“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain


Winter Liveaboards – Water & Waste

There is one subject that seems to come up in conversation whenever cruisers or liveaboards get together: poop.  More maturely known as the blackwater systems on boats or marine sanitation system.

For those not familiar with marine sanitation systems, there is a bowl (similar to that in a house but much smaller) that is typically connected to a hand pump that will pump the waste through a 1.5-inch diameter hose into a holding tank.  These systems are subject to clogging, odors and other problems if not properly installed, maintained and operated. So much so that a few boaters I know have removed the systems from their boat in favor of just using a bucket.

bucket toilet

Photo from here.

The holding tank can be emptied by another pump, typically a macerator pump that grinds up the contents to less than 1/4 of an inch, that discharges into the water around the boat.  It is illegal to discharge that tank within three (3) miles of shore.  You can also empty the tank by pumping out the contents using a pumpout facility at a marina.  In some areas there are mobile pumpout units on boats that will come to you, making it convenient and easy to legally manage your waste.  Sadly, there are many boaters that don’t follow this rule and will illegally discharge their waste wherever they are. This in one of the main reasons I won’t swim at marinas (stray current from incorrectly wired boats and dock power is the other reason).

When we looked at marina options as winter liveaboards, how they handled the waste was one of the factors we considered.  Many of the marinas that offer winter liveaboards don’t have a plan for the management of waste.  When we looked at Constitution Marina this was a question we put to the management.  They have a pumpout boat that operates year round.  During the winter they come around every Monday and Friday to pump you out.

One problem with winter pump outs is the shrink wrap.  In most cases the wrap will prevent access to the deck plate for the holding tank.  Constitution Marina offers an attachment that will move this point to the outside of the shrink wrap.  You can simply purchase the connector from them, for around $100 IIRC. I made my own since I have easy access to the materials from work.  The adapter is really just a 1.5″ MNPT by 1.5″ barb that threads into the deck plate for the waste pump out, some 1.5″ hose (enough to get outside the shrink wrap), a 1.5″ barb by male CAM fitting and a cap.  It cost me about $25 and took maybe 10 minutes to assemble.  Now the pumpout guy can empty our tank with the shrink wrap in place.

For water, Constitution Marina winterizes their normal water lines on the dock.  They would freeze and burst if they tried to keep them open. So to keep water flowing in the winter they run new water lines that they sink into the water.  The water down at a depth of 6 feet doesn’t get cold enough freeze.  They place “Y” connectors every slip so you can connect your hose.  They tie a line around the hose at the connectors and you can haul the hose up onto the dock to connect to it.

There are two ways to get the water from this submerged hose to your boat.  The route most of the power boaters go is to run a hose from the “Y” connector into their boat, cover the hose with insulation and some heat tape to keep the line from freezing.  They now actually make a product all setup for this that you can just buy but it’s not cheap, a 25-foot hose will cost you about $100.  The downside of this approach is that if your system fails or the marina loses power, you could end up with a frozen line.  Worse yet, the frozen water can creep down the hose to the main line and freeze the line on everyone else on your dock.  This is added to the potential to flood your boat should the line ever burst.  I am not a fan of what is know as city water connections on boats.

The second way is to attach a hose to the “Y” connector and on the outlet end of the hose put a valve and a cap.  Tie a line around this end of the hose and then sink it.  When you need water you simply pull up your line, connect it to your tanks and fill.  When your done, sink the line again to avoid freezing.  This setup is a little more work but worth it in my opinion.  To make this easier I took another cue from Andrew on Solace.  I ran a hose down the boom and front support beam inside of some PVC pipe.  The purpose of the pipe is to have the hose maintain a constant downward slope without having any dips where water could collect and freeze.  The hose crests at the mast with the forward section being pitch towards the tank fill and the aft section being pitched towards the stern.  There is enough extra hose to get out onto the dock and reach the line that is in the water.  We are actually sharing a line with Andrew for the winter.  Andrew put quick connectors on the end and we have some of the same brand connectors so we can just attach our hose.  We use the Camco TastePURE water filter as a prefilter for what goes in our tank (something I was able to introduce Andrew to for once).

A bit of a tangled mess.  I fixed that after taking this photo.

A bit of a tangled mess. I fixed that after taking this photo.

