winter on a boat

We live aboard a boat during the winter, with snow, ice and no running water.

If you're confused about how we live on a boat through a proper snowy winter, you're not the only one. It's the single-most asked question I get as a liveaboard, with some variations on the theme, including how we heat the boat (space heaters), whether we're at risk of floating away when it storms (no), and if we have to pee or shower outside (oh hell no, we're not heathens.) 

Still, when you're land-bound, it's hard to imagine the logistics of wintering aboard. When we first started thinking about buying a boat, I picked up The Essentials of Living Aboard A Boat by Mark Nicholas. From our sunny front Porch in L.A., I read about the perils of winter boat living -- the damp, the mold, how all his suits were wrinkled on one side from condensation in the closet. How you had to build a bubble around your boat and fill your engine with anti-freeze so it wouldn't crack.

I have a very specific memory of setting the book down, looking at Jon and saying out loud, "let's never move to the East Coast." We were in strong agreement on that.

Months later, in a card Jon gave to me just a few moments before he proposed to me on a beach in front of our boat, he wrote: "I love our life, let's never live in the snow." 

Yet here we are. And to be honest, it's not as bad as I thought it would be. Well, the snow is. But it's been a few chilly months now and I still love #boatlife.

So, let me paint a picture of what life is like aboard in (this relatively mild) winter. Let me know if you think I'm as crazy as I once thought Mark Nicholas was. 

Where do boats... erm... live? 

First, let's clarify something a lot of non-boat people have misconceptions about. Boats can be anchored, moored or tied to a dock. Unless you're cruising, it's a good chance that if you're living aboard, you're at a dock, in a marina. We are. We don't dinghy into shore every day. We won't get hit by a ferry. We have electricity. 

Okay, now that that's out of the way. If you are at a dock, in a marina, there are two ways to store a boat in a marina in winter -- "on the hard", which means out of the water and in the dockyard, propped up by stilts, or by "wet storage", which means keeping the boat in the water the whole winter.

Most liveaboards keep their boats in the water, including us. When you're on the hard, it's more difficult to access electricity, any water you use dumps directly to the blacktop below you and you have to climb a ladder about 10 feet in and out of your home. So it's definitely preferable to stay in the water. 

What about ice? 

Our boat is protected by bubblers, little underwater fountains that circulate the water to prevent ice from forming against the hull. That's how we don't get stuck in ice all winter. 

Also, water is shut down on the docks because the pipes would otherwise freeze. So we have to use long hoses from pumps on land to fill our tanks. Which is, yes, a total pain. When people forget to empty the water out of the hoses, the water freezes, and you can be stuck without water until the sun warms things up again, or if you're in a hurry, you'll need to resort to some fairly undignified activities to defrost your hoses. 

On our boat, we have sinks that operate by foot-pump and no hot water heater. So the fresh water we do use is chil-ly. Unsurprisingly those arctic blasts while washing hands or our faces definitely helps with our water conservation of the 30 or so gallons we have aboard at a time. Brrr. 

How do you heat a boat?

Our boat has been up to Alaska and back down to the tip of Mexico, so it's really well insulated. But it no longer has a built-in heat source. So this winter, we have three electric heaters that we're loving -- a mini fireplace that I've written about before, a baby radiator-style heater that's safer to leave on during the day for our dog, and a West Marine heater that we can leave on when we're on trips that will automatically turn on if the boat's internal temperature drops below freezing. They're all small and easily stowed. We rotate them so that no one heater runs for more than a few hours at a time, to prevent risk of overheating. But since our boat isn't going anywhere this winter, we haven't invested in any kind of heating that would be usable offshore. 

We also have an electric blanket that we're obsessed with that takes the edge off getting into chilly sheets in the v-berth, a.k.a. our boat bedroom. 

Why does the boat look like a giant bubble?

The best thing we did this winter was shrink-wrap the boat. Having some version of boat wrapping is a very good idea for cold weather boat lovers, whether your boat is in the water or not. Wrapping it protects the boat from moisture damage and keeps it warmer inside. 

Not everyone wraps their boats, but it can expose boats, especially unattended ones, to more dangers. For example, a friend of a friend left their boat for the season, unwrapped. The weight of the snow caused a leak that then froze, melted and refroze, ruining ceiling and floor inside. 

If your boat is out of water, the wrapping is usually white and opaque, and looks a little marshmallow-like. Some people buy specially fitted canvas covers that they can use year after year. If you're living aboard, the plastic is clear, and looks like this:


Longterm liveaboards often forego shrinkwrapping and instead invest in nicer cockpit enclosures that they can use for storage or extra living space in the dead of winter. That does mean, though, that you end up having to shovel your deck after a big snowstorm. All due respect to the cash saved, I say a thousand nopes to that.

And on a nice sunny day, the deck of our boat heats up like a greenhouse, allowing us to sit barefoot and in t-shirts "outside" while it's freezing just on the other side of the zipper. 

Are we always warm and dry?

Yes and no. For one, it's definitely not like camping. But sometimes, after a long day at work, I find my pajamas or sweater are a little... damp. 

The Scallywag has kept us cozy, but much like a house with poor insulation, the temperature difference between the inside and outside on boats can cause condensation to form. Which means we have to have great circulation in the boat and plenty of dry heat to prevent our stuff from getting damp or growing mold. That's as gross as it sounds. That's also why even people who have boats with showers don't shower in the winter -- you just go through too much water and create too much moisture to make it worth it. 

We haven't had too much of a problem yet with this, because almost all the "closed" spaces on our boat have natural circulation in some way. The backs of our settees, for example, are woven out of rattan, which means air can pass through easily.

