Most sailors I know have wondered what it would be like to live on a sailboat. Like the tiny home craze of a few years ago, it seems a reasonable question. With all the basic systems and conveniences needed for daily living, and on the water. What a grand adventure!
I’ve lived aboard several boats in my life, and I can say there is a romantic element to it, having everything you need right around you, on a magic carpet you can take anywhere you want to go. Yet, for the most part, it also comes with some unique challenges.
I knew a couple with a teenage son who lived aboard a 27-foot sloop. They would spend summers in Annapolis, where Dennis worked floor sales at Fawcett’s Boat Supply. During the winter they would sail south and spend the season in the Bahamas where he helped with construction projects for the local community. I never knew how they did it, but they were always happy and upbeat.
Anyone seriously considering a sailboat as a full-time home, naturally wonders what size boat would be most appropriate. Seems easy enough if the sailboat has the necessary creature comforts. But there are several factors that separate “just getting by” from a comfortable life on the water. However, if we take it in steps, perhaps we can identify enough parameters for you to begin a search.
Let’s set the stage. Of course, there are minimalist young people who want a cheap experience much like modern day hobos, just as there are wealthy families who want all the comforts of a luxury resort in a huge sailing catamaran. When I was young and single, a 30-foot sailboat fit perfectly. The number of single people living on sailboats is surprising, whether they are peddling handmade jewelry in the islands or wandering the world. They are driven by the experience.
(Seen Below: Sailing Zatara is a Youtube channel about a livaboard family that shows daily life on the open ocean.)
I want to consider an adult couple, one or both have careers. For any number of reasons, they decide they want to live full time on a sailboat to experience waterfront living. They also want to enjoy sailing as their schedule and careers permit. Again, they are not vagabond wanderers living on the hook, flip flops and bathing suits their primary wardrobe, living for the moment with no schedule or commitments beyond today.
Our couple have jobs, perhaps work remotely, and they manage mail, bills, a car, are members of the community, and they want to experience boat living.
Let’s also assume the boat will be their primary residence, although it is reasonable to include the possibility the sailboat may be a summer or winter home, which certainly relieves some of the issues when it comes to seasonal wardrobe, holiday decorations, and other living considerations.
A Place to Live
One of the most compelling arguments for living aboard a sailboat is having all your stuff right there with you, in a well-equipped galley/kitchen, a workable head/bathroom, an office desk, permanent bedroom, and storage lockers and drawers. And a dedicated living room to relax, read, watch movies, eat meals, entertain friends, and simply enjoy life. Essentially, all that one needs to live a normal life…and nothing more. I call it the “living module.”
Unfortunately, when people choose a boat to live on, they are often unaware of the compromises they are going to make if the boat has small spaces. After a short time, the reality of boat living may lose its romantic luster. I call that “living in a transformer.”
On a transformer boat, every space must serve multiple purposes, and it becomes necessary to transform saloon settees into a bed, with pillows, sheets, and blanket. The head does double duty as a wet locker, the galley counter serves a workbench, and the V-berth is also a sail locker. To get to one thing requires moving several other things, everything fits together like a puzzle. The smaller the boat the more this is true.
(Seen below: An interior galley and salon on a Tartan Yacht has many of the comforts of home.)
Living this way is confining, particularly if there is more than one person, constantly saying “Excuse me” to move around the boat. And what about if there is a pet?
Imagine if you must move pillows and cushions every evening to turn down a bed to sleep for the night. How about removing all the throw pillows she put on the master berth as an elegant design touch, but there is nowhere to put them? Trust me. This gets old.
Then there is the issue when looking at a boat with a wet head. Taking a shower gets everything in the head wet. That may be perfectly fine for weekend boating but living with that every day will be unpleasant. And while walking down the dock to use the marina showers may be fine for some people, it is not what I signed up for. On larger boats with wet heads, there may be sufficient room for a sliding shower curtain to keep the water on you, and not the rest of the space.
Can you see how some of these issues might begin to chip away at the dream of living aboard? No worries. Let’s keep peeling back the layers, because the more we understand the important issues, the closer we are to answering the question of how big of a boat one needs to live comfortably on a sailboat.
A truly minimalist approach is fine for young people, who don’t yet have a lot of stuff, don’t mind a wet head or transforming every space several times a day. They can overlook dealing with a lack of clothes storage, and very little space for personal possessions.