IMG_2722For the deck plate side, I made a direct connection.  Using a 1″ by 0.75″ plastic bushing and a 0.75″ by garden hose bushing I made a direct connection to the stainless steel deck plate.  I drilled a hole in this connection to allow for air to escape while filling and as an indicator.  When the tank is fill water pours out the hole.  One downside to this system is that you have to turn the whole thing on very slowly or you get too much cavitation in the inlet and water starts coming out the air hole immediately.  But if you turn it on slowly you can eventually get it up to full force.  The other downside is that the pre-filter is really in the wrong place.  It should be right before you go into the tank but the filter says to protect from freezing.  By the way, one way we protect from freezing is to blowout the filter after each use.

IMG_2724It’s not a bad system.  It takes a few minutes of extra work to connect the hose and fill the tank but it’s not bad.  Way better than lugging jugs of water down to the boat.





Winter Liveaboards – Warm & Dry

To continue on the winter liveaboards theme, let’s talk about keeping the boat warm and dry.

When evaluating heating options there are two types of heat to consider: radiant heat and forced air heat. Both have pros and cons.  The radiant heat is typically supplied by oil-filled radiator style heaters.  This can give a long last deep warmth that will transfer heat into everything around it like the wood, fiberglass, cabin cushions, etc.  The down side is they take time to heat up and when you open up the boat you can loose heat that will take a long time to restore.  With forced air heaters you can rapidly heat the air but its not the deep lasting heat you get from the radiant heaters.  When you turn off a forced air heater the heat immediately goes away.

There are many ways to heat a boat.  If we were going to do this long term an Espar diesel heater would be tops on my list of upgrades.  This would provide either a constant radiant or forced air heat depending on which system you choose.  I would likely go for the radiant water heaters.  But these are costly to install and do require significant maintenance.  Since we are looking at a shorter term view this left electric and propane as the viable heating options for Smitty.

In talking to other liveaboards here as Constitution Marina, propane seems to be a primary choice.  There is even a retired guy on one of the boats that makes some extra money by making propane runs for people.  The Mr. Buddy Heater seems to be a popular choice around the marina.  We had a Big Buddy Heater that we used for tailgating at football games and heating the garage.  These are forced air heaters that are great at creating a quick warmth. These heaters have great built in safety features like low oxygen sensors and tip-over safety mechanisms.  Officially they are not safe for indoor use in Massachusetts but they are in the rest of the country.  Go figure.

big buddy heater 2The heater would take the chill out of the garage.  For the boat it could be a little overkill with the two heating elements compared to the single element of the Mr. Buddy.  These heaters can run on the small, one-pound green propane canisters but that will only last about 5 hours.  The best way to run these heaters off of 20 pound tanks with a hose and filter.  This setup will last 3-4 days.  Two tanks could get you through a week.  We could use this for the primary heat source but we absolutely would not leave this unattended.  My Bride is even leary of using this on her own.  But it’s important to have a heat source that doesn’t depend on electricity as our friends Tom and Nancy at Tidal Life learned during the blizzard of 2012.  We ended up bring this heater to them when they lost power.

Electric is another option.  There are quality electric oil-filled radiator style heaters.  Some are fancy with built in thermostats, timers, etc.  But these can be problematic when you lose power.  They won’t reset.  So you are better off going more low tech.  Since this would be the heater that is typically left on when you leave the boat, some safety features to consider would be UL rated for safe use around water, tip-over safety and overheat protection. Through the Boston Liveaboard Yahoo Group, the DeLonghi TRN0812T oil-filled radiator heater was recommend.  Its compact and includes the safety features you would want on the heater.

electric heater oil filled

It was also relatively inexpensive at $72.  The compact size is nice on the boat and its safe around Summer as the outer portion of the heater is relatively cool to the touch.  Size wise it doesn’t make sense to go over 1500 watts for a boat.  The electrical sizing in one of the largest issues to get past on most boats, see below for more discussion on this. This heater draws up to 1200 watts on high but has medium and low settings that will draw 700 watts and 500 watts, respectively.  The total amperage for this heater is about 12 amps.

We also have a small forced air heater.  Prior to being full-time liveaboards we used our boat for an extended season from April to December.  During the early and late parts of the season we used this heater to keep the cabin toasty at night.  This heater does a great job for spot heating.  It’s not UL safety rated for use near water but does have tip-over safety.  I wouldn’t leave this heater on unattended.  This heater uses either 750 watts on low or 1500 watts on high. The total amperage for this heater is about 13 amps.

