Choosing a Liveaboard Boat

When I first started looking to move aboard a boat in 1998, I didn’t have a clue as to the difference between a liveaboard boat, and those primarily used for weekend cruising and short voyages.  I used the internet to start asking what makes a “liveaboard” boat, and these are some of the responses that I received:

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Usually in creature comforts like a working fridge, an internal engine (usually diesel), and a lot lower waterline.

– Doug Abbot

It depends, if you want speed or stability. Each cruiser has her particulars. Our vessel is 3/4 keel, with furling sails, making it easier to handle.

– The Lillie Family

If you truly want to live aboard a boat and also go sailing you would be better off getting two boats. Get an old roomy powerboat for office and living, and get a functional cruising sailboat for serious sailing. Cruising and living aboard dockside are totally different, what is needed for one is a detriment to the other. With a compromise boat, you end up with one that does neither very well. Old powerboats are cheap and very dockside livable, a good SAFE cruising boat, makes a horrible office and a lousy long term dockside home, and you will never go sailing because your dockside liveaboard stuff is too much trouble to get out of the way, Good Luck!

– Gary W.

 Ours can be sailed single handed, and we’re an Islander 44 (masthead sloop), but you may not think we have enough room. Islander Freeport 41 makes a nice liveaboard, but may not fill your sailing requirements. You’ve sure got some shopping to do! Best of luck.

 – Potterkat

A liveaboard boat must allow you to carry out your normal day to day living activities in a way that will not make you feel like you are camping out. These considerations include storage space for clothes, head/shower functionality, adequate interior lighting, workable galley, and comfortable sleeping arrangement. Remember, on a weekender, you are never forced to get into a routine, you don’t have to worry about groceries or hanging up working clothes or space to set up your computer and printer. Most importantly, even when the boat is “loaded down” with all of the liveaboard stuff, you still want it to be easy to sail without having to spend an excessive amount of time stowing stuff.

– Tracy Watkins

Fitting out a boat for living aboard in a marina is rather different to buying and fitting out a boat for living aboard while long-term cruising. If you are interested in the latter, you might mike to have a look at the web site I put together about my own preparations for long-term cruising, and about the trip itself. It is at http://www.geocities.com/TheTropics/Shores/6076. I hope this helps.

 – Phaon Reid

Biggest difference is probably the size. Most weekend cruisers are in the 20 – 30 feet range. A weekend cruiser can have all the comforts of a liveaboard or very few depends on the boat and owner.  Don’t compromise on the amenities. For example, a small shower stall will drive you nuts in about a month. Look at multihulls (catamarans). They offer a lot more living/working space. They also don’t heal very much, important if you don’t want your laser printer on the floor.

– Stuart L. Jantzen

What I decided (1998):

After carefully inspecting 20 boats or so, I began to develop a sense for what makes a boat liveable. Some of the boats we went aboard are practically “floating condominiums.” They have beautiful interiors, and all of the creature comforts of home (Island Packet is a boat that falls into this category). These boats are made to be easily maneuvered, so their keels are relatively short. These boats also tend to be considerably lighter (i.e., they displace less water) than their ocean-going counterparts. Many of them tend to have large ports that let in a lot of light (but could also, potentially, let in a lot of water in heavy seas).

Ultimately, I decided on a 38′ Hans Christian sailboat. She has everything that I need to live my daily existence, and she makes it very comfortable. There’s plenty of headroom all throughout the boat. I can stand to cook my meals, entertain my friends in the saloon, and take a piss in the head. Not having to crouch throughout the living space is a very important issue in any home! She also has a full galley (kitchen), with plenty of storage for food, a working refrigerator, hot and cold running water, an oven, and a three-range burner. There are hanging closets for my work clothes and play clothes. Plenty of drawer space for my socks and underwear. The head is spacious enough so that I can read a newspaper while doing my business, and it has a separate shower. Hell, the boat even has a separate guest cabin for the folks I don’t want to sleep with!

While she does have a lot of amenities, the Hans Christian doesn’t have a lot of room in the interior, which will take a bit of adjustment on my part. There are no wide-open spaces in which to entertain guests (even the cockpit, which is outside, is small).

Thoughts from 2000:

Now that I’ve lived aboard for nearly two years, I’ve been on a LOT of boats. There are some HUGE differences between weekend-cruisers and a boat designed for full-time living aboard (like a blue water cruiser).

