Living Aboard

"You are the hero of your own story.  Make sure it's a good one." - Tom MacNaughton

"These are the good old days" - 1970s popular song lyric

The managers of this web site have all spent thousands of nights afloat. Tom and Nan MacNaughton lived and had their offices aboard their boats for seventeen years, up until we moved ashore to be near Tom's elderly mother. The live aboard life is wonderful. We are now in a position where we can again move back aboard our own modest voyaging yacht. This is the same little voyaging yacht, "Charis", that we started out living aboard many years ago. We have bought her back and are restoring her into the ultimate voyaging yacht she was when we had her before.

Having grown up with cruising boats and having devoured all the information we could find about living aboard and voyaging, the transition to full-time life aboard was easy for us. Our expectations were accurate and easily fulfilled.

Unfortunately many people contemplating the live aboard life are not so lucky in their understanding of what they are getting into. It is a fact that only a small percentage of those who move aboard stay with it for any significant length of time. This is to a large extent due to a lack of preparation for the experience.

Once a suitable boat has been obtained, it is not a matter of money. We have seen no indication that those with lots of money are any more successful at living aboard than those who live on minimal amounts. Those unsure about the money side of living aboard should read the classic The 200 Millionaire by Weston Martyr and our own article reprint Living Aboard: Figuring the Costs which is available through our marine publishing order form. The first teaches the extraordinarily low cost of the lifestyle by an actual example, endearingly told. The second allows you to figure your own living expenses before you start.  It will startle you how little you will need.  Most of you will have many questions and we welcome them.  We keep track of the questions asked and to save time and allow us to answer more people as fully as possible we have written up a publication called Living Aboard - Frequently Asked Questions which attempts to cover every question which we get.  This book also includes the "Living Aboard - Figuring the Costs" article.  You can order this through the marine publishing order form.  It should save you a lot of time and even answer questions you didn't know you should ask.  We'd recommend reading this first and then asking any additional questions you have.  This allows us to devote the maximum time to each person's unique concerns. This is an unusual publication in that, like our Yacht Design School lessons, it will continue to evolve over time.  If, after reading of these two publications, you have further questions you will be helping us and others by asking them.  We will take your questions, plus our answers and use them to add to the Living Aboard publications.  You will thus be helping all those who come after you, very much in the spirit of cooperation so evident in the live aboard community.  Now let's just generally touch on the life and its philosophical aspects:

We have met a couple that had been living aboard their 18 foot Alberg sloop for three years. Their dream boat was 22 feet long. In fact if there is any one misconception that leads people astray most often, it is the idea that living aboard can be anything other than a minimalist lifestyle, for the most part. The live aboard lives on a frontier of society. Sometimes live aboards are on the frontier of civilization. The natural environment they live in is probably more destructive of structures, systems, and hardware than any other.  There is often nobody around who is skilled or knowledgeable enough to be of much outside assistance in problem solving. Self-sufficiency is called for to a greater degree than in most contemporary lifestyles, and the usual trappings of middle American life are very difficult to sustain and indeed become a nuisance. Big, complicated boats and plenty of money can obscure this truth, but complexity is fundamentally incompatible with the lifestyle. Even if one can solve any problem with one's money, the problems still occur. They also still cause anxiety and inconvenience. They still will keep you in port whether you do the work or hire it done.  The more complicated one's situation and vessel, the more problems and the less fun you have.  Generally you will find that we recommend most families consider their "ultimate" yachts to be from 25 to 32 feet.  Only those with several children or large business areas on the boat need go as large as 36'.  A single person starting out can voyage in backpacker style on a boat as small as 15'.  Two backpacker types could voyage on a boat as small as 20' and a minimalist couple can live quite reasonably on a 22' vessel.  Obviously we are in the business of selling stock and custom designs, many of them optimized for living aboard and voyaging, but that does not mean that you have to start out with a new custom boat.  There is a used boat which can be made reasonably suitable for living aboard and voyaging for any budget.

The subject of living aboard suggests the question, "Why do it?" Often the answer to this question involves adventure, romance, and freedom. These are certainly part of the lifestyle. The "adventure" part eventually turns into a kind of "in" joke. Most experienced cruisers and live aboards agree that "adventure" is what happens when you make a mistake or are over-taken by events beyond your control. In some ways minimizing adventure is part of the art of living aboard!