Depending on your boat you may also have a section that needs minimal heat to keep things for freezing. On our Catalina 310 there is a section under the cockpit that houses the water heater, plumbing for the stern shower and the holding tank.  You can access this space from either the rear berth or the cockpit.  On Andrew’s C310 he puts a heat lamp in this area set on a timer.  A couple of years ago we purchased a Caframo marine forced air heater.  This heater has an anti-freeze setting.  We setup this heater on the anti-freeze setting in that rear area.  This heater has 3 settings and uses 600 watts on low, 900 watts on medium and 1500 watts on high.  The anti-freeze setting can be used on the 600 watt or 900 watt settings.  We set this on medium and that uses about 7.5 amps.

The dry in the title isn’t just referring to my Bride’s motto of “warm and dry”.  When you heat the air in the boat a side effect is condensation.  This can be a bigger problem then staying warm.  To combat this most liveaboards will run some kind of dehumidifier.  Andrew has a larger 50-pint/25-liter unit.  These run 24/7 and will remove a lot of water from the air.  We went with a smaller 25-pint/12.5-liter unit that is more compact.   We have to empty it daily.  As a plus it really helps move air and reduce the heat stratification, see below. This unit uses about 190 watts at 1.6 amps.

heat stratified

Image from here.


Heat stratification is a significant problem on boats in the winter as well.  It is possible for your head to be sweating while your feet are freezing cold.  The dehumidifier helps some.  But the best answer is fans.


Image from here.


Some of our 12-volts fans run non-stop to keep the air moving around the boat.  This helps and make the air temperature more uniform.  This will also help with the moisture issue.

So who’s paying attention? How much power did I just say we are using to keep our boat warm and dry? A total of 3,790 watts/ 34.1 amps.  Through a 30 amp shore power connection.  And this doesn’t include the battery charger, water heater or anything else plugged into the 120-volt outlets on the boat.  The biggest limitation on electric is the 30-amp shore power connection.  Some liveaboards will add a second 30 amp shore power connection wired to a couple of outlets.  Others will simply run an extension cord from the shore power pedestal to a heater.  The problem with that is its not really safe to run heaters on extension cords as they can heat up and cause fires.

So I made a temporary electrical panel to use during the winter.  Using a small breaker box I salvaged from a construction site, I wired up this panel.



The panel consists of two 20-amp breakers wired directly to a shore power cord.  I cut the boat side end of the shore power cord, stripped back the insulation and wired it to the breakers inside the panel.  Then each breaker is wired directly to a single outlet.  We ran the cord for the temporary panel in from the rear berth hatch that is in the cockpit.  We sealed and insulated the window.  Plus its under the shrink wrap so there are no issues with water getting in right now.

This gives the additional electricity needed to keep our boat warm and dry.  We run the forced air heater on high on one of these outlets when on board and as needed.  The other outlet is used for the dehumidifier and the Caframo heater setup in the back area.  Yes, I did run an extension cord to that heater.  But we went with a 10-gauge wire, 15-foot cord.  Since this heater does not run often and not for extended periods of time I feel safe with this setup.

On a typical day we will run the oil-filled radiator heater on medium or low all the time.  This keeps the boat around 58-65 degrees depending on the outside temperature.  We can run this heater and the battery charger non-stop. We can also use the water heater, microwave or electric tea kettle without setting off any of the breakers.

The electric only system has been working well so far.  We typically return to a boat that is around 58-60 degrees.  Within minutes it will be up to mid 70s with the forced air heater running.  We will then typically turn down the heaters.  We try to keep it between 68-72 while we are awake and around 58-62 while sleeping.  On the extreme side, we have had it over 85 while it was around 20 outside.  This system is not the cheapest on an annual basis but for a one year plan its ok.  Based on what we have been told by some of the liveaboards at the marina, we are expecting to pay around $300-400 per month on the coldest months.


Doubts, Second Guessing: Is this normal?

A couple of weeks back I had what will very likely be my last review as a professional environmental consultant.  It was a good year for me.  I completed a lot of work at a good profit margin for my major oil client.  I won a major contract with a public school entity that I had previously had at my former employer and that I have worked to get back for two years.  Our office is one of the most profitable in our company and I was a good part of the reason for that.  Not to blow my own horn but I am good at my job.  Despite the fact that I dread going to work every morning when I wake up.

