All boats are a compromise to one point or another and there simply is no such thing as a single boat that can do all things equally well. So it is with all other types of human habitats too regardless of whether they be on water or land, fixed or mobile.
If you are considering a boat to live aboard then you will find plenty of opinions and many that directly contradict each other. In the end it all comes down to two things – what you can afford and what will work best for you personally right now given whatever your specific situation is and what your goals and objectives are.
If you intend to do long range cruising then you will likely need and want a much different type of boat than you would if you were simply looking for a floating home that you would seldom if ever go anywhere on. To me long range cruising means some type of sailboat unless you have very deep pockets for massive amounts of fuel to feed a power boats hungry engines.
My wife and I lived aboard our own boat for about a year many years ago and we met all sorts of interesting people from all walks of life, both live aboard and non live aboard. One thing we quickly learned was that the vast majority of boats seldom if ever left their slips at all! This seemed to be even more so the case the larger and more complicated the boat was.In our case I spent almost all available time and money working on our boat… and baby sitting all the other boats nobody checked on for weeks at a time.
The smaller boats were the ones that were going and coming all the time – not the larger boats. Surprisingly many owners never came to even check on their boats at all for months at a time – especially the larger boats. Instead they relied on the marina staff to keep an eye on their boats for them. I helped save more than one of them during storms when sails would come loose, lines broke or they began taking on water and would have gone down in their slips without immediate attention.
The first thing I can tell you about choosing a boat to live on is that you and you alone will have to make the decision on your own when it comes down to it. If you don’t – and if you let your relatives or friends or anyone else choose for you, and they will if you let them – chances are that it will be the wrong boat and you will be very unhappy with it. So don’t do that – learn about what is available and about various considerations that matter most.
Here are a few such things to consider;
- Size – the best boat is in most cases the smallest and simplest boat that will get the job done. This is contrary to what many people initially go after which is the largest and most complicated boat they can get their hands on. Bigger boat equals bigger problems and bigger costs. The longer it is the more marinas charge you for slips when you need them and the more she will cost to be hauled out etc. Complex systems often fail and when they do it is often the worst possible time and when you need them most. The less you rely on such systems the less of a problem they become. So how big should your boat be? In most cases somewhere between 30 and 40 feet long will do just fine. Some people will be able to go much smaller maybe as small as a 20 feet or even less and others will not be happy with less than about 40 feet. Having said that – remember it is you alone who must decide – so I suggest you go and tour several boats in various sizes and see what you think.Smaller boats can get into and go places larger boats cant. They can be easily transported long distances by truck if needed, and they are much easier and less expensive overall to maintain. Just remember the smaller it is, so long as it will work you you, then the better it is. The simpler the primary systems aboard the better too.
- Sail or Power – this decision is going to have to take into account what your primary intentions are for how you intend to use your boat. If you intend to cruise frequently and long distance you may want to get a sailboat. If on the other hand you are looking for something to stay put and basically just use it as a floating home then a power boat will give you more efficiently usable living space in most cases than a sailboat will. Keep in mind also that sailboats have deeper drafts and tall masts that prevent them from going into many places, including some marinas and even certain slips within marinas. Gas, diesel, sail, or no power? For long range power cruising boats diesel is best. Gas engines are cheaper to buy but require more maintenance and upkeep and they wear out faster. Gas is more dangerous than diesel on a boat though both require care. Sailboat fuel is free – however sails themselves and rigging are not, they are expensive and must be maintained, repaired and occasionally replaced too. Which is best for you? That you have to decide for yourself – just look into it, research it and go talk to some boat owners and get their opinions. Ask several boat owners – not just a couple and even then always remember these are just opinions.
