Saturn Rising

Staying warm aboard is luxurious, expensive and in many cases requires specialized expertise combined with a practiced skill set for installations, daily operation, and troubleshooting. Living aboard and traveling pushes comfort zones and boundaries; this frequently transforms the captain and crew into systems engineers.  No one wants to tough out a winter aboard when frost is forming in the cabin, and the hope is that the old halogen ceiling lights will raise the temperature inside a degree or two.

The average modern or recently manufactured sailing vessel will most likely come equipped with a standard reverse cycle marine air conditioner with a reversing valve. These units usually can pump out a staggering 16,000 to 20,000 BTUs of frosty air, transforming the inside cabin into an icebox even when the temps are pushing over 100 degrees outside. Just ignore the melting grounding pin on the 30 amp plug or the humming electric meter disc and everything will be just fine.

The reversing valve allows the air conditioning unit to turn into a heater, sucking every ounce of energy out of the seawater intake. Unfortunately, when the water temperature dips into the mid-40s, these units become ineffective. The copper lines frost over, cake with ice and then something fails catastrophically. So when the broker promises you heat through the winter, you’ll know that they don’t have a clue about marine systems.

Electric heat is a cheap alternative and usually an easy solution when the temperatures are in the mid-30s. But before you jump on that super-duper amazing quartz infrared heater with a picture of a happy family complete with pets lounging in the living room on a winter day – know it’s all lies.  Watts are watts and amps are amps. Regardless of what is promised, 1500 watts is equivalent to 5,100 BTUs at 120 volts. Most boats carry a 30 amp service that gets 3,600 watts. Add in a battery charger, and suddenly the main power breaker trips when trying to run two 1500 watt space heaters on high; which is what the liveaboard wants to do because it’s cold in the boat.

The dog really, really, really wants 10,000 BTUs of heat but the most an electric system can handle is two space heaters on low for a total of 5,500 BTUs. But don’t worry, the electrical system is exposed to humid salt-laced air all of the time, and I’m sure that an electrical fire hazard will never keep you up at night as you lay awake shivering in your sleeping bag.

Of course on the darkest of nights, the liveaboard can always count on the Mr. Heater Buddy portable propane heater to step in and solve your problems when the electric heaters can’t keep up when temps dip into the 20s, and the wind starts to howl out of the south. Screw in a 1 lb propane bottle, and suddenly a moist heat fills the cabin delivering an extra 4,000 to 9,000 BTUs of magic warmth for about .66 cents an hour. Mr. Heater Buddy comes equipped with an oxygen sensor because it will consume all of the air in the boat. Some use these as a stopgap measure for the truly difficult mornings or nights when the dock power has failed, and a blizzard is kicking into high gear, buffeting little ships with gale force winds. Others mount the Mr. Heater Buddy to a bulkhead and run a hose to a 20-pound propane bottle wedged into their cockpit. This is a low-cost high-risk solution to live aboard heating woes.

On our first boat, we learned the lessons of “watts are watts and amps are amps.” On our second boat, we learned the lessons of strictly sticking to purpose-built marine propane heaters, ultimately installing a Dickinson Marine Newport p9000 propane fireplace in our Catalina 36 salon. The unit was compact, easy to install, safe and fuel efficient. It kept our boat Doggie Paddle warm on nights when the dock lost power, and it bathed our salon in a flickering firelight that made mornings enjoyable. I’d come down the dock in the pre-dawn darkness walking Eddie and could hear the reassuring noise of the fireplace deck vent hissing. We were safe, warm and we knew that the unit would always work even in the face of heavy snowfall and gale-driven blizzards. Caprica, our current boat, is significantly larger than our previous two vessels. Sitting in her salon for the first time, it became abundantly clear that electric heaters or a p9000 would not solve our winter problems. We would have to go to diesel.

I write about this saga in two other pieces The Cost of Heat and Things that Go Whirl In The Night. The following account represents the conclusion to our unintended triology … we hope.

