sailboat haul out

What makes a good liveaboard boat?

It’s obligatory to open this post with an obvious statement: we’re all different, we have different personal needs and priorities. But most of us do have one thing in common and it’s an important factor to consider when searching for a boat to live aboard: we live in a modern world of conveniences and have grown up in relative comfort. I’m talking here about first worlders. We’re used to flipping switches and having the lights turn on, used to plopping down in front of the TV at night and controlling it with a remote, used to abundant closet space and running hot water. Moving out of those conveniences takes adjusting, and though you might think that you can live without modern niceities, you may want to think again.

Sailing forums are littered with dewey-eyed liveaboard dreamers, many of whom say the same thing: they don’t need modern conveniences, they’re trading them for a life of freedom at sea. Many also say they can give up their home for a small boat, a 26 to 30 footer, no problemo. I was such a dreamer, but after a year of modified camping, I can tell you it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and if I were to do it all again, I’d make some changes.

Have you and I been spoiled? Heck yes, and take conveniences away and you’ll try to find ways to get them back! The good news is, technology can be taken to a boat. It can be, depending upon how much you’re willing to work and spend, the best of both worlds.

Size & space

It’s mostly men who live aboard boats, and many of them assume they can start small, say a 27 footer. All boats are different, and some 27 footers live large. And, if you’re a small person, perhaps you don’t need the headroom as much as I do, someone who stands 5’7″ sans shoes. I can promise you, regardless of how tall or wide you are, you have much more crap than you think you do, and the boat has its needs as well: spare parts and tools, oil, jerry cans, sails, and other paraphernalia. Since you, like me, probably grew up in a house or apartment, you’re used to having space for your stuff. I mention the size of a boat first because you can’t change it. A 27 footer will always be so, regardless of how much cash you put into it.

In your house or apartment, you had space to do different things. You’ll want the same kind of situation aboard a boat: a space to cook, a space to eat, a space to sleep, a space to relax, possibly a space to work (if you work from home). For me, I need a separate space for each thing, that’s just how my mind is, though. It needs organization, a purpose for each location. Luckily even small boats can give you all of the above. But know yourself. Do you have a home office and a dining room? Do you take your laptop to the table and work there, or always work in your office? Do you like to recline at the kitchen bar, or kick it up on the couch? You’ll want to be comfortable aboard your boat. Be honest with yourself.

You’ll also want a boat with ample storage. Lots of it. Boats that have their tanks in the bilge/keel area free up space everywhere else. What I loved most about the Union 36 I saw was how much space it offered, because of the tank location. There was three times as much storage space as I had stuff. Drawers, lockers, space under settees, in berths, shelves, everywhere. It would’ve been a comfortable liveaboard vessel. But I found that a Baba 30 had plenty of space as well, and a navigation station to starboard (a perfect work station when not sailing).

Power

At anchor, your boat will not have AC power unless you’re running a generator. You can also invert your battery power to AC with the aid of an inverter, but you’ll need to charge up your batteries. I have a generator for this task, and a loud one. If I get home late and need to charge the batteries, I opt to run the diesel, thus keeping it quieter for my neighbors. What I’ve found over summer, though, is how much I HATE running the generator, it’s that loud. I’m a lover of all things quiet. When I have to run the generator, I try to escape the noise through various distractions, and find it difficult to get work done. Then, once the batteries are topped off, I find I try to limit the use of power, so I dont’ have to run the generator again. What results? A huge loss of work productivity.

If I were to do it all again, I’d either try to dock the boat year around, and thus be connected to shore power, or invest seriously in alternative energy sources, mainly wind and solar, then get an inverter with greater watt capacity, one that doesn’t have an annoying fan that runs when the wattage usage goes above 50. If you like things quiet, and like to use a computer, or watch TV from time to time, you’ll want to do the same: quiet power.

Not all generators sound like a T-Rex! Honda EUs, specifically the 1000 and 2000 models, are fairly quiet, but they still hum. It’s really up to how much you can honestly tolerate. Me, not a great deal. Know thyself!

Cockpit enclosure

I live where it rains a lot. But in summer time, there isn’t a more beautiful place in the world. For those reasons, a full cockpit enclosure would be ideal. The cockpit on the Islander 30 is massive, and if enclosed for winter, an extra room! Without an enclosure, wasted space. How nice it would’ve been to roll out the canvas during winter time and sit in the cockpit and watch the icky weather, all while feeling comfortable and cozy, sipping coffee. And in summer, peeling back the Sunbrella to expose the warmth of the sun. In tropical climates you’ll want to escape the sun from time to time. Some like pilot houses, and they provide much of what I outlined above. It’s an option you might want to consider, depending upon where you live.