We did have a close call with our foam mattress, which tends to get wet on the bottom during particularly cold nights. We've fixed that with a layer of Hypervent, which looks like a rug made out of stiff dish-scrubbing plastic, and allows air to circulate between two layers (like wood and a mattress) to prevent condensation. Basically, the more we've learned about how to prevent condensation from forming, the dryer we've been. The wrapping seriously helps with this too, as it essentially creates a layer of insulation with the air pocket between the boat and the plastic covering. 

Don't people, like, slip and fall off the dock and die?

For some reason this is on a lot of people's minds, including my mother's (hi mom!) who yells "Natalie Wood!" at regular intervals when I mention walking our dog at night or hanging out on the boat alone. But so far it's been a nonissue. 

We haven't had much snow this winter, so the docks haven't been icy at all. Because I'm neurotic, I keep a whistle in my coat, just in case. But so far, it hasn't even come close to being a problem for us, and I imagine you'd have to be pretty tired/drunk/distracted to fall in. However, our marina is religious about keeping ice off the docks, whereas less well-maintained marinas might be dicier, similar to having a bad landlord who doesn't salt your sidewalk. 

What sucks the most about living this way?

There are fewer things of note than you might imagine. And there's a different low for everyone when it comes to wintering aboard.

One woman I talked to mentioned that she misses the extra space of the cockpit -- because when it isn't a beautiful day out you lose what's essentially an extra room in your home. 

For me, it's that I have to layer on a coat and boots, then walk through a cold wind or snow to have a hot morning shower. And that our water on the boat, which isn't heated, is icy when I wash my hands or dishes.

When I asked Jon, he said he still hasn't gotten over taco-ing the foam mattress in the narrowest part of the boat so that we could layer hypervent under it.

And now that I think about it, I don't think I've gotten over it either. Or rather, gotten over getting stuck under it. #boatlife.

How to survive and enjoy a snowstorm on a boat.

This winter has been remarkably mild until this weekend, with Jonas' dramatic swirl across the east coast. So with a diet coke in hand and a sunny spot on deck to write, I wanted to break down how we're surviving -- and legitimately enjoying -- #davidsnowie aboard. 

First, I freaked out a little.

Starting on Wednesday, I began getting texts from friends, concerned about whether we were going to make it through this storm. The initial blogs from Slate's meteorologist predicted a storm surge of up to 9 feet, which would put our docks within inches of pylon tops. The docks could float away. I immediately looked into making a hotel reservation and peacing out for the weekend, but Jon wasn't having it. Apparently he's a go-down-with-the-boat sort. I am not. 

After a brief moment of marital discord, we agreed to stick it out on the boat this weekend, with a backup plan if the boat literally began to float away. Luckily the storm surge forecasts were reigned in within the next 24 hours for our area, so all that was left to debate was the scale of our general trepidation. 

Monster storm surges aside, being on a boat is ideal for apocalyptic scenarios. We have more than 30 gallons of water onboard. We're well protected from wind and rough seas in our marina. Non-catastrophic flooding doesn't really affect us. We have DC power should the power go out. And we're well-stocked with booze. Jon also bought us each a whistle, in case we slipped off the dock and into the water. (Next time, I'm ordering some of these guys to strap to the bottom of my boots so that slipping will be a non-issue. Jon thinks they look silly. That's fine. I will laugh at him when he falls over and I don't.) 

Our wise longtime liveaboard neighbors also advised us to pick up a few other things just in case -- an indoor propane heater and generator in case the power went out and we couldn't run our floor heaters. We couldn't get the generator in time, so another set of marina friends, who write the awesome blog, Sailing Chance, lent us theirs. After hearing from friends in Baltimore that they were without power and heat for hours yesterday, I plan to get a set of portable propane heaters for any land-based house I live in during the future. 

Then we settled in to brave the storm, in the way you do when you don't entirely believe it will be a big deal and fear that it actually will be.

For once, the storm was not a joke. 

It's a little snowy out. #winterishere #boatlife

We expected to get between 2 to 20 inches of snow. We periodically took turns punching the plastic wrapping around our boat to knock off the inches of snow accumulating on top of it.

The snow was thigh-high on me by 4 p.m. The marina store had a run on all its liquor, selling more in one day than it had all month. The news reports gave up predicting inches and just left the regular updates at "more than 25 inches".  Workers, brought in to shovel snow, were sent home because it was coming down faster than they could shovel it. We liveaboards were left on our own for the night, and it felt like an adventure. 

So what are a bunch of boaters left to do? Throw a storm party, of course! A boat neighbor invited whatever brave souls were willing to trek to his soiree-sized boat for wine, prosciutto and cheese. An ideal winter's night but the mid-storm walk was wild. 

My crazy trek through last night's storm. #wineaswalkingstick #snowpocalypse

A video posted by Sail Me Om (@sailmeom) on

There were some wildly salty sailing stories exchanged, and there may have been a Queen singalong. Let's leave it at that. 

Sometime between when we arrived and the fifth or sixth bottle of wine, the snow stopped. 

We emerged to see that everything had remained copacetic. The power never went out, and neither did our internet. Only Honey was truly traumatized, during the two walks she had to take in the storm. 

Today we awoke to a gorgeous snowscape and an army of people ready to dig us out. But even better, the sun had completely heated our deck, so that I can write this while hanging out in a t-shirt and bare feet. It's so warm I'm a little schvitzy. 

Blogging from the comfort of our cozily wrapped deck.