that you don’t need to use all the compartments in your boat during a shorter cruise. Close off unused spaces, temporarily attach foam-board to the back sides of bulkheads or doors, and so on. You’ll find your saloon plenty cozy.

Heat your boat

Let there be heat!

Let there be heat!

The greatest addition you can make to any boat for winter cruising, and one that costs only a couple of hundred dollars, is to install an automotive-type water heater that utilizes the main engine’s cooling system as a source of untapped heat. These generally employ a “heater core” similar to, but much larger than that found in your car, and a blower fan that distributes the heated air either through a simple grill or via flexible duct hoses that can be directed to selected locations. Whenever you are motoring, run this heater continuously, allowing the entire boat and its contents to “heat sink.” The accumulated heat can be significant and will slowly penetrate large masses, including fuel and water, provided storage tanks are mounted interior of, not integral to, the hull. Adopt this strategy and you’ll find that within a few days, the demand placed on your primary heating source will be greatly reduced.

As for your primary heat source, that is largely a matter of personal choice, with considerations such as whether to rely on electrical power, the ability to generate that power, complexity and fuel efficiency. Many long-distance cruisers prefer simple drip-feed diesel-fueled stoves, such as those marketed by Dickinson or Sig-Mar (also known as Sigmar or Sig Marine). These are popular as they require no power to operate, employ only two moving parts (a fuel shut-off needle valve and an activating float), and have proven very reliable.

Others choose similar stoves enhanced with the addition of water-heating coils or a double-jacketed construction and a small pump to move heated water through a series of small, but very efficient, radiators. Still, others choose more sophisticated systems that employ fuel-injected burners similar to a home furnace that then heat a water boiler or a hot-air plenum. These systems are very efficient but demand much more electrical power. Their added complexity also requires more frequent maintenance.

All have advantages and disadvantages, and quality of installation is important to each. Fuel must be properly filtered, adequate combustion air supplied and proper ventilation of combustion gases assured. Choose a system adequate to the size and thermal efficiency of your hull and suited both to the electrical system aboard and your technical maintenance skills. Whichever system you select will benefit from frequent cleaning and proper maintenance.

Tamara is equipped with a simple Sig-Mar drip-feed diesel stove with three very low-ampere-draw computer fans to help circulate heated air. This heater has proven adequate to minus 25 degrees F, although she is somewhat unique in terms of the extent of her insulation. Making way under power, her automotive-type heater also not only adds a great deal of comfort below but provides considerable warmth to the area beneath her aluminum dodger for the watch topside.

Fuel demands will, of course, be much greater than on most summer cruises, and fuel capacity and availability must be carefully considered. On my six winter cruises aboard Tamara, few fuel docks were in operation except by special request. This, in turn, meant that a service fee would be added, and while only a minor inconvenience for a large vessel taking on a few thousand gallons of fuel, the same fee could more than double the price of topping off aboard a small cruiser. Fortunately Tamara, having been built specifically for high-latitude cruising, is fitted with very substantial fuel capacity, and no refueling was required.

Even in extremely cold conditions, Tamara’s heating stove results in comfortable conditions below while burning about a gallon and a half of fuel per day. More sophisticated heaters are even more efficient, although at the cost of added complexity and electrical demands. With respect to Tamara’s other system, her small, radiator-cooled diesel generator brings all batteries up to full charge while at the same time powering her refrigerator and freezer and fully charging our computers, cameras and other electronic devices and even providing the evening’s movie entertainment all by consuming about one-half gallon more. I, therefore, plan on demand of two gallons per day while not underway, which has proven to be a very accurate measure for a combined total of more than 250 winter cruising days. Leaving the engine compartment access open during the charging cycle also allows radiator and engine heat to escape to the aft cabin and port-side workshop, further adding to overall thermal efficiency aboard.