Refrigerator

I grew up with cold food. Some food is supposed to be cold until consumed, it’s a health thing. My Islander came with a poorly insulated icebox, which I added insulation to, but still. I put in a block of ice every few days to keep things cold, and it does a decent job of it, but the block of ice commandeers a lot of space. Boats that have 12v refrigerators/freezers have a lot of appeal, but only if you have the power (see above) to feed them. Refers on boats are power thirsty, but it may be something, if you live aboard all year round through distinct seasons, that you may want to consider. I love refrigeration. Some liveaboards don’t mind ice. I do. Especially in the winter.

Plumbing

Living aboard means dealing with your shit. Get used to it. There are ways to make it not so unpleasant, but it starts with your attitude. It’s your poo. It smells. You’re not perfect. From time to time, you’ll need to sort it out. I know of some folks who have a composting toilet.  Most have traditional holding tanks. I have a LectraSan. Whatever your boat has, or will have, one way or another, you’re not flushing it away to a sewer system. You’ll have to live with it. I like my LectraSan unit, but I’ve still had problems with the toilet itself, and have had to deal with the lovely aspects of head problems, typically right after I’ve downed a few cups of coffee. Oh well! As it turns out, fixing toilets isn’t so hard, which is good news. If you can clean your own poo and live to tell about it, your plumbing is the least of your problems.

My boat does not have hot running water. That means that in winter, when it’s cold, so is my water. Remember that when you need to wash your hands after using the toilet. It means heating up water on the stove to wash the dishes. My water system is manual, requiring a foot pump, which isn’t bad. I save a great deal of water by manually pumping it, and I don’t feel that’s a great compromise. But pressure water is a land nicety, and when heated, can make living aboard seem less like camping. It’s something to consider.

Grooming

If I were to do it all over again, I’d get a boat with a shower. True, many liveaboards do not use the shower aboard, due to moisture problems. But it would be nice to have the option. The Union 36 I put an offer on had a shower, and I could see how handy it would be to have, especially after a few days of sailing to locations without public showers. Yes, deck showers can be nice, too, but as a girl living in the PNW, less of a practical option. Privacy is key. Plenty of storage space in the head area is also important, for all the grooming and cleaning neccessitites. Make sure your head area has ample space for the items that keep you clean.

LIVING vs SAILING

I don’t care who you are, you’re living on your boat more than you’re sailing it. Because even when you’re sailing, making long passages, you’re still living on it full time. When looking for my second boat, I thought about what was more important to me: comfort or performance. I have a competitive streak, and Libby sails like a Mazda Miata drives. And she lives about as comfortably. A comfortable liveaboard cruiser, most likely, wouldn’t be as fun to sail as my Islander 30. Oh sure, there are exceptions, but the ideal liveaboard for me is a 36-40 foot cruiser, not a racing boat. The Union 36 checked off many of my boxes, but wouldn’t win me any races. It’s something you’ll also need to consider. Do you enjoy cooking and entertaining with guests? You’ll want a great galley. Or are you going to enter in races? You’ll want a lighter boat, then. Most of the time (not always, but most) you’ll have to make compromises.

All together…

If money were not an issue for me (I wish that was a reality!) my ideal liveaboard boat would be a comfortable cruiser, both when just living on it and then sailing on it. Something sturdy, stout, and probably heavy. It wouldn’t win races, though. If I wanted to race, I’d crew for someone else (a plan that is already in the works). So for me, a Union, Baba, Panda, or even a Hans Christian would fit the bill. I have expensive taste. A fun and fast cruiser, like a Pacific Seacraft, would also be worth a look. Whichever it was, I’d trick the boat out to have a lot of power options, would have a shower, a ton of storage space, functional galley. After a year of living aboard, I know that essentially what I want is a small, floating house, not a camper shell. But that’s just me. It would take a lot of money to be comfortable.

Okay, what about you? I’m sure there are folks out there who think I’m acting spoiled. I am spoiled. And I like it. How have you modified your liveaboard boat to suit your living comforts and needs? Or are you content to camp?



'What makes a good liveaboard boat?' have 15 comments

  1. September 18, 2012 @ 8:35 pm s/v Eolian

    Well you’ve seen Eolian. We won’t win races, but then I am not a racer. For me, it is the journey that is the destination. And in 52′ overall, we have not had to compromise living comfort much.