45 Days in the Hole

There was a slight list to starboard, and a steady hum from the rig as the wind occasionally gusted from the north. Caprica leaned against her lines, and ritualistic drumming emanated from the stern with each patterned wave slap. Inside, Eleanor lay snuggled in her warm berth under a layer of blankets, and I sat on the couch hovering over a scalding cup of coffee. My mind was blank, but the occasional synapse fired to life with each deep inhale of the rich caffeine-laced aroma. Alison and I existed in the silence, bathed in a warm red salon light we customarily used in the predawn darkness – lights that are meant for night running conditions offshore but ideally suited for easing us into our day.

A steaming bowl of scrambled eggs topped off with cubed ham and a slice of Swiss cheese appeared in front of me. The sight pulled me out of my waking 0445 coma. The list to starboard, the sounds of the waves slapping against our stern and the wind in the rigging were no longer muffled noises in distant thought.  The effort to move my spoon through the eggs, capture a chunk of partially seared ham and raise it to my mouth was titanic. There was a dense fog filling my mind and the totality of a hard week of teaching slumped my shoulders. It was only Wednesday, and I was exhausted. “Man!” I thought taking a sip of coffee and looking up at my wife.

“We need to go to bed earlier,” she said sliding into her usual seat.

I shook my head. “I’d love to, but then we’d never get anything done.” I watched her take a long hard look into her coffee reading the bubbles like tea leaves.

Suddenly, a subtle sweet smell wafted into the main cabin. My body filled with dread, a feeling that I don’t usually experience. I was jolted awake, alert and on my feet.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Alison asked in a hushed tone.

My stomach fluttered as I focused on the green flashing light flickering on the diesel heater control panel. I counted each flash and pulled out the heater shop manual from the navigation table.

Alison was intently staring at me as a chill crept through our bilge, around the floorboards, and through the Lexan hatches. It was 20 degrees outside, blowing from the north and our trusted diesel furnace began an automatic shutdown procedure after experiencing a malfunction. My mind blasted through the forecast for the rest of the week and the weekend. Cold. Very, very cold with gale conditions over the weekend and wind chill values forecasted into the negative range.

I sighed.

I turned on the electric heat, a system that worked fine for temperatures in the low 30s but would be no match for what we would be facing over the next few days. Our electric heat can deliver 10,000 BTUs capable of keeping Caprica toasty for the average winter day, but once the temperatures dip into the 20s the game changes and the energy requirements to keep the boat warm increase exponentially. We learned these lessons on our first boat over a decade ago, spending winter nights huddled in sleeping bags praying that the dock electricity didn’t fail. By the time we moved into our second boat, Doggie Paddle, we were a little savvier and ready to install new systems that could keep us independent from the electrical grid for up to a week. If the dock electric failed, our marine propane heater would keep us perfectly warm and proved invaluable through three hard winters where sometimes the power blinked out and we were indeed off the grid. Caprica, on the other hand, required more than a propane heater. She needed a furnace rated in the kilowatt range with the ability to pump out an impressive 19,700 BTUs. After we moved aboard, we installed a heating system that would keep us warm and safe through the hardest of mid-Atlantic winters and allow us to be off-grid for over a month if the situation required it.

It was already 0600 when the heater failed, and I quickly weighed the pros and cons of using my emergency sub plans and a day of personal leave to work on the heater. Amazingly enough, the Venn diagram titled “Embracing the Suck” leaned towards going to work. Thinking about diesel engines, I was confident that the issue was either a fuel restriction or an air intake problem. We finished breakfast and completed our normal everyday getting-ready sequence. 

I looked back at Alison from the top of the stairs. “I’ll read the shop manual at lunch,” I said, “Then we can build a plan.” Alison nodded her head as I then slid out of the main companionway pausing only to take a moment to admire Saturn, Venus, and Jupiter hanging over the dark horizon. The dock boards creaked and popped as I shuffled along facing the stiffening north wind.

