The Cost of Heat

“This means we are sailing to Maine over the summer.”

That’s what I said to Alison when we purchased Caprica. It was November and we stood on Caprica’s stern to take our first family photo aboard our new-to-us Beneteau 423. She was spacious, strong, fast, elegant and lightyears ahead of our previous two vessels. But there was still work to do.

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.

The previous year, we ordered a state of the art diesel furnace that was capable of pumping out 20,000 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. On our first boat, we managed with three space heaters and a sleeping bag. But, 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 was a constant necessity, and we had to get creative with our allotted 60 amps. Our second 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.

Caprica was a whole different ball game, and we knew that propane or space heaters were not going to be the solution especially with a small child roaming around. So the Rayman and I spent a week installing the fuel lines, electrical controls, the computer, fuel filters, running ducts, rigging the exhaust and mounting the diesel furnace unit. It was a 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 caught 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, and I needed a solution.

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 parent’s house. I stayed with the boat in the event we lost power, and I needed to turn the motor and oven on. I also built a small ceramic heater that I would place 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, and in the 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.

The rep handed me a bill for $500 and 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.

In the course of a few months, we dumped thousands of dollars worth of equipment into Caprica and hundreds of hours of work to be ready for offshore sailing in demanding environments. We told our friends and neighbors that we were sailing to Maine that summer and were met with smiles and skepticism. We’ve been living aboard for over a decade now and have met our share of people with goals, plans and ideas only to hear months or even years later that the trip just didn’t work out. They wait too long, opinions change, or someone gets sick, and the sailing trip that they were talking about, planning and preparing for ends with the boat rotting in the “field of dreams,” better known as the dead boatyard. We were not going to be those people.

I shared this story in the parking lot of the laundry facility located near the “Field of Dreams” with a friend that is retiring in 18 months. He has a heavily built blue water boat and is looking forward to shoving off with a stacked retirement account. Years of saving, investing and playing the markets have given this genuine inventor a cushion that could fund part of the space program. It turns out that one of his sailing buddies is an ambassador to a Latin American country and they have a place to keep the boat in the southern hemisphere. As he told me this, my only thought was that a lot could change in 18 months.

When we came home from our first big blue water trip, I ran into a friend with a few Ph.D.S and a yearning to quench his wanderlust. He and his wife want to retire on their boat and sail to the islands but are held back with obligations. He told me that we are lucky because “You are free.”

We have bills, debts, obligations, family, and community but a different set of priorities for us now that keep the wanderlust a forefront of our planning. The first big trip to Maine was a mile marker for us and an achievement of unmistakable value regardless of the actual cost.

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