Top Menu

When we were living on ZTC back in Canada, and during our initial trip south through the US, we had some very cold days and nights. While on the dock, plugged in to shore power, we used a simple residential electric space heater to take the edge off the cold. Once underway though, that option was no longer available to us. Instead, we just sucked it up and wore more clothing layers.

When we reached the warmer temps of the south, we figured we were done with that problem. We packed our long underwear into a stuff sack, stored it all away, and figured we’d never have to consider how to stay warm again. Oh, how things change.

Regardless of what boat we end up with for our Patagonia expedition, I know we’re going to need some type of heating system. Electric heaters are out of the question as they draw far too much power. I have also been told that the reverse cycle heating available through most air conditioning systems won’t work effectively either.

What I have heard of working are the following:

1. A diesel stove, similar to the ones made by the Canadian company Dickinson

2. A diesel-fired air heater, similar to the Espar ones

As it stands, I have no experience with either of these systems so more research is definitely required. Fortunately, we still have a bunch of time to make a decision on this. We don’t even have the boat yet!

EDIT: Shortly after posting I came across this link from Attainable Adventure Cruising. It spells out the pros and cons nicely, and there’s some good info in the post comments too.


  1. Everything I have read suggests that the Dickinson is effective and reliable. If it will cope with canadian cold it will cope with almost anything. However, I have not seen any figures on fuel usage.


    • I’m sure the specs on fuel usage are available. My understanding is that the air ones use more power (electricity), whatever that means.

      EDIT: Check the link I added at the bottom of the post as it talks about fuel and electricity usage.

    • “cope with Canadian cold”??? Really? Canadian cold only seem worse because there are 10 times as many people complaining about it! 😉

      I think a diesel heater is the way to go. They are pretty refined and mostly odorless.

  2. We have both these systems aboard our S/V Proteus. We honestly don’t use the Dickinson heater very much at all. Our Webasto is ducted into every room and heats the boat evenly. Now it does use more resources (both fuel and power) than the Dickinson, but you’ll only need to run it a few times per night to “take the chill off.” The Webasto is a little more involved to get installed, but mostly due to the ducting involved: I don’t know many people who just have a raw blower attached to the wall, but I suppose that’s one way to do it… 😉

  3. We have found our Dickinson heater to be adequate here in Seattle. But it has a shortcoming: no circulating fan. Without a fan, the saloon is warm… from your shoulders up. The floor is cold and the ends of the boat are frigid. We have a 12V automotive radiator fan concealed in the plenum behind our heater – it does a nice job of stirring up the air and moving it around.

    But if I was going to Patagonia, I think I’d opt for one of those heaters that makes hot water and circulates it around the boat to radiators (Espar? I think so…). Bonus: Hot showers!

    (Oh, and you’re going to have to change the picture at the top of your blog…)


  4. I subscribed to Attainable cruising adventures last year and have got a lot of great info from them. I like that John and Colin often admit that their original opinion on a subject was updated after input from others. It has become a great consolidation of cruising info, just like ZTC, I learned a lot watching you learn the ropes (lines)!

  5. I had both types, though it was a propane Dickenson (with blower) and a Webasto forced air.
    the Webasto was excellent but the installation is the key. You’ll want to install it with the straightest runs possible for the hot air supply duct, especially if you start tapping off the main hot duct to heat individual cabins. More bends equals less output, same as the forced hot air in a home. It’s instant dry heat, and pretty efficient. Bigger boats may use two smaller Webasto or Espar units, one forward and one aft, but usually you can get away with one bigger unit, and heat 3 cabins. Bigger is always better in this case, though it burns more fuel, it’ll work a lot less to heat the boat than a smaller one would.
    One more thing to consider is the fuel pump installation, It’ll require good rubber mounting it to silence the monotonous clicking it makes while running, that translates through the hull. You’ll also want to mount the heater hopefully close to the diesel supply tank. It makes bleeding the system that much easier if it shuts down due to low fuel, or some other fault. Shorter the better.

    The propane Dickenson was nice, but even with the blower it took a bit of time to heat the whole cabin. This type of heater (propane or oil) requires a chimney through the cabin top, so location is also important, as is fuel supply/propane shut off solenoid etc.
    That’s my two cents.

