Winter Warming

When the first real taste of fall arrives, I always think back to our first boat and how hard it was to keep warm. We had three space heaters but those were never enough. Our feet were always cold, the heat was uneven from stern to bow, and mysterious drafts and freezes posed (and created) serious issues. Back then, we learned hard (but valuable) lessons when fall turned to winter.

On the first boat, we shoved insulation into every nook, slept under a sleeping bag and grew nervous whenever the thermostat dipped below 35 – that’s the magic temperature for some unknown reason. At 35 degrees or below, electric heaters can’t keep up with the chill and you have to get creative. We managed with three space heaters, and that was okay because we were just starting out and both in graduate school; it felt like that degree of poverty was the essential young teacher’s experience. Electricity, though, was a constant necessity: we had to get creative with our allotted 60 amps.

S/V Doggie Paddle, our second liveaboard boat, was a few feet longer, but with every inch you go forward, the interior volume rapidly expands. By the second winter on boat number two, Doggie Paddle, I installed a 9,000 BTU marine propane heater that with only one space heater kept us snug as a bug in a rug. I would enjoy quiet nights watching the fireplace, sipping scotch and catch the occasional episode of the classic Miami Vice.

When we first purchased boat number three, we knew Caprica’s hull was too big to just rely on electric or propane heat, as many liveaboards do. That first November was warm, but Alison and I understood that we needed to prepare for the unique rigors of winter boat life, especially with a baby on board. Heating was our biggest concern, and we did not have enough of it as the temperatures dipped below freezing. 

We went for the diesel heater.

We ordered a state-of-the-art diesel furnace that was capable of pumping out 18,000 BTUs of extreme heat. To put that in everyday terms; you can cook a hot dog in front of the vent when the heater is in ECO mode. This furnace represented about a month’s take-home pay, but I assured Alison that it was worth the expense.

Good friends and I spent a week installing a Webasto diesel heater: the fuel lines, electrical controls, the computer, fuel filters, and running ducts while also rigging the exhaust and mounting the diesel furnace unit. It was one week of 12 hour days in tight spaces with electricity, power tools and surrounded by a dozen things that at any point could cause significant injury.

When we pushed the illuminated ON button, the unit worked beautifully for roughly 20 seconds – then it caught on fire. A blast of flame shot out of the exhaust, and the unit hummed like a jet on takeoff. We shut it off, disassembled and began to troubleshoot. We spent days working and on the phone with the factory which continued to insist that we were at fault because of a “bad” install. As this drama was occurring, it was getting colder and colder.

The inside of Caprica looked like a space station with any surface possible covered with several layers of reflective insulation. All hatches, ports and port lights were thoroughly insulated. Orange and yellow heavy duty extension cords crisscrossed the teak floor to strategically placed space heaters. But it was still too cold. The stress began to build as a forecasted blizzard approached.

We needed a solution. Quickly.

I called the factory one more time and proposed a few ideas. They could refund the money, send me a new unit or pay to have the one in my possession fixed. The factory balked at my proposals saying that the unit should have been installed by a professional and that the furnace was assembled by a team of skilled craftsman and was not defective.

When the blizzard hit, Alison and Eleanor evacuated to my parents’ house.

I stayed with the boat in the event we lost power and I would need to turn on the motor and oven. I also built a small ceramic heater that I placed over a low flame on the stove. I was sure that these heat sources would keep the critical components on the boat from freezing, but it was not where I wanted my wife and daughter if things became sporty.

The storm came, and so did the gale force winds. Driving snow filled every nook and cranny of the cockpit, and the marina was a ghost town. I sat in low light with purpose; rapid firing negative reviews of the diesel heater unit across a spectrum of websites that included R.V., tractor trailers, off-grid tiny homes, yachting websites, and numerous chat forums. Always using my name, I openly detailed the installation and the experience with the factory. The blizzard gave me almost a week off of work.

In that time I left hundreds of negative reviews.

A few short days later, the factory reached out to a local rep that contacted me with an offer. They would inspect the unit and repair any damage free of charge as long as I paid for a professional installation. I made the point that the marketing for the diesel heater said: “do-it-yourself kit.”

Ultimately, I uninstalled the unit and drove it to Annapolis where a factory rep rebuilt the furnace. Roughly a week later, the rep was at my boat putting the furnace back on the mounting brackets. He sat for an hour as the unit ran perfectly performing software diagnostics talking to the factory via cell phone. It was one of those conversations that you could overhear perfectly because the phone volume was incredibly high. The factory was trying to find fault in my installation, but the rep made it clear that our work was excellent, and he handed me a bill for $500.

He said, “You’re in a different class of boater now.” Apparently, heat is a status symbol. And if that is true, then our marina community is a perfect juxtaposition. The rep also told me that the furnace had a bad seal and too much oxygen was entering the combustion chamber. I was acquitted on all accounts.

“Did you guys lose power?”

That’s a text I received from another liveaboard during a recent gale. Turns out that we lost AC power in the marina and didn’t even notice. The diesel heat keeps going through all weather without dependence on electricity, and it’s one of the winter blessings we count; in addition to being together, being dry, bellies full and fed. This time around, we have a level of satisfaction that comes with our self sufficiency;  winters now are warm and wonderful.

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