Surprise, Sailor! It's Cold!

A cruising sailor is caught off guard... again!

It caught me by surprise. Every year it catches me by surprise. If it happened to another sailor and they told me about it, I would roll my eyes at the naïveté, and the next day I would shoot them a text to let them know that it had happened to me—again. I would own my hypocrisy like a badge of honor. Every single year, the cold sneaks up on me.

cold weather sailor
The author, in the warmth of his salon, where cold-weather boat life begins to take shape, from house slippers and woolen socks to hats, fleece blankets, and heaters.

I just spent four months fighting through another Chesapeake Bay summer. Day after day my body became its own ecosystem of rain, evaporation, condensation, and again, rain. Work would grind to a halt as sweat fell from my face onto my eyeglasses, leaving me fumbling blindly about. With my body half in and half out of the anchor locker, my fingers coated with caulk and my glasses useless, I would cry out in despair, crawling cautiously backwards out of the locker to wander in search of a swatch of toilet paper for my glasses, maybe pausing for another drink of water and a quick wipe of my face. Then, I would start it all again. 

“You just can’t understand,” I would tell anyone foolish enough to listen, “how miserable this heat is.”

Without warning, I find myself foregoing a day of boat work to burrow through lockers looking for socks and hats. What happened to that middle ground? What happened to thoughts of thank God it is less hot today echoing through my head? To a few luxurious weeks of giving the fan a break, or sleeping under a lightweight blanket? Those days never come, it seems. I’m not sure they ever really do. Or do I just forget them?

A redrawing of daily life aboard

Even on the hard, changes in weather represent a massive redrawing of daily life aboard a boat. It’s weird enough that I’m wearing shirts again, but it’s weirder yet that I have donned long pants and woolen socks. The last time I was out running errands I reminded myself to buy a few one-pound cans of propane for my small heater. It felt almost silly at the time. I suppose somewhere deep in my brain stem I knew the cold would eventually come. But with the temperatures now in the 40s and 50s and the winds left over from Hurricane Ian bringing a miserable driving rain, I realize that despite that moment of clarity, I am not actually prepared at all.

Where is that little heater that needs those propane canisters? It’s in the lazarette, of course, and from the companionway the lazarette looks like Laura Ingalls’s barn in a prairie snowstorm—far away and a treacherous journey. I know I need the heater. I can see my breath in the salon. Ian is still pushing that rain in, and my boat is in work mode. Nothing is right. 

The ridiculousness of me contemplating the lazarette dash is not lost on me. I let out a little chuckle. In the end, if we don’t have our sense of humor, we have nothing at all. I decide to make the run barefoot. Protecting my house slippers from getting wet is of paramount importance to my comfort, and the cockpit looks like Weather Channel storm footage. The bimini is nearly useless in Ian’s 30-knot winds. The thought of wearing actual shoes seems absurd—I can’t remember the last time I wore any, and I sure as heck am not about to hunt them down and strap them on to go six feet across the cockpit.

coffee pot in sailor galley
In the galley it's the season for steamy pots of lentils for dinner and big skillet-fries of potatoes, onions, and eggs for breakfast.

Cold weather boat life

Later, back in the warmth of the salon, the puzzle that is cold-weather boat life begins to take shape, from house slippers and woolen socks to hats, fleece blankets, and heaters. There are other benefits as well, such as steamy pots of lentils for dinner and big skillet-fries of potatoes, onions, and eggs for breakfast. I can dive into projects without worrying about sweat marring my vision. I stay hydrated, day in and day out, with very little honest effort. And sleep, now that I have located the top sheet and a smattering of blankets, has been ever so sweet.

It isn’t that the cold is so bad, it’s that it always comes as a surprise. But next year I’m going to remember, I just know it. Next year I’ll be ready.

by John Herlig

About the Author: John Herlig lives aboard his Rawson cutter Ave del Mar, teaches at Cruisers University, and is the host of the podcast Remarkable Stories. Find him on Instagram @sailing.ave.

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