Happy to escape from the cold, I slid into my car and followed the familiar routine. Gear shift in neutral, foot on the clutch, foot on the brake, turn one-half key click to engage glow plug, wait until glow plug indicator illuminator turns off and then turn the key to engage the starter. The motor lazily turned over. “Okay, this sucks.” I thought and then ran through the scenarios of being late to work. “Let’s try this again.” Gear shift in neutral, foot on the clutch, foot on the brake, turn one-half key click to engage glow plug, wait until glow plug indicator illuminator turns off and then turn the key to engage the starter.  The motor turned over and chugged. The little Volkswagen shuddered, and the engine sputtered then died. One more time.

Gear shift in neutral, foot on the clutch, foot on the brake, turn one-half key click to engage glow plug, wait until glow plug indicator illuminator turns off and then turn the key to engage the starter. The motor lazily turned over, sputtered coming to life just enough where I could move my feet from the clutch and break and one to the gas pedal. The engine groaned as I pushed the accelerator, carefully eyeballing the tachometer. The external thermostat came to life showing a pleasant 14 degrees. “Great. The fuel gelled in the filter and lines.” After a moment of revving, the engine was operating normally, and I was on my way.

“Okay. 2 for 2,” I thought.

During lunch, my detention students stared into space while I stared at the heater shop manual. Detailed drawings of sensor relays intersecting the heat exchanger, and an exploded drawing of the primary drive assembly, or the combustion chamber brought back the trauma of the original installation just over three years ago. Eight blinks of the diagnostic light conveyed through Table 1.c that the unit could be experiencing air intake issues, an electrical problem or the worst case scenario: the forced air drive unit died. I leaned back in my chair, exhaled and considered the possibilities. 

Slowly a theory developed.

“Mr. Sayers?” a student said.

I emerged from thought. “Yes?” I responded giving the student a hard look.

“Do you have any extra food?” he asked. “I can’t buy lunch, and I didn’t have anything to bring.”

I looked down at my overly stuffed Tupperware bin. Inside was a blue cheese buffalo chili concoction that was on my mind all morning. The Tupperware bin was densely packed and weighed a hefty three pounds.

“Do you like chili?” I asked.

“Nah. All those beans.” 

“Okay. Your loss.” I got up from my chair and popped into the science lab to use their microwave. Four minutes later I was back at my desk with my steaming blue cheese buffalo chicken magic. I stirred it gently, lifting the melting chunks of blue cheese from the bottom to mix with the shredded chicken.

“Mr. Sayers!”

I looked over. “Are you sure that’s chili? That don’t smell like no chili.” The student who hated beans licked his lips and shifted in his hard plastic seat.

I stood, picked up my lunch and walked over to his desk. “Stand up,” I said.

The student stood and took a step back. I made a small place setting with a few of our classic brown paper towels and leftover spork. “I don’t ever want any grief out of you again. Understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” As I returned to my desk, the student dove into the chili.

“Oh man, Mr. Sayers. This stuff is so good.”

“Don’t tell me how good my lunch is.” I snarled. Listening to the kid slurp down my coveted Blazin’ Buffalo Chicken Chili inspired my imagination to develop a plausible working theory worth exploring.

My ideas churned through the systems: fuel, air, electrical then I thought about my car and made a hopeful connection. The fuel lines from the tank dip into the bilge and pass through two filters before entering the pump. The pump pushes the fuel into the copper line that runs into the back of Caprica before lifting to the heater. “The water temperature is in the low 30s, possibly even the high 20s,” I thought. The fuel could have gelled in the lines causing a restriction to the burner pad. I took a hard look at the heater diagram. This could be forcing the pump to work harder just to get enough diesel through. Tracing the layout with my finger on the computer screen I realized that the fuel restriction would cause an overheat situation within the unit causing the fan to go through a rapid cycle tripped by censors.

I exhaled and rocked back in my seat feeling confident in my working theory.

