Boaters often romanticize the idea of living aboard. To them it sounds like watching endless sunsets from the flybridge, living smaller and simpler, and saving a bunch of money. However, although an alternative lifestyle may sound exotic to you and your workmates, it’s best to be well prepared for the realities of what it takes to move and live on board a boat. This level of commitment is very different from summer weekends of sun and fun. Here are some questions to ask yourself before making the big jump to a small place.
I’ve got a slip so can I just move aboard?
Nope. Most marinas require an application for you to move aboard permanently. In some areas, liveaboards aren’t permitted or there are long waiting lists to achieve the status. Some people are “sneak-aboards” and live aboard illegally. This works well if you have a job that takes you out of town frequently for long stretches of time. Otherwise, someone is bound to notice. Liveaboard slip fees are usually higher and your insurance rates may increase if your boat becomes your home. If you have pets, it will be very hard to sneak aboard regularly.
Will life be simpler?
Smaller doesn’t mean simpler. You may be hauling the laundry to the laundromat or groceries from the parking lot with no dock cart in sight. You’ll have to go to the pump-out regularly as well as to the post office for your mail. Who will accept your Amazon deliveries and are you ready to grocery shop frequently since there won’t be room to stow huge Costco-sized items? Are you ready to become your own maid? Small doesn’t translate to easy so run your typical week through your head and write down solutions to the many issues.
What about stowage, comfort & connectivity?
When you commit to moving aboard, make checklists of necessities and talk to your partner about their must-haves and deal-breakers. Get the boat ready for life aboard, not just a weekend in the islands. Prepare the boat before you move so it feels like a home, not a camper.
If you move from a 2,000-square foot house to a 45-foot boat, you may have a two-bed/two bath waterfront condo but all the closets are smaller, the cupboards are fewer and there’s no two-car garage. In preparation, lose many of the kitchen gadgets, pare down the tools and cut down on clothing. Keep winter clothes in off-boat storage and your business attire at the office if possible. De-cluttering can be magical.
Be practical about comfort. Make sure the boat is warm and dry with plenty of ventilation. Mildew and condensation will become a part of life and you’ll need a whole new set of cleaners, tools and skills when you move aboard. Make sure your boat is as much a reflection of your home as possible and that includes connectivity. Whether that means a dish for TV or high-speed internet access, it’ll be miserable if you’re cut off from work, friends and family.
Do I have the skills to live on a boat?
Your “honey do” list will double on a boat and there’s no garage or backyard to contain the mess of an ongoing project. Stuff breaks on a boat, even when it’s not moving, and boat maintenance blows house and car chores out of the water in terms of frequency and specificity. The good news is that you’ll now only have the boat to fix rather than both the boat and house. Are your skills up to the task or will you have to find a marine contractor when your fresh water pump goes out and you can’t even brush your teeth?
What expenses should I expect?
Don’t assume that you’ll save a lot by moving aboard. You may still have a boat mortgage payment, a slip fee, and an insurance bill. The best way to manage expenses is by making a budget and sticking to it, just like at home.
Depending on the size and value of the vessel, boat insurance may be just as expensive as house insurance. Property taxes will usually be less on a boat than a house as will electricity since you’re not heating/cooling/lighting as big of a space. You’ll probably save money on waste management, gas and water too.
Where costs rise dramatically is maintenance. Both houses and boats need regular maintenance but marine parts and labor are usually more expensive – sometimes 20% more. They’re also harder to find and if you’re not a DIYer, you’ll be paying top dollar when your hatch leaks over your bed at 3:00 am. If you take on the tasks yourself and you’re self-employed, every hour you spend working on your boat is an hour you don’t make money.
What about safety and security?
Marina security may actually be better than in some neighborhoods. You’ll need to decide whether or not to lock the boat when you’re aboard, whether you invite strangers inside, and if kids and dogs will be safe around the docks. Certainly, be sure to install carbon monoxide and smoke alarms and a propane sniffer, check the fire extinguishers periodically, and keep an eye on the basics like bilge and battery levels. Will you be safe walking from the parking lot to the slip at night? Will your nice car be okay outside the garage 24/7? Who will call you if your boat starts to list when you’re on vacation? There aren’t really more or fewer safety issues, just different kinds.
How do I prepare pets and kids for the move?
Dogs, cats and kids need to acclimate to their new environments as well you. They need exercise, private space, easy access to the potty and lots of love since their new home is really about being with you. Make sure stairs and docks are safe for them and that they can get on the boat or dock if they fall in the drink. Be careful of small spaces where they can get trapped and wires they can chew (that’s kids too). Teach them about their new environment and be patient. Every day on the docks can become a science lesson for kids and they’ll be much more in tune with nature and their neighbors.
Will I have a social life?
Socializing is easier in a marina than in a neighborhood. Parties materialize out of thin air on a dock but so do obnoxious neighbors that are now only a slip width away. Neighbors help neighbors in marinas but it’s a two-way street so be ready to lend a hand when needed. If you’d rather live anonymously, consider an end tie in the forgotten corner of the marina.
What about vacations?
Presumably you moved aboard because you liked boating so keep your vessel in working order and ready to head to sea. If you forgot how to turn on your chartplotter or you can’t start the engine because your laundry is drying in the engine room, you may have forgotten the whole point of moving aboard.
Keep a balance. It may seem strange to consider escaping the boat for landside vacations when all you wanted to do when you lived in a house was to go boating. But once you live on a boat, going skiing in the mountains or hiking in the desert may sound grand.
Is this lifestyle long term?
A lack of patience or organizational skills and being anti-social or inflexible won’t make you a good liveaboard so it’s time to get real with yourself. Are you comfortable with repeatedly defending your choice to your friends and family? Are you on the same page about it with your significant other? Is this just for a period of time before you go cruising or is this a lifestyle choice for the long haul? Are you handy and a good problem solver because no matter how you live on it, a boat still isn’t a house. You can lie to others but lying to yourself isn’t sustainable so take a hard look at your values and current lifestyle and write down solid reasons why you want to do this and for how long.
What’s Plan B?
Don’t sell everything right away unless you’re ready to buy all new stuff if you find living aboard isn’t for you. Marinas are filled with unrealized cruising dreams and unmet expectations. If you’re planning on cruising, set a date for departure and stick to it or risk becoming the boat that never left. If living aboard isn’t working out, don’t stubbornly insist it’s the best thing you’ve ever done just to save face.
Put your furniture, clothes and that rice cooker in storage in case you need to eject. Give yourself 6-12 months to test it out – at least one full winter for sure. And if it does work out, beware of clinging to those possessions that you don’t use but will pay to store forever.
What’s most important?
Whether you’re planning to live aboard for six months before going cruising, a year before deciding it’s not for you or forever, don’t forget to have fun. You’re doing something unusual and no matter how hard it gets, there are still wonderful tradeoffs so savor every precious sunrise, walk on the docks and sea breeze. Remember that you can take your home with you when you head out for a weekend so there’s no packing or hotel bill.
This experience may help you deal with change better and teach you to not take things too seriously because each winter storm and small mishap means you must roll with the punches. Living aboard may bring life’s lessons up close and personal and that has value in and of itself.
If you're still convinced you'd like to live on board your boat, here's some additional tips that you might find useful:
- Boat Organization & Storage Tips
- Cooking on a Boat: Essential Ingredients for Seafaring Chefs
- Staying Warm Onboard: The Do's and Don'ts