- No Power Option – years ago people commonly lived aboard Shanty boats and various small houseboats that had no engines at all. They were either towed with a row boat or towed by another power boat if and when they moved. Many live aboards today have boats that are used only for floating homes and that can not get underway on their own at all. Most do have engines but the engines are inoperable and haven’t run in years. Some houseboats today and other boats intended for living aboard have no engines and depend on other means to move them when they do need to be moved – which is very infrequently. Many small sailboat owners have removed the inboard engines and converted the space to storage or other uses. Others have only a small outboard bracket on the transom to which a small outboard motor can be hung when and if needed. Now before you get all excited and go yank the engine out of your boat be aware that many marinas have rules about having engines and the operability of them – though many such rules are seldom if ever enforced in some places – they are in others. Also if you live at anchor or on a mooring you may have to have either operable sails or an operable engine – some way the boat can get underway on its on to meet various requirements – and personally it is required by the laws of common sense as far as I am concerned – if the boat is not in a marina you need to be able to move it under its own power at a moments notice. Having said that there are thousands of boats in mooring fields and at anchor that cant move on their own right now if life depended on it – rules or no rules that be the way things arr…
- Hull Material – If you are going to buy an old boat then the best material as far as I am concerned is fiberglass. Not wood – do NOT buy an old wood planked boat! Not unless you really understand them, know what you are getting into and have either the time, skills and or money to repair and maintain such a boat. Wooden boats can be wonderful things and I personally love them – but unless you have VERY DEEP pockets and LOTS of time as well as a very good knowledge base of wooden boat construction and maintenance – avoid them like the plague. There are plenty of them available and they are often priced very low, which makes them tempting, especially to those who don’t yet know better. Many are also are huge, and beautiful inside and very cheap to buy. They are really just floating money pits that will lead to all kinds of nightmares. If you want a big expensive project then go ahead – but if you are looking for a floating home with as few problems as possible then go with a good fiberglass hull when buying a used boat. If you are going to build it yourself (don’t laugh or fall out of your seat) which is actually possible – then plywood covered with fiberglass is your best bet for most boats up to about fifty feet – which by the way is bigger than most people will ever need. If you are interested in plans check out Glen-L Marine and Sam Devlin at Devlin Designing Boat Builders for starters.
- Teak and Mahogany – Fancy wood work is beautiful. It’s also a major pain in the ass to maintain and can be expensive to repair and replace. The less of it you have the better off you are – painted wood is better and solid fiberglass or other composite materials are best when it comes to having the least maintenance issues. Things that do not rot and do not need to be stained or varnished are what you want. Wood is beautiful – and I especially love mahogany myself – but as I said it is a pain to maintain. Is it worth it? You have to decide – for some it is. However before you can make such a decision you need to be aware of the issues with maintaining wood vs other materials. Do some homework and talk to some boat owners in person. If you must have wood then the more its interior and the less its exterior then the better off you will be.
- Dock at a Marina or Live On the Hook – Marinas have many amenities and can be quite nice. But nice comes with a price which will usually be anywhere from a few to several hundred dollars per month. It depends on your area, the type and quality of the marina and other factors. In the region I live in slips range from about a couple hundred dollars per month at older working yard type marinas to as much as a thousand or more for some of the upper end resort type marinas. Living on the hook (at anchor) is free monetarily – however there are other issues with doing so. Your boat will be much more vulnerable when you are away from it for starters. You have to be concerned she may drag her anchor or break her line and you will find her either missing or washed ashore upon your return, or worse. Do as you will but I would not consider leaving a boat at anchor with no one aboard and heading off to work all day everyday – though some do. On the other hand if you can work from home, aboard your boat, or have someone such as a spouse or other companion who will be aboard and is capable of handling the boat alone in an emergency – then that would be great and the way to go. Regardless of what you choose you have to consider that you will need to go ashore to get rid of garbage and to get water, food and other things you need and want and then get all that stuff back aboard your boat. If you have a car where to keep it will be another factor to consider. What is your main objective? To live aboard to save money and enjoy being on the water too or because you want to cruise locally and just occasionally or do you want to do some serious cruising? Some people ease into the live aboard lifestyle by staying in a nice marina for a few months to a few years before they venture out to live on the hook and underway. That’s probably not a bad idea for most people – especially those still going ashore daily to go to jobs.
