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The Insider Truth About Living on a Sailboat

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Yup, you're in the right place. This blog is about life aboard---that is, life aboard a sailboat. While A Way Abroad generally focuses on living, well, abroad, we're really all about the unique lifestyles and all the wonderful opportunities there are out there.

Including living on a sailboat.

Things I always get asked about living on a boat are:

  • Can you go to the bathroom?
  • Can you take a shower on the boat?
  • Is there WiFi?
  • Does the boat always rock?

And I answer, yes, yes, yes, and sometimes!

Let's dive more into those details and everything you'll want to know about living on a sailboat, even for people like me who had no sailing experience prior to hopping onboard!

Short on time? Here’s the cheat sheet:

💭Living on a sailboat isn’t for everyone but for the right person it’s everything.

⛵There’s a strong learning curve but if you throw yourself in head first, you’ll get the hang of it and have freedom at your sails.

🤑Just be sure to prepare yourself ahead of time for the added costs of fixes, materials, and docking it at marinas.

🛍️Your space will be small, from storage space to fridge space, shower space to a closet but…

☀️It’ll teach you to be intentional with your purchases, the things that make you happy, and your day-to-day choices.

My Life Aboard

a woman lying on a sailboat soaking in the sun, drinking a beer
Not all sails are as relaxing as this but this is certainly more the norm

Living on a boat is quite nomadic and different from land life, but really, adjustments can be made to make it feel quite familiar. Before we dive into what it is like to live aboard a sailboat, let’s take it back a few nautical miles to how I found myself in this sort of nomadic life to begin with.

In September 2018, it was my first time sailing and I went with complete strangers to a remote island in the Pacific. It was actually a first date of sorts with a guy I had a big crush on. Our trip would take us on a 10-day sail from Oahu to Molokai, Lanai, and Maui.

The journey we embarked on soon led to a huge change in my life. But before I skip ahead, back to the trip.

I had no expectations or idea of what I was in for. Barely an hour in and the seas were consistently getting more and more choppy. We quite literally survived 14ft seas crossing the channel to Molokai.

This is normal,” I thought, “This is what sailing is.” We endured the waves for 6 hours straight, and I did not find myself seasick once. I wasn’t even fully impressed with how the boat was handling the sea because I thought, “This is probably how it always is.

It most certainly is not always like that.

We sailed into the night and the following morning I woke to the most beautiful sight I had ever seen--- land, all the way out in the middle of the ocean, with the sun peeking out over it. We dropped anchor close to shore and prepared the dinghy. As we made our way to land via the motorized dinghy, dolphins began to sort of ‘escort’ us.

Another moment where I just could not believe this was real life.

We explored the island, did some spearfishing, and went back ‘home’ to the boat to prepare fresh fish tacos. Not only did this experience hook us fresh fish, but it hooked me on this lifestyle altogether. 

For the rest of the trip, we walked around pretty remote islands, we laid on the deck and gazed at the stars, and we slept in a hammock hanging from the boom over the ocean.

By the end of those 10 days, I fell in love—with the man, and with sailing.

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The Realities of Sailboat Ownership

a woman peeking her head out of the galley on a sailboat
Home sweet home!

The following year, I purchased my first sailboat which would also become my home. Honestly, I went into boat ownership with such naivety. If I could talk to myself then with what I know now, I’d have a lot to say (which is why I am writing this article for you aspiring liveaboards), but the bottom line is this: I have no regrets. 

Even today, I am still a novice, but I am less scared, and way more patient. If boats teach you anything, it is to be patient. Well, that and be adaptable.

Living aboard a sailboat has a lot of ups and downs that come in waves (see what I did there?). After getting over the constant rocking of the boat, there comes an endless list of boat projects that spring up.

In just my couple of short years of boat ownership, I have had to:

  • Replace the head (toilet)
  • Redo the back deck because of core rot
  • Learn how to deal with fiberglass and epoxy
  • Troubleshoot a finicky fridge
  • And fuss with a temperamental a/c unit

Also, just to note, boat work is expensive-- like crazy expensive. A bolt that you could find for a house at Home Depot is probably 3x as much at West Marine because now it has to be stainless steel, aka rust-proof.

I also found out how hard it is to find help for boat work, which basically means that a lot of the work you have to do yourself. I never ever had any idea how to do electrical work, and while I may ‘understand’ how it sort of kind of works at this point, I still need YouTube (it’s my best boat life friend). I still am a novice when it comes to engine work…. I should get better at that one for sure but one step at a time. 

The Logistics of Buying a Boat

So, what should you know before jumping into the deep end of boat life? Let me tell you.

Financing a boat to live on can be a challenge

Really consider your budget and then tack on probably 30-40% of it for monthly maintenance and boat repairs. It’s not easy to find a bank that will give you a sort of ‘home mortgage’ for a boat so you often will either take out a boat loan OR a personal loan--- know the term differences before signing.

But, maybe you have the cash to buy outright and that’s a much better idea!

When you do go looking for a boat, consider its length.

What harbors can accommodate such boats? Do the harbors have availability?

Expect to pay a certain amount per foot of your boat, and this price is also contingent on whether you are a ‘transient’ (only there for a few months at a time) or a permanent slip holder.

Typically there is an extra charge for LIVING on the boat, so make sure and ask that as well.

Talk to an insurance company BEFORE buying a boat.

What rates can you get? Boat insurance is mandatory for getting a slip at a marina in order to protect not only you but also the harbor itself.

Ask yourself, will I be able to clean the bottom of the boat myself or will I need to pay someone to do it?

Check with local bottom cleaners for prices. Yep, even the bottom of the boat needs a solid scrub from time to time.

Get mentally prepared for the costs of boats and boat goods

And lastly, in preparation, go take a walk around West Marine or a local boat supply store and take a look at the prices. Price out projects you may think will come up.

Sticker shock? Yea, me too. 

A Sailboat vs. A Yacht

Before buying your own liveaboard sailboat, be aware of the differences between owning a sailboat and owning a yacht. For argument's sake, I'm speaking about a small yacht that doesn't require a crew to sail.

Because while you might crave a sea-worthy lifestyle, you might be better suited for a yacht or strictly motorized boat.

A few differences between living on a sailboat and a yacht are:

  • A yacht is typically larger. While that will mean a more spacious living area, it will also take up more space at marinas.
  • A yacht is typically more expensive. This is due to the material and technology on the boat. So if sailboat prices wow you, yacht prices will leave you stunned.
  • A yacht requires an engine to run. One of the coolest things about living on a sailboat is that so long as the wind is favorable, you can sail for free. Set the sails and enjoy cruising without spending a cent on gas. On a yacht, you'll always have to pay to play.
  • Driving a yacht has a smaller learning curve to it. To make a sailboat work for you, you're going to need to understand the intricacies of the sails. That's something you don't have to deal with, although, if you have engine trouble, the engine on a yacht is far more complex than that of a sailboat.

Land Life vs. Sea Life

a woman looking at the camera standing in sand with islands in the background
Taking some time off the boat to enjoy our backyard

There also is a major difference between land life and sea life, as you most likely already guessed.

While living in a house and living on a sailboat, you'll most likely get faced with unexpected costs and home repair, the day-to-day quirks of living full-time on a sailboat greatly outweigh those of "normal" land life.

When I lived in a house, I didn’t think about refilling the water tank or propane. I didn’t chant in my head, “No TP in the toilet, no TP in the toilet,” while peeing in fear of a major thru hull blockage. I didn’t double-check to make sure my house wouldn’t sink when I went on vacation. I also didn’t pick things up in Target and say, “Hm, but where would I put this?

All this to say, living on a boat makes you much more conscious of literally everything. Your water use, your propane levels, your battery charge, the functioning of your pumps, and the things (or clutter) you bring into your life.

And this is a great thing---- we should be more conscious of our resource use and space management. But it still can come at a high learning curve if you're not ready for such a small space and the intricacies that come along with it.