    Speaking of showers, beware: showers go very fast when you don’t have warm water… in fact, they’re much more like sponge baths. You really don’t want to spray cold water all over your shivering, goose-pimpled naked body.

    bob
    s/v Eolian
    Seattle

    Reply

    • September 19, 2012 @ 9:19 am Courtney

      I know, your boat is gorgeous and oh so comfortable. As for the showers, ideally I’d have a water heater, but using the shower would be rare, say after a busy, hot sailing day.

      Reply

      • September 19, 2012 @ 5:38 pm Eolian

        Well, we *never* run the generator to run the water heater – takes too much power. But our water heater has coils on it that the engine cooling water pass thru…

        So if you changed that to “After a long hot day of *motoring*…”

        Reply

  2. September 19, 2012 @ 8:18 pm Sid

    I think I’m definitely content with camping seeing as my liveaboard is a Cal 25. Although, that was definitely an upgrade from my van which was a downgrade from my bus. I am shopping for my next boat and standing headroom would be nice, but I’m more interested in getting something with a full keel and a transom hung rudder. A few feet longer would be nice, especially when multiple people visit/ stay the night, but everything over 30 feet seems huge, I would’t know what to do with the extra space.

    A sardine wood stove is going to be my first (and immediate) upgrade. Winters are flipping cold on a boat off Vancouver Island.

    Its unfortunate you won’t be living a life aquatic anymore. I held/hold you up as an example to all my female friends that they could do it to. Have fun crewing.

    Reply

    • September 20, 2012 @ 9:55 am Courtney

      You’d love the extra space and probably fill it. Size adjustments take getting used to. When I was searching for liveaboard boats last year, even a 32 footer seemed enormous compared to a 30. Now a 36 footer feels gargantuan compared to everything else, but oh, the space!

      Yes to the sardine stove idea, they’re adorable to boot, and they put out a lot of BTUs. The maker is up in the San Juans, I want to say Lopez Island? I talked to him once and he got me an estimate.

      As to not living a life aquatic anymore…well, it’s not over until the fat lady sings ;-)

      Reply

    • September 14, 2013 @ 4:20 am André Leclair

      Found your comment interesting about a CAL 25 currently being your home sweet home on the water (anyway back in 2012 when you wrote this post). Do you still own it or have you moved up to a bigger boat? I too own a CAL 25 MK II which is good size for me as I am 5 foot seven (and a half) but I can appreciate the absence of much space to store stuff if I would consider taking my sailboat on a long journey. I also have a dream of sailing down to the Caribbeans but since I live up North in Canada (way up North and North of the border for you), considering this journey is a perspective of weeks on end of motoring with my one-cylinder Yanmar. As I single-hand most of the time, I find the size of my boat ideal as all lines are controlled from the cockpit especially the jib track, very safe configuration, and I find the cabin still very roomy and cozy for this size of boat. More realistically, my doable dream will come true next summer as I will sail down the St-Lawrence River and Atlantic Canada.

      Cheers,

      André Leclair
      CAL 25 MK II, Gatineau, Quebec (presently sailing land locked on beautiful Ottawa River)

      Reply

  3. September 19, 2012 @ 10:23 pm What makes a good liveaboard boat? | Courtney Kirchoff

    [...] makes a good liveaboard boat? Posted on September 18, 2012 by [...]

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  4. September 20, 2012 @ 4:02 pm S/V Kingsley

    I have to admit, we were looking to live aboard on a big, beautiful, seaworthy Jason 35. We thought we’d live in Seattle for a few and then set off.
    Financial reality set in and we ended up in a not-so-salty production boat, a Hunter 320.
    After a few years however, I’ll say it turned out to be a great choice for us. She’s new-ish (2000), low engine hours, water pressure, hot water heater, shower, stove, oven, she turns on a dime, and sails 7.5 knots on a reach. We live comfortable and sail all the time ’cause she’s easy to take out. She makes us look like pro-dockers. Will we sail her forever to far off lands? Nope. Do we sail more now than everyone on our dock? Yep.

    Reply

    • September 20, 2012 @ 4:22 pm Courtney

      She sounds great, a perfect fit for you. Kingsley, what a neat name. Pro-docking is a rarity, isn’t it? It’s fun/scary to watch people try to dock. You’d think it wouldn’t be that difficult, but as many boaters do it but a few times a year, many fail spectacularly. As long as your boat isn’t close to theirs, it’s a great form of entertainment.

      Reply

  5. September 22, 2012 @ 11:03 am Rick Bailey

    I keep looking at larger boats, then realize how much more money they require, from mooring to maintenance, to insuring, to hauling – every thing. Never mind the initial purchase. We are fortunate that our boat is a “large” 27 footer, weighing in at 9200#. Really, there isn’t a bigger 27 footer on the water. But if I moved up in size I couldn’t scrub my hull with a brush (could reach even less of the surface), and I definitely couldn’t push it away from a piling. So our interior is large (for 27 feet), but we lack amenities – our shower water is heated on the stove top, but head is set up for showering (suspend a solar bag from the rigging and run and extra long spray nozzle into the opening port). Our water is all hand/foot pumps. Our ice box is ice-only. Our oven doesn’t exist, except for the cast-iron dutch kind.