I thought when I bought the boat that she was relatively small. But I was comparing her to the spacious 1,200 sq. ft. apartment I used to live in. That apartment was ridiculous in its accommodations. A huge fireplace, 16′ vaulted ceilings, a separate office, two spacious bathrooms, an island kitchen, a balcony, etc.

For those of us who can’t afford multimillion dollar yachts, our way of thinking about space has to change when we move aboard. It is true that many of my friends asked, “Gee, won’t you get claustrophobic living here?” Well, yes, I would if I were in their mind-set. They live in big houses with a lot of the amenities my apartment had. Today, I live in a space that I estimate would translate into 300 sq. ft. of a normal house. That’s 1/4 of the area I used to have!

So, some adjustments had to be made. The only “furniture” I have is what’s built into the boat. This would include couches (called “settees” aboard a boat). I have two of them. One on starboard that pulls out to make a full berth and the other wraps-around the table in the saloon. Beds are also built-in. Candide has three official beds (called “berths”). One is in the very peak of the boat, and it comfortably sleeps two (though I was fortunate enough to once sleep with two women up there…but that’s another story). Another is in the aft cabin, which also comfortably sleeps two. The third is opposite the aft cabin (though this berth offers no privacy. It’s a “quarter berth”) and only sleeps one. It’s designed for the captain while the boat’s at sea. It’s very near the instruments and close to the companionway leading up to the deck. Wardrobes are also built-in. Candide has two. They’re located in the vee-berth (the front of the boat), side by side. Generally, I keep my business suits on one side and my play clothes in the other. The boat offers several drawers, which substitute for a chest-of-drawers that might be found in a house. There are four of them in the vee-berth, and three in the aft cabin. This is where I stick jeans, socks, underwear, and t-shirts.

The separate shower in the head is a must for living aboard, in my opinion. A lot of boats don’t have separate showers. Instead, the head includes a “hose” that is used for showering. Water simply drains onto the floor, and eventually is pumped overboard. This is NOT a good design, as you’ll be standing in water all the time as you dry your hair. Read the warning label on your hair dryer sometime. This is not recommended procedure (something about grounding, bare feet, water, electricity, and being electrocuted to death). A separate shower, where the water and mildew can be maintained, is definitely a plus.

Candide has a wrap-around galley, which means that the chef stands in the middle while everything is within arm’s length. At first, one would think, “My God! That’s the smallest friggin’ kitchen I’ve ever seen!” And it is. But, when the boat is at sea, the wrap-around galley is a god-send. The cook can literally strap himself/herself to a special bar attached to the oven and not have to worry about getting knocked around as the boat rocks back and forth. Everything…from raw food, to the refrigerator, to the oven and sink, is all within a couple of feet away. A lot of weekend boats, I’ve noticed, have straight galleys…everything is “lined up.” These layouts certainly have more room in which to walk around, but this is NOT a good arrangement to have at sea.

One complaint I have about Candide as a liveaboard vessel is the amount of light available in the cabin. Quite frankly, my friends have labeled her as “the cave” because there are no large windows letting in copious amounts of light. I admit, that if there was one thing that I could change, it would be the amount of light that gets into the cabin. It’s friggin’ dark in here! It should be noted, however, that this is a life-saving feature aboard a blue-water cruiser. In heavy seas, there are no large windows to break out and let in a ton of water. For me, it’s one of those trade-off issues. I do plan on crossing an ocean one day…best not to have huge windows.

Thoughts from 2003:

It’s been several years since I moved aboard, and I now consider myself an expert on living on a boat. Candide came with tons of amenities that I simply took for granted. Having talked with several of my liveaboard companions, I’m offering a list of things (simple, though they seem) that not every boat has. These simple things, or rather the lack thereof, can cause great hardships and break up marriages…according to the people I’ve come to know. Here they are:

  • Galley Sink

    Running Water.  It seems so simple. On land, you go to the kitchen to cook a meal, turn on the faucet, and don’t give a second’s thought as to whether water will appear. When taking a shower you turn on the faucet and water just magically flows. Most of us take this totally for granted. Now, imagine living on a boat with no automatic water pressure. To cook that meal, you’re going to have to use a manual hand pump (or foot pump) to get that water you need. It’s not an easy task to hold a pot in one hand while furiously pumping with the other! About that shower…well, I personally don’t know how it’s possible to be trapped in an area the size of a small phone booth, and use a manual pump to produce the water flow. It seems to me that a combination of slippery soap, confined space, and vigorous arm movement is just an accident waiting to happen. Yet, some boats don’t have automatic running water. This causes a LOT of problems for people who live aboard full-time. Note, however, that electric pumps can usually be added to a boat that only has manual pumps. So, if you find that dream boat and discover that it only has manual water, think about maybe adding an electric water pressure pump. Guaranteed to make your life easier!

