Sailboat Refrigeration: Hail All Things Cool

A New Boat Refrigerator Solves a Lot of Problems

Everything's Cool

Trish O’Kane

Sailors by nature are romantics encrusted with barnacles. Ask them about a tropical sunset and they'll remember the anchor dragging after dark. Admire their varnished teak and they'll wear you raw with multiple applications of 120-grit sandpaper.

But it wasn't until I asked Cruising World readers about retrofitting a boat refrigerator in old boats that I understood how perverse pride can be.

I’d hoped for paeans to cold beer. What I got, instead, were prologues of hopeless searches for blocks of ice and of dreadful, dripping bags of cubes disappearing in the dinghy as it raced toward cocktail hour. Sailboat refrigeration clearly solved a lot of problems.

"There was always the question of the food getting—I want to say soggy, kind of unpleasant," recalled Tony Fastaia, who sails Paper Moon.

To hear them tell it, cruising B.R.—Before Refrigeration—was like a caveman camping: "It wasn't that much fun," wrote Vic Jewhurst of Elk Grove, California, who sails along the west coast of Mexico on Charisma, his 1978 Traveler 32. "We used to invite people over for cocktails with the caveat, 'You bring the ice'."
Bryn and Suzanne Fick, cruising 6,000 miles around the eastern United States, saw people on boats without sailboat refrigeration "eating cans of stuff and peanut-butter sandwiches. And that's no way to live."

That was me not so long ago. In my first season of living aboard my 35-foot Allied Seabreeze yawl, Ranger, in Key West, Florida, I was invited to a local's "boat," one whose bottom growth had roots long enough to entangle anchors, where I watched him eat warm tuna from a can.

I swore I'd never do that—until the day that I popped open an 80 F can of Coors to wash down 80 F black beans. Like a troglodyte, I cruised that way for
a decade.

When I decided to cruise in the Med, I purchased, along with new sails and autopilots, an engine-driven Technautics fridge system. It sat in a locker for six years, a victim of priorities and fears of a bloody-knuckle installation. Before the pleasure, many readers assured me, there should be pain.

"I could tell you the story of 87 sweated joints, or the online refrigeration course I took," wrote John Douglass, who put in a Glacier Bay DC-plate system in Aventura, his 1976 Valiant 40.

Caryl Sprinzel sent a picture of her 6-foot-3-inch husband, John, squeezing himself into a cockpit locker of their Mirage 28, Oregano, in brutal Turkish heat and gamely smiling while calling for more insulation to fill 8-inch cavities around the old icebox.

“He kept sending me off by bicycle for cans of foam—17 of them,” said Caryl, a well-spoken professor. By the end, she was cursing like a sailor.

Virginia Cross e-mailed me from San Diego that she and her mate went through 5 gallons of Liquid Nails—that went "where no other glue has gone before: fingers, hair, and clothing"—to install insulation on Mandy, their 1982 Bristol Channel Cutter. "It took us six months of weekends from conception to cold beer."
I heard from 30 boat owners. Half had installed 12-volt condenser/evaporator systems, with Adler Barbour the favorite. Another half a dozen chose 12-volt holding-plate systems. Interestingly, only four mentioned cost—the four who'd installed inexpensive alternatives: self-contained R.V. units, one of them running on propane.

"We plugged it in, and it was going," Brian Thom said breezily, recalling carrying an electric R.V. box aboard Nomad, his Westsail 42.

Leo Lichtveld, a Dutch-born engineer who couldn't afford a marine unit while paying off his Seabreeze, Quintessence, spent less than $400 at Costco for a Coleman Stirling Power Cooler. He cut a hole in the old icebox and slid it in. "The whole installation took about an hour. What more could you ask for?"
More power, that's what. When they finally threw the switch, sailors with new refrigerators on old boats witnessed a glutton rising from their once-benign iceboxes. "Feed me!" it hummed.

"So far, it works good. But it loves batteries," wrote Earl Lamar from Sharpes, Florida, of his Technautics Cold Blue 12-volt system—the third refrigeration system on Lamar's homebuilt boat, My Bonnie. Two were homemade from used and discarded parts.

“Overkill, maybe?” Lamar wrote. To power the three, he installed a 70-amp alternator, a wind generator, and solar panels—and he told me that he’ll be adding another solar panel “soon.”

Vic Jewhurst, who added an Adler Barbour 12-volt system, joked that along the Mexican coasts, cruisers infected with cold comfort come into a marina, “hook up the electrical cord, then tie up the boat.”

John MacEvoy, a retired electrical engineer, is proud of dual Cold Blue systems installed on his 1981 Stevens Custom 47—one for a freezer, one for a fridge. (See "Stevens Custom 47: Safe and Secure," March 2008.) A 650 amp-hour battery bank draws power from solar panels, a wind generator, a hefty alternator, and, of course, a shore umbilical cord. A sailor with a taste for comfort, MacEvoy also installed a microwave, a digital 19-inch television, and a blender.

On Manatee, a 1974 Irwin 30 based in Tampa Bay, Florida, Harvey and Joan Press bought a 1,000-watt portable gasoline generator. "It was quiet, and I'd watch the weather on TV while the batteries charged," wrote Harvey.

