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“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
Do you dream of living on the water and “messing about” in boats all the time? Do you sometimes wish that you could pick up your home, move to another neighborhood, city, or even country at a moment’s notice? Has the idea of living a more sustainable, downsized life ever appealed to you—one that has fewer material things but more satisfaction and enjoyment?
All of these things can come from living on a boat. Many people who have lived near the water know that people can live on boats, but it may seem a revolutionary idea for folks from landlocked regions.
But living on a boat is a lot easier said than done. For every positive upside, there is a bummer of a downside. Figuring out if it’s the right choice for you requires researching boats, marinas, boating areas, and lots of other things. So before you pick up the phone and call that friendly-looking yacht broker, let’s walk through what you can expect from life afloat.
Is It Possible to Live on a Boat?
While there are challenges in the details, there’s nothing prohibitively complicated about moving onboard a boat. Once you’ve figured out the boat you want to use and where you’ll keep it, all other problems are minor.
One of the most extraordinary things about boats and boating is seeing how many different ways people use their vessels. Some people buy a boat, sell their homes, and then sail away from land life forever. Others buy a boat, dock it in a neighboring town, and then use it as a weekend second home. Still, others dock their boat at the local marina and spend only an occasional afternoon using it, never sleeping onboard or using the galley.
Reasons Why You Might Want to Live On a Boat
Why would anyone want to live on a boat? Many people have absolutely no desire to try. But others are intrigued by the lifestyle. So here are just a few reasons why you might want to give it a go.
You Love Boating
Some boaters love the pastime, but they feel that dividing their time between their home and their boat leaves too little time for the part they love. So they ditch the house and dedicate all of their time (and money) to a floating home. For some, ditching the home might mean they can afford a boat much nicer than they would otherwise be able to.
Maybe you just enjoy living on the water and can’t afford waterfront property. A boat connects you to nature much more closely than a house does. When it’s windy and rainy, you’re much more likely to appreciate it on a boat. But you’ll also appreciate the sunny days with dolphins swimming by your back patio. You can fish for your dinner whenever you like, and you can always find a quiet spot all to yourself.
Another benefit of choosing to live this lifestyle is that you will meet like-minded people everywhere you go. Marinas are full of people who made at least some of the choices you have. Boating connects people and bridges all sorts of divides. The typical ice-breaking question “What do you do for work?” is the last thing anyone ever asks you when you pull up to a new dock.
A boat is made to travel, and it’s possible to live aboard and travel as much as you like.
Every year, dozens of “bluewater” cruising sailboats circumnavigate the globe while their owners and guests live onboard.
In the US, hundreds of boats travel north for the summer and south for the winter. They avoid hurricanes, the southern summers’ brutal heat, and the freezing winters up the north.
Travel by boat is like no other experience. Arriving into port cities by water enables you to see towns as they were originally intended. When you drive in by car, all you can see is the ubiquitous urban sprawl that makes every city look the same. But the waterfronts of seaside towns are where everyone goes, by land or sea, to see the best parts of the city. Imagine seeing a new town but without the context of the drive-in on the freeway. It’s just as romantic as it sounds.
Even if you aren’t traveling, a boat can still move. Hate your neighbors? Find a new marina. Trouble finding work, so you want to try another city? Cruise over and stay awhile to see how you like it. A boat enables you to move your entire home wherever you want to take it. You aren’t tied to any one place. But if you love where you’re at, you can stay there. The choice is entirely yours!
Living More Sustainably
Living in plastic boats propelled by combustion engines is probably not most people’s idea of environmental-friendly living. But in truth, boaters are extremely eco-conscious as a whole.
Boaters are generally much more aware of the junk they keep because they have limited space to store things. They are very aware of the resources they use, like freshwater, fuel, and electricity. And boaters must be careful of how much waste they produce and where they can put it, including sewage and garbage.
Some boats are even equipped with solar panels, fresh watermakers, and wind turbines to make living off-the-grid easy.
In some cases, living onboard a boat may be cheaper than living on land. This greatly depends on the area and the sort of boat we’re talking about, but many areas have marina slips available for less than apartment rents.
The Dream Versus The Reality
Those are all positive things about living on a boat, and there are plenty more. But there are plenty of downsides too.
Like many things in life, how much you enjoy a boating lifestyle boils down to your attitude. If your car broke down and left you stranded in a new city for a few days, would you be irritated? Would you scoff at the cost of a hotel and the trouble of finding a repair shop? What if you couldn’t find a rental car, and you had to stay in this new town for an entire week? Two weeks?
Or, are you excited to explore a new city? If your boat breaks down (as they all do), perhaps you’ll find a new favorite marina and enjoy staying in a new place for a little while. You may find a coffee shop you love or a new favorite restaurant. Getting to know areas intimately and embracing the unexpected layovers are some of the best things about traveling slowly by boat.
