How to Live on a Boat

Chris Thompson Chris Thompson  |  Updated: July 1, 2019
How to Live on a Boat

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The gentle rocking of waves nudges you awake to the smell of salt air at precisely the hour you intended to wake. As you brew the morning coffee on your humble two-burner stove, a stroll up onto deck reveals nothing but birds in the sky and peaceful solitude for you and your significant other. Such is the romantic dream of life on a boat we’ve all indulged in at one point or another.

It’s not like this most of the time.

We’re here to tell you the romantic ideal of life on a boat comes with some harsh realities as well. The prospect of spending sun-bleached days in total harmony with the earth isn’t entirely impossible. But before you commit to the unique lifestyle that is living on a boat in search of that dream, you need to understand all the unique qualities that come along with it. Here’s how to get there.

Learn to Sail, or at Least to Seafare

Don’t make the rookie mistake that it’s possible to live aboard a boat with no knowledge of how to operate it. The most common live-aboard vessels are sailboats, although there are plenty of powered alternatives out there that will cost you more than a small ketch or sloop sailboat, the fairytale “life on a boat” situation typically involves a sailboat. If you’re going to live on a sailboat, you should learn how to operate it.

Sailing is an ancient art that is great fun to master, but without significant practice, it can take a lifetime. Perhaps you don’t plan to go anywhere on your boat. Why, then, should you need to know how to sail it? Mooring agreements can change, and you will need to deal with the challenge later on of finding a slip if your boat doesn’t come with a parking space. Unless you want to pay someone to relocate the boat for you, you’ll want to understand how to get it from point A to point B.

Going sailing is simple if you live near the ocean. Many sailboat owners are always looking for crew members because of the small number of people left who understand how to sail. Use social media like MySail to track sailing activity near you. Find a spot aboard a boat you can use as an educational experience and spend at least a season learning to trim sails, read the wind and run the tiller. It takes years to hone all the essential sailing skills.

Of course, you could always go for a powerboat, in which case you just need to learn how to read charts and navigate in open waters if you desire to venture into the open ocean.

Find a Boat

Living aboard a boat requires, first and foremost, a boat. Sailboats are not cheap to buy, but they are less expensive than most homes in today’s market, so if you’re sure this is the play you want to make, you can take some comfort in that. Don’t expect your boat’s resale value to increase over time the way most homes will, though. And don’t make the mistake of investing in a boat that comes at an affordable price, only to go broke when you learn it needs more repairs than you know how to do or can afford.

Purchasing your first boat can be daunting, but modern technology has made it easy to see what’s on the market. You shouldn’t limit your search exclusively to online listings, though, as there can be outstanding deals available at local marinas or unlisted through the sailing community. Take into account the type of sailing you’ll be doing if you intend to spend frequent time at sea.

Fix the Boat

Every sailboat needs repairs unless you’re purchasing a shiny brand-new boat, which will delay, but not deter, the process. If you don’t understand how to evaluate the condition of a boat, get someone who does to evaluate your potential purchase for you.

Everything from the sails to the lines to the masts to the gel-coat finish on your boat needs attention regularly. The salt air and water exposure that define a boat’s life are remarkably degrading, and part of your responsibility as an owner is to continually remain one step ahead of the ocean’s ceaseless gnawing at your vessel. Some things may require repair when you first get the boat, and others will need fixing all the time from then on out.

That’s life when you live on a boat.

Committing to living on a boat is not a low-cost endeavor unless you want to spend your days on a derelict vessel.

A few basic things to check on every boat include the following.

  • The boat’s keel: The bottom half of the boat that keeps it upright in the water and helps it move forward
  • The boat’s sail: On a modern sailboat, sail materials include Kevlar and carbon fiber.
  • The boat’s running gear: Check blocks and winches that manage the sail rigging on the boat, the lines used to raise and lower sails and the tiller used to steer the boat.
  • The boat’s finish: Typically, the finish is a fiberglass gel-coat you can’t allow to degrade, lest you risk letting rot devour your new home.

How you handle the various challenges your specific boat presents is up to you. You can go the DIY route, but not every job is going to come out right the first time. You can also pay a professional, but it will cost you more.

Find a Place to Live on the Boat

You can’t park your boat anywhere you like and expect no one’s going to notice it. Mooring your boat, which is the term for anchoring your boat close to shore, is probably the most affordable option for you if you live aboard. Paying for a slip, which is like a parking space for your boat at the local marina, offers a far more luxurious experience.