Later that evening, I pulled everything out of the starboard berth, lifted the floor panels, opened the engine hatch panels and electrical access areas to gain entry to fuel lines, pumps, and filters. Our boat looked like it was ransacked at anchor. Everything was everywhere, and it was cold inside. I disassembled fuel lines, fittings, replaces filters and bled the system. Outside, the sun had set, and ice was crunching against our hull. There was a steady hum and vibration of the rising wind in the rigging as our canvas dodger covers flapped against the stiffening breeze. I yoga ninja climbed into the aft compartment where I painfully contorted myself to disassemble the fan housing. The shop manual suggested that the technician inspect for foreign objects, debris and so on. I pulled censors, cleaned the contacts, disconnected all electrical connections while I carefully examined and cleaned each connecting pin or junction. I then checked the ducking as I thought that something may have crushed a line and created back pressure.

Everything checked out. It was dark, freezing and I was sore. My leg muscles were beyond cramped, my back was in full spasms as I reassembled all the bits, carefully considering what would happen if the heater died. We had the standard reverse cycle heat, but that wouldn’t be functional until the water temps hit the mid-40s. Last year I wired up an additional 30 amps to be used for electric heaters as a back up to the diesel heater if it failed. We could get by with 10,000 BTUs, but that was a far cry from the 18,000 we had been enjoying. “Well, it’s a backup system.” I thought. Amps are amps and watts are watts ran through my head.

I robotically descended the steep companionway steps into the cluttered salon, sidestepping cushions, tools, and boards while ignoring the white-hot pain playing pong from my knees to my shoulder blades. After whispering a prayer, I gently depressed the diesel heater’s on button. It blinked into life and from the stern, I could hear the steady whirl of the forced air and the cadenced tap, tap, tap of the fuel pump. “IT’S ALIVE! IT’S ALIVE!”

Within a few minutes, our three large berths and spacious salon were a comfortable 72 degrees. My body was embraced by the warm, dry heat, my mood lightened, and I deeply exhaled with relief. The small headache that pulsed behind my right eye that had caused me to wonder if an insect had burrowed into my skull the night before was suddenly gone, and I felt great. Everything was going to be okay.

Yet as days passed and life went on, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew. I had an understanding that things were never this easy and that we were due for a karmic reckoning. Saturn was rising.

The weather models for the next weekend were beyond nasty. High winds, gale warnings and weather models were painted in reds and deep purples. Temperatures would be in the single digits, negative wind chill values and a whole lot of suck was bearing down on us. Dock lines would freeze, the canvas would rip, the heavy plastic windows in the dodger would become brittle, fenders would crack, and things, in general, would fail. We prepared, added extra lines, chafe gear, pulled Caprica away from the dock, added fuel to the main tank and topped off our propane reserves.

The weather arrived with a salvo of dramatic wind shifts, and a howl screamed through the rigging. We listed towards starboard and comfortable dock living became reminiscent of being underway in the North Atlantic. White chop ripped and frothed across our little cove, frost formed on hatches and the landscape was suddenly barren of life. Everything was sheltering including us.  It was Sunday, we were warm inside Caprica despite the ferocity of the gale outside which coated the piers with layers of frost and the frozen dock lines chewed through the stout pilings. Eleanor colored, I read, and Alison baked. The fantastic aroma of Alison’s boat galley baked bread was quickly overwhelmed by the alarming sweet smell of diesel heater failure. My head spun to the heater control panel. The same fault code blinked at me just as a month-long headache formed in the back of my skull.

Outside the wind ripped and pulled the breath from my lungs as I opened the aft hatches. I reached down and placed my hand on top of our diesel furnace, and I instantly recoiled. It was hot. Too hot. The forced air drive unit had turned off before the unit went through the automatic cool down cycle. It was clear that these repairs were beyond my skill set.