Our feeling is that an appreciation of Nature and one's place in it should be the primary reason to adopt the live aboard lifestyle. Closely allied to this is the live aboard's primary learned wisdom. This is the art of adapting to Nature, accepting one's part in it, and to a degree submitting to it. This works. The other way around does not. Certainly the worst way of looking at life aboard would be to consider it conquering Nature or the Sea. No concept could be more dangerous.

All too often recreational activity on the water seems to consist of frantic athletic behavior or high speed transport, combined with a complete disregard for the Natural world. While these types of "water sports" are not all bad, they really offer a shallow and impoverished view of life on the water, and are not in harmony with it. Perhaps it is best to see living aboard as completely unrelated to this type of activity--in many ways it is not "recreation" at all. The live aboard lifestyle bears much more resemblance to the commercial sailing life of bygone years than to that of the jet-ski crowd. We urge everyone contemplating the life to make the best of the commercial sailors their role models, along with a big portion of Henry David Thoreau. This part of living aboard involves no sacrifice whatsoever. Further, living aboard and voyaging is often done by couples into their 80s, thus hopefully completely refuting the "macho" vision that many start out with.  The endlessly changing sea, sky, and landscapes and the plant and animal life one encounters are a spectacular and spiritually uplifting display that never repeats itself and always has something to offer. The lack of this in much of modern land living seems to be the major reason why so many electronic entertainment devices seem necessities of life to many.

The next good reason to live aboard is a fascination with seamanship, and boats. Probably no other lifestyle is as intensely centered on a piece of technology as the live aboard's is on his or her boat, and its proper creation, evolution, and utilization. If it does fascinate you, we need say no more, because you must already realize there is a lifetime of leaming and enjoyment ahead of you. Undoubtedly the boats themselves, along with seamanship, tie in directly to the notion of romance. We urge everyone contemplating the live aboard life to aim for a boat which, while practical, also appeals to you on the romantic level. Boats that are appreciated in this way are better kept, better enjoyed, and better understood by their owners than any others It is small wonder so many are referred to as "members of the family". We would not be so narrow as to say this is only possible with wooden boats, because that's not true. It does seem to be true that wooden boat owners as a rule feel this kind of involvement more strongly. We will say that, whatever the material, you can't form the proper bond with a poorly built boat. You are much better off with a beautiful well built 25 footer than a ugly poorly built 50 footer.

Family privacy is another good reason to live aboard, and this is not because one will not be able to have friends or meet wonderful people. You will, and as a boat-owner you have one of the all-time great "props" for creating as active a social life as you can stand. However, when living on a boat, you are able to completely and politely control people's access to you. When you do feel like keeping to yourself you can do it to a higher degree and for longer periods of time than in just about any other situation.

Since Tom and Nan raised their daughter on the boat they were often asked whether it was a good thing for children. They were even (and often) asked whether it was "fair to force your children to live an abnormal lifestyle". The really sad thing about this is that some of these people lived in apartment buildings with security guards in the middle of polluted cities. Their children spent much of their young lives either in day care centers or in crime ridden schools.

Let's be very clear about this. If you take your children to live on a boat you are probably taking them to a less polluted, safer, environment. They can be with the people they love the most all the time. They will travel. They will meet and become comfortable with and able to deal with people of all ages and from different cultures and sub-cultures. They will become far more self-reliant and self motivated than the average child. They generally turn out to be hard working goal-oriented people who at the same time are more relaxed and confident about life than the average. Because you will probably educate them yourself using correspondence schools they are likely to be better educated than the average student in today's world. Tom and Nan's daughter started reading and writing independently at about half the age that education specialists set as a goal for the best educational systems. We have noted that virtually all children brought up on boats turn out to be exemplary people. For information on correspondence courses for young people we would recommend The Calvert School in Maryland, http://home.calvertschool.org  This is the course that most voyaging families have used for decades.

Ultimately how do children feel about the lifestyle? Tom and Nan's daughter Heather grew up aboard boats and was fascinated by the exotic lifestyle of those who lived on the land. When we moved to Eastport she built herself a small house. She talked a lot about building a larger timber frame or log home. Then she bought herself a small gaff rig yawl and lived aboard again for a number of years before returning to Maine and buying a small place far out in the country.  At the time of this writing she is part of the crew on a large ship at sea. Many other young people brought up on boats that we have heard of develop careers and lifestyles around the water. Therefore it presumably retains its attractions to the second generation.

Health is another benefit. We would not presume to say exactly why life aboard a boat makes one feel so much better and apparently makes people live longer active lives. It surely must have to do with exercise, clean air, simpler food and improved mental and spiritual well being.