A good sheltered watch-standing station is imperative. Tamara’s welded-aluminum dodger and tempered glass windshield provide excellent shelter, but a true raised saloon or wheelhouse configuration would be better. That said, damage to the dodger would not compromise the vessel in the same manner as a lost window in a raised saloon configuration, although many raised-saloon boats have proven very capable in extensive offshore service.

Topside, in the shelter of Tamara’s dodger, is a complete second set of navigational electronics replicating those found below at the navigation station. Included are a VHF radio, autopilot control head, radar, GPS, depthsounder, wind instruments and AIS. This permits complete operation of the boat except during close-quarter, slow-speed maneuvering, which requires moving to the wheel. Warmed by heat from below, this control station allows the boat to be conned in comfort, even in an Alaskan winter.

A well-insulated boat can easily cope with the kind of temperatures experienced in winter cruising

A well-insulated boat can easily cope with the kind of temperatures experienced in winter cruising

Safety on deck

Cruising in winter, especially beyond 60 degrees north latitude, demands every effort to assure safety. Immersion suits (commonly referred to as survival suits) are imperative and should be aboard even in summer. For commercial mariners, U.S. regulations require the provision of immersion suits and time a vessel ventures beyond 32 degrees north or south latitude. As mariners in search of personal adventure, we should clearly afford ourselves the same protection. Learn their proper use and maintenance, and practice donning them. Similarly, a top-quality liferaft with an insulated floor and full canopy is essential.

In addition to the usual efforts made to prevent crew going overboard, be sure to meticulously clear the decks of snow and ice, wear foam-insulated float coats or full coveralls at all times, and be sure to always work or move about deliberately. On Tamara, a collection of plastic snow shovels, brooms and brushes permits efficient snow removal without damage to the deck or its anti-skid. A deck wash-down hose supplying seawater then removes the remaining snow and freshwater ice in all but the most extreme circumstances.

Dinghy and shore excursions demand particular caution and preparation. When going ashore, I carry a small backpack loaded with a small nylon tarp, knife, nylon twine, matches and cotton balls soaked in diesel fuel, a repurposed seamless tin can to serve as a snow-melting pot, two foil-wrapped vacuum-packed liferaft ration bricks, extra clothing, flares and a handheld VHF radio. I keep an immersion suit in the dinghy as an emergency shelter.

Securing the boat at anchor, with or without supplemental lines run ashore, presents some unique challenges in winter. Tamara has on numerous occasions occupied bays and coves partly covered with extensive surface ice just a short distance away. On these occasions, a careful survey must be made to assure, as much as possible, that the ice-sheet is securely shore-fast and not prone to suddenly breaking free with the tide.

As an extra precaution, we run the anchor chain all of the way out and ensure the line securing the bitter end inside the chain locker can easily be released or cut. We also bend a floating line with a very small float onto the chain in advance. That way, should the ice suddenly come down on the boat with the tide, we can slip the anchor chain immediately and deploy the float line. Once overboard, the small float presents no resistance and will be easily overrun by the ice, after which it inevitably comes back to the surface for later retrieval. In the meantime, the boat will be free to make for open water, returning to retrieve the ground tackle after the danger has passed.

In fully protected, very small areas where ice won’t move suddenly as it’s landlocked, I prefer to run four lines ashore to safely moor the boat. This affords great security and allows us to go ashore knowing the boat is not going to be endangered during our absence. Threatening enough in the summer, such an event could prove fatal in winter. In small, landlocked areas, ice usually does not move precipitously but instead deteriorates slowly in place, gradually “rotting” away until gone.

The key to choosing any anchorage, especially a very small “hurricane hole,” is knowing in advance how much freshwater flows into the anchorage in the late fall and during periodic winter thaws. This is true not just for an Arctic winter-over, but for enjoyable winter cruising of much shorter duration. The reason for this is that even if the seawater in which your boat it floating is staying clear, any freshwater in the area will float atop the salt, and quickly freeze under the right circumstances.