Inside Caprica, we turned on the back up electric heating system and started considering options. A new furnace was a month’s pay. We had over 14,000 hours on our furnace, and I questioned if it could be fixed or would it require a total rebuild. What was the cost-benefit equation in this situation? If it needed to be rebuilt, at what dollar value did I cut sling and buy another unit to drop into the previous installation? Was that even economically feasible or should we start considering a diesel bulkhead mounted fireplace? Working through the options, we concluded that taking the furnace in for a diagnosis and possible repair at $150 an hour would be worth it. If we couldn’t get the unit working, we would move in the direction of a diesel fireplace. Even though it would require a few days’ worth of ceramic tile, electrical, fuel, plumbing and carpentry work, I was in favor of getting the diesel furnace repaired.

Just before daybreak the following morning, I worked in the aft compartment. It was dark, the wind blew hard, and my hands quickly began to fail, going numb against metal tools and hose clamps. Working in contorted positions, I struggled to keep the screws from falling out of my palms. The plastic housing, electrical connections, and wiring harness were all stiff and brittle against the cold. I worked quickly, careful not to damage the systems further. I rapidly disassembled my installation thinking about my father working outside with sheet metal, aluminum, and his tools through 30 winters.

By 11:30, I was in Annapolis, and I handed my furnace to a service manager at a specialized marine installation and repair shop. We went through my story, and I explained the budget. I left satisfied that the furnace was in good hands and that by the end of the week, Caprica would be enjoying forced air heat again.

The shop called with the prognosis a few days later. The forced air drive unit and the burner pad were dead on arrival. The bearings in the drive unit had died while at the same time, a tiny portion of the burner pad was functional. The cost to repair the unit was $140 over my budget, but they could get me a new out of the box furnace for just over $500 more. I swallowed hard because the original purchase price was thousands lower than what we had initially paid. Suddenly, I felt conned by the big bulk marine supply store that we had purchased the furnace from initially. My mind churned through the options. Going over budget meant we would eliminate this year’s upgrades to Caprica including our transition to solar power and possibly AIS.

“Order the new heater,” I said. It was promised by Friday, and the weather models showed a cold week ahead but the following weekend would be relatively warm, giving me the opportunity to install the unit without facing too many hardships. Over the week, I prepped for the new install making a few changes to the ducting, fuel routing and electrical; all significant improvements to my original work. During this time, Eleanor developed a cough and a runny nose, never once complaining. On Wednesday, she had a coughing spasm then threw up onto her plate. We made eye contact, and I saw that she was in pain.

“What hurts?” I asked, stroking her hand and pushing the hair from a cheek.

“My throat, Daddy.”

After a doctor’s visit, we discovered that she had picked up STREP. She was more than willing to take her “Pinky Pie Medicine” but going to school on Friday was out of the question. I put in for sick leave on Friday and formulated a new plan.

Friday morning, my feet hit the floor earlier than usual, and within 10 minutes the car was warmed up. 20 minutes later I had breakfast and lunch to go along with Eleanor’s medicine and plenty of water packed. I loaded Eleanor into the car seat knowing that she would sleep on the trip to Annapolis.

Somewhere outside of Annapolis, Alison called. On her way to work, a tire disintegrated. She made a controlled stop and waited for AAA in the parking lot of a vacant restaurant property. I was relieved that she was okay, but another financial pressure reared its ugly head. We planned to get Alison’s tires replaced in the spring, but because one failed catastrophically, it was necessary to buy four new tires ASAP. The spare tire that came with the car was a donut, and the distance to and from work would give her less than two trips before the “spare tire” faced failure.

In spite of this setback, we were still optimistic. Within 24 hours, Caprica again would have forced diesel heat.  

When Eleanor woke, it was 0815, and we sat in the parking lot of the repair shop. We made the trip in just over two hours. She came to out of a deep sleep with a smile, and I was thankful that in only three doses of antibiotics, she was back to herself.

Outside the wind was punishing. We pushed into the small office and were immediately flushed by the rush of heat. Around us, stacked up freight and cardboard boxes from every conceivable corner of the United States, Europe, and Asia cluttered the space. “Somewhere in here is my new heater,” I thought, and I smiled at the manager. By his desk, my old furnace lay on its side, stained by soot and fuel. The manager jumped on a computer, pulled up some shipping information and spun around in his chair. To my right, a small box marked Webasto rested unopened on a pile of mail. The manager reached for it, and my heart sank. The box was 1/16th the size of my heater and inside was a computer for the furnace. We made eye contact just as the manager picked up the phone to call a vendor. “This isn’t anything like what I ordered.”

