Ice is Nice
By Tom Neale, 1/24/2008
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Back in the old days before we went south every year, I remember the Chesapeake Bay freezing over. Supplies had to be taken to Tangier and Smith Island by airplane because boats couldn’t make it through. This was before I’d heard of bubblers and ice eaters, and so I had to break the ice each day around my boat (it was 41 feet then) with a 10 foot long galvanized pipe to which I had screwed a large galvanized T-head.
We lived aboard in the Chesapeake Bay for a few winters. Now a surprising number do this, but then only a few of us crazy ones did it. We’d spend long winter evenings listening to the wind howl and the ice scrape on the hull, talking on the VHF or SSB to the few other souls around the Bay who were as crazy as we were. We were a camaraderie of masochists.
It would get so cold that icicles would form on the inside of the aluminum porthole in the shower. There’s nothing like a long chunk of ice sliding down your backside in the morning to get you going. It puts a cup of coffee to shame.
Condensation was rampant. It would make the entire inside of the boat sweat and ruined lots of things like books, papers, some foods and your attitude--especially when a cold drop of it fell between your eyes in the middle of the night. Perhaps the worst part of condensation was that it would soak the underside of the mattress you slept on. Cold radiating up from the fiberglass hull under the bunks would meet with the warmth radiating from our bodies and the results would be soggy and rotting mattress bottoms.
We hadn’t heard of shrink wrap and fancy tents and all the good things people do today to keep the boat warmer. Our best insulation was snow. It was great to see it come down past the mast and rigging and settle on the deck. Sometimes when it was snowing at night we’d turn the spreader lights on to light up the flakes. As they covered the boat the world would become more silent and soft. It was like you were in your own special cocoon. Like the people living in igloos, snow made us a bit warmer.
Our main weapon against the humidity and condensation constantly building inside was our wood burning stove. We kept two large plastic garbage cans full of chunks of wood, out on the stern. We’d throw them in and stoke that stove ‘till it glowed. We’d watch the flames through the grate, feeling the warmth like a fireplace in a house. And as the heat and smoke rushed up the chimney, it would take some of the moisture with it.
We had to be very careful to not let the stove get too hot. We had to be very careful to not let the stovepipe get too hot, or to let sparks fly out and settle on the boat. We had to be very careful to not let hibernating creatures crawl out of the blocks of wood which we had brought below to throw in the stove when needed. (We eventually ditched the stove because of its risks.) We had to be very careful to not let the space heaters draw too much current. We had to be very careful to never leave them turned on or even plugged in when we weren’t there. Once in the very early days we had one plugged in and turned off. It had all the safety features. But it still, somehow, turned itself on and began a melt down. We were lucky to have been there to see it, and we always remembered.
We also had to be very careful to not slip. Whenever we went out astern to get some more wood, whenever we walked around deck to check lines or to hammer ice, and especially whenever we walked up and down the dock from shore to boat—we had to be careful to not slip. We had a gangplank then, and trips up and down this slope were really treacherous. Falling overboard is something of which I’ve had my share—but not in icy waters.
There were lots of other odd extra “be careful” things. For example, we had to be very careful not to let any through-hulls clog up. There was no diving into the water to ream them out when that happened. We had to be very careful not to let any bacon grease go down the sink drain. The cold water would turn it solid. (We don’t do this anyway, but if a tiny accident happened, the penalty was even more severe in the cold.) We had to be careful to monitor temps in the engine space. We didn’t want to winterize the generator and engine because we were living aboard and we never knew when we’d need them—as for heat. But it’s easy to forget that, even when the cabin temperature was OK, the cold from the air and water could radiate through the fiberglass hull and chill untended space. We had to be careful to not let our clothes in the hanging lockers touch the hull sides of the lockers. Sometimes they’d be wet when we tried to put them on. Several times we’d try to pull them out and they’d be frozen to the side of the locker.
We could have added insulation here and there. And there are a lot of other things that winter boat dwellers do these days to make their floating igloo more habitable. But we had another plan and concentrated on that. The plan was to go south in the winter, and soon we did. The first winter we left the Chesapeake in late December, having spent Christmas with my parents. Day after day we had frost, sometimes snow on the deck. In the fresh waters of the Virginia Cut near the Great Dismal Swamp we broke ice as we moved—not a nice thing to do to your gel coat. But we kept moving and we finally got to where it was warm. We’ll never forget the first clear unmistakable sign of the tropics. For us it occurred at Jupiter Inlet in South Florida. Here, Gulf Stream waters flood into the ICW. They are clear and blue and at times almost as pretty as the waters of the Caribbean and Bahamas. Clouds and colors of the sky show tropical characteristics. We said, “we don’t do winter anymore.” And we didn’t.
When the Waters Grow Still
But this winter, after we got our boat south, we came back up to the Chesapeake by car for a visit. And the strangest thing happened. We liked the winter. No, we wouldn’t want to be here for more than a visit, and yes, the winters these days have been much warmer than the winters we remember. But breathing in crisp air, smelling the salt marshes when they’re cold, seeing the wild geese flying overhead, seeing a world without all the green, but beautiful nevertheless, and, especially, feeling again the renovating change that distinctly different seasons bring—all is good. It’s also good that we can get back aboard our boat very soon and head on.
But the lesson to us is that if you must do winter, enjoy it. Not only are there the good parts of the winter season, but also there’s the looking forward to changes--to what’s to come—whether that’s a spring and summer and fall of good boating where you are, or whether it’s next winter when you can take off south with us.
Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale