More and more people are exploring alternative lifestyle choices, as seen in the Van Life phenomena in camper vans under 20 feet long, as well as boats of all shapes, sizes, and types. Sailboat, trawler, houseboat, motoryacht, fishing boat, all have single people, couples, and families choosing to live aboard a boat as their primary residence.
At its most basic level, a boat suitable for living aboard provides shelter, security, privacy, and for some, identity. There must be a place to sleep, make meals, have a bathroom, a place to sit and relax, and storage for clothing, provisions, water, and personal items.
In terms of size, while it is true that sailors have crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 12-foot boats, that is not what is generally accepted as a reasonable vessel for such a passage. So too, a liveaboard boat can be on the smaller side, especially for young couple perfectly content with a minimalist existence, but that is not the case for adults looking to combine living on the water with some degree of comfort and convenience. For these people, a boat in the 36 to 40-foot range is the starting point. And for those who can afford it, a motoryacht over 50 feet will offer top shelf living that is every bit as comfortable as a luxury townhome.
Liveaboard people might be an early career computer programmer living in his Tahiti ketch, an IT manager living on a 34-foot houseboat, and a husband and wife, both surgeons, enjoying life on their 75-foot expedition yacht, all within a thousand yards of each other.
What are some of the features that one should expect in a liveaboard boat? Perhaps a better starting point is to answer several questions first. How many people will be living full time on the boat? If it is a couple, there are likely different accommodation requirements (or compromises) than a family with children. A retired couple may want different amenities than a young couple just starting out.
Where are you going to live? Is this boat going to stay put, such as a downtown urban setting like Seattle’s Lake Union, among the houseboat communities, or will the boat travel to different marinas along the coast with the seasons? We are differentiating living aboard from cruising, as they are not the same. People will be living aboard while cruising, of course, but the primary goal is to travel from one location to the next. Living aboard does not necessarily moving at all, and people who choose to live on a boat may be doctors or attorneys with commitments and responsibilities to remain in one place. They may just choose to live on a boat for the waterfront living experience and the opportunity to occasionally travel on a vacation getaway.
Is this going to be a primary residence? Many people buy a boat to have a summer residence in some waterfront community, such as Stuart, Florida, or Annapolis, Maryland, or Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands, or Sausalito, California. They maintain a primary residence somewhere else, such as Fort Collins, Colorado, but enjoy the fact that they can escape to their liveaboard home in Seattle, or wherever, when they want a change of pace.
What is the budget? This figures into the equation in many ways. If one is looking primarily for a place to live, while in college for example, the boat may not need to be functional as a boat, as they don’t intend to go anywhere, just as a place to live. So, if the engine needs work, it doesn’t matter, in fact, it doesn’t even need an engine. Such boats can be found for extraordinarily little money. The same is true for the condition of a sailboat’s mast, rigging, and sails. For a liveaboard, the critical components of a safe sailing vessel are not required, at least for the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, if there is sufficient budget to buy a fully outfitted motoryacht, sailboat, or trawler that is in pristine condition, the owners can enjoy life aboard in the true yachting fashion, with an outstanding experience at both living aboard and owning a proper yacht. Ultimately, living aboard a small sailboat or a large motoryacht can offer a satisfying liveaboard experience depending on the people and their situation. Go to any exotic tropical anchorage and you will find both, and everyone is having a great time. That is cruising.
Consider other factors that constitute a suitable liveaboard home. Below a certain size vessel, the head is likely going to be a wet head, which means the shower, if there is one, is in the same space as the sink and marine head. Take a shower and everything in that space gets wet. A dry head, on the other hand, provides a separate shower space with its own curtain or door to keep the rest of the head dry. Given the choice, most people will prefer a dry head in the long run. It feels less like camping.
If there is room for a separate master stateroom that does not share space with the saloon and other accommodations, that is desirable. Privacy and space are important for personal mental health. Visual separation, if not entirely physical, is important for the overall success of living aboard.
It goes without saying that a proper galley is required for meal preparation and cooking. This is determined by the available space given the size of the boat. Bigger is always better to provide the cook with plenty of working counter space, storage for food in a pantry, pots and pans, and the tools of the galley. A minimalist approach will work for some, using a cooler for keeping things cool, while others won’t feel comfortable without the convenience of full-size appliances. The living spaces in a Catalina 27 sailboat compared to a Fleming 55, while abstractly similar, are vastly different in every way. Not leaving the dock, both provide a reasonable living situation, but the liveaboard experience will be different. But for the right person, each can be ideal.
Some of the practical considerations of living aboard include how convenient it is to pump out the black water holding tank? Only the most luxurious marinas, and the most expensive, offer pump out at the slip, something to consider when comparing boats and the sizes of their tanks. Same with fresh water. If one must move the boat every week to a pump out facility at a fuel dock, that is not going to be as care free as a mobile pump out boat that come to the boat with a call on the VHF. Most slips offer shorepower electricity and water at a monthly rate, but is the water shut off during the off season? What are the options then? Boston Harbor is a popular liveaboard location, but the liveaboard residents work around such obstacles, including living inside a shrink-wrapped boat during the winter months. They get by, but the payback comes when they enjoy an outstanding downtown living experience the rest of the year.
If one’s plans include going cruising at some point when they retire or save enough to begin their adventure, then the choice of the boat will have to match the cruising plans. A trawler or cruising sailboat from the 1980s can be a very workable liveaboard while giving the people time and opportunity to refit, refresh, and bring the boat back to top shape. It is a common liveaboard theme. While it can be inconvenient at times to live aboard while refinishing an interior, many have done it successfully. Whether it is a vintage Chris Craft Constellation motoryacht or an aging Norseman 447, both are terrific choices as a liveaboard in an older boat with good bones.
In a perfect world, the ideal liveaboard boat will have space for storing clothes for each season, holiday decorations, a separate washer and dryer (combo units don’t dry very well), a central vacuum system to make house cleaning easy, perhaps even a dishwasher. Such luxuries will not fit in smaller boats, of course.
Living aboard a boat is a wonderful existence, whether it is on a houseboat, cruising boat, or even an older vessel whose glory days are long gone. The thrill of being on the water, and the potential for changing the scenery when the mood strikes, is a powerful alternative to living on land. If the inconveniences of living aboard can be overcome, such as pumping out the holding tank, having access to fresh water year round, getting secure mail and package deliveries, and a safe place to park the car, life can be grand. Yes, it is unpleasant to trade deck shoes with ice-cold leather work shoes that get stored in the car trunk because they are unsafe on icy docks, but that is minor in the scheme of things.
And one quickly finds the liveaboard community is strong and the bonds of neighborhood are always there to help one another. On the East Coast during hurricane season, for example, it is common to hold dock parties during periods of storm surge, as everyone stays up during the critical times to adjust dock lines together while keeping the mood joyful and a part of the liveaboard adventure.
And it is an adventure.
We live in a world of never-ending improvements and advances in electronics, connectivity, and manufacturing. So, we’ve come to expect at boat shows to see next generation products in every category, from boats to propulsion systems, battery and charging systems, navigation and communications systems, even stereo systems.
Bill Parlatore discusses his recent experience helping a friend with the process of buying a boat.
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