When the harbor freezes around your boat

On December 15, 2016, an arctic chill snapped us into winter mode with subzero temperatures and gale force winds. Wind chill values dipped to nearly -40 degrees Fahrenheit, freezing the surface of the bay around us in a matter of hours. Comfortably warm below, we settled in for a movie and listened to the wind’s harmonic resonance in the mast and rigging.

One year earlier we were not yet shrink-wrapped, and our heating system had only recently been completed. We didn’t know it then, but we were to experience one of the warmest Maine winters in history. We were spoiled. In expectation of a more typical winter we covered the boat earlier in 2016, and our decision paid off. The effect of the clear plastic cover, even after the sun has set, is invaluable.

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The frozen marina

I didn’t sleep well that night, but not for lack of warmth or comfort. The sound of the wind on the rigging was powerful and frantic. As the surging winds slammed into the side of our winter frame, the boat lurched from side to side, balanced between the docks by nearly a dozen frozen lines. Where the lines enter their fairleads they are protected by a thick section of hose to prevent chafe, but they cry out in strain when tensioned against the cleat.

[Tweet ” there sat the dinghy, frozen solid into the icy marina”]

I wasn’t worried about breaking loose from the dock, though it is always in my subconscious thought, but rather the load on our plastic cover. Our skills in shrink-wrapping improve with each passing year, but despite my confidence, this was the first real test of the season. Knowing that fierce winds and heavy snows were inevitable, the frame was designed to be strong, shed snow, and avoid strain on stanchions and rails.

I had nothing to worry about, but throughout the night I tossed and turned, examining each new sound in my mind’s eye. I heard plenty of new noises, but in the morning found everything in its place, including the wreath hung on the bow.

My new concern, upon walking the docks, was the result of an ongoing conundrum. Our winter location is a double wide slip, meaning our port side is 30 feet away from the nearest dock. To shrink the port side of our plastic cover, we are forced to use our dinghy for access. It’s tedious, but it works rather well. The significant disadvantage, however, is the boat is completely covered before stowing the dinghy on the bow for the winter.

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Cleaning the dinghy before the deep freeze

We barely squeezed the dinghy through this front door

We barely squeezed the dinghy through this front door

Knowing that maneuvering the hard-bottom inflatable onto the bow through our small door would be a challenge, we had procrastinated. Optimistically, we had also hoped for one last cruise around the harbor. Just days before this deep freeze we threw in the towel and hauled the dinghy up onto the dock to clean the bottom and remove the motor. Upon finishing, we decided to put the empty dinghy back into the water until we were ready to move it to the bow. I still needed to build a temporary cradle for it to sit on and we would need the help of a friend to complete the move.

So, inevitably, there sat the dinghy, frozen solid into the icy marina. If there was any doubt as to how I would spend my day, it was decided then and there. I set out to grab the few materials I needed to build a basic cradle for the foredeck and had it assembled quickly. I knew from my measurements that the boat would fit nicely, slightly elevated to clear the tall dorade vents. The challenge was now merely physiological; how would we thread it though the front door, into the cockpit, and forward onto the bow?

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The winter cradle for the dinghy

Luckily my friend Mark was available for a half hour that afternoon, and he agreed to give me a hand. Though I was aware of the boat’s weight, it turned out to be an even more awkward maneuver than expected due to the size of the boat and the confines of the cover.

We eased the stern of the dinghy through the door and into the cockpit in a succession of small lifts. Carefully, with the bow inside the door, we hoisted the dinghy up onto the hard dodger and caught our breath. A third person would have greatly aided in the process, but up against the frozen clock, we pushed on. Twenty hard-fought minutes after Mark had arrived, the dinghy was comfortably resting in the cradle on the bow.

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Deflated and in the winter cradle

The value of friends and family able to assist us with simple, yet arduous tasks such as this can’t be overstated. There may be other ways to store the dinghy for winter, or other skiffs available for shrinking the port side of the boat. But if there is one thing you will learn from living on a boat, it is to use the resources you have available to you. Make the best of what you have, think outside the box, and try not to repeat the same mistakes twice.

During the sleepless hours of that frigid night, I speculated about the coming months. If mid-December brought arctic gales, what would we see in January and February? It’s never productive to worry about things which can’t be known, and by the following day, we had returned to normal seasonal temperatures.

The marina thawed in the warm sun, which heated our makeshift topside greenhouse to a comfortable 75 degrees. Even on the coldest passive solar energy will convert the cockpit into a tropical lounge. Though it is not uncommon to experience ice in that particular marina, to maintain ice that early in the season would have been disconcerting. I was happy to see it break up with the tide and disappear.

Matt Garand

About Matt Garand

Lifelong Mainer, and professional mariner, Matt Garand is the creator of A Life Aboard, a look at year-round living on a sailboat in Maine. Matt and his wife, Skye, live aboard in South Portland and use every available chance to throw off the lines and explore the coast.