Living aboard has its challenges, whether you do it full-time or part-time in the Caribbean or the North Pole—which, I imagine, is not too different from living aboard through a Boston winter.
I’ve lived aboard through two New England winters. The first, the notorious winter of 2014-15, was a tremendous learning experience. The conditions were extremely harsh, my boyfriend, Phil, and I were new to the liveaboard scene, and the boat belonged to someone else. (We were caretakers for a family that traveled to Costa Rica.) Plenty of things went wrong, but we learned a lot and developed a newfound appreciation for a lifestyle we would come to adopt permanently. Now, going into our third winter afloat, we’re finally starting to feel prepared.
The first thing we think about each fall is which shipyard or marina we will call home for the next six months. A lot of factors come into play when we make this decision. First, be sure to figure out the cost of electricity. Check the marina’s metered rate, or you might be signing up for a warm but expensive season, especially if you run electric heaters. We’ve seen everything from 15 cents a kilowatt hour to 32 cents a kilowatt hour.
Then there’s the water situation. That first winter, after finding out the water lines were frozen while going to fill our then empty tanks, we spent the next two months washing our dishes in the bath house, brushing our teeth with bottled water and using a lot of hand sanitizer. Check to see if your marina has winter water at the dock and if it’s available at every slip. If you can hook your boat up to shore water you will be saving yourself a lot of time and energy. It will also help prevent wear and tear on your water pump, and save you the trouble of having to monitor and refill your water tanks throughout the season. Pro-tip: invest in a heated hose to help keep the water from freezing.
Speaking of heat, keeping your boat warm and dry is vital. One of the first things we did was add insulation, installing a mix of spray foam and Reflectix on the hull sides in the V-berth. It made a noticeable difference. You’ll also want to find a relatively affordable, safe and efficient heat source. I would recommend a diesel heater. Some of the better-known brands include Webasto, Espar and Dickenson. Webasto just came out with a new Air Top Evo line, which looks promising, with a fuel pump redesign and an upgraded control system. You may also want to consider a hydronic system instead of forced air, although the installation is more complicated.
The diesel heater has been great, but making sure we had enough diesel on board to run it has not. After learning this the hard way, we now keep jerry cans of diesel on board and make sure our tanks are topped off going into the season. Lugging heavy containers of diesel from the gas station to the car to the boat in the snow was not fun.
A final note regarding diesel heaters—make sure you have working carbon monoxide detectors on board. We use Nest Protect, which we love. We are also installing an additional CO detector that has an automatic generator shutdown, which Phil is adapting to work with the diesel heater. A good detector is great for peace of mind and will help keep you and your neighbors safe.
Something else you can do to keep yourself and your neighbors safe is overhaul your shore power. Inspect all of your boat’s AC cabling, be on the lookout for undersized cable and make sure everything is on appropriately sized breakers. We went as far as changing our shore power inlets to the Smartplug.
Then there is the question of shrink-wrapping. Not everyone shrink-wraps every winter, especially those hardcore sailors who want to be able to get out when there’s good wind, even if the temperature is 25F. That said, shrink-wrapping allows us to work on deck during the colder months, and provides another level of both storage space and personal space. Of course, it also helps protect the boat from winter weather. If you live aboard I’d advise going with clear shrink-wrap, so you can get as much sunlight as possible and feel connected to the outside world.
Finally, be aware that living aboard in winter can be isolating. When it’s cold outside it can be easy to come up with excuses to stay on your boat. Make friends. Don’t be afraid to knock on your neighbor’s boat. Look out for each other. Sometimes the community in the marina is hidden in the winter, and you have to go find it. It may be so hidden that you don’t think it exists, but trust me, it’s there. Somewhere, on someone’s boat under the shrink-wrap a bunch of liveaboards are drinking rum and watching “Captain Ron” during the first big snowstorm, and you don’t want to miss out.