The Cruising Chronicles: Part 15 (Heat, glorious heat)

Three Sheets, toasty warm and moored at the Blake Island marina.

Reality rarely lives up to fantasy, but this time was an exception.

Marty and I had been fantasizing for months about how wonderful it would be to finally get our boat heater installed. Our 1989 Island Packet had spent its life in Southern California and Mexico before we bought it a year and a half ago so not surprisingly, it had no heater aboard. The few times we took the boat out last winter, we stayed at marinas and used space heaters.

During the five weekends we spent installing our new Webasto Airtop 5500 forced air heater, we had plenty of time to think about how fantastsic it would finally be to have a warm, comfortable boat.

Lily investigates the warm cabin.

At least, we hoped that would be the case. We’d debated about whether to go with a forced-air heater or a much more expensive hydronic unit, after being told our 38-foot boat was at the upper end of what a forced-air heater can adequately serve. I was a little worried that the heater might not sufficiently warm our boat — and then what? Would we have to start all over again with a hydronic heater?

We finally got a chance to put the newly installed heater to the test a couple of weekends ago, when we headed over to Blake Island. And I’m happy to report that it lived up to my warm-boat fantasies, and then some.

It didn’t hurt that we lucked out with the weather, happening to go out on that one magical weekend we get here each February or March that’s unseasonably warm and sunny, a brief respite before the weather reverts back to the usual winter wet and gloom.

We turned the heater on before we left Elliott Bay so Lily Winston Churchill —our feline princess — wouldn’t be cold, and also so we could have the novel experience of going down to the cabin to warm up if we got too chilled in the cockpit. Previously, I’ve retreated to the cabin for a break from the weather, wrapped myself in a blanket and watched my breath steam in the chilly salon. But when I ducked down below this time, the cabin was comfortably warm. Lily was napping on her usual blanket, all squinty-eyed and happy.

We got a slip at the marina not because we needed power for heat, but because our dinghy was out of commission and we wanted to walk around on the island. After taking a stroll, I decided to crank up the heater and see if it could pass my ultimate test: to make the boat almost too warm. I set the thermostat at 74 degrees and made dinner, which consisted of mushroom fettucini, garlic bread and salad (a decent dinner at home rendered outstanding, as meals often are, purely by being eaten aboard).

Happy, happy kitty curled up on the settee.

It takes some time for the interior temperature to rise, so we broke out the cribbage board and played a round. Eventually, the salon started getting warmer … then warmer. Lily, having spent an exhausting hour or so patrolling the deck for birds, was curled up between us, warm and utterly blissed out.

Soon, I was warm enough to take my jacket off. A little later, my face was actually getting a little hot and Marty was starting to protest. I happily turned down the thermostat, declaring the test a success. We were warm enough to go out in the cockpit to have a glass of wine, watch the sunset and yes, cool off a little. We were so happy we were practically giddy (and no, it wasn’t just the wine glow).

And not only was the air deliciously warm, it was so dry that my hair frizzed out with static when I brushed it. In the past, we’d gone to bed with space heaters left on, me geared up like Nanook of the North in wool socks and several layers of clothes. We’d be chilly, yet wake up slightly clammy. The air just didn’t feel good.

Not this time. In the morning we lounged around reading and drinking coffee, perfectly warm even in bare feet.

“It feels just like being at home,” Marty said.

Enjoying sundown in the cockpit.

And he was right. It felt like being at home — or more precisely, like the boat could be our home. It was the most comfortable both of us have ever been on our boat, and I thought how fun it would be to just stay there and not have to go home to our townhouse in Ballard. 

I think it’s safe to say that the heater install has improved the experience of being on our boat more than any other project could — except, possibly, redoing our galley to create more storage, which we plan to tackle sometime in the next year.

More hardcore sailors out there might scoff at the notion of having a forced-air heater onboard, but whatever. I have no problem with creature comforts. If I wanted to be cold and uncomfortable, I’d go camping. I see it like this: if being more comfortable gets us out sailing more often in the winter, that’s a perfectly valid reason for installing a heater.

After all, isn’t the point of having a boat to actually use it?

7 Responses to The Cruising Chronicles: Part 15 (Heat, glorious heat)

  1. Jack October 9, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    We are on a IP35 getting ready to install a Wallas forced air system….Can you provide insight on where you placed your heater, duct work, and vents?

  2. Dylan Lippert March 18, 2011 at 6:50 pm #

    Great article! Having spent a couple months with zero heat on the True Love, it was amazing to whitness the change in our feelings about being aboard. A heatless boat is like a cold and damp cave…with only the most jovial of spirits to take the edge off the misery! With our electric heater back up and running (and soon our hydronic one!) we again feel at home and cheery about our weekends aboard! We can’t wait to turn those weekend days into EVERYdays…

  3. J. Foster Fanning March 18, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    Heaters, heaters everywhere seems to be my off-season mantra. Totally agree ~ if it keeps the vessel in use by all means go for it.
    We have highly efficient hot water heater running off our Yanmar. Several years ago I installed a new truck heater under the aft berth with a vent facing forward. That heater system, diverts hot water and captures it’s heat. Flip the power switch to the truck heater fan when AQUILA is motoring and dry heat fills the vessel ~ no muss, no fuss, no extra fuel. This dry heat supplements our passive propane heater and Cole solid fuel stove. Catherine loves it and if it passes her rigorous scrutiny I know it was a good investment. Foster
    PS Your hair looks good “frizzed-out”…

  4. Pete Caras March 18, 2011 at 10:07 am #

    Hi Deborah, Nothing like heat on a boat to make things more civilized. Be it a wood stove, a heater using engine coolant or even just a clay pot turned upside down over a stove burner, it’s all good. Even down south, there will come a time when heat will be welcome, and, to be able to just flip a switch and be warm is where it’s at. Congrats to you and Marty on kicking up the comfort level many notches.

    • Deborah Bach March 18, 2011 at 11:58 am #

      Hi Pete,

      I agree. Heating is perfectly civilized and has profoundly transformed our boating experience. I can’t wait to get out on the boat again!

  5. peregrinesea March 18, 2011 at 5:16 am #

    I don’t scoff at all, but then I live aboard in Boston. We also use the Airtop 5500 on our 40 foot boat, bu in much much colder weather during the winter. We are tied to the dock – not much sailing in winter over here!

    • Deborah Bach March 18, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

      Living aboard in Boston qualifies you as hardcore, I’d say! So you’re happy with your Airtop 5500? Did you use any mufflers to cut down on the noise? We used one for the fresh air intake and may also put one on the fuel pump. It’s not terribly loud but does make a steady clicking noise. It’s a small price to pay for comfort, though.

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