I also have a pretty good setup.  I can talk Summer to work with me every day.   I work with good people who are fun to be around for the most part.  I have a bar in my office.  I have a corner of the warehouse to keep my stuff like our sails, dinghy, kayak, outboard, etc. where I can work on projects over the winter in warmth.  I will now be working from the boat 1-2 days a week so I don’t have to commute in Boston traffic.  And with the generous raise I got in my review and typical bonuses we now have a combined income that puts us in the top 5% of the US.

So why would I want to give this up to live hand-to-mouth on a small boat?

I had lunch with my friend Tim the other day and for the first time voiced this doubt. By most conventional standards we would be considered to be successful.  We are essentially debt free, make a good income and have professional jobs.  Why can’t I just be happy with a few weeks vacation and weekends off like most people?  Why give this all up?  Why does everything in my life seem to be an all or nothing choice?

Don’t get me wrong, its not all roses.  I have had issues with the manager.  Just a couple of weeks ago he and I got into pretty good.  No matter how hard I try to change my perception, I am working in a box. Eight to ten hours a day or more.  My clients can be irrational, demanding and difficult.  I feel like I work in an industry of whores.  Everyone is willing to undercut the other guy. Steal clients. Trash talk on other firms. Etc.

I just can’t seem to get past this desire to get more from life than weekends, vacations and retirement.  I want to explore now.  I want to experience new things now! I want to forget what it’s like to run my life by a clock, an email inbox and an Outlook calendar NOW!  I don’t want to wait another 20+ years.  This may be selfish.  This could be childish and immature.  Its definately cliche.

We don’t have a lot of time on this earth! We weren’t meant to spend it this way! Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements! – Peter Gibbons Office Space 1999

I am not looking at our impending cruise as a vacation.  This is a lifestyle change.  A change that is driven by far too much to go into in this post.  But a change away from the way of life that lead us to have a house, 3 cars, lots of stuff and a boat to a life on a small boat scarce with belongings but rich in experiences.

I wonder if those who have cut the lines had these doubts?  It’s not a topic that is often covered in cruising blogs or books. Is it normal to have these small moments of doubt?


Winter Liveaboards – Shrink Wrap

When we tell people we are liveaboards for the winter in Boston we get a lot of the same questions: how do you heat the boat; isn’t it going to be cold; do you have to shovel; how do you get fresh water; how do you pump out waste; do you shrink wrap the boat?

Of course we had all of these same questions.  As I typically do, I spent many hours doing internet research, talking to those who have been doing it and planning out how I would do it.  This will be the first in a series of posts to answer these winter liveaboard questions.

So let’s talk shrink wrap.

When we still had our house, Smitty would spend the winters on the hard.  She came with a decent canvas cover from the previous owner that we would use to keep the snow off her decks and thereby reduce the condensation inside the boat.  We would pull most of the stuff off the boat and position the mattress and cushions so they had air movement around them to reduce the mildew build up.  Winterize the engine, freshwater system and waste system with antifreeze.  Then in the spring we would have a big cleaning to get rid of the mildew, put the boat back together and get ready for launch with bottom paint and wax.


Smitty all bundled up for her last winter on the hard last December

This method wouldn’t work for this year with us living aboard.  First, most marinas won’t let you live on the boat in the boatyard.  There is no way to deal with waste plus it becomes an insurance issue.

Living aboard with the boat in the water is really the only real way.  Our friends, Tom and Nancy from Tidal Life, had spent a winter in the Boston area at Captain’s Cove Marina in Quincy.  They didn’t cover their boat and would just clear the snow off of the deck.  This did lead to a lot of condensation and we knew this would not be something we wanted to deal with.  We could use the canvas cover but my search suggested a better alternative: clear shrink wrap.

Using clear shrink wrap let’s you create a greenhouse effect during the sunny days.  This can reduce the heating cost for the winter months and expand the usable space by making the cockpit someplace you can spend time when it’s warm enough.  But how do you build the frame and from what materials?

Wood or tubing?  It seems there are 3 main choices: wood, PVC tubing or metal tubing. The metal tubing is the most appealing to me if we were doing this long term.  You spend the time once, bending electrical conduit to the correct angles and putting fittings in where needed.  Then you just have to put up the structure the following years.