- Shower, Laundry etc. – Where you take your showers and how you do your laundry will be important things to think about before you buy your boat. Some boats have a full head with a shower and have a hot water heater so you can shower aboard – especially if tied to a dock. Most marinas have showers available too, though they vary in quality and quantity widely. Always wear shower shoes (flipflops) if and when you use public showers unless you want athletes foot frequently. Keep in mind a long walk down the dock to the marina office/shower room will be unpleasant in winter and when pouring down rain etc. Much nicer to be able to shower aboard as far as I am concerned – but to each their own. Most marinas also have at least one washer and dryer if not several. Some include access with your slip rent other also charge per load fees like a laundromat. Just something to consider. There are washers and dryers or combo units which are installed aboard boats though usually in larger boats. Others use some type of hand powered units on deck and some just do it the traditional way – ye olde bucket. Those that work have their work clothes dry cleaned and while onboard are just wearing shorts and T shirts mainly – and those are easy to clean.
- Work and Effort – Living aboard a boat is not for lazy people. Everything will require effort. You will have to haul your food and supplies to your boat, in all kinds of weather, either down a long dock after crossing a big parking lot or you will have to haul it to the water and then into a dingy and out to your boat at anchor or on a mooring. Same with your trash – you have to haul it all off the boat and to the dumpster. On board water tanks have to be filled, waste tanks have to be emptied. Cleaning and scrubbing need to be done constantly. Mildew prevention and removal will be routine. Lines have to be tended, maintenance completed and attention must be paid to everything to keep your floating home safe and afloat.
- Mail – consider getting a PO box whether a private one or a US post office box – each has benefits and drawbacks so look into it and consider your options. You may or may not be able to get your mail at the marina if you stay at a marina and personally I wouldn’t want to, but you decide for you. If you live on the hook you will definitely need some place ashore to get your mail.
- Other People – If you are alone then your choices and decisions are much easier – simply do what you want. If you have someone else who will be living aboard with you then you need to carefully consider their needs and wants in deciding on which boat and where to keep it. Otherwise your relationship will suffer or end or your live aboard dream will be over before you know it and you will quickly return to being a dirt dweller.
- Pets – If you already have pets then you have to do further considering. How will you handle their poop and pee? In the case of dogs will you go ashore several times a day to walk them, and if so where and how? If you live in a marina will they even allow pets? Do they have a dog run or some suitable place to walk your dog? In the case of cats what are you going to do about that litter box? Where will it be in the boat? Where and how will you empty it? What about the smell in a small confined place? Can your pet handle the rocking motion of a boat (most can but what about yours)? if you don’t already have a pet don’t get one – not until you have adjusted to the lifestyle at least and know what you are in for.
- Lessons Learned – You and I live in a wondrous time information wise. Between blogs, books, eBooks, YouTube videos, DVD’s, podcasts and numerous gatherings, events and seminars you can go through information in a few days to a few weeks that took others years to experience, gather and compile for you. These people have been there and done that and have learned some hard lessons along the way – lessons they are eager to share with you, and often for free or just a few bucks for a book or video. Learn the lessons the efficient and the easy way from others or learn them the hard way from trial and error. To be sure, you will learn many lessons through experience, but you can save yourself bucket loads of time, money and frustration by learning as much as you can the easy way first. So do your research. Ask your questions. Get your answers, make your own decisions and then go do it.
There are a lot more things to think about. This little list is just a beginning to get you started toward formulating many more questions to seek answers to. Take comfort in knowing that living on boats is nothing new and people have been doing it for hundreds of years all over the world. It is a wonderful way to live for some people, and completely wrong for others. With effort and action you will soon find out whether it is for you or not. In the end after you do your homework the only real way to know for sure is to try it.