A second manager entered the shop. He was pale, hunched and wheezed with every step. I stood silently with Eleanor as he collapsed in his chair.

I knew the truth already. There was no new heater, and there never would be. Somebody looked at the wrong numbers when they ordered, and a CPU arrived instead. My heater sat in the office unrepaired for the week. I was going to take Eleanor out to the car, turn it on and play her favorite music. She would sit in the heat and sing along to The Greatest Show Man. I would go back into the office and start with the closest person, flip over a desk and move towards the second. It would be swift. I was in a poor emotional state with a throbbing headache.

“I’m really sorry,” he said, coughing into a napkin. “I’ve been so sick the last week, and when I ordered your parts, I totally screwed up.”

I realized he was only in the office to take care of payroll then would probably head home to curl up in the rack. It was a small business, and the guy had been working sick because there was no other choice. I completely understood. The last few weeks, I had been recovering from a nasty bug and worked every day. My anger and resentment turned to understanding and possibly even ventured into compassion. At the same time, my mood dropped, and a deep depression filled my being. I was suddenly physically exhausted. I really needed this furnace. We were keeping the boat warm, but it was difficult. Our comfortable enjoyment of winter sunk into backup systems. I wanted to install the heater, push the button and not worry.

“So when can you have the parts and have my heater repaired?” I asked. The weather models for the next week were brutal, and I was going to need my furnace. The shop promised to order the parts and have the heater ready early the following week.

We were home in a few hours and a few hours after that I was at the tire shop with Alison’s car. The budget had died, the spreadsheet was in the red. I sighed.

As the temperatures dipped even colder over the next few days, it was easy to keep the berths warm, but the main salon was another story. I started getting up at 0300 to turn on our little Mr. Buddy propane heater so that our main room would be warm when Alison and Eleanor woke up. I refused to leave the propane heater on unattended, so my days quietly began very early. I’d have a cup of coffee, stretch out in my bed and read academic studies for a postgraduate program in which I am enrolled.

The work week blurred into 60 plus hours and another 10 on top of that for my own class work. Days began at 0300 and nights ended after 11.

The headache persisted.

As the week grew longer, the outside temperatures sunk even colder. A deep freeze enveloped much of the United States causing delays in shipping. Parts for the heater were unavailable unless I was willing to pay higher costs to ship from different vendors. Next day air charges piled on the invoice. At one point, parts arrived at a Maryland warehouse late missing the early morning delivery trucks. The shop sent the new guy out to pick up what we needed. Still, more weather delays and additional shipping charges accumulated. At each point in the process, the shop called giving me options on if this, then what scenarios. Finally, they called saying the heater was ready.

Thrilled and excited, I blasted out of work and fought through the rush hour traffic to Annapolis. The shop promised to stay open late until I arrived to pick up the unit. Throughout the three hour trip to Annapolis, my mind rolled through how easy life aboard would be with the next cold front pushing through. Running the scenarios, I could get home and have the furnace installed by 10 that night, and we could be basking in the glorious heat. During my push north, I eyeballed the car’s outside thermometer. 24, 23, 22 degrees and dropping. I arrived at the shop and parked between a million dollars worth of heavy offshore cruisers. I was all smiles, happy to have the rebuilt furnace in my possession even if I did feel a little queasy handing over my credit card. The guys showed me a few coveted shop secrets and tips.

In my opinion, they screwed up but did everything in their power to make it right and reduced charges on labor to help the budget. Heading home, I happily sucked down coffee and watched the temperatures fall.

Two hours later, I strutted down the dock as the boards popped under my weight, and I considered what it would be like to accidentally drop the furnace in the water as I boarded Caprica.