If you’re planning on being mobile and sailing to many ports, a slip would be a waste of money. Instead, moor the boat when you arrive at your next destination. You’ll want to get familiar with how to use the boat’s radio to communicate with the local port authority. Cell phones are an asset in this day and age, but there may be a scenario where your phone battery is dead, or you’re sailing somewhere that lacks service coverage.

Some boats include the slip they’re using in the sale price. You’ll pay more, but slips are becoming more difficult to find, so it might be a smart idea to get one when you can. If you’ve purchased a boat without a parking spot, you should know it’s more affordable to moor your boat in some harbors than others.

Plan out your storage

Now that your boat has a place to live, what about you? Sailing ships don’t have a reputation for being spacious, so you’ll need to get creative to ensure your comfort aboard your new home. This advice is especially true if you’re sharing space with a partner. Even if you plan on sleeping in the same bed, two people have more stuff than one. You might want to invest in containers and other storage solutions before you commit to living together on a boat with approximately as much square footage as a small studio apartment.

A good plan for keeping boat inhabitants from feeling cramped is to keep the space well-organized and not drag along gear you don’t need. Most sailboats make good use of the space they have available. Your challenge is to get the most from it, which, as we stated before, might involve investing in some helpful organizers and dividers. Identify whose space is where and set regular times to clean and organize the boat to keep your belongings from creeping in on you.

Remember, nearly everything becomes wet and salty in a marine environment. Keep that in mind when you organize and when you consider your sleeping arrangements. You’re probably best off by securely stowing anything that might fall into your lap at night and cause you to wake up soaked and gross.

Live Well on Your Boat!

There’s no point in subjecting yourself to a miserable experience just so you can say, “I’m on a boat!” like in the famous SNL song. If you want to get the most from your time spent living offshore, you’ll need to get good at making life on your sailboat not just endurable, but enjoyable.

Conserve space at all costs, because you have far less of it on a boat than you do on dry land. Like we said before, avoid cluttering your sleeping quarters. You can do this by reserving specific parts of the boat for certain activities. If you have small children, teach them to play with toys in an out-of-the-way place to reduce the chances you’ll trip and fall on a Lego brick while trying to change sails.

Get the right cooking equipment and eating utensils

A camp stove from a company like Jetboil can be a handy item, particularly if your boat doesn’t have a gas cooktop. Smaller pots, pans, plates, cups and silverware are all good items to pick up. They’ll save space and stand a better chance of remaining in one piece than their larger dry-land counterparts.

Make your boat your home!

Don’t fight the urge to collect colorful knickknacks and decorations just get ones that can fall off the wall safely and that don’t occupy too much space. Living on a boat is all about the richness of the experience, so make it a colorful one by making your space into a genuine home. It won’t ever feel like your three-bedroom house with a garage and a white picket fence, but that’s sort of the point.

Realize Your Dreams

If you can achieve a simple lifestyle aboard a boat, you’ve nailed the hardest part. Getting used to watery surroundings, learning to wear sunscreen and keeping your hands from cracking is half the battle. Now it’s time to do what you set out to in the first place: Live the life of your dreams abroad or in the harbor on your sweet boat.

Choose a destination and chart a course along the coast. You can be in San Francisco for summer and San Diego by November, and that’s just the beginning. With the right size boat and a capable crew, you can make your way out into the open ocean. Of course, don’t take this blog as confirmation that the sea is your calling and sail off into the middle of nowhere without proper guidance, but what did you spend all that time and effort preparing for?

Sailors regularly make their way down to Hawaii, into the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys or the Channel Islands off the coast of California. Where would you like to see? The degree of difficulty involved in reaching a specific destination will change based on the weather pattern and time of year, so understand what you’re getting into before you lift anchor and commit to your voyage. Whenever possible, identify a few ports along the way where you can stop, rest and make all necessary repairs.

A life spent exploring the ocean can be tranquil and mind-expanding, and you’re not the first to take to the water in search of a change of pace. There are plenty of exciting places to go and new ways to explore your limits as a seafaring explorer. Then again, perhaps you’re happiest just keeping your boat intact and kicking back in the harbor. Call up your buddies for happy hour at sunset life could be worse.

However you decide to spend your time on your boat, know you’ll be choosing to be different and seeing a world few people ever truly experience. The land-loving population might be surprised at how viable life on a boat really is once you get the hang of it. Most folks lack the courage to give it a try.

So break the mode and share your new, exciting life — whether that be online or by sharing your harrowing tales of being on the boat with your friends by word of mouth. Everyone loves a good sailor’s yarn.

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One Response to “How to Live on a Boat”

  1. Important note: learn to live on 12 volts. It’s not as easy as it sounds. With a limited battery capacity and limited charging capability…energy budgets become very important.

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