  6. I have a Webasto DBW 2010 diesel heater on my boat. It absolutely rocks! It circulates hot water to 3 radiators throughout the boat. There is a 5′ long radiator in the main saloon, a small one in the head and a third in the forepeak. In addition, there is a blower/heat exchanger. This has kept my boat comfortable in outside air temps of -6 Celsius. It will easily make the boat uncomfortably hot, too. I’ve never looked at the fuel/power consumption… it was installed when I bought the boat, so I use it. No insulation on the boat at all. Worth looking at IMO.

  7. ive used the espar heaters many times off canadas west coast, the main comment i have is that the boat always seems to have a nice even warmth, where with the furnace style, the heats located in one spot. they also take up alot of floor space, while the espar style is more out of sight.

  8. We have Espar with outlets in 4 cabins. I think with an Amel you need this type of heater. The central Dickinson would mean you have a very cold aft cabin! We have since had people recommend an extra outlet in the heads so foul weather gear can be hung up to dry in there. Of course it depends on how long you cruise in cold weather.

    Also plan a budget for really good foul weather gear 🙂

    Here’s our most northerly passage an overnight at 61 north

  9. Mike, I tried to comment yesterday but the poor Internet in the South Pacific makes it tough. When cold was an issue, we made heat in three ways. Dockside, we used several small electric heaters, but make sure you have the ones with a little fan – they’re much more effective. On anchor, I have an Ardic forced air diesel furnace with two outlets. Its very effective and very economical on fuel. The most significant contribution though, is a simple “truck heater” that i installed in-line with the hot water tank. When the engine is running, you get piping hot heat “for nothing”. This is a simple 12V cabin heater that is designed for a truck, with a strong fan. When we were motoring down the St Lawrence River many years ago, this was very effective at heating the boat while we were underway.

  10. I have lived aboard/cruised several boats above 60N year-round over the decades- each with a different, effective heating system.

    We are now preparing our current boat for high-latitude cruising. It came with diesel forced air which works very well for us currently cruising the Inside passage of Alaska. Before going to even colder climates, we will install a hydronic system as well.

    From experience, if you only choose 1 heating source, go hydronic. Set if up with a thermostat controlling the heat register(s) in each zone. Include a loop for your hot water heat exchanger, and a valve to preheat your engine(s) and generator. It doesn’t get any better than this, and the lockers/bilge where you run the hoses are heated and dry as well. A bit overkill for just taking the chill off occasionally, but very robust for the coldest of conditions.

    As a back-up go with a forced air system. Use this when constant heat is not required and/or moderate temperatures.

    Either system will do the job if properly engineered and installed.

    Having had a stand-alone diesel drip unit in a 37ft boat at 61N over several winters, I can tell you you need one that balances intake draft so it won’t back-wind and soot up your cabin. (Sigmar is the only brand I know of that has a separate combustion air intake among the diesel drip heaters… there may be others…) I can also state that even with fans and air circulation, you won’t achieve even heat through-out the boat when it is cool outside. My boat was insulated and conditions often reached -20F with 40+ kt winds for weeks on end… I stayed warm, but not every nook on the boat was cozy…

    Since Morgan’s Cloud was mentioned, in case you aren’t already aware, they are conducting a High Latitude workshop this Oct in Halifax where this topic is one of many that will be covered over a 2 day period. (In case that is of interest…)

    Enjoy the journey.



  11. Here’s what I have aboard my Catalac 900:

    A Dometic cruisair, that requires either my generator to be running, or be plugged into shore power… (not good if water is too cold or too hot) “The Goldilocks system”…

    Two small 120v AC heater/fans bought at Lowes for $15.00 each… (cheap and disposable)

    A My Buddy portable propane heater. It can be turned down low, and is my #1 choice if it’s cold and I’m underway or on the hook…

    A propane heater that attaches to the top of a 10# cylinder. This is only used to knock the cold out of the boat, and isn’t ran for much longer than a few minutes. (dangerous, extremely hot, and easily toppled)

    Two small boat dogs that fit in the bottom of my sleeping bag…

  12. We have both an Espar and the Dickinson on board out boat. The Espar warms up the boat but once warmed up the Dickinson keeps it warm with the Espar rarely kicking in. Dickinson uses less diesel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.