Charcoal heater

The temperature in the cabin is 9°C. This morning it was 5°C – and that was after I unzipped the two sleeping bags (one inside the other) and released the fug within. It went off like a bomb.

So the subject is cabin heaters – something that exercises the Facebook sailing groups almost as much as anchors – or come to that, guns.

So here is everything I have learned from three British winters with a small charcoal heater.

It came with the boat and a little plaque announcing that this was a Hampshire Heater – but no instructions. The vendor explained airily that there was nothing to it: “Just fill it up with lumpwood charcoal and light it by pouring methylated spirit onto the wick. You can top up with paper bags of more charcoal.”

That first winter, I learned that it wasn’t quite as simple as that – for instance, not having any paper bags the first night, I made the discovery that if you add a shovelful of loose charcoal while it’s burning, the heat blows coal dust all over the deckhead.

Lighting it wasn’t so easy either: The wick, made of some sort of solid fireproof material, seemed unable to absorb the meths which then spilled all over the base of the ash-tray causing an explosion of blue flames and singed eyebrows.

At first, I solved this by reserving a spoonful of ash to leave on the top of the wick to absorb the meths – but then found it simpler to drip the spirit onto the wick so slowly that it had time to get itself absorbed.

Then there was the problem of too much smoke. It took a long time to get this sorted: Clouds of choking grey fumes would pour out of every orifice – including the supposedly airtight seal at the top. I have decided this is what happens when the fuel gets damp (not surprising on a small boat). The solution is to shut down the vent until the smoking stops and then open it just a crack – and then more until the chimney is hot enough to send the smoke in the right direction.

So it is important to buy the fuel in plastic bags and, once opened, keep them tied up between refills.

And that’s another thing – buying the fuel. There’s no problem in the summer when every garage keeps a stack of convenient plastic 5kg bags on the forecourt for the customers’ barbecues. But you don’t need it in the summer, do you? It’s in the middle of January that you need to keep 30kg bunkered in the fo’c’sle. You can buy it from a coal merchant of get it delivered by Amazon – but that way, it tends to come in 10kg bags which are more troublesome to stow.

So charcoal is by no means perfect – although it is carbon neutral, which is more than you can say for diesel. I used to say that if I had a bigger boat, I would go for diesel anyway. Maybe it isn’t so good for the planet, but you can buy the fuel anywhere, and you don’t end up with coal dust all over the place.

Give me a bigger boat, I said, and I would have a Refleks – the heater of choice for Danish fisherfolk in the Heligoland Bight. Also, I would install it on the floor not half-way up the bulkhead so I have to sit with my feet up on the opposite bunk to stop them from freezing.

The trouble is that only once have I seen a Refleks on a 32ft boat – and that involved chopping off a third of the port berth.

Then I read Paul Heiney’s book One Wild Song about his cruise around Cape Horn and discovered that much of it was spent fretting about the diesel supply and having to ration his heater because every cosy evening was stealing fuel from his engine.

Of course, there are plenty of other options: Forced air, gas, paraffin (kerosene) not to mention weighing down the boat with half a ton of wood burner (and with wood, you’d need to tow another boat behind to carry it all). Also, charcoal is cheap: You can buy a 5kg bag for £4.50 from a coal merchant – although it might be £5.50 on a garage forecourt or £8 on Amazon.

At least with diesel, the price is pretty much the same everywhere, but I did some comparisons, and there was no doubt about it: Hour for hour, charcoal was about half the price.

Next, consider this: If you’re going to be carting diesel back to the boat, you will need cans to do it – and they will take up just as much room as the bags of charcoal. The difference is that, in the summer, the empty bags will have been thrown away, but you’ll still have to find room for the cans.

Of course, if you have a 200litre fuel tank, maybe you don’t have a problem after all – as I say, the conclusion seems to be diesel for bigger boats with budgets to match – but as so many small boat sailors have found, a charcoal heater with its small size and its simplicity has a lot going for it.

Which is where we come up against the problem: There appears to be no-one, anywhere in the world, making a small charcoal heater for boats. Early on, when I spoke to the Hampshire Heater company, the managing director, William Baird had decided to retire and was closing down.

In doing so, he was following the Cowes chandlers Pascall Atkey who stopped making their Pansy Heaters years ago. Now you can get a good price for either on eBay.

This proves the demand is still there. Surely some stainless steel fabricator somewhere would like to start up a little sideline – in which case Mr Baird tells me he would consider selling the business.

If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll put you in touch.

Smoke escaping – close the vent

The wick with a spoonful of ash burning methylated spirit.