  • Water Heater

    Water Heater

    Hot Water.  So now it’s time to wash the dishes from the meal you made with magical Running Water. The VAST majority of boats don’t have dishwashers, so you’ll be scrubbing them by hand. Experience tells me that hot water is much more effective for washing dishes than cold water. To do this, of course, you’ll need a hot water heater. Afterwards, you may want to take a shower before going to bed. If you only have cold water on the boat, this may induce a certain amount of “shrinkage” in vital (male) body parts. So, you crawl into bed with the missus with a very cold body exhibiting only a fraction of your usual self. This will not make you particularly attractive that evening. So, hot water is a very convenient thing to have for washing dishes, general cleaning, and your companionship. Again, hot water heaters can be added to almost any boat. It’s certainly worth considering!

  • Toilet and Shower

    Separate Shower

    Separate Shower.  No, I don’t mean “his” and “hers.” I mean that the shower should be separate from the rest of the bathroom (head). “Well, of course the shower area is separate,” my landlubber readers may be thinking. Who ever heard of a bathroom in a house or apartment that didn’t have a separate compartment for the shower, separated from the rest of the bathroom with sliding glass doors or at least a curtain? Well, a lot of boat designers, for whatever reason, don’t feel that it’s necessary to have a separate shower area. Instead, there’s a “shower hose” connected to the sink in the head. To take a shower, one simply walks into the head, turns on the “hose” and starts to lather up. The problem is that water will wind up everywhere in the head…in the medicine cabinet, on the toilet, and on the toothbrushes that were left out the night before. In short, it will produce one very wet bathroom that becomes difficult to use. Far better to live aboard a boat that has a separate shower…separated from the rest of the bathroom with doors or curtains…just like you’d expect to find in a house. In addition, the “whole head as a shower” concept is potentially dangerous at sea. Let’s say you’re on a four-day voyage. Second day out, someone is going to want to wash the salt off of themselves. They use the “whole head as a shower” and leave puddles of soapy water all over the floor. Twenty minutes later, someone goes into the head to retrieve a Q-Tip or whatever. They encounter a very slippery floor, the boat suddenly heals in a different direction, and they slip and bang their head against the toilet. They hire Johnny Cochren, there’s a lawsuit, a big media frenzy…you get the picture. A separate shower is a big plus on a liveaboard boat. And unless you’re a very talented carpenter with a lot of extra time on your hands, the boat has to built with this feature in mind. It’s not something that can be easily added at a later date.

  • His and Her Space. Small boats, by nature, are very cramped living quarters. One of the complaints I’ve heard from couples living on very small boats (say 25 – 30′) is that there’s no way to establish individual territories. I’ve discovered that couples living on larger boats tend to find a bit of space specifically for each person. It could be simply somewhere to sit down, or even a separate cabin…but a place to escape on their own for a bit of solitude. As someone who’s only lived aboard alone, I’m not an expert on this area. All I can do is pass along what I’ve heard from others in this regard.
  • Air Conditioner / Heater

    Climate Control. This site includes a whole section on air conditioning and heating. I knew that this was an important amenity for me personally living alone on the boat, but I didn’t know what a big deal it was for folks living without it. Here in Florida, it gets very, very hot and humid during the summer. Most buildings and cars here are air-conditioned. Living on a boat in sweltering conditions can make life pure hell. Sleep is nearly impossible. Even thinking can be a real chore. In north Florida, it gets very cold during the winter. Sometimes, the temperature drops below freezing. Again, sleep is nearly impossible. During the day, these temperatures aren’t such a big deal. One can go to a library to work or maybe a Starbucks. But at night…well, that’s a different story all together. As a liveaboard, it’s my opinion that you’re going to need some sort of climate control that can handle both summer and winter. Most of my liveaboard friends agree.

