Boat residents get their homes shipshape for winter

Martin Podren is all set for his third winter living aboard a boat docked at Constitution Marina, in Boston Harbor. People who live on boats, he says, have to take special precautions for weathering the cold season, but the surroundings are ``just gorgeous -- and that's worth a lot.'' Mr. Podren's living accommodations prove that homes and housing are often where you find them and what you make of them. He and others who reside in waterfront urban areas, even in the northern part of the country, are turning docks and moorings into year-round residential neighborhoods.

This winter will be Podren's first aboard his 31-foot catamaran, his previous winters having been spent on a 46-foot houseboat.

As the weather chills, his ``neighborhood'' thins out, with the majority of yachts, motorboats, and sailboats heading for dry dock. They're hauled out and laid up for the winter in the boatyards. Only the ``live-aboards'' are left to toss about on the harbor waves.

For most of these people -- 25 to 30 married couples and single people, along with their cats and dogs -- the boats are their homes. Unless they head south for the winter, cold days bring on thoughts of preparing the boats for New England's winters.

The happy consolation is that mooring charges are certainly less than the cost of rent in Boston and its suburbs.

``It's not so rough living on the water; it certainly beats camping,'' Podren says.

Just last week he realized his boat was facing the wrong way, allowing the wind to come in the companionway (door) and blocking sunlight from the living area. No problem. He simply turned his ``house'' around. Now the sun streams in and provides both warmth and light.

In the winterizing process, metal and wood structures are built over the decks, with headroom for walking around and a door for coming and going. Eight-millimeter-thick plastic wrap is spread over the frame and sealed drum tight with a propane torch, in a process called ``shrink wrap.'' This creates a greenhouse effect, using solar energy to heat and protect the space.

In addition, some larger boats have home heating sys- tems installed. Diesel heaters and electric heaters keep other boats warm, and large older boats sometimes have wood- or coal-burning stoves that are also used for cooking.

Humidity inside the boats can be minimized according to the type of heating system and whether the boat has any insulation. Kerosene, for example, has a lot of moisture in it and when burned releases moisture into the atmosphere. Electrical heat, on the other hand, is much drier.

Winter brings with it another challenge: water supply. During warmer seasons, water is supplied from spigots along the dock at each boat. When the temperature goes down, these are drained and hoses are run underwater to each boat, with the exposed lengths covered with a special heating tape and insulation to prevent the water from freezing.

Boat residents must also face the cold-season chore of shoveling snow. Along with brooms and shovels, however, they use a snow blower to keep the docks clear of both snow and ice. (Salt water freezes at a much lower temperature than fresh water, and sometimes the locals fish from their boats in winter.)

``It really isn't that different than winterizing a house,'' says Podren. ``I'm connecting my VCR and my electric blanket.

``The rewards are much greater than the discomforts,'' he adds. ``There's a good feeling of community here. People get married, have parties, and generally have a very caring feeling for each other.''

Winter may not be easy on the waterfront, but colorful sunrises over the water and spectacular sunsets over the Boston skyline offer compensation. Occasionally a seal suns itself on the docks, flopping back into the water only when someone gets too close.

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