As an example, every time the snow on the surrounding mountains underwent any kind of thaw the year Nancy and I wintered aboard Tamara in Puerto Williams, Chile, the freshwater flowing down into the anchorage would freeze. Then, as its shore-fast structural integrity lessened with the still thawing temperature, it would float out to sea, making unnerving noises as it swept the length of Tamara’s waterline. Over time we grew accustomed to the sound, which also served to remind us that we were, after all, wintering in the southernmost incorporated town on earth. But it was still disconcerting.

Another time, during my Alaskan winter sojourn in late February and March of this past year, I experienced for the first time a unique event that puzzled me for a few days until I finally recalled enough of a chemistry class 50 years in the past to solve my mystery.

It all began with a strong easterly gale driving heavy snow that sped me to my favorite winter anchorage in Eaglek Bay in the northern portion of Prince William Sound. At 61 degrees north, with a spectacular view of the surrounding high coastal mountains and Cascade Glacier, it’s a spot that remains completely calm even during the worst of winter’s storms. In fact, I had run toward for its protection precisely because of a series of strong gales in the forecast. Imagine my surprise, then, as I turned into its narrow entrance, only about twice that of Tamara’s beam, to find about a good 6in of new snow now floating on the surface. Luckily, there was no ice underneath. It had simply fallen so fast that there had not yet been time for it to melt. As I motored Tamara into position to anchor, it was like driving into a down comforter.

After anchoring, it was apparent that it would be impossible to get the dinghy ashore to secure mooring lines, not the best situation since in this anchorage swinging room is very limited. Still, I reasoned that the fluffy blanket would serve the same purpose, dampening any significant swing. I, therefore, figured I could safely wait until the snow melted away to run lines ashore. I felt no urgency to do so as the superior protection of the place meant that no trace of the storm outside was evident except for the snow itself.

Unfortunately, despite the fact the seawater temperature was 37 degrees F and the air temperature never fell below freezing during the night, in the morning Tamara was icebound—locked in place by a thick sheet of surface ice, preventing any kind of shore excursions for the next eight days, since the ice was too thick to row through, too thin to walk on and any attempt to motor the dinghy would have cut the inflatable to ribbons! Instead, I was boat-bound, reading a book a day until I feared that though I had ample food, water and fuel, I might exhaust my supply of literature—a fate that could be as frightening as scurvy!

The question, of course, is how had this turn of events come about? I had navigated in and around ice for decades as a fisherman, then as a cruiser, and had never encountered this phenomenon. Finally, I remembered an experiment I had once taken part in during Mr. Emmett’s chemistry class back in high school many years before. In it, we first simply combined some ice cubes and a little water in a beaker. We then agitated the mixture and added a little salt, after which the mixture froze, even though it had not undergone any additional mechanical refrigeration—the same as in an old hand-cranked ice cream maker. As we measured, recorded and graphed the plunging temperatures of the mixture, Mr. Emmett explained that the phenomenon we were observing was called “supercooling,” a process by which the addition of salt caused the temperature of the mixture to plunge before rising once again and finally melting. And now here I was observing the exact same phenomenon alone amid the wilds of Alaska!

It has been said that winter must be terribly cold for those with no warm memories. Luckily each of my winter cruises has supplied me with a wealth of memories like this one, so that by the close of each summer, I find myself planning for and looking forward to the coming winter’s sojourn—which, like Shakespeare, I find not even half so unkind. 

Mark Roye and his wife, Nancy Krill, live in Port Townsend, Washington, and are both members of the Cruising Club of America (CCA), North America’s premier offshore cruising and racing organization. The club is comprised of more than 1,200 accomplished ocean sailors and has 11 stations around the United States, Canada and Bermuda. It is also the principal organizer, along with the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, of the biennial Newport Bermuda Race. In recognition of the high-latitude voyaging, Mark and Nancy received the CCA’s Charles H. Vilas Literary Prize in 2011 and the Royal Cruising Club Trophy in 2012. For more on their adventures, visit krillroye.com. For more on the CCA, visit cruisingclub.org

Photos courtesy of Mark Royce

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