I’m all for living minimally…for a time. But that won’t do for everyday living at my current stage in life. It is important to recognize this and then find a balance between what the boat can provide and the style of living one is accustomed to, expects, or desires. It is a personal decision about what to compromise on. What am I willing to give up to live on a sailboat? Think of your hobbies and interests. If you enjoy shooting sporting clays, where will you store the paraphernalia of that hobby? The same can be said for camping, golf, tennis, music, and many activities of a full and balanced life.
I have more than a passing interest in photography and would need space for camera gear. My wife loves to arrange flowers. She is quite good, and for years created beautiful flower arrangements for the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel. She would need some space to continue this passion on a boat, along with space for her tools, vases, and the other components of a flower shop workbench. It would be fine much of the time to work out in the cockpit, but where to store everything?
I believe people who are active in life and their community are not interested in giving up everything simply to live on a boat, so the size of the boat must take that into account. It is similar to couples who downsize their big home when they become empty nesters, and move into a townhouse. They must consider space for their sewing and embroidery projects, movie and music collections, music keyboard, even precious art. Every person I know collects something or is passionate about some activity or sport. One can keep golf clubs in the truck of a car, but what about all the other things that requires space aboard?
(Seen below: Sailboat owners are notorious for clever and smart storage ideas. This owner likes to paddleboard, which can take up a lot of room.)
And where does one plug in all the chargers of the modern world? This will overwhelm the chart table on a small boat, which was only intended for occasional recreational sailing. On larger boats, the chart table accommodates navigation and weather instruments, RDF, radios, maybe a sextant, plotter, radar, as well as navigation books and cruising guides.
I used my chart table as my desk, although many vloggers seem comfortable using the saloon table for laptop writing and video editing. I had a plastic tub that contained my “office” supplies, and when I was finished paying bills or whatever, I would store this tub away. I had a small portable printer that tucked behind a settee cushion. My office did not compromise the chart table for its primary purpose of navigating while sailing.
There will always be a need for a proper work bench space for projects and repairs, which might be in the cockpit, but there will also need to be a place to store tools, parts, and the other essentials to keep the boat and engine running.
Then there is the issue of clothes storage for year ‘round living. For most couples, a wardrobe must also include a minimum of “dress-up” clothes. Is there a hanging locker wide and tall enough for a dress or two and blazer? Or do we stick with khakis and Hawaiian shirts? Cold, damp days in the Pacific Northwest will require heavier clothing that take up space, unless one is fine only owning one wool sweater.
There is only so much space for books, CDs, and other stuff. Thankfully, a Kindle or iPad can hold a full library of books and a tablet can store music and movies, so shelf space can be left for other things.
The Essential Galley
Most residential kitchens have a startling number of appliances and specialty tools that we accumulate over the years. Where does one put it all on a boat? Most galleys offer limited space for the tools of cooking, pots and pans, cutlery, plates, serving bowls, baskets. I look around my kitchen and wonder. How could I even begin to consider bringing along a full-size food processor, VitaMix, blender, crockpot, toaster, panini press, popcorn machine, salad spinner, immersion blender, and let’s don’t forget the spiralizer.
The fact of the matter is there is no room for any of it. You simply won’t have the space. Period. A friend who is a well-known foodie told me about her galley in which she routinely creates complex culinary treats and meals for her husband, family, and friends. She gives lectures at the yacht club and writes a food column for a boating magazine. Lori told me she brought aboard a blender, a portable electric mixer, a small food processor, a toaster, and a butane torch into the galley of their Fleming 55 motoryacht. Her cooking aboard really started in the galley on their Beneteau 35 a long time ago.
After several years on the Fleming, Lori realized she only ever used the toaster, none of the rest got touched. And while she carried about 40 different spices in her galley, she only used six seasonings: Italian, Greek, blackening, chili, salt, and pepper.
(Lori is not into baking, so never carried muffin tins, sheet pans, cooling racks, or baking sheets. She also said she prefers disposable aluminum pans for making roasts, which eliminate the need to carry a large roasting pan that won’t fit in the galley sink so is impossible to clean. She also never carried a bread machine on any of her sail or powerboats, as she always found local breads to be much more interesting.)
So, a sailboat with a large galley will be big enough to serve as a liveaboard kitchen, with enough storage space for stores and provisions, and nesting pots and pans. And don’t forget the French Press and electric teapot to make coffee and tea.
