To Freeze or Not to Freeze?

Ice cubes
Ice cubes

Leaning back with a cocktail in hand in the comfort of your own cockpit in good company while the sun is touching the horizon and the sky starts glowing in orange, pink and purple—having a sundowner is a sacred ritual on most cruising boats. No matter if we’ve had glorious sailing in calm waters on a beamreach, exciting snorkeling in spectacular underwater landscapes or an entire day of engine maintenance with the usual messy complications followed by mopping up the bilge—a sundowner makes a great day even better and takes the edge off an annoying one. But how essential is it really to have ice cubes in that drink? On Pitufa we have our cocktails without ice, not because we detest daiquiris, rather because of energy considerations.

Before we set out cruising in 2011 we repaired, renewed and upgraded our newly acquired but 20 year old Sparkman and Stephens sloop that would become our swimming home, trying to decide which amenities we would need to keep us happy and which ones would only be a burden in the long run. As environmentally-aware cruisers we decided against a diesel or gasoline generator, we wanted to meet all our energy requirements exclusively with alternative sources. Therefore we installed a wind generator and 200 W of solar panels. We later found out that this was by far not enough, so we kept buying panels instead of souvenirs along the way until we were satisfied with 400 W. We bought a watermaker to be free to stay in remote places and of course we had to bring our laptops for navigation, communication and entertainment. Having a fridge seemed essential, not only for cold beer, but to keep that fresh provisioning fresh for a long time–cheese, sausages, vegetables and fruit keep for weeks or even months in a moderately cool fridge. Of course we were tempted to buy a freezer as well. It would have been convenient to keep things even longer and it would have widened our menu plan, but we feared that it would topple over our energy budget that was standing on wobbly knees as it was. In the end we opted against one and we have never regretted that decision.

We use our batteries very conservatively, hardly ever drain them lower than 90% and they thank us by lasting many years. It has become an automatic habit on Pitufa to use electric appliances while the solar panels work best, so we run our watermaker for a few hours around noon, charge the batteries of our laptops, cameras, etc. and cool down the fridge as long as it’s sunny. Whenever the energy situation is not ideal, e.g. after an overcast day without a breeze, we turn off all gadgets after dark and adjust the thermal switch on the fridge by a few degrees. On evenings like those our pleasant, but ice-free sundowner routine is often disturbed by the droning of noisy diesel generators on neighboring boats whose owners do have those clinking cubes in their drinks. As a side-effect they have to charge their batteries to help them through the night with the freezer running.

Noisy generator
Noisy generator

The freezer is the one thing on a boat you can never turn off, at least if you don’t want to risk food poisoning. We know quite a few cruisers whose generators suddenly quit while they were in remote areas. They were then caught between a rock and a hard place: they could either try and eat the contents of their freezer before it went bad, rush to the next anchorage with a town big enough to have a mechanic and spare parts to repair the generator or damage their batteries by draining them to a painful level overnight. Whatever the decision, we were always willing to help by eating defrosted goodies, trying to repair the generator or lament the passing of the overwhelmed batteries with them while silently cheering our own decision not to bring a freezer.

Yes, it would be convenient to just cut a freshly caught fish into big steaks and stuff them into the freezer, but making preserves with jars in the pressure cooker is not that much work either. Alternatively we pickle fish and we have friends who dry or smoke their catch to make it last a long time. The same strategies work to preserve meat while provisioning for an extended stay in areas without (well-stocked) shops. 

Of course we are keeping an eye on new developments in the world of technology and it looks like lithium batteries may become affordable in the near future. Batteries that don’t mind deep-cycle discharging would change our energy budget completely and make a freezer suddenly feasible and probably desirable. Until then we are perfectly happy without those ice cubes. Cheers!

Sundowners in nice company
Sundowners in nice company
Birgit Hackl
Birgit Hackl, Christian Feldbauer and ship’s cat Leeloo have been exploring the world on their yacht Pitufa since 2011. Visit their blog: www.pitufa.at