Things to Know About Living on a Sailboat

a sailboat sailing towards the sunset on a beautiful clear day
It's hard not to love days ending like this

Okay, so we are past some of the questions you should ponder as you go through the process of actually buying a boat. If you’ve come this far, I’d say you are interested in it, or at least morbidly curious about boat life.

Here are some things you need to know about actually LIVING on the boat.

Wifi Can Be Spotty

We work online from the boat so our wifi is quite necessary. We have had luck with Sprint as a provider and a small hotspot device. We're based in Oahu though, so Sprint might not be the best option, unless you're planning to be based nearby, too.

The Closets Are Often Really Small

I have had to downsize A LOT due to closet space so my wardrobe is full of basic items that can be mixed and matched. Capsule wardrobes will become your best friend here.

I also have a subscription to Nuuly, a clothing rental company, where I plan out outfits I would need for events and content creation. This subscription helps liven my wardrobe without actually taking up space.

The Head (Toilet) Is Weird

Oh, the head-- probably the weirdest thing about boat life. It can be daunting to do your business on a boat.

No TP (or other non-biodegradable) materials in the head ever unless you have a super fancy boat and this is not an issue for your plumbing system. And if you're wondering where your waste goes, it goes into a tank and every month or so gets pumped out at a pump-out station.

You will either have to use a hand pump or an electric button, depending on your head type. Honestly, having a head that is both electric and manual is the best thing ever in the event the electric part fails...speaking from experience.

The Fridge Space Is Tiny

Fridge space is limited. If you are a cruiser, you will know that most of your food will be nonperishable, but if you are coastal and can make stops frequently, you will be able to have more fresh items as well.

Galley (kitchen) space is often small-ish, but you can pretty much make most things you would make in a land home in a boat home.

We cook everything. We have a two-burner gas stove and oven. You can catch us making anything from enchiladas to stir fry, oftentimes we eat lots of “bowls”-- think quinoa, goat cheese, arugula, and red onion. Sometimes you just need to get creative! 

While a lot of people worry over this, once you get the hang of it, you'll learn you really can do a lot with this amount of storage space.

And So Is the Shower

Although we even have hot water in our shower, it's tiny, so I fit fine but my 6ft partner has difficulty.

Since we spend most of our time docked at the marina, we do have a reciprocal yacht club membership so we can shower there, or at other yacht clubs we get to.

And of course, there are always dock/deck showers! 

What I Wish I Knew Before Moving onto a Sailboat

a woman standing inside the galley of her sailboat
A little peak at our galley (kitchen)

Even with all of the information above, there are still a few things I wish I knew years ago before jumping aboard that should help you get a more realistic idea about what living on a sailboat full-time really entails.

If I could go back in time, I would give myself these tips and pieces of advice:

  • Don’t buy a boat thinking you can stick to a timeline-- finding people to work on boats, having time yourself, and just, sheesh the money component, all extend the timeline.
  • Know what you want to get out of it early on-- I remember saying, I want to sail around the world, and I still do, but it was unrealistic to think I would do that on my first boat. Remember there is so much to learn about sailing: electrical, provisioning, plumbing, engines, and the list goes on. I am grateful my project boat has been the best teacher.
  • The boat rocks depending on when you are docked or anchored and also on the weather. Sometimes it is really peaceful, and sometimes it feels like you are on a mechanical bull. 

Are You Ready to Live on a Sailboat Full-Time?

You see, boat life is similar to how “normal” people live but with weird words like bilge, boom, head, and helm. It’s also pretty cool to live life like a honu (Hawaiian word for turtle) and take your home with you to other places. 

It's a lot like vanlife, just ya know, changing the road for sea.

My move from land to water felt like jumping all in, and in a lot of ways, it was. My life is so different from what I thought it would be, so different from many of my friends and family, but really, it is exactly perfect for me. 

To me living on a sailboat full-time has been an absolute dream, but what about for you? Interested in learning more? Follow @sammiealoha for a peek into boat life!

Hero photo by Anna Om/shutterstock.com

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