Insulating the V-berth, and on sleeping arrangements…

Whoo, feel that wind slam our boat!  28 mph average windspeed in Seward really means 28mph winds constantly, then, like average wave heights, you get some rockets at half again and more.  Everything is snug aboard Meander.  Honey is passed out on the bed, sleep-running and snoring.  Every bit as cute as it sounds.  Nathan is scrunched up forward, finishing installing bluefoam insulation behind the wood bulkhead separating the anchor locker area from the v-berth.  I’m using my sore jaw as an excuse to write on Turtle Travels in place of more substantial contributions–I think I can milk that for another day or so (jk).

We’ve been pretty damn comfortable as liveaboards in Seward.  30A of dock power, an Espar diesel forced air heater, a gym membership, nice harbor bathrooms so as to avoid the dreaded head, a great group of friends near and far, stunning scenery, and two hours to world class skiing and Alaska’s largest city (take your pick).

Still, we are on a constant quest to balance our lives of comfort at dock, and comfort and safety at anchor and at sea (where we want to be!).  Sometimes, while puzzling the dilemma of, say, our sleeping arrangements, life at the dock and life away from the dock seem inconveniently impossible to reconcile.  Like, where on a 36 foot sailboat in a cold climate, to stow sails and keep them dry and in good condition?  Where to work on boat projects?  Where to sleep? How to get a good night’s rest?  How to do all of those and follow the golden rules?

We try to follow the golden rules:  be able to access equipment quickly and safely anywhere on the boat–especially through-hulls, store heavy items low and midline, keep emergency equipment and spares readily to hand, sleep in the cabin while underway, stow stuff and place handholds as if the boat will be turned upside down and shaken by an angry giant, keep heavy items out of the ends of the boat for better handling, and carry at least 100ft of chain and 200ft of rope rode for anchoring.  Yes, some of these things really seem contradictory!

One scenario where living in a cold climate is biting us on the ass in regards to the GRs:  the whole boat is a condensing plane kept fueled by a rainy, snowy climate and the moisture of three bodies.  Moisture collects on every cold surface, on the inside of the aluminum mast, under every cushion, and drips from every through-bolt.  Despite having ZERO leaks, we collect about two gallons a week in the bilge, just from condensation.  Dew point is a bitch on an uninsulated boat.  Even though Meander is a very dry boat, thanks to those zero leaks, and to the forced air and electric heat!

The v-berth, by the physics of the space, is the worst offender.  Our first winter aboard, I’d pull everything out of the vberth once a month.  The cushions would be damp and mildewy, the hull would be awash with condensate, every inch of the storage space in the area was wet.  The only things I kept stowed under the cushions up there, were empty plastic diesel jerry jugs.  Nathan stored some items in the stock Catalina drawers and tilt out bins: they molded over PDQ.

All this summer, I played with moving our sleeping area into the main cabin and converting the v-berth into a shop, to get away from this problem.  I figured out a way to make comfortable sleeping arrangements in the main cabin, while still maintaining access to essential systems.  But I made a fatal mistake.  This summer, as a surprise present, I bought, and drove up to Nathan’s work camp, a king-sized fourteen inch memory foam mattress.  By the time his work season ended, he absolutely had no patience for the boat cushions passing as a bed on Meander.

So we ended up with a second-hand, perfect condition, queen-sized, ten inch thick memory foam mattress with a plush topper on the settee in the main cabin.  Unfortunately, installed as the world’s best use of the settee space in the main cabin, it violates the golden rules:  we can’t get to important systems right away.  We’ve got two through-hulls, the black water tank, the fuel tank, the fuel pump, the fuel hoses, and various other bits and pieces under the settees.  And a massive mattress atop them.  Dang it.

But I wan’t going to be putting our new mattress back in the v-berth, the dampest, coldest place on the boat.  It would have to no longer be the dampest, coldest place on the boat!

We’d toyed with insulating the hull before, but even rough dew-point calculations indicated you’d need at least an inch of blueboard or the equivalent to keep the temperature on the inside face of the foam high enough to prevent condensation on the face.  I also hadn’t figured out how to adhere insulation thick enough to beat the dew point to the compound curvature of the hull.

Then, I had the idea of a floating slab of insulation, so to speak.  To keep down condensation, you keep cold spaces cold, and warm spaces warm.  I didn’t have to make the insulation adhere exactly against the hull, just the bits to each other, just like the planks in a wood floor are attached via tongue and groove to each other, but not to the slab or plywood beneath.

I wasn’t sure if it would work, but at $20-28 for a 4 x 8 sheet, and vast existing stores of Gorilla tape, the whole project would cost less than $150, or 15% of a single boat buck.  Deal.  *shrug.  Better yet, at least there would be no condensation on the face of the insulation, so I could put something like sails down below and be confident they’d stay dryer than before, even if the planned goal failed.  Convincing N took a bit, but he finally shrugged too.

We couldn’t find 1″ bluefoam, because Alaska is cold, and who has time for that weak-ass level of insulation?  The thinnest closed cell rigid sheet available was 1.5″ thick pink Insulfoam.  So that’s what we started with. Two sheets of 1.5″ Insulfoam.

Of course, I got started, Nathan decided he could do better, so now Nathan is ramrodding the install.  That’s OK.  I get the credit for the idea, then compliment Nathan on his excellent craftsmanship. Teamwork!

Turns out, not only were we able to insulate the vberth, we were able to insulate MORE of it, higher behind the hull liner, than we thought.  We used up a full two sheets, and hadn’t even made it to the anchor locker yet.

I had removed everything from the vberth, months before, and monitored the amount of water collecting in the bilge and damp on the surface of the vberth hull since then.  I knew within days the first round of insulation had already dramatically decreased condensation.  Although we weren’t able to maintain continuous contact with the hull, due to the thickness of the pink sheets; we were able to maintain contiguity BETWEEN the sheets (with the help of excellent fitting, and Gorilla tape) due to the same thickness.  The areas between the insulation and the hull remained cold, below the dew point, but warm air wasn’t reaching the newly isolated areas, so no condensation was occurring.  Fabulous! Project incomplete, maintaining our same heating patterns as before, and with the outdoor air temp remaining steady at about 20F, the local air temperature in the vberth has risen three degrees relative to the main cabin.

I used the Insulfoam scraps to give the same treatment to the forward lockers behind the settee cushions on both port and starboard, and a larger piece snugly scribed to fit the back of the storage cabinet across from the head.  (And temporarily rebedded the stanchion above with butyl tape, as well. Something you can do in winter, using butyl tape.)  All three locations have become dry storage areas.  Moreover, you no longer feel a draft near any of them.

We went back for more insulation, but I was in a drug-induced stupor after a dental appointment, so I didn’t notice N had found 1″ blue foam, and purchased two sheets of that instead, even though the last bits of the v-berth insulation project (between the anchor locker and the forward plywood ‘bulkhead’) really were the best suited for the thicker stuff.  Ah, well.  My bad.

I’ll peel back some sections in a few months, to check for mold or other issues, and keep revisiting those sections as we go south.

I’d say, even if only partially effective, this project has immediate payback in energy savings, heating distribution, and occupant comfort.  One more bonus: the foam is positive flotation in the event your boat takes on water!

Depending on our longer term observations, at a major refit, we may upgrade again and spray two-part foam above the bilge.




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