  • Refrigerator

    Refrigeration.  Maybe your grandmother had an old-fashion ice box when she was young. Somebody would come by every few days and deliver a block of ice to put in this ancient contraption called, appropriately enough, an “ice box.” The majority of America did away with ice boxes decades ago…but not in the sailing community. Candide, launched in 1985, could store some 250 pounds of ice. This is how food was kept somewhat cool. As a liveaboard, though, who wants to bring down two or three bags of ice to throw in the box every evening during a hot summer? Certainly, not me. Fortunately, the previous owners converted the ice box into a refrigerator. There’s a compressor, evaporator, pump…the whole nine yards. This contraption keeps the old ice box at a temperature of about 36 degrees or so. By putting things directly next to the “freeze plate,” I can actually freeze food (a gallon of water will freeze in about 36 hours). A lot of boats are equipped with separate freezers, which is great but they tend to consume a LOT of electricity. But many modern boats use 100-year-old technology to keep food cool (i.e., the “ice box”). Life becomes much easier for the liveaboard when these are converted to refrigeration.

  • Hanging Lockers

    Separate Closet Space.  Generally, boat closets (called “hanging lockers” in nautical parlance), are very small places. Space within these closets is a very valuable commodity on board. As a single guy living on board, I’m quite happy with the two hanging lockers in Candide’s vee-berth. I’ve noticed an interesting trend with my fellow liveaboards who have only one closet and a wife or girlfriend on board. It seems that the closet space becomes hers, while his clothes get stuffed into a drawer somewhere. This is not a good situation if you have to wear a suit and tie on occasion (though generally, liveaboard guys hate wearing ties, much less suits. You wouldn’t believe what guys were wearing to the funeral of one of our liveaboard friends…though the deceased would not have expected the guys to wear suits and ties and in fact wasn’t wearing one when he was buried…but I digress). The solution is to find a boat with two or more hanging lockers if you intend to have a significant other on board. From what I’ve heard, it will save a few arguments.

  • Shelf Space

    Shelf Space.  I’m not an anthropologist, but I’m pretty sure it’s a human trait to collect nick-knacks. At least, it certainly is an important aspect of Western civilization. Eventually, most liveaboards will collect books, CD’s, more books, photographs, and one or two more books. Most of us want easy access to these things, without having to dig around for them at the bottom of drawers or stuffed into cabinets. So, most boats come with convenient shelves that eventually get stuffed with all sorts of items. Generally, the more shelf space a boat has, the better. Of course, these shelves should have some sort of built-in mechanism that holds items in place while under sail. Otherwise, all of your nick-knacks will wind up on the cabin sole during rough weather.

  • Gas Range (Oven Underneath)

    Gas Oven and Range.  Candide is equipped with an oven and three-burner gas stove. I’ve never paid a whole lot of attention to it. I know that it will cook frozen pizza, heat up canned soup, and allow me to make spaghetti when I need it. As a single guy who never really learned how to cook, I eat out most of the time and really never gave the oven/range a whole lot of thought. It’s always there in the rare cases I need it (though it is used extensively when we’re away from shore…but the crew generally prefers that their Captain not cook. They’re always eager to do it themselves. I’m not sure why). In any case, I’ve noticed that a lot of my fellow liveaboards have only one or two burners (with no oven) that use alcohol as a fuel source. This is often the largest complaint they have about their boats…they can’t cook a decent meal. So, if you’re a chef or wanna-be cook, I highly recommend having a gas oven with two or more burners. Gas, by the way, is preferable to alcohol. From my understanding, it burns hotter and more evenly than alcohol and is less temperamental.

  • A Bit Dark Inside…

    Ample Lighting.  Some of my friends and fellow liveaboards refer to Candide as “the cave.” The windows (called “portals”) are very small. This is very good in rough weather at sea, as it’s unlikely that rough waves will break them. Not so good at the dock, because they let in only a small amount of light. It’s true that Candide has a very large butterfly hatch in the saloon, but it’s usually covered by the dinghy which I store on deck. As the result, Candide is dark on the inside, even during the day. This is good because the darkness conceals a lot of the dirt, dust, unwashed dishes, etc., but not so good when it comes to light-dependent activities like reading. As Candide serves as both home and business office, I’d like to enjoy more natural light during the day. Hell, I might as well be stuffed in some corporate cubicle somewhere for all the natural light I enjoy during the workday. Nonetheless, the long-term goal of crossing oceans, and the safety provided by small portals, outweigh the desire for lots of daytime light in the cabin.

  • Using an AC Outlet (yes, I know the outlet’s upside-down!)