Inside, Alison and Eleanor were getting ready for bed as I pulled out tools and opened up access areas. A pang of sadness drifted through my consciousness as Eleanor came out to give me a big hug. I’d been home late and out early for most of the last two weeks. When I was at home, I worked on something related to my job, my class or a boat project. Once the heater was installed, things would change. The headache would dissolve. 

Outside, it was brutally cold and blowing, but I had to peel off my coat. The aft compartments were small, and I didn’t have enough room to maneuver in the confined spaces wearing bulky clothing. I primed the fuel line, bolted in the furnace, connect the fuel hose, electricity, exhaust and ducting while I violently shivered.

The next morning the shop called to see how everything was going. “I primed the fuel line and reinstalled the unit. After I double checked the installation, I hit the on button.” I swallowed my anger and disappointment. “It showed another fault code. The blow out sensor is bad.” In my mind, I relived the previous night again and again.

On Friday afternoon, I worked late catching up on about 12 hours of grading when Alison called.

“I need you to pick up Eleanor today.” I looked at my watch, and it was already 10 minutes past pick up time.

Alison was on her way to pick up Eleanor when a car drove into the back of her little red Volkswagen at highway speeds. Alison was stopped, preparing to make a lawful left turn when the other vehicle hit her and actually drove under the back of her station wagon.

On the way to pick up Eleanor, I sat in traffic by the accident. I watched Alison standing on the side of the road by her wrecked car talking to a police officer. The road was slicked with fluid. The other vehicle was still in the roadway.

Somehow the Volkswagen wasn’t totaled, and we were lucky that Eleanor wasn’t in the car. The driver was a young guy heading to lacrosse practice. Everyone was fine. Thankfully.

So early the next morning, I uninstalled the heater and brought it back to the shop. They were closed on weekends but the manager offered to meet me there Saturday morning, so I didn’t have to Rambo to Annapolis on Monday and miss a day of work. It was a kind gesture and one that I appreciated especially in the wake of the previous few weeks.

Another week and a half passed by and the temps steadily climbed out of the teens, into the 20s and routinely were in the mid-30s at night and spiked through the 40s and sometimes 50s during the days. Being without our diesel heater is no longer a challenge, and we count our blessings that this winter has been much more comfortable than the last two when the cove was covered by hard pack ice, and the fierce wind always howled out of the north.

My last trip to Annapolis was a few days ago, and I picked up the repaired heater. Back at home, I went through the installation process yet again and carefully considered life over the last 45 days as I stood in front of the control panel, ready to engage the system. I depressed the button, and within a few minutes, we were bathed in a warm, glorious heat. My headache dissipated, my stress level sank to non-cardiac event levels, and I enjoyed a celebratory glass of scotch.

It was finally over The heater was on, Alison’s car had new tires and was in the shop getting fully repaired, Eleanor had obtained through strep and Alison, and I was on the mend from severe colds. 

Then just after 0240, like the ghost of heaters past, the familiar smell of the diesel heater kicking off filled the cabin. Alison and I stood at the control panel watching it blink at us 19 times. I went through the usual process but then gave up. I turned on the electric heaters, then climbed into the aft compartment to take a look at the furnace. A slight amount of fuel leaked out of the exhaust. When I pulled the exhaust pipe, it was caked with fuel rich soot. I exhaled profoundly knowing that this time, it was finally over. We had reached well beyond the cost-benefit curve.

They say that things happen in threes. Over the last 45 days, we’ve disputed that theory and proved that more can happen all at once. It’s been a good lesson in being prepared, not being too confident in our systems and plans, and also it’s been an opportunity to prove that we are still committed to working through and getting through things together. Through our 14 years, there’s been so many ups and downs, and they’ve all just become part of the bigger story that we share. These recent events are no different. Maybe for us, it’s good things that happen in threes – the best being, the three of us. When times are tough (and cold) and little wonderings about whether or not it’s worth it creep in, the silver lining always is that we three are here and we’re together. Going forward, that will be our only barometer.

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