(Seen below: The galley on the Hanse 460 is one reason it won the European Yacht of the Year.)
Tanks Are Key
Gone are the days of overboard dumping, so any sailboat of recent vintage will have dedicated tankage for water, fuel, and waste. The size of the boat, and its intended design purpose, will dictate tank sizes, and that is important to consider for living aboard, even if one never leaves the slip. The daily use of water will be significant, as people use the head(s), shower, and sinks. Water will be consumed at a greater rate than weekending, and both gray and blackwater waste tanks will fill quickly—especially if these tanks are small.
Not all marinas can pump out a holding tank at each slip, so figure it a regular chore to move the boat if that becomes necessary. (More areas today have a mobile pump out service that makes the rounds of the harbor and nearby marinas. One contacts the boat by VHF radio to schedule a pump out when it is next in the vicinity.)
Additionally, if our couple plans to live in the same place year ‘round, they must deal with another issue—if they live in Maine or anywhere south to the Carolinas, or in the Great Lakes. Marinas must turn off the water at the dock for the winter, to avoid damaging pipes. (This is not standard practice on the West Coast, except when unusually cold weather forces a temporary shut down.)
Living on a sailboat in Boston Harbor becomes a challenge, although there is a hardy group who do it every year and find it builds character and a sense of humor. In Annapolis, those of us living on F Dock would string garden hoses together once a week and run the long hose down the dock so we could refill our water tanks. We made it work.
If our couple has children, this will change the dynamics of the liveaboard equation, making a larger boat a necessity. For families, especially, the layout afforded by a center cockpit sailboat makes a lot of sense, providing a separation of living spaces important for everyone’s mental health. And there will be a compelling case for needing a washing machine to do laundry.
If our couple has a dog, there will be additional concerns to provide good access on and off the boat, reasonable access down below, and other basics, such as a freshwater cockpit shower. A transom swim platform will also be great appreciated by pet owners, as well as older folks.
If there are watersport interests in addition to sailing, they will also compete for space. A dive compressor comes to mind, with a place for tanks and dive gear. SUPs, windsurfers, and kayaks take up deck space one is unlikely to fit on a small sailboat.
(Seen below: Brownies makes a tank rack that can be installed in any storage area. This one has a compressor on top.)
A Sailboat That Sails
Up to now we have not addressed the sailing abilities of our liveaboard boat. Small sailboats go slower, are much more affected by wind and wave conditions, and are much less comfortable in a seaway. If sailing in protected waters is all our couple is interested in, then sailing performance is less important in our search for a liveaboard home. But there is a huge difference (on many levels) between a sailboat capable of consistently making daily runs of 200nm and a smaller sailboat that hobbyhorses along making 55nm to the next destination.
Obviously, a step up in boat size means greater expense in cost, maintenance, insurance, sails, gear, and fuel. But life is more comfortable on larger boats. I sailed from Newport, RI to Bermuda on an 83-foot sailboat designed to race around the world. The trip was over in the blink of an eye, as she was so quick. I’ve done trips from Annapolis to Bermuda on 30-footers, and while they took longer, were more satisfying because they demanded more of my skill to tweak our speed, unlike a crewed, 83-foot freight train.
I am pretty sure the ideal boat for both living aboard and great sailing is somewhere in the middle.
Before we discuss our conclusions, I want to point out something I found common after living aboard various boats on both the East Coast and the Pacific Northwest. I have noticed that many couples and families, once they move aboard their boat full time, tend not to go sailing very often. The boat becomes their home, priorities and routines get established, and life goes on. Things that used to be stored neatly, now tend to stay out, and there are pillows, blankets, puzzles, running shoes, books, jackets, hats, shoes, tools, guitars, plants, art, remotes, and projects of all kinds all over the boat. And a small tree or plant in the cockpit.
Does this defeat the purpose of living aboard if they don’t go sailing as much? I don’t think so, because the time to experience living aboard may not coincide with the time to go sailing, or cruising. For many it must wait until retirement and learning the boat while living aboard makes tons of sense.
The Magic Number Is…
When researching this article, I came across some truly laughable blogs and websites that suggested boats that were absurdly inappropriate for living aboard. These sites remind me that one can never believe or trust suggestions from an Internet search without verifying sources. How can someone really recommend buying a 30-foot boat from the ‘70s to live on, a boat that is only 9 feet wide and only has a couple of tiny saloon windows for interior lighting, a tiny head with no holding tank or shower, and no storage of any kind beyond enough for a foul weather jacket. Or a sailboat from a builder who only built 40 boats half a century ago!?!