Here are a few of the uglier sides of living on a boat to think about.
Boats break a lot. Plus, it can be difficult to find knowledgeable help to get it fixed, and when you do find it, it is extremely expensive. The most successful liveaboard boaters are often those who learn to fix their own boats.
While engine repairs and maintenance are big items, just about every system on a boat needs constant attention. Electrical, plumbing, cook gas, engine fuel, generators, refrigerators, air conditioners, watermakers, rigging, anchors…the list goes on and on and on. The bigger and more complicated the boat, the more maintenance there is.
Even if your idea of living aboard involves a 100-foot-long motor yacht, living aboard is not like living on land. There is less space to live on a boat.
When you have to fix a piece of equipment, it is invariably in a tiny place that is very uncomfortable for you to access.
When you bring home groceries from the store, you have to spend an hour reorganizing your tiny refrigerator.
Instead of having a walk-in closet for all of your clothes and shoes, you might have one small locker. And that even locker has an odd shape that doesn’t allow you to use regular-sized clothes hangers!
And finally, when you just want to get away from your significant other for a few minutes to read a book—you can’t. If you’re a couple and sharing the tiny living space on a boat, be ready for some intense relationship challenges!
Boats epitomize the definition of limited resources. Their water tanks are only so big. Their sewage holding tanks are even smaller. Their fuel tanks only hold so much. Their batteries can only power a few things for a few hours.
Living at a dock fixes some things but not others. For example, while docks provide unlimited electricity, most boat systems still can’t run everything at once. You may be used to living in an air-conditioned house, making tea with an electric kettle, and cooking dinner in an electric pressure cooker—all while having a hot shower and blow-drying your hair. But onboard a boat, you get to pick one of those things to do at a time.
While you might think that living on a boat is super fun and cool way to live your life, it’s not going to appeal to everyone. There will be people in your life who do not get it and will tell you that it’s a terrible idea.
This may be more or less of a problem depending on where you live in the world. For example, if you live on an island where many people liveaboard, you’ll fit right in. You’ll still have to explain it to your mom, though.
If you live and work in a big city where it is uncommon for people to live on a boat, you’ll often run into this problem. Living a life outside of normal societal constraints makes you an outsider. Living on a boat can make you feel like an outsider with people you would typically get along with well.
It’s All About the Weather
No matter what type of boat you live on, you are always concerned about the weather. If you are traveling, you need to know where safe anchorages or marinas are should the weather turn sour. If you’re tied up at a marina, you may need to add lines or have the boat hauled out if severe weather, like a tropical storm or hurricane, is forecast.
Picking the Right Place to Live
Many newcomers to boating might focus on the boat. But unless you are planning on traveling full-time, the hardest part of moving aboard is finding a place to keep the boat. There are many marinas in the world, but they all cater to a particular group. The challenge is finding the one that allows liveaboards and can accept your vessel. In some parts of the world like the west coast of the US, liveaboard slips have long waiting lists.
You can also keep your boat at anchor (also called “on the hook”) or on a mooring ball.
Cruising Versus Being a “Liveaboard”
One of the first differences you should be aware of will be important to fully understand as you look for places to keep your boat.
People who travel on their boats may be liveaboards in the technical sense of the word, but they are more commonly referred to as “cruisers.” When they pull up to a dock, the marina knows that they are arriving from out of town and want a dock as a “transient” visitor. They’ll pay for their dock nightly, weekly, or perhaps monthly. It’s understood that they’ll be aboard the entire time.
When you shop for a marina and want a long-term slip, you might find some excellent deals on semi-annual or annual leases. But the second you mention that you live aboard your boat, problems begin. There will be extra fees for living aboard, and many marinas will simply say, “No liveaboards.” Even if they don’t say it or put it on paper, it is an intricate problem that marina owners have to deal with.
In some parts of the world, the word “liveaboard” is an excellent way to ensure that marinas stop returning your calls. Even at marinas that do allow liveaboards, it’s not uncommon to find that they impose limits, like no more than ten slip holders in the marina can liveaboard. Or perhaps, you can only live aboard a certain number of days per month.
There are many reasons for this situation. Some marinas have limits placed on them by city, county, or state laws. Some are simply trying to run their businesses the way that they want to run them. If they want to cater to traveling cruisers, but every slip is taken by a liveaboard, they will have difficulty attracting the customers they want to cater to. Some marinas just aren’t set up to handle liveaboards. They might not have the power capability, or maybe they lack the proper sewage pump-out system.
In some regions, the term itself has become a description of a negative stereotype. A stereotypical “liveaboard” has allowed their vessel to fall into a state of disrepair. It obviously has not moved in a very long time, and it probably couldn’t get the motor to start if they tried. The deck may be covered in junk, the hull streaked with mildew, and the possibility of it sinking is real. This doesn’t describe most liveaboards–but this is what marina owners and neighbors fear when they hear the term.
