In my late 20s, tired of apartment living but not quite ready for a more significant, land-based commitment, I found myself meandering a local marina. It was one of those clear, sunny May days in the Pacific Northwest that induces the itch to be on the water, particularly after a gray, wet and cold winter. Already an avid boater, I thought buying a boat to live aboard seemed like a fine idea. And so I did just that.
Taking possession of a 1981 30-foot trawler in early summer, I became a liveaboard. Which is how today, I am able to set aside all of the customary nautical, navigational, operational and other seamanship aspects of successfully enjoying a trawler, and
instead offer some thoughts and considerations about the liveaboard life.
Maybe the first consideration is whether you’re going to live aboard year-round, or just part of the year. Whether full-time or part-time, the answer will influence what improvements you make to your existing boat, or what equipment and amenities you will need when considering the purchase of a boat for living aboard.
Do you plan to cruise while living aboard, or just keep your vessel at the dock? I certainly hope the answer is the former, as one the great benefits of living aboard is the ability to toss the lines and set out at your whim, even if it’s just for an hour-long afternoon cruise. If you’re living aboard and using the boat for regular cruising, you’ll need to keep the equipment on board necessary for cruising, as well as sundry other things needed when the boat is your home.
Waste and Water Management
On land, it’s a simple flush. On a boat, wastewater management is something a liveaboard has to oversee on a regular basis, as it goes to the holding tank, which must be pumped out periodically. Most manufacturers do not contemplate their customers living full-time on the vessels they produce, and they size the holding tank accordingly—well shy of capacity for daily usage.
I was moored at a large public marina with good restroom facilities for the tenants, and frequently made use of those bathrooms to minimize the trips to the pump-out station. But depending on where you live, you may not want to schlep up the dock to use the facilities, particularly at night or in foul weather. Looking back, a larger holding tank capacity would have been nice, and capacity is something to consider for a suitable liveaboard vessel. Though truth be told, you’ll still end up becoming quite proficient at the pump-out station under any circumstances.
We have a similar issue with fresh water and hot water: too little capacity for daily liveaboard use, and often-undersized hot water tanks. There are various solutions to the problem.
Increasing your onboard storage capacity is easier said than done, and often ends with a series of portable water jugs sitting somewhere on your boat. You could do something similar with the water heater, such as install a larger-capacity tank—if space allows. I have found better luck (and space) to expand hot water capacity aboard than freshwater capacity. Frankly, I defeated the water-capacity issue by using the facilities at my gym or the marina for showering, and I found that periodically filling the freshwater tank was not a big deal.
I do not recommend permanently attaching a hose from the dockside water source to your boat and leaving that “on.” Based on the sad experience of seeing a neighboring boat sink at the dock, I believe that municipalities can pump water into your boat a lot faster than your bilge pump can get it out. If you have a permanent hose connected from the dock to the boat, and a leak springs on board, you’re sunk.
Let’s talk about heat and air conditioning. In the Pacific Northwest I rarely find A/C to be necessary on board, but a good heat system is quite desirable. Here, again, we come across another example of how living aboard is not like living on land. Most land-based homes are reasonably well-insulated. Most boats are not. If you have a permanent heat system already on board, you’ll want to consider whether it is up to the task of heating during the coldest parts of winter, and how much fuel it may require (though onboard units are usually pretty stingy on fuel consumption).
If the fuel source draws from your main fuel tank, that’s something to keep in mind before heading out for a day cruise after being at the dock for an extended time. If you plan to live aboard in cold weather and are uncertain whether the existing marine furnace is up to the heating task, an upgrade would be prudent.
I handled the issue of cold weather with portable electric heaters, though I took some steps to do so safely.
First, I had a marine electrician give me guidance about electric heaters in relation to my boat’s electrical system. I did this to avoid a fire by over-burdening the electrical system. Second, I never left the units on—or even plugged in—when I was not aboard. This made for many a cold arrival back at the boat in the winter, but safety comes first. And last, I would use timers to heat the cabin in the hours before bed, and then to cycle off, and back on again in the early morning. During the coldest winter days, which would be in the low 20s, I could get the cabin up to a toasty 55 to 60 degrees—and when I did, boy was I living large! It was T-shirt time! Family and friends thought it was still dang cold, and now that I think of it, it does seem strange that I had so few visitors in the winter months. Your best bet is a good marine-grade furnace.
