Raise your hand if you’ve ever said something like “I’d love to just move on a boat and go.” You hear it a lot, but only a few people ever take the plunge and move onto a sailboat full time.
It sounds like a fantastic dream, but is it really worth it?
The answer isn’t as simple as you think, because it depends on why you’re moving onto a boat, as well as how you go about doing it and how much you love your land-bound conveniences. There are trade-offs, and the answer for everyone is unique because only you know how much you value what you get compares to the cost of what you give up.
Living on a sailboat is a very romanticized, but the practical reality of boat life doesn’t always gybe with Travis McGee sitting on the Busted Flush with a cool drink and a hot companion. There are complications, and you have to change how you think about almost everything you do in daily life, from getting dressed in the morning to shopping for groceries.
For example, even the smallest efficiency apartment has many conveniences you take for granted. Long hot showers, toilets you that flush as often as you want, lights connected that just come on when you flip the switch, a refrigerator that runs and you can see what’s in it….these are all really nice things that sailboats don’t always do. You must pay attention to them, and that’s a new thing for most people.
Even if you live in a marina connected to shore power and don’t have to worry about electrical power or batteries, using your own bathroom on board means managing your waste. Few boats are plumbed for direct city water hookup, so if you want to shower and do dishes on board, you’ll be topping up the tanks. And being in a slip does nothing for tiny closet space, or deep, dark refrigerators that open from the top or have raw water intakes that get clogged. Or ongoing maintenance, or a host of other minor issues that come up.
Not to say boat life is bad – it can be fantastic. But it’s not a panacea of indolent living and relaxation. There is more work for some day-to-day things. As long as you come in with your eyes open, it can absolutely be worth it, and be much nicer than land-bound life.
Your Reasons Matter
Why you choose to live aboard has as much effect on your experience as how you do it. The most common reasons people choose to live on board are to simplify their lives and save money, find flexibility and freedom to move around, and to get out and see the world.
They are all valid reasons, but they may not be enough for the inconvenience.
To Simplify and Save Money
Boats force simplification of your possessions because the living space is smaller. You can’t fit as much stuff, be it clothing, furniture or things of any type.
For example, a 50′ x 14′ rectangle has 700 square feet. Make that a 50′ boat with a fourteen foot beam, so pinch in the ends. Close off the engine and machinery spaces, build cabinetry around the outside, and you’ve cut that to more like 400 square feet of actual living area, or about 2/3 the living area of an average studio apartment. The furniture is built-in and closets are compact, and it’s very spacious…for a boat. House dwellers may disagree.
But the lack of space simplifies everything from your wardrobe to the spices in your galley.
But does it save money?
Costs of a Sailboat
The cost of buying a sailboat are very variable, but a quality boat that is mobile and functional isn’t cheap. You can buy something to live on for low five figures, but the smaller the boat, the bigger the change in lifestyle. And older, cheaper boats usually need a lot of work.
Beyond buying the sailboat, you’ll need to budget for berthing it, routine maintenance, fuel, and insurance. There are tradeoffs to staying in expensive marinas, but living on a mooring or at anchor adds its own costs in money and time.
On the whole, sailboat living usually costs less than a house. But it’s not a guarantee, and there may be better ways to lower your costs like apartments, tiny homes, or RV living.
Free Boating Lifestyle
You will hear stories about living free on a sailboat. There are people who do it, but those boats don’t stay in marinas, and they rarely move very much. In fact, many coastal towns don’t like liveaboards anchored full time in their waters. You can do it, but expect to have to move around and you may get hassled. And you’ll still have to manage your water and waste.
You can live a lot more cheaply on a boat, but it’s not as automatic is just buying a boat and moving on board.
For Flexibility and Freedom
Living on a sailboat for flexibility and the freedom to move around may be a lot more satisfying than doing it just to save a few dollars. While you still have the same challenges of living on a sailboat, instead of being annoyed by what you don’t have compared to land-bound life, you see them for what they give you. And that’s freedom.
Having enough tankage and battery power to spend weeks at a time off the grid means you can go where you want to. You need to come in now and then for supplies, pumpouts, and maintenance. But if you can take your livelihood with you, you can move anywhere you want, when you want. Moving a hundred miles down the coast for a month can change your entire outlook.
But if you have a day job to go to, you lose some of that freedom. You can still move, but you need to be close enough to get to work, or have enough vacation time to take longer ones. It’s almost implicit that moving on a boat for freedom means you also have to free up your livelihood, too.
To See the World
Seeing the world under sail is one of the best ways to do it. Instead of flying in for a week at a resort, you spend weeks or months absorbed in the local community. You learn the bus routes and shop in the open-air markets with locals. It’s immersive and engaged, and you gain an understanding of places you visit with a greater breadth and depth than you will on any vacation.
It’s a genuine sense of freedom, because you’re crossing oceans and changing countries and have really cut ties from land. You’re immersed in where you are because you have no choice; you’ve brought your home there. While that isn’t for everyone, if you love seeing new places and exposing yourself to different cultures, it’s one of the best ways.
Is it worth it for you?
This is only something you can answer. If you can’t live without your dishwasher or satellite TV, sailboat living may not be for you. But if you can do without the dishwasher and get a satellite dish or cable connection installed in your slip, will it work? Maybe. If you must have long hot showers to survive, are you willing to walk up the dock to the showers on shore every day?
Before you jump in, make sure your eyes are open. It can be an awesome lifestyle, with the right mindset. But it takes compromise and adjusting your ideas of “normal.”