How to Live Aboard a Boat
In my travels and through my websites and forum I meet a lot of very interesting people who have a lot of of very interesting ideas and histories. Some of them are so interesting I want to pass their stories along to you; Brad is one of them. I met him at the last Rubber Tramp Rendezvous. He was there in a very nice Toyota Class C, and when I found out he was not only a vandweller but he had also lived for years on a boat (and learned how to make a living out of it) I just knew I had to share it with all of you. So I asked him to write a post for the blog and this is it. There is a great deal of similarity between living on a boat and living in a van or RV, so I think you will enjoy and learn from his story. I enjoyed it so much I encouraged Brad to write a Kindle book on the topic and he thought that was a great idea, so hopefully he is doing that right now. When he makes it available, I will let you all know about it.
I also want to encourage all of you to consider writing a post for my blog. You don’t have to be Shakespeare, just have a basic ability to write. Or, if you prefer, you can send me your story and pictures and I will write it for you. Pictures are critical though, you must have some. Many of you know as much or more than I do, so the more voices that get out the better. And we will put in a link to whatever you want to promote. So here is Brad’s story in his own words:
Freedom! That’s what the RV-nomad lifestyle and living aboard a boat have in common- in case you were wondering what this title is doing on this blog. You may be asking; freedom from what? For starters living aboard a boat, the same as the RV-nomad life can facilitate freedom from the rat-race, from consumerism, from suburbia, and from having too much stuff. All of this is a big part of why we choose to live this way. If you’re long-time reader of this blog, and follow the ideas presented, then you’re likely living a much freer life than you were previously. This is often a big reason why people live this way.
I recently attended the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous where I got to see how others were living this life of freedom. On one of our morning walks I was chatting with Bob about this lifestyle and I shared that I had also lived aboard a sailboat for a few years. Bob invited me to share some ideas with you about how to do that.
There are as many ways to live on a boat as there are ways to be a land-based nomad, but in this article we’ll keep the focus on the more frugal ways of doing it. Once a vessel is acquired, it can be done for as little or less money than living in a van or RV. In the beginning there are the two primary considerations; where to do it, and what vessel to do it on.
WHERE TO PUT YOUR BOAT?
As to geographic locations, the main criterion is water. You might think at first that this limits where you can choose to live. That may be true, as it limits you to only three quarters of the planet including inland waterways and lakes. My experience is living near coastal cities, so what I’ll share reflects that.
Many coastal cities were built and matured around a sea-port or harbor. These facilitated trade for growing civilizations. Most medium to large sized harbors still cater to the commercial side of boating while also supporting a thriving leisure boating community. In all of these locations you’ll find three primary locations for keeping a vessel. In descending order of monthly cost, these are marinas, moorings, and anchorages. Any of these three can be viable for living aboard.
Marina: We’ll first look at living aboard in a marina. The main benefits to this route are that you have electric hook-ups (shore-power), restroom and shower facilities and you’re in a gated community a short walk from a parking lot. Many marinas also offer storage lockers. Not all marinas allow living aboard, and there’s a fairly broad price range for monthly rent with those that do. Generally about one third to one half of the marinas near larger cities allow living aboard. Monthly rent will usually run between about half up to eighty percent of what a one bedroom apartment would cost in the same city. So, expense is the biggest possible negative to living at a marina. That said, it can be a great way to ease into the lifestyle while getting your vessel fixed up to your specifications.
Mooring Ball: Next there’s living on a mooring ball. There are designated areas in most large harbor cities that have permanent mooring balls and adjacent dinghy docks. Living on a mooring, in my opinion, gives you the best of everything. It’s affordable and you’re only a short dinghy ride away from parking, stores and the rest of the work-a-day world. Here where I live in San Diego moorings go for $120 – $140 per month – less than ten percent of rent for a one bedroom apartment. There is usually a waiting list, sometimes years, to acquire a mooring. The way around this is to watch Craigslist (also post), and ask around at the mooring offices for people who want to sub-let their mooring and/or boat. In my experience, if you’re diligent you’ll find a mooring within a month or so. It’s the best way I know to have a million-dollar waterfront view on the cheap…well besides stealth parking in an RV that is. : )
Anchoring Out: Lastly, there’s anchoring out. This is where you drop the hook (anchor) in areas where it’s allowed. These allowable areas are becoming fewer and most are subjected to either ocean swell or passing ships which make your home rock roughly from side to side. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but it’s sometimes an option, and it’s free.
WHICH BOAT TO LIVE ON?