Freedom is, and should be, high on every human being's list. When living aboard, one usually develops a greater appreciation of freedom, a desire for more of it, and a certain incredulity at the average person's ability to give it up for bad reasons. It is easy to understand how mobility and independence from shore side entanglements are gained by living aboard. However, it is often assumed to be an expensive lifestyle available only to the rich. In fact it offers a higher standard of living on lower incomes than just about any other way of life. Typically one can live a life that is similarly prosperous to that which you lead ashore, on about one-quarter of the income. The implications of that are obvious enough to require no more discussion here, except to point out that on a sailboat, traveling is even less expensive than staying in one place. This is because the traveler is less subject to the temptations and entanglements of the shore.

However there are pitfalls that make it hard to succeed as a live aboard. One of the biggest problems is the difference in outlook between different people. This is especially true of some of the differences in gender roles in our culture. Even though they are totally learned behavior and we don't think about them they can influence us in ways that interfere with our enjoyment of living aboard.

Typically problems occur because the male is (or thinks he is) greatly attracted to an adventurous minimalist lifestyle from some John Wayne fantasy world. The female has a list of required conveniences, of dubious actual worth aboard a boat, which cannot be practically obtained within the lifestyle. To make matters worse, males who share decision-making and responsibility ashore often become tyrants aboard the boat. They sometimes employ the most injurious sort of scorn and ridicule as weapons to ensure their authority and disguise their insecurities. They usually spout the "there can only be one captain" idiocy. Even on the largest ship the captain is off watch more than he is on. On a family yacht normally the watch stander has the "command" responsibility and though they may consult the off watch's opinion it is their decision to do so. Even on military vessels the commanding officer's best check against poor decision making is the first officer's advice.

It is also worthwhile to note that we have seen the reverse as well. Women may be so determined to be "liberated" that they will force far more adventure on their spouses than they wish. We have certainly seen men so dedicated to adding one more "convenience" to a boat that the couple never goes anywhere.

Another difficulty is the person who must have a schedule. They have to get up, eat and go to bed at the same time every day. They want to plan where they are going to be, and when. They want to even plan exactly how many miles they will run in a day. All of this is mind bogglingly impossible on a boat. A person who must have a schedule and keep to it is doomed.

For many years Tom and Nan had the policy of getting up in the morning and sticking their heads out the hatch. If it was a nice day with a fair wind they would set off. If it wasn't fair in both wind and weather, they would stay where they were and design boats and write articles. The schedule for direction was basically head toward higher latitudes if it's getting warmer and head to lower ones if it's getting colder.  Despite this seemingly relaxed pace, people who travel this way consistently go further in a given period of time than those who are convinced that they must travel some everyday regardless of wind direction or weather.  Those who feel they must go on every day end up traveling short distances even on good days because they are tired all the time.  Either they learn or they give up.

It is often difficult to tell with any given people why the live aboard dream failed. Nor does it matter. Whatever the particular difficulties in a given case, if the flexibility isn't there, it won't work.

Few ways of life in modem society compel cooperation, mutual respect, and sensitivity to the extent that living aboard does. In the average suburban lifestyle, men and women and their children do so little together day to day as to seemingly share only the same mailing address. On a boat, one is in continuous full contact. The effect may be a profound deepening and enrichment of the relationship. It may destroy the relationship. The lifestyle may have to be abandoned to save the relationship. However, one of these things will almost certainly happen.

The most common source of difficulty is in failing to adopt a simple enough lifestyle, and the size and complexity of the boat itself is often a major aspect of the problem. We are often contacted by people who are looking for a boat to move aboard. Nearly everyone understands that the move will involve a simpler lifestyle, but few understand what this really means. We often hear something like this: "We really want to have a simpler lifestyle. As long as I can have all the latest electronics, electric sail trim, electric sail furling, take a hot shower every day, have plenty of ice for drinks, and can run my multi-media and gaming computer on board, I'll be fine. All we need for  accommodations are a master stateroom with a double berth, four guest berths in two cabins so we can bring our friends, two heads, and standing headroom throughout." All of the items on this list are obtainable ashore even in a condition of poverty. However the average person may be completely unaware that this reasonable-sounding list is only obtainable at great cost afloat, in an exceedingly large boat for most people.