    Still, we can take long vacations on board and not feel like we’re camping. It’s very comfortable and seaworthy, even into early spring and late fall. A bigger boat wouldn’t improve our sailing experience or our live-aboard comfort. I think instead it would increase my worry over systems and electricity. And it would push our budget out of proportion. But we don’t live aboard full time. I think the longer we lived without modern conveniences, the more we would miss them, especially if we were tied to a pier and job ashore.

    Rick
    s/v Cay of Sea
    Deale, MD

    Reply

  6. September 25, 2012 @ 8:44 am Rick Dettinger

    Well, another possibility, which will probably get me permanently banned from this site, is to live aboard a power boat, and sail a nice dingy. The power boat will give more room for the money, and, I have found that I enjoy sailing more if I don’t need to get somewhere. Most cruisers in a sailboat are motoring, if they need to get to the anchorage on a given day. Most don’t want to slat around in the traffic lanes all night, waiting for a breeze. I know this from sailing a cruising boat, and watching other sailboats from my 22 foot powerboat. My own preference for a live aboard boat would be a “tug” type, or the miss named “trawler” yachts. I would want a sailing dingy that was a seaworthy design, capable of day long cruising on exposed inland waters. It would be towed by the power cruiser.
    I have seen barge type house boats that would make a great on the water home. These are built in the style of shanty boats that were popular in days gone by.

    Rick

    Reply

  7. September 25, 2012 @ 12:35 pm Ben Lockrem

    I have been following your posts on here. I stumbled upon your blog just before your boat was hit when looking for other Islander 30 sites. I live aboard a 1984 Islander 30 with my westie, Molly. I have been since spring of last year. I threw a tarp over it last year, used bubblers, and stayed on during the winter too. I love it.
    I was docked behind a small dive bar in Benton Harbor, MI that had 4 docks. I had access to the bar owner’s shower, but only after the bar opened at 11. I had power all year which was nice, but still had to “rough it” a bit.
    Now, you might say I cheated a bit as I had a storage area I rented to keep family things I didn’t want to get rid of. I never accessed it though, so it really doesn’t count.
    I guess the reason I am chiming in now is sort of in defense of an Islander 30 as a livaboard. The things you were missing are fairly easy to add. I have central air, hot water, and a shower (ok..sort of). I am adding a Dickenson solid fuel heater this week.
    I am in the process of moving to Erie, PA. The boat had to be trucked as I did not have time to sail around Michigan and across Ohio. I have a great place for it there (with 24 hour shower access..woohoo!) and will be bubbling again this winter.
    Just wanted you to know I feel for you with the loss of your Islander. You might not want to rule out another one, maybe with a few more ammenities.

    Reply

  8. March 31, 2013 @ 8:57 am MelD

    OK, re. plumbing. You already had TMI, so I will add to that: ladies, if you are between 12 and 50, you may want to consider your hygiene problems once a month. I really wonder how you manage… This Easter weekend, we chartered a 33′ generous Bavaria yacht. Great little bathroom and toilet. All brand new and shiny, lots of white, even all the upholstery… On day 2, red letter day. Unexpected and unplanned for. I am not someone who has a couple of days of spotting, I am a mother of 3 and a grandmother and it’s a whole week of the full shebang. It’s a nightmare. I eventually left the boat on day 3 and returned home where I have space, a bathtub and moveable shower head, and am able to use toilet paper (also, where a leak won’t have me either run out of clothes or ruin the upholstery!). It was simply not possible to manage this time of the month on that boat, much to my chagrin (I had to leave my husband and good friends to get on with it – can you imagine how embarrassed I was??). Yep, TMI – but realistic. Seems I won’t be considering living aboard for any length of time till Mother Nature has deemed me “old” enough!!

    Reply

  9. June 20, 2013 @ 3:27 am Living on a boat: Size Matters | The Crazy Chronicles: 5 Kids and a Boat

    [...] found this post by Courtney Kirchoff.  She discusses the important aspects of a good liveaboard [...]

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  10. August 7, 2013 @ 3:46 am Living On a Boat - What's to HATE? | The Crazy Chronicles: 5 Kids and a Boat

    […] Courtney Kirchoff,  former owner of S/V Libby describes just how noisy generators can be: […]

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