However you cut it, the term liveaboard comes with a certain level of stereotypes and politics that you’ll have to navigate. Many times it is regional. The trick is to find that marina that will have you for what you are. Don’t try to bend the rules or lie about living aboard to get into a marina–the results can be awkward and messy.
Dock Life Versus Life “On The Hook”
Not everyone spends their time tied to a dock. Marina slips are great for their unlimited power and water, but slip fees can be very high in some parts of the world.
Anchoring a boat is free in most cases. There are a few limitations on where and when you can anchor, most of which are common sense. You cannot anchor in the middle of a busy commercial shipping channel, for example. You also need to pick an anchorage that has calm and protected water. You don’t want to be bouncing around in rolly seas 24/7/365.
Some cities have limits on anchoring to prevent boats from being abandoned or derelict. If the local homeowners unite against the boats living there for free, the boats usually lose, and anchoring restrictions are passed.
There are other considerations when living away from the amenities onshore. If you’re using the boat’s toilet, how will you empty the holding tank? It is illegal to dump it overboard. That might mean you need to plan a weekly trip into the marina for a pump-out. While there, you’ll likely need to fill up the water tanks and get rid of your trash, too.
What about electricity? To live on the hook, you’ll need good batteries. You’ll also want some solar panels and maybe a wind generator. When those don’t work because it’s cloudy or calm, you might need a generator to charge your battery bank. If your boat is nice enough to have air conditioning, it probably can’t be run without either shore or generator power.
You’ll also need a way to get back and forth to shore. Most boaters have a dinghy or tender for this purpose, though some people enjoy using kayaks. You’ll also need a place to land the dinghy and someplace to park if you have a car or bike.
Anchorage Versus Moorings
Another option that saves money over docking is getting a mooring ball. Some marinas or cities operate fields of moorings where you can tie off your boat in a safe area away from shore. Moorings are usually about half as much per month as slips are.
The good news about mooring fields is that they will usually provide a place to tie up your dinghy. Some even have parking lots and marina amenities like bathrooms, showers, and laundry facilities.
Can You Live on a Boat in a Marina?
If you can find a marina that allows liveaboards, you’re in luck. You’ll have neighbors who share your interests, and you’ll have access to all the amenities that make life aboard a little easier. A real bathroom, showers, washing machines, garbage collection, parking spaces for a car, and an address you can use to receive your mail are amazing conveniences for a boater. Yet, these simple things are taken for granted by landlubbers.
Marinas Versus Yacht Clubs and Boatyards
Marinas are simply parking spots for boats. Marinas are businesses, and like RV parks or hotels, they run the gamut in terms of quality and desirability. Some are cheap but sad and in desperate need of repairs. Others are filled with yachts and have five-star resort-style amenities–and prices to match. Most marinas are public businesses that will lease slips to anyone they like.
Yacht clubs are social groups for boaters. They usually require paying dues to be a member. Some yacht clubs have their own marinas, while others do not. If a yacht club has a marina, you likely have to be a member to use it. Each yacht club is different, but they generally host events like youth sailing races or member raft-ups.
Boatyards are where boats are hauled out of the water for storage or maintenance. Some allow you to liveaboard while you work on your boat, as is the case with cruisers who need to get some maintenance done while visiting.
Picking the Right Boat
The most obvious choice you have to make is what sort of vessel you would like to call home. The more research you can do, the better. It’s often hard to visualize exactly how you’ll use a boat.
One of the best things you can do is get on as many types of vessels as possible. Some yacht brokers specialize as “buyer’s brokers” to help newcomers make sense of the wide variety of options available to them.
Types of Boats You Could Live Aboard
If it floats and has a cabin, you can liveaboard. But you’ll be much more comfortable if the boat has at least a decent galley (kitchen), head (bathroom), and salon (dining/living room).
Everyone can recognize the difference between power and sailboats, but there are thousands of different designs to choose from.
Powerboats are more approachable for many people since they consider them easier to operate, much like a car. But even handling a powerboat takes some training since even powerboats are affected by the wind and currents.
A houseboat comes in two varieties. Both are boxy and flat-bottomed.
The classic houseboat is mainly used for calm water or lake cruising. It has motors and can travel inland waterways, but it lacks the elegance of other types of boats. It’s basically an RV on the water. But that boxiness makes for much more interior living space than any other type of boat.
Some houseboats are actual wood-frame homes built on barge hulls. Some have engines while others do not. These homes are generally not designed to be moved, at least not often. They generally come with the slip when you purchase them.
Cruisers come in many shapes and sizes but are generally well-appointed for stay onboard and can travel fast. Their hulls plane means they have engines big enough to push them through the water quite fast. The shape of the hull, however, means there is less living space inside of these boats.