As to choosing a vessel, there’s one initial consideration; will it be a power boat or a sailboat? If you don’t already have a preference, you can successfully live aboard either one. The main differences are that a power boat of a similar length will have more livable room than a sailboat. The advantage of a sailboat is that the engine is considered auxiliary power, with your primary source of power being the wind. You can travel for free, or no fuel cost. I’m definitely prejudiced, having owned over a dozen sailboats and no power boats. The other advantage to sailboats in general is that you have a better chance of getting a good deal and being able to sell it for a profit.
Boat prices will range from free to more money than most of us would want to spend, but you can buy a very suitable boat for a few thousand dollars. If you’re patient and search diligently you’ll find some deals. I got one boat for free and after a couple of weeks of cleaning and fixing it up sold it for a net profit of $12,000. I did have to put a new engine in it, but found a rebuilt diesel for $2,500. Another boat, for which I paid one dollar, was sold for even more. Those are exceptional deals, and I was very patient and diligent, but it gives you an idea of what can be done. Realistically expect to spend two to four thousand for a boat that won’t need major repairs, and which you’ll be comfortable living on.
BEING PAID TO LIVE ON A BOAT!
This is an idea I’d like to stress; if you’re handy with tools, painting, and general mechanics you can make a decent income by fixing up and selling sailboats. I did this full-time for six years. I don’t think it could be done as easily with power boats. There’s a lot more to this than we have time for in a blog post, so my advice is to educate yourself before diving in.
One last idea that’s a good income generator is to charter out your boat. People will pay to have you take them out for several hours aboard your boat. This could be cumbersome while living aboard, but can be a consideration for supplemental income. I know several people who do this very actively – that is they live aboard and charter out their boat. Often a Captains license will be required in order to do this. If that’s the case you can either hire a Captain, or get your license which would allow you to drive other boats for income as well.
Living aboard is a great way to enjoy a lot more freedom in your life, live closer to nature, and to be free to travel and explore new horizons.
Pretty accurate info based on my own experience. The one huge disadvantage with the boat is that being stealthy is very difficult, if not impossible. You will be noticed.
If this strikes anyone’s fancy, a cheap way to see if you like being on a boat is to join a sailing club and get some time out on the water and being around docks, boats, etc…
Also, with a little experience, you can volunteer to crew on boats for weekly beer can racing. This gets you great experience and into the circle of boaters and all things boat-like. At least, that’s how I did it and I’m pretty cheap.
Cae, thanks for all those ideas! Since this is a topic I know nothing about, the more insight from readers the better!!
I see you as the most interesting man in the world from those dos equis commercials. Thanks for sharing.
RV AJ, wow, that is either a great compliment or a terrible insult!! I am going to assume it is a compliment!
Either way, thanks!!
hah, certainly a compliment!
Thanks RV AJ! I figured it was.
Interesting! Thanks for the insight into another way to live unconventionally.
Kim, I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I really liked the blog post recaping your trip. I was especially honored that the RTR was in the top three favorite things you enjoyed. I’m looking forward to our paths crossing again this summer or fall. Enjoy the heat and humidity back East this summer!
hey brad, great post, i also own a sailboat a catalina 30. for five years an thinking about buying another one.it was far cheaper to live on a sailboat at the beach, than to rent anything else.there are even poeple living on there sailboat’s on the hard or(land).while they are working on them.particulary in mexico.i really like the new electric motors, that are running totally off solar panels.talk about green,run your engine off the sun an boat that run off wind. fellow sailor gary ps is that sailboat in your post a cal 29 ?
Gary, hopefully Brad will answer your questions because it is something I know nothing about. I had no idea you owned a sailboat! Learn something new every day!
hey bob, i sold my sailboat for my land sailboat the (casita)travel trailer. i live on my sailboat in newport habor.i had a mooring ball there for five years i rented.gary
great article. good time of year to consider this lifestyle. Readers might wish to invetigate cheap house boat lifestyles too. flat lakes have a culture of harbors that have these boats, that can survive freazing into the ice.
Offroad, those are very good suggestions! I know lake Powell and Lake Mead on the Colorado are huge lakes with a giant amount of houseboats on them. And the weather is spectacular there, no worries about freezing on them!
Great article Brad!
I lived a life of prosperous simplicity on a sailboat cruising the kiwi colored waters of the Florida Keys for 8 years of my life. And all of the lessons I learned on the water apply to simple living in my 17ft ‘Casbah’ today.
I scored a very good deal on a sailboat for $2500.00 that I had to fix part of the bow which was delaminating from the hull. Yet it gave me confidence in repair and I went on to starting a boat maintenance and underwater dive service called “Barnacle Busters”.
After experiencing being stranded on a deserted island (seriously) after a huge storm, I must say I prefer the more docile RV lifestyle.
I appreciate you sharing your experience with us my friend and I look forward to seeing you soon!
Until then…celebrate life!
Laurie, $2500 for a serviceable sailboat seems