There are many more pitfalls than those listed, but running through this example may point toward the necessary perspective. Without a doubt, the hot pressure water on demand shower is the hardest thing to give up, and the hardest thing to understand giving up. However, in boats sized appropriately for living aboard (more on this later), this type of shower is a major problem. First, you have to obtain the necessary quantity of water, which in many areas will have to be carried aboard in jugs, Then there is usually an electric water pressure pump and plumbing to move the water to the shower. Then there is usually another electric water pump to remove the used water and pump it overboard. There must be a means to generate and store this electricity. There must be a space large enough to take the shower in, with appropriate sump and sometimes a shower curtain. Worst of all, under some circumstances, is the urgent need to remove the quantities of moisture that the shower contributes to the interior of the vessel. If the shower area does double duty as some other kind of space it must be completely cleaned and dried after every use. Pressure water systems are notoriously unreliable on boats, as are electrical devices in general. Virtually all the technology involved in marine pressure water systems is designed for affordability and compactness, not longevity. You will also need some sort of heating system to heat the water.  Systems that work for years when weekending will need to be repaired or replaced every few months, with costs, annoyance, and unfulfilled expectations every time the system fails, when living aboard. The alternative is a kettle, a cookstove, which are used with either a basin and a sponge, or a sitz-bath with a pressurized garden sprayer modified with a hand held shower head, and this is the type of technology that works and keeps working forever without problems. Short hair helps too. So if you can make this adaptation, you can be clean and happy. Still shore dwellers can be friends with any live aboard by offering hot showers!  This is just one example of how a convenience ashore must be rethought afloat or it becomes merely a irritation.

The problem of "plenty of ice" contains similar surprises. Refrigeration systems that will produce anything like the cooling power of shoreside units are a source of problems very similar to those just described with regard to the shower. In addition they need of lots of electrical or mechanical power. Most liveaboards actually use no refrigeration at all, or simply buy ice when it's convenient and do without when it is not. It is easier to adapt to life without complex systems than it is to keep complex systems functioning on a boat.

It's not absolutely necessary to do without these or other conveniences. However, much of the art of living aboard is in figuring out what the minimum requirements actually are, for each person, and the simplest and most efficient means of obtaining them. The most efficient and economical way of determining the real requirements is to start with the simplest possible boat and then add complexities. However add them only as you become certain they are necessary in your case. Whatever your initial expectations, actual experience will probably revise the list. In any case, one should bear in mind that everything you add takes something away, whatever the pluses may be, and the negatives must always be figured into the equation.

The boat should be the smallest which can reasonably meet your needs. It should not be the largest you can afford. Two of the managers of our company spent a number of years on a 25 footer, bought a 48 footer, and then sold it to buy back the same 25 footer again. People almost always seriously overestimate the amount of space they will need, and regret it later. For instance, it is nice to have an extra berth or two. However, in reality these are far more likely to be occupied by a fellow live aboard who has decided it is too rough to row back to his boat after dinner than it is by longer term guests. Well-developed shipboard routines are so necessary, and the lives of live aboards and shore dwellers are so different in pace, schedule, and complexity that you will come to dread and loathe the prospect of having even your closest non-liveaboard friends aboard overnight. Take them sailing, feed them dinner, yes, but then send them back to the hotel! Very few live aboards need many extra berths.

Floor space and headroom are the other non-requirements. It is important to be able to move forward and aft through the interior without asking your shipmates to move. It is also very nice to be able to stand up and stretch someplace in the boat if possible. Beyond that, these things that seem vital just simply aren't. The distances you would walk, and the amount of time you would stand, inside the boat are too small to worry about.

It appears to us that the average couple contemplating life aboard feels they will need a boat in the 35-40 foot range to be adequately comfortable, In fact this size boat is unnecessary and even excessive for two people. A well conceived 25-30 footer will be not just adequate, but better, once the real priorities of living aboard have asserted themselves. A boat cabin is not a room, and small boat cabins are comforting in the big world of Mother Nature, as long as they are not uncomfortable. Long term living aboard seems to be a long process of slowing down, simplifying lifestyle and technology, reducing dependence on outside assistance, learning respect for and cooperation with Nature, and reducing the need for money. Down to a point, these goals are all better served by smaller boats.

We have insufficient space here to address the many specific items of advice we have about living aboard.  That is why we have written the two publications mentioned above and recommend the others on our marine publishing order form.  You will find reviews of most of these books and other publications linked to their titles.  We are also preparing a book or two on the subject about which you may want to inquire. We are also pleased to answer any questions you may have in the meantime. Just call or write, or use our email address.

For now we will just summarize by saying that simplicity, economy, mobility, and small boats equal freedom the likes of which is seldom seen today. If you have your priorities straight, and some sound information, you can achieve these things. We would like to help.

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