The big takeaway from these sites or blogs, or whatever they are, is an excellent reminder about the importance of using a knowledgeable and experienced yacht broker. A man or woman who knows boats and can navigate the many choices. A good broker does way more than simply handle the paperwork of the transaction. A broker will make this fun. You will learn quickly and benefit from their experience. And show you where to stow a small ironing board and iron.
The best size sailboat to live aboard comfortably, safely, and provide a marvelous living experience spans from the mid-30 foot range to the mid-40s. I hesitate to be black and white about saying 35-45 feet, because I know people happily living on a 33-footer, and I would easily live aboard a Stevens 47.
The Jeanneau 43 is a good sample of a sailboat live on and is at the midpoint in this range, as it carries 130 gallons of water, and is almost 14 feet wide. She has a large, bright interior that is very livable. The Hallberg-Rassy 43 carries 172 gallons of water and a holding tankage of 100 gallons. The Stevens 47 that I mentioned above, while older, carries 200 gallons of water, and it will make consistent 200nm days. Many of the Beneteau models would also make a comfortable liveaboard. And there are dozens of other choices in this size range from reputable builders.
(Seen below: The Jenneau 43 is thought of as a good sailboat to live on.)
Compare boats in this size range to smaller boats, such as the very popular Catalina 30, with over 6,400 boats built. She carries 36 gallons of water and has a holding tank of 18 gallons. Look at interior layouts and pictures of these boats, the galley, saloon, and living spaces, and what storage is available. One will easily see the huge differences among these boats.
You will need to decide how much privacy you need, and how many cabins/staterooms to make this happen. And then discuss the factors of layout, storage, tankage with your broker. He or she will know the reputation of the builder, will introduce you to other options, such as a sailing catamaran, or another boat you may not be aware of. A broker will show you enough boats to help you refine your search for the right boat, within your budget.
Check out as many boats as you can. Some interiors may seem too dark, as the traditional teak treatment was very popular until recently, others find them cozy. Some interiors can feel cramped, especially on older, narrow boats. There are lots of saloon table/settee arrangements, and what works for you is totally personal. Many older boats have almost vertical companionway stairs/ladders, while the newer trend is towards fewer steps that are less steep between cockpit and the interior, which are dog friendly.
Make sure you can fit comfortably in the head, and make sure the hanging lockers and other drawers will satisfy your needs. There is usually a huge storage space under the master berth. How easy is it to access?
Your broker might introduce you to other liveaboard clients who may be willing to share their experience. There is nothing more helpful than hearing what others have already discovered, such as how enclosing a center cockpit provides more living space on a sunny day during cold weather.
Moving around an interior is every bit as important as moving along the side decks topside. Some boats are much easier to move about on deck than others that require gymnastics around standing rigging. Much like tall lifeline stanchions make me feel way more secure on deck, so do interiors where there is something to hold onto. Perhaps not as important for living aboard than at sea, but hey, isn’t your boat going to do both!?!
It is common knowledge there is no perfect boat, and that every boat is a series of compromises. With a few exceptions I agree with these sentiments. But I do also know that living on a sailboat has a charm all its own, without compromise on the right boat.
The liveaboard boat community is special, and I have met some interesting people who live full time on sailboats. While there are the usual community of service staff, artists, and people who work in offices, I have met musicians, consultants, and technology gearheads. When I lived on Lake Union, it was an eclectic group of mixed backgrounds and careers, from medical doctors to one humble fellow who had his PhD in the study of Peregrine falcons.
In Annapolis, the dock was shared by a lobbyist in DC, a lawyer and his wife, and the head of public works for the city. And when a hurricane came to town, the folks on our dock threw a party as we stayed up all night adjusting dock lines to keep everyone’s boats safe.
One winter in Marathon, in the Florida Keys, we lived among a couple dozen liveaboards from all over. While they had traveled south for the winter, none were cruising. They simply lived aboard and were able to move south to warm weather while the snow blew up north.
If you are interested in exploring life on a sailboat, there is much to recommend it. People who live on sailboats belong to a unique community, and there is always room for one more.
Also Read: Frequently Asked Questions About Sailboats
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