You could do the same for wood and it would be less expensive.  But eventually the wood would rot and you would have to replace it.  Not a big deal because you would be using relatively inexpensive materials.  With both of these methods you would create a sloped roof where having a enough pitch is key to the structure surviving heavy snow build up.  You also need to make sure you are not putting stress on your stanchions.  This could create an entry point for water and lead to deck rot.  Maine Sail did a good write up of this style on the Sailboat Owner’s Forum.

The PVC tubing option is another variation.  With this option you use PVC electrical conduit (more flexible than PVC plumbing pipe) to make arches to support the shrink wrap.  You would still need some kind of central beam for support.  Typically that would be made from wood or be the boom or a combination of both.  Under this construction, the arches create the lift and keep the stress off of the stanchions.  Tim and Kathy, liveaboard boaters from Maine now on their way south for an extended cruise, have a good description of this method on their blog.  Tim also discuss being a winter liveaboard in the video below.

Boating in the Winter Months

When we got over to Constitution Marina one of the first things I did was walk around and check out what other people had done.  There were examples of all of the methods above. Every boat has some unique difference that require variations in the way you construct the support system for the wrap.  But there were a lot of good ideas to borrow from the other boaters.

We had decided to go with the PVC arch method.  After some discussions with our new friend, Andrew who has been living aboard his Catalina 310 in Boston for 13 years, we made some modifications. Andrew introduced the concept of windage to the structures.  His opinion was that you want to keep the overall structure low to the boat, thus reducing windage.  This was a great piece of info to consider.  He also made some recommendations on how we attach the arches to the boat and how many we needed.

The first thing we did was construct the doorway and central support beam.  As typical, we are sterned in at the dock.  We like to use the walk through transom to access the boat.  The mast is also still up and the boom is on.  So we constructed a door in the transom walk-through that tied into the boom.  The doorway was made out of 2×3 with 1×3 used to create cross bracing.  The bracing was tied to the stern rail with zip ties.  A lot of them.  Probably too many but they are cheap and I didn’t want to see a lot of movement in the frame.

We removed the topping lift from the boom.  With the rigid boom vang would would probably have just left it as is but decided it would be best to support the end of the boom.  We put a 2×3 under the boom at the help station.  Pipe strap was used to keep the 2×3 directly under the boom and I wrapped a microfiber rag around the boom so the strap wouldn’t mark the boom. For the section from the mast forward, we used 1×3 on end so the 1-inch side was facing up.  The boards we had were only 8 feet long and we had to use two to get from the boom to the bow.  I reinforced the joint with additional boards on each side then screwed the whole thing together from both sides.  It was pretty strong.  I put one support in that section holding the board up with another piece of 1×3 at the joint.  It could hold my weight without moving.

We ended up going with three arches plus the bimini tubing making a fourth arch.  For the most forward arch we used 1/2-inch diameter PVC electrical conduit.  For the other two arches we used 3/4-inch PVC electrical conduit.  The reason for the smaller diameter for the forward arch is that the radius is a little smaller and it would take more pressure to bend that arch.  I think that would put too much stress on the stanchions.  Each arch started from two, ten-foot sections dry-fit together.  One side of the arch was attached on the inside of the stanchion with zip ties, a lot of them again.  We then bent the arch over to the stanchion on the opposite side of the boat and cut them to length.  An approximately two-inch gap was left at the top of the arch so that there was room for the arches to compress with the shrink wrap.  The other side of the arch was held to stanchion with zip ties again.  To strengthen this support, the stanchion and arch were further held together with two layers of duct tape.  The first layer was put on with the sticky side facing out so that it would be easier to remove in the spring.

The next stage was to shrink wrap.  Since we had a power boat close to us on our starboard side we decided it was best to let the experienced shrink wrappers at the marine handle this stage.  They rolled out the wrap and cut it to fit around the mast and rigging.  Then propane torches were used to heat and shrink the wrap.

All that was left was to make a door.  I used 1×3 wood strapping and shrink wrap to make a door.  My Bride then decorated it with some Christmas lights.


IMG_2598IMG_2595 IMG_2597IMG_2599 IMG_2600 IMG_2601 IMG_2602 IMG_2604IMG_2636 IMG_2637

We already had a couple of colder days where it was warm under the shrink wrap.  The other day it was about 30 degrees outside but over 60 degrees under our bubble.

Up next, heaters, dehumidifier and temporary electrical panel.