Ways to heat a boat: our wood-burning stove

It’s been over a year since we installed our boat’s wood-burning stove, and since I wrote about that whole slightly-eventful procedure, so let’s report after months of running the thing continually. First a little of what’s involved in fuelling our wood stove (in case anybody wondered what we do with our time). Then I’ll talk about how it’s been as a boat stove.

Collecting wood for our sailing boat's wood-burning stove

Felling and cutting: fuelling the wood stove

Here in Puerto Williams we’re surrounded by Patagonia’s common nothofagus-forested shores, with the woodland round the harbour being an open youngish example. We tend to search for our fuel on the land owned by the local sailing school, whose staff we know well by this stage. Almost-ceaseless rain and/or snow makes these forests damp and dripping, mosses and fungi everywhere. We take the dead trees which have fallen somewhat vertically, as the wet earth rots a tree in no time. We don’t use the live trees, of course. You can’t burn a green tree.

Cutting logs with a chainsaw for yacht's stove
Cutting the logs into short lengths which will fit in our stove

After it’s cut, the fuel must be carried closer to the boat to our stack in the forest nearby. It’s stored under a tarpaulin till it’s dried out for a while. On board it has a box to contain its inhabitants, larvae who’d eat the floorboards cheerfully. (Seen this happen on other boats before.)

Space Oddity’s wood-burning stove

I wrote already about finding our boat’s wood heater in Williams last February, but I’ll remind everybody that it’s a pretty rustic one. Found out the back of a fisherman’s house, it’s distinctly homemade. Air entry’s controlled by a door at the bottom below the grate, but it’s far from airtight when closed wholly. It soon becomes T-shirt hot as the fire roars away.

Boat's wood heater with glowing grate
The small door which (to some extent) controls the temperature of our wood-burning stove

This is fantastic in a sense, and much admired by friends whose stoves are less effective, but burns a lot of logs of course. We aim to modify our stove for more efficiency.

Yacht's wood heater seen from above

Wood stoves vs diesel (or other) stoves

The biggest advantage of wood is that, if collected yourself, it’s the cheapest heat source, although not free. You’ll need fuel to run your chainsaw if not to run your stove, though less of it of course, because you will need a chainsaw, definitely. Most or all of the boats hereabouts with wood stoves started out with an axe, including us briefly, and 100% of them have chainsaws at this date. The collecting of wood takes too much time (at least in really cold locations requiring constant heater use) to try to do it with hand-tools only. It takes a minimum of a full day each week currently.

Buying wood is another possibility, still cheaper than buying other fuels actually. This varies based on area obviously.

If the benefit of wood as a fuel is price, a benefit of other fuels is size. It’s much more difficult to store a month’s wood supply than a month’s diesel supply. Such storing of extensive supplies could easily be necessary. Wood isn’t available universally.

A wood stove is simply a little wood fire effectively, which is rather atmospheric; some wood stoves have windows to show the flames inside, though these soot up continually. But note that a wood stove’s fire needs to be attended same as any fire (and if unattended does die).

Splitting logs for wood stove
Splitting sawn logs down the middle so they burn easily

Whilst a hot stove creates convection to suck smoke out of the chimney, our just-lit wood stove can certainly be smoky, when the wind creates backdrafts down the chimney. Over the course of months the white deckhead gets rather grey.

Diesel stoves seem to be a little less smoky, if only because they light more quickly. Though when they do smoke it’s still more nasty.

Making toast on wood stove
10 out of 10 to our heater on what matters: cheese-toast-making ability

Wood stoves are second most common of the boat stoves we see, with diesel stoves first by some way. It’s wood’s increase in effort vs diesel’s increase in expense (cost of stove and of fuel) really. Our wood heater will assuredly remain our main one, though we’d like diesel too ideally. For use if wood is unavailable. (Just a project for the future.)

Non-wood/non-diesel boat stoves are, not without some reason, a rarity. Solar panels will likely not suffice to heat a boat electrically. Williams has about six hours of low sunshine on a fine winter day. Generating with the engine = a less efficient diesel stove.

Gas has little to recommend it, as it’s not the cheapest, can cause condensation, and can create carbon monoxide. If you’ve got to heat with gas, kids, get sensors for monoxide.

That’s the basics on boat heaters; feel free to ask or add more! You can leave comments on this article.

Nya the boat kitty
Sitting on the still-warm stove till we restart it eventually

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One thought on “Ways to heat a boat: our wood-burning stove

  1. Jenny Birch

    It’s always interesting to read where you are and what you’re doing. Looks like it’s pretty chilly there 😉. Take care and stay safe. Andy and Jenny (nee Dickin) ex South Africa and now Wiltshire xx



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