Skip to main content

It's Not A Crazy Idea ... But Commitment Required

Thinking about moving aboard a boat? Selling the house and all that stuff? Worried about whether it will work and about what kind of boat-and how big-is needed?

It takes a huge commitment to a new way of living. An ability to plan, to establish priorities, and to live elbow-to-elbow with spouse, mate, or friend are necessary attributes for those choosing a floating lifestyle.

In some ways living aboard is simpler than life ashore. After all, liveaboards usually have shucked home, furniture, and nearly everything else accumulated while living in a home, apartment, or condo.

Living on the water is enormously attractive and entertaining, too. Boaters often have stunning views, an abundance of wildlife to enjoy, neighbors with the same intense interests, and the freedom to simply cast off and take one's home to sea. It's a little quirky, too, and liveaboards often attract attention at parties ashore.

They may draw notice at parties, too, because their clothing smells like diesel fuel or they have paint spatters on their hands.

Liveaboard life offers new complications and inconveniences: finding a marina that will accept boats and people who sleep aboard every night, dealing with waste disposal, searching for a place to do the laundry and park the car, and to store things too precious to toss but that won't fit on a boat.

The lifestyle works, though, and contented IIt''ss NNoot AA CCraazzyy IIddeeaa,, BBuut CCoommmmiitmmeennt RReeqquuiireedd by Robert M. Lane liveaboards can be found nearly anywhere boats are moored.

An Example

In chasing after information for the accompanying article on the Roughwater line of boats, I encountered two families that moved aboard without regret, and were willing to share their experiences. They chose the older Ed Monkdesigned Roughwaters because of styling, low prices and spaciousness.

Lisa and John Worthington, who have three young children, have been a liveaboard family for more than four years. Home for them is a 41-foot Roughwater moored at the Oyster Point Marina in South San Francisco.

"I am really glad we did it," Lisa told me. "The payoff is family closeness. Our family is closer than many families I know."

Jerry and Sharyl Parkin are empty-nesters who live aboard a 35-foot Roughwater at Elliott Bay Marina in Seattle.

"This is exactly what I was looking for," Jerry said during a break from prepping the pilothouse for painting. "We read magazines for years, and have been dreaming about it."

The Parkins moved aboard in the summer of 1999.

Liveaboard kids are unusual. I have friends who lived on a 46-foot motor yacht and who were surprised to learn they were to have a son. They took the "baby aboard" sign down after about three years and bought a house ashore because they believed the youngster needed a yard to romp in without an adult hovering nearby-as they did whenever he walked the docks.

So far, living aboard has been a success for the Worthingtons and their youngsters, Sarah, 8, Webb, 3, and Lily, 2. What they will do when the children grow and need more space, things, and a chance for privacy isn't clear yet.

Lisa was pregnant with Webb when they began looking for a liveaboard boat while living in San Diego, where John was a Coast Guard rescue swimmer.

"At the time we bought the Roughwater, we had a four-year-old daughter and a newborn son, and two full-time jobs that kept us tied to the dock, except on weekends," Lisa said.

Doing It

In June, 2000, the Coast Guard transferred John to San Francisco and they took Resolution with them. They moor it a few miles from the Coast Guard station, which gives John a brief commute.

Most Coast Guard personnel can't afford to live in the San Francisco area and are forced to commute long distances to communities where housing is less expensive. Living aboard isn't cheap-the Worthingtons pay $835 monthly on a bank loan and $645 a month for moorage, which includes a $225 liveaboard surcharge-but it costs less than nearby housing and it eliminates a killer commute.

The 41 Roughwater has a large V-berth, and a small head, in the bow. Webb shares it with Sarah. There are shelves for books and toys near the berths, plus a fair amount of space in drawers and cabinets for clothing.

The saloon has a dinette on the port side and a settee to starboard. The galley is aft of the dinette. A map of the world hangs above the dinette seating and there is space for the kids to play, or to watch library videos on TV.

John and Lisa share the aft master stateroom with Lily. The 41 is built with double beds and a head with shower in the after stateroom. A former owner removed the port bed and installed a washer-dryer. The Worthingtons replaced it with a crib for their youngest child.

The hanging locker and cabinets are packed with clothing, all neatly folded so it takes less space, and with baby diapers and other essentials. John keeps his uniforms at the Coast Guard station.

No Aroma

If the 41-footer is comparable to a medium-sized recreational vehicle, the 35 on which the Parkins live is about the size of a compact sedan.

Yet nearly everything they need is aboard.

Jerry sells financial planning products nationwide and dresses in business attire. They believe that if he had no need for suits and dress shirts, the boat would accommodate all they need for the liveaboard life, which emphasizes wearing shorts and T-shirts. They must, however, rent a storage unit ashore, as do many who live aboard boats.

They use the forward V-berth for storage and sleep in the aft cabin.

The galley is busy, but neat. Their boat, Roughrider, has a Dickinson oil stove which heats all of the boat except for their sleeping quarters. They keep that area warm with an electric heater.

Because the oil stove produces too much heat in the summer, the Parkins use a single-burner propane stove for cooking in warm weather.

Despite the earlier wisecrack about identifying liveaboards by the smell of diesel in their clothing, neither Resolution nor Roughrider had any unpleasant aromas-not a whiff of diesel fuel, holding tank, muddy bilge, or mildew.

The Worthingtons, experienced boaters, spent hundreds of hours cruising and fishing when they lived in San Diego. They were looking forward to exploring San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River delta cruising grounds.

