If you’re thinking about living on a sailboat, picking out the right boat is a crucial decision. And if you already own a boat and are thinking about moving on board, how do you know it will work? Is it a good size sailboat to live on?
There is no absolute right or wrong size of sailboat to live on, because there are many variables that affect the space you need. How many people will live on board, and what are their relationships? What is your budget to buy a boat, and what is your budget to maintain it? How are you planning to live – in a slip without moving, or exploring the world?
Despite the variables, we can narrow the range down to a more practical answer that’s bounded by your minimum space and comfort requirements and your budget. The recommended target size of a sailboat to live on is from 35 to 45 feet, depending on how many you have on board.
What Is A Good Size Sailboat To Live On?
Minimum Sailboat Requirements
There’s a vast difference between camping on a sailboat for a weekend and living on board. What works for a week’s vacation may not work at all if you have to get up every morning to go to work. You can definitely spend a week on a small sailboat living out of a cooler and a porta-potty, but it will not be a suitable solution for the long term.
You’ll want private sleeping space, water for washing, the ability to prepare and eat meals, and some way to handle waste. There are few boats under thirty feet which can meet these needs for more than one person.
Cabins, Privacy, and Beds
Consider a few living scenarios – a couple, a family with young children, a single person, and two unrelated friends. In each scenario, you’ll have different needs for sleeping and dressing space, as well as accommodating different sleep schedules.
To live on board, you’ll want a private sleeping space for each sleeping group (couple, single, kids). For boats with kids, a closing door means you can stay up later than your children, which is important for long-term quality of life. Adults may want to go to bed at different times, or not want to wake up the second someone else starts making coffee in the galley. A cabin with a door is a game changer for peace on board.
The more people on the boat, the more compartmentalized sleeping space you need to be a good sailboat to live on. While a single person or a couple can live in a thirty-foot boat, boats with three or more people need more cabins. This gets you into the upper 30s or into forty-foot lengths and above.
You’ll need a source of water for washing dishes and basic hygiene. Few boats are plumbed with city water connections, though you can add that. Instead, most have electric pressure water pumps and water tanks.
Potable water on board is also nice and gives you flexibility to leave the dock.
Refrigeration, the ability to cook, and some place to eat are a minimum requirement. You don’t need a freezer, but having one makes shopping and planning easier. Without a built-in fridge, self-contained coolers and fridges can fill the gap. Though they are large and often in the way, and are poor solutions on boats you sail. You can make do with no refrigeration, but this is uncommon for domestic liveaboards in the U.S.. It takes different food choices and good preparation and planning.
Fortunately, there are some very nice galleys installed even on small boats. You don’t need to prep a seven course gourmet meal, but even a small fridge and a two-burner stove are sufficient for enjoyable meals.
Even if you live in a marina with nice showers and heads, you’ll want basic facilities with a sink and toilet. Getting dressed in the middle of the night during a howling rainstorm for a call of nature is no treat, and without facilities, you’ll never be able to leave the dock.
Small boats can meet this need with a porta-potty, but larger boats have holding tanks and toilets. A good on board shower is very nice to have for living on board, but most marinas have showers you may prefer.
Living on a boat is a minimalist lifestyle, but you need clothes, tools, spares, and supplies. The needs are specific to your situation. For example, if you live aboard but go to work in an office, you’ll need a lot more space for work clothes than a full-time cruiser who lives in sandals, shorts, and t-shirts.
The Good Size
You won’t find most of the minimal requirements in boats under 35 feet. You’ll find some of them, but for a decent space with living that’s comfortable enough not to chafe, for a single or couple you’ll want to start your search in the mid 30s. A good size sailboat for larger groups to live on start closer to 40 feet.
As you add people, you add size and complexity. There are some great boats under 40 feet with three cabins, but you may find them snug if you’re a tall person or your kids are teens.
Too Much Boat
Bigger boats are more expensive, and it’s not a linear relationship. Moving to a boat 10% longer isn’t going to cost 10% more, it will cost more like 20-30% extra to buy. Recurring costs like slip rental and haulouts are charged by the foot, so bigger boats are more expensive to own and operate.
And larger boats are harder to handle than small ones. If you’re not used to handling a big, heavy boat, you’ll have a bigger learning curve with a 55 footer than you will with a 35.
Even big boats are tight compared to land based living in houses and apartments. It’s very tempting to go big, but avoid the urge to buy too much boat. Even if money is no object, if you and your crew can’t move your boat without help, it’s too big for you.
The Right Size Sailboat
While there’s no one-size-fits-all for living aboard, there are a range of sailboats for sale that are the right size for you. To find the right one, look at a lot of boats. Go to boat shows, look at boats with a broker, search SailTrader.com, and pore over sailing and cruising magazines and boat reviews. If it’s in your budget, charter a boat in the right size range for a week or weekend, or try to find someone willing to take you out. You’ll learn a lot by spending some time aboard if you’ve never done it before, and the more you know, the better your choice will be.