    Inverter.  When I lived in an apartment, I had a lot of different appliances that used electricity; a coffee maker, hair dryer, iron, lamps, stereo, television, microwave…you name it. When I moved on the boat, I took a lot of these things with me. I found places for them, figured out how to secure them so they wouldn’t spill onto the cabin sole while underway, and simply plugged them in. They work fine, and I’d never really given the whole process a second thought. This is because Candide is equipped with a wonderful device called an “inverter,” which converts D.C. power to A.C. D.C. power, of course, is provided by batteries. A.C. power is usually provided by an electrical utility company. An inverter allows me to bypass the electric company by converting the D.C. power stored in the boat’s eight lead-acid batteries into “normal” A.C. power that runs my television and microwave. This is very cool, because I can watch television and nuke my food even during power outages (and, unfortunately, marinas tend to experience an abnormal amount of these). There are a lot of boats that have no A.C. power whatsoever. This makes liveaboard life tough, because most appliances from the local Best Buy require A.C. power. So, if you’re looking to live aboard and want to keep your cappuccino maker, I highly recommend finding a boat with an inverter…or at least plan on installing an inverter after the fact.

  • Hot Tub.  OK, just kidding about that one. It’s something that I’ve always wanted…but simply can’t have on board Candide. If you live in the Jacksonville area and own a hot tub, I’ll take you for a sail in exchange for some time with your relaxing water jets.

Thoughts from 2012:

I have now lived on board Candide for longer than I ever lived in any single land-based domicile.  I know every inch of this boat, and I’ve been aboard dozens and dozens of other boats…both liveaboards and otherwise.  If you are looking to buy a boat to live on board, here are some general guidelines formulated after 14 years of personal experience:

  • Avoid Wood.  Water and wood do not get along.  In a fight to the finish, water will always win.  Candide has acres and acres of teak, which is certainly beautiful and even functional (provides a great amount of friction for your feet when it’s wet).  It’s also a tremendous amount of work to maintain.  The varnish above and below decks has to be sanded and re-coated on a regular basis.  Below deck, especially in cabinets and the bilge where there’s little air movement, wood rots.  And rotten wood has to be ripped out and replaced.  This can be quite expensive and/or time consuming if the rotten wood is (was) structural.  Teak decks have a life of about 25 years before they have to be replaced.  It’s about time for Candide’s decks to be replaced and I got an estimate last year for the cost…$45,000 if the work is done in the U.S. (I’ll sail her to Central America before paying those prices…labor and teak are much cheaper there!).  Keep in mind that Candide’s hull is made from fiberglass; all of the external wood is above the waterline.  I cannot imagine the amount of work involved with a wooden-hulled boat.  I strongly suggest avoiding an all-wooden boat unless you have a tremendous amount of money or a lot of time and carpentry skills!
  • Avoid “Fixer-Uppers”.  All boats require tremendous amounts of time and money to keep in good working order.  I have watched people buy a wreck of a boat (or get one for free…I even knew a guy who traded a bottle of rum for his boat!), thinking that they’ll fix it up themselves.  I’ve yet to see anyone complete such a project.  Heck, Candide was in really good shape when I bought her…and it’s just about everything I can do to keep her that way!  If you’re thinking about starting with a “clunker” and making her into a comfortable home…at least consider living on land while you’re making her inhabitable.  It’s really tough to live on a boat that is undergoing major renovations.
  • Keep Her Seaworthy.  I’ve seen many liveaboard boats that never go anywhere.  They often have too much crap lying about the decks (e.g., potted plants, bird cages, lawn furniture, patio grills, plastic pink flamingos, etc.) and are sometimes disasters down below (e.g., engines half-removed, electrical wires strung about, no running water, etc.).  This is a big peeve of mine and many of my fellow liveaboards who take pride in their vessels and marinas.  There are much cheaper ways of being “trailer trash” than living on a boat!  Sorry if this sounds a bit harsh…I guess I’m getting to be a bit of a curmudgeon in my middle years.
  • Budget for Maintenance.  Boat are expensive to maintain.  They sit in water that will attack whatever they’re made from–be it wood, metal, fiberglass or cement.  Electrical wiring will corrode, engine parts will fail, water hoses will deteriorate, sails will rip.  Every boat should be hauled out of the water every other year or so for inspection.  All of this will cost money.  It is impossible to say how much it will cost to properly maintain any given boat, but a good rule of thumb is to set aside around 10% of the boat’s purchase price, per year, for maintenance.