Tony Fastaia of Westbrook, Connecticut, added so much power to Paper Moon, his Ericson 38, that he no longer follows his wife to turn out lights "that she left on thinking that we were still tied to the New England grid." The new system hardly feels the draw. "You can almost live like a pharaoh, for pete's sake."

And Shep Wagoner, who sails Abaris, a Ranger 28 out of Deltaville, Virginia, transformed expense into immodest pride: "The lady in the next boat asked for some ice one day, and as I gave her some, I told her they were $100 cubes."

Oddly, I had to prod the 30 boat owners to describe the moment when they turned on the fridge. It was as if, having endured warm food, high cost, and grueling installation, frost was enough.

Prompted, however, they became rhapsodic, and none more so than John Sprinzel, a legendary British sports-car figure, who at the time was teaching windsurfing with his wife, Caryl, on the beaches of Turkey, where temperatures can reach 115 F.

“When we finally got it going, the sudden beautiful coldness of the thing—the difference was magic.”

Aboard Sea Cabin, an Endeavor 33, "cheers went up," recalled Bob McManus. I asked if they raised a toast. "Let me think—it would've been three Killian's beers. That's what the cool box will hold."

In fact, on every boat, refrigeration changed lives and made cruising more fun—because of little things.

"A bag of ice will last until you put the cubes in a rum drink," said Joe French of Destiny, another Seabreeze, based in St. Petersburg, Florida.
John MacEvoy liked the convenience of leaving food from weekend to weekend in a fridge plugged in at his dock in Rock Hall, Maryland. "It's almost like having a second home."

Leo Lichtveld added, "It was nice to buy ice cream in George-Town, Bahamas, anchor off uninhabited Conception Island, and eat ice cream in the sun."
Mark Bancroft, cruising in the Bahamas aboard Wild Oats, a 1971 Morgan 35, "got away from the Spam and canned ham and the beef stew. I started eating vegetables again."

All refrigeration-enabled cruisers reported better diets and a rediscovery of the joy of cooking aboard. "We now have fresh lettuce," said Jen Portz of Seattle, her voice rising to a lilt. (See "The Lure of Cold Beer," February 2008.) No more warm three-bean salad aboard First Light, their Hallberg-Rassy 352, she bragged. "You can have cheese!"

Tony Fastaia’s favorite cold treat was cherry 7-UP over ice. John MacEvoy mentioned his patented “Frescarita,” a low-calorie margarita made of Fresca, tequila, and a dollop of triple sec over crushed ice. Caryl Sprinzel remembered a particular thick, creamy, vanilla-tinged Greek yogurt that came cold from the fridge with honey and nuts.

Aboard Nomad, Brian and Megan Thom kept sourdough starter going in their NovaCool for five months. "We could bake bread twice a week," said an appreciative Brian.

Jon and Nancy Doornink, living on Seadream, a Morgan 37 in Baja California, were among several who cited the "one fish" advantage. "Before decent refrigeration, we had to stop fishing at one fish. Now we can catch a couple and freeze one for a later date."

And as politically incorrect as it may be, refrigerators clearly made cruising palatable for many spouses. Mark Bancroft’s girlfriend, Alex, for example, wouldn’t have gone with him to the Bahamas without it. The joy of cool led to their marriage.

"My wife is one fantastic cook," wrote Bryn Fick, of Ada, Michigan, who, with his wife, Suzanne, sails aboard Wind Drift II, their 1982 S2 9.2A. Using recipes from her 30-year-old Betty Crocker's Cookbook, Sue made trips to the grocery store whenever they stopped, cooked a week's meals in an electric frying pan, then froze them in bags in their Adler Barbour Cold Machine.

“No way were we going to eat out of cans,” said Sue. “We don’t do that at home, and we didn’t intend to do it on the boat.”

Bryn's favorite meal was Hungarian goulash, made from his mother's recipe of beef chunks, red wine, bouillion, tomato sauce, and lots of onion.
"I tell you," he said, "when you're sitting at anchor and have a meal like that, you can't beat it."

We didn’t hear from disgruntled owners, which surely skewed our results. But based on this 30-boat sampling, the trouble and cost was worth the wait, not to mention the bragging rights.

“Refrigerators today are small and easy to install. There is zero maintenance. They just run,” said MacEvoy. “So the real question is, why not?”

That’s what I thought one hot Mediterranean afternoon when I finally turned on my well-traveled system and felt frost forming on the holding plate. I gently rested a beer against it, put away my tools, took a long shower, changed my T-shirt, and slowly and ceremoniously drank in the strange sensation of civilization.

"I expect it now," said Paul McDermott of Orient, New York, speaking for all of us former cavemen. Inside Everything Works, another Seabreeze, Paul tore out the original starboard icebox and installed an easy chair for reading in its place and an Adler Barbour unit next to the stove on the port side. It's been running free of trouble for 5,600 hours.

“Unfortunately, I have to get up to get a beer,” he said. “Nothing’s perfect on a 35-foot boat.”

Newly cool Jim Carrier is heading back to continue cruising in the Med for the spring.