Then, we have refrigeration. Refrigerators on land are large, while refrigerators on cruising vessels are not. It’s definitely something to consider. I solved the problem by using several coolers, and minimizing the amount of truly perishable food I had on board at any time. Frankly, since I was single at the time, I often would pick up dinner on the way home, or dine out. Any, all or none of these options may be suitable for your situation, but you do want to take food storage into consideration.
We next encounter the issue of moorage. Some marinas permit liveaboards, and some do not. If you already have moorage, check with the harbormaster before making the move aboard. Consideration of the amenities the marina offers is important, as well as the proximity of those amenities to your slip. In smaller marinas with limited shoreside facilities, you might want to know how the marina handles maintenance—if you’re relying on the shower facility, you don’t want that shut down for three weeks because the marina is performing off-season work.
I also recommend checking the marina’s policy on dockside storage boxes and the like. Most marinas frown upon, if not outright prohibit, use of the dock for storage purposes, though dock boxes may be permissible. “Permanent” steps for access on board might be OK, too. You’d want to take advantage of a dock box if allowed, and, if you use steps to access your boat, consider making the step structure itself a storage area by enclosing the stairs somewhat. These are good spaces for stowing cleaning materials, maybe extra fenders or lines, and generally nothing of too great of value, but that is periodically needed for the boat.
Do you want a covered or uncovered slip? Well, I guess that all depends. Unless you’re in an area with mild year-round weather, I would lean strongly toward a covered slip. It’s real nice to have shelter from the weather when you’re on the boat every day, and when you’re puttering around with outside projects from time to time. A covered slip is also desirable just from a maintenance and upkeep standpoint.
There is the issue of security, which certainly relates to selecting a marina, but also merits special consideration for a liveaboard. It’s important to know the number of security personnel, whether they walk the docks at least daily, whether there are 24-hour surveillance cameras, whether there is gated access to the docks, and so forth. Most U.S. and Canadian marinas are relatively secure and safe during the peak season, if for no other reason than increased human activity. But the off-season can bring about a different situation. I like the serenity, but so do the crooks.
There is also the issue of space. Here’s where you need to be creative and honestly assess whether a particular item is necessary on board. You’ll have less room for clothing, so choose the clothing that is needed for boating and your shoreside life and work. Consider storage for seasonal clothing. You’ll likely have a smaller galley, so choose appliances, pots and pans with care. I lean toward stocking a galley with items that can perform multiple functions—you won’t find a bread maker or deep fryer on any boat I own. I also lean toward galley items that nest within other similar items, or that are collapsible. A great resource for galley equipment is camping and hiking stores.
Don’t forget about entertainment, hobbies and the like. They all require space on board as well. Overall, managing space is largely about choosing items to bring aboard in order of importance and usefulness. But whatever you do, unless you like clutter and all sorts of items flying around the cabin while underway, less is usually better than more.
So, all of this makes living aboard sound potentially unpleasant and difficult, and I suppose that without thinking the process through, that could be true.
But the rewards are wonderful. The ability to easily and conveniently spend more time on the water was, for me, at the top of the list. The boat was my home, and I always had everything on board that I needed for a cruise, save maybe food provisioning. I could get home from work, warm up the engine and be away from the dock in the time it took to change into boating attire.
As a liveaboard, I also was better situated to enjoy the four seasons of the sea because my boat was never closed up for the off-season. I found some very nice boating on those rare December days when it was cold, but otherwise clear and calm. And, I enjoyed some rather rainy days on a mooring buoy when there was nothing better to do than read and listen to the radio.
Do I have any regrets from my years as a liveaboard? Well yes, two.
First, I wish I would have spent some money and had my diesel furnace serviced so it was reliably operational. And second, during a Christmas boat parade event, I overloaded the Logman Odyssey’s electrical system and probably came close to starting a fire, but that’s a story for a different time.
Though I have to say, the Christmas lights were spectacular.
Douglas M. Wartelle is a Pacific Northwest native with 40 years of boating experience in the waters of Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the Canadian Gulf Islands. An attorney in Everett, Wash., by day, when he’s not in the office he can often be found on the water or, in the off-season, planning his next boating adventure.
This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue.