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.
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).
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.
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?