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What makes a good liveaboard boat? - Courtney Kirchoff What makes a good liveaboard boat? - Courtney Kirchoff
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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?

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Copyright 2018. Courtney Kirchoff.