Trawlers are slower vessels that have lots of living space. Slow trawlers are displacement-hull vessels, like sailboats. That means they are limited to six or seven miles per hour, maximum.
Some have more power and can travel up to 15 miles per hour. These are known as fast trawlers.
Power cats have two hulls, and the living space is divided between them. Some of them can be amazingly spacious. Like all catamarans, however, they have two of everything to maintain and are expensive to purchase. It is also harder to find dockage that can accommodate wide catamarans.
It has been said that a sailboat is the most expensive way to get somewhere for free. The romantic will tell you that a sailboat can go anywhere the wind will take you. The sailboat owner will tell you that the wind seldom blows in the right direction and that when it does, something will need to be fixed.
All sailboats appropriate for living aboard will have an auxiliary motor used to motor on days with no wind and help you get in and out of port.
Monohull sailboats are classic, romantic sailboats. Some are sleek and lightweight, built for racing. Others are wide and heavy and built for comfortable cruising. Sailboats have an impressive amount of space below decks. Most designs, however, have few windows when compared to powerboats. This makes the living space “down below” feel darker and more like a cave. There are few vessels as seaworthy as a sturdy and well-designed sailboat. Even small examples have been sailed in all conditions around the world.
To maintain their stability, sailboats have deeper keels than powerboats. The larger the sailboat, the deeper the keel. Deep draft vessels may be limited to their cruising grounds. For example, there are places on the east coast of the US where the optimal draft for a vessel is five feet or less. If you have a sailboat that draws seven feet, you might not be able to explore some areas.
Sailing catamarans are wide and have tons of living space. Compared to a monohull of the same length, they likely have three times (or more) the interior living space. Their upper salons are generally connected to the outside cockpit, and the huge windows let in lots of light and breezes for viewing your surroundings.
Because catamarans derive their stability from their width and not their keels, they are often shallow draft.
Catamarans are very popular and also very expensive. They not only have a high purchase price, but they also have two engines to maintain. In many cases, it’s hard to find dockage for them due to their width.
Trimarans are usually monohulls with outer pontoons for stability instead of a keel. They are extremely fast and usually built lightweight. A few new and very large tris are appropriate for long-range cruising or living aboard, but these are still very rare.
How Much Does It Cost to Live on a Boat Full Time?
If you already own a boat, the extra costs you incur from moving onboard will be minor. Marinas may charge you a little more for your electricity use or the use of their bathrooms and showers. These are usually covered in a “liveaboard fee.”
If you’re new to boating, here’s a list of the costs you’ll need to think about in terms of owning a boat and living on it.
- The boat purchase price, payment, and interest on a loan
- Slip/marina fees (daily, weekly, monthly, or annually)
- Liveaboard fees (usually monthly)
- Boat outfitting (added equipment to make it comfortable to liveaboard)
- Major boat repairs and maintenance costs (suggest 10 percent of the boat’s purchase price per year)
- Insurance (liveaboard insurance is harder to find and more expensive)
- General cleaning (i.e., hull waxing and regular bottom cleanings by a diver)
- Safety supplies, dock lines, etc
Is Living on the Water Cheaper?
As you can see from the list above, there are many costs associated with owning a boat that you might not have thought about. Is it cheaper than living in a house or apartment? The answer greatly depends on the sort of house and the sort of boat. In some cases, it can be. But in just as many other cases, it isn’t.
If you write down a careful budget and look at how you can save money, you can certainly save money by living on a boat. In some parts of the world, slip fees are much cheaper than renting an apartment. If you can get a good deal on a boat, you might be in luck.
There are some things you could save money on. You might not have to pay property tax on a boat, although some areas do have personal property taxes that apply. You won’t have lawn or yard maintenance, though you have to pay for a diver to clean growth off the hull’s bottom.
On the other hand, some boats are simply money pits. You must use caution when buying a boat. You cannot allow your dreams to prevent you from seeing reality.
Every boat that was ever built is and will always be a “project boat.” Most people are best off to avoid purchasing anything opening described as a “project boat.” If you’re used to boat shopping and you step aboard a boat and say, “Wow, this needs a lot of work,” know just one thing—it probably needs more work and more money than you can even imagine.
Many who have the resources purchase new boats, thinking it will save them some hassle. They certainly get beautiful vessels built to their specifications. But that new boat also probably needs more work and more money than you can even imagine!
Choose wisely, because every boat probably needs more work and more money than you can even imagine!
Final Thoughts—Is Boat Life Right For You?
Living on a boat is a wonderful way to spend all your time messing about in boats. Boats are fun, and living a life less ordinary can be fun too.
Living on a boat is not for everybody, but for those interested in trying it, it’s an adventure worth trying.