As a Coast Guard family, the Worthingtons are eligible for membership in the Navy Yacht Club, which costs $35 a year. Lisa says many other yacht clubs recognize it and offer reciprocal privileges, including free or low-cost moorage for visitors.

Jerry and Sharyl are new to boating. But they have begun making short trips in Puget Sound and they frequently take their dinghy outside the marina breakwater for fishing.

Their cruising goal is Alaska. "At least that's what I dream about," Jerry says.

They also intend to make Roughrider a show boat by painting the gray hull midnight blue and continuing to improve paint, varnish, and boat systems. (They experienced a small electrical fire, caused by the incorrect connection of wiring for an inverter.)

A New Lifestyle

John and Lisa were renting in San Diego when they decided to try liveaboard life.

"We bought her because we are young and eager to try an alternative lifestyle," Lisa says. "We were unhappy with the housing options for young families. Tract housing in the suburbs with an hour's commute looked like misery."

She continues: "I was eight months pregnant with our second child as we shopped for boats, climbing in and out of trawlers, motorsailers, and sailboats. In our opinion, there's no better than the Roughwater, because its shape is classic, its hull is super strong, and the interior allows lots of sunlight and ventilation, as well as excellent storage."

But it took adjustment. The Worthingtons held several garage sales to eliminate the things that just wouldn't fit on a boat. Despite that, Lisa says the boat does have space for "a good-sized library, plenty of toys and crafts, a substantial amount of clothing, all the cookware and dishes I wanted, and my husband could count on room for tools, back-up supplies, and parts (in the spacious engine compartment)."

Like many other young mothers, Lisa keeps the kids busy. If they are aboard, they have toys and crafts, share books and videos, and help with regular cleaning. All have other chores, too.

They play in a park in the nearby community of Brisbane, visit its library frequently for videos, books, and story hours, and swim in a public pool. A trained environmental planner-landscape architect, but now a full-time mom, she takes the kids for walks on the beach and drills them on identifying plants and animals found along the shore.

When John and friends moved the Roughwater from San Diego, she loaded the kids into her 1965 Volkswagen van and drove north along the coast, camping along the way.

The Parkins still have ties to shore: they own a home in Phoenix, Arizona. "But we spend more time here," Sharyl says.

Jerry spent years dreaming and reading about a boating life. After their children left home, he and Sharyl were ready to begin looking for a boat. Natives of Washington State, they focused their search on the Puget Sound area.

They looked at many, but memories of a magazine article about the Roughwater family of boats refused to fade.

"We considered a Grand Banks, but I wanted a pilothouse so much I could taste it," Jerry says. "This is exactly what I was looking for."

Roughwaters make good liveaboards partly because they don't cost a lot. Although hundreds were built, they remain relatively obscure on the market and are priced lower than other better-known yachts of comparable age and size

The Parkins paid $42,000 for the 35- footer. "I though that was an absolute steal, relatively speaking," he adds. John and Lisa Worthington paid $70,000 for their Roughwater in 1996, a modest price for a 41-foot yacht in good condition.


Many first turn to liveaboard life believing it is cheaper than a house on shore. That's not necessarily true.

The boat must be financed. The Worthingtons have a bank loan, which requires a monthly payment. Insurance is necessary.

Many marinas charge premium fees for liveaboards, although boat owners who live ashore treasure them because they are the eyes and ears of a marina, and are usually the first to sound an alarm if something goes wrong.

One doesn't escape utility charges by moving aboard. Water usually is included in the basic monthly lease fee. But electricity often costs more on the dock than ashore, and because many boaters heat (or cool) with electricity, power bills can be staggering.

Boats have waste holding tanks that need to be emptied often. In some places small work boats will come alongside and pump out waste, for a fee. The Parkins' marina has a slip-side pumpout system, but the operator charges for each use. The Worthingtons frequently cast off and motor to another dock in their marina to pump out, for a fee.

For the Parkins and Worthingtons, living aboard makes sense partly because they paid modest prices for their family boats. Had the Parkins bought a Grand Banks, they would have spent several times as much as they paid for their Roughwater and total living costs would be much higher.

Adding up the numbers, mortgage, moorage and insurance cost the Worthingtons a significant sum each month. But it is still less than if they rented or bought a home in the costly San Francisco area, and allows them to live minutes from John's work-and libraries, parks and shopping.

When I visited Resolution, the Worthingtons were beginning to think about the future. A larger boat would be needed for three growing, active children-eight more feet and another stateroom at least, Lisa says. Living aboard was John's idea. But she agreed to share the life, promising herself she would learn to love it. "And I do love it."

As a planner/landscape architect her first love was the land, forests and shore. "I miss the smell of the earth, and the earth beneath my feet," she says. John asks if she wants a garden space, pets for the kids.

They are not in a hurry to decide what's next because John's tour at the San Francisco Coast Guard station will last three more years. "For now, we are staying happily put in Oyster Point," Lisa adds.

But they continue to treasure what living aboard means.

It has helped build family ritual and tradition, and it has brought them closer.

"We are very close," Lisa says. "We talk and discuss things that most families now take for granted, and I've had the opportunity to teach the value of the natural environment."

The Parkins are getting to know their boat. They take it out frequently, venturing farther each time, and have enrolled in U.S. Power Squadron classes. One trip was in rough water and, once they were over the shock of the trip, they were pleased with the boat. "We feel very safe in it," Jerry says.

The Roughwater was simply built; it had the basics and not much more. The Parkins intend to keep it that way, while making it safe and ready for that trip to Alaska and comfortable for a life aboard.

"We bought this with the idea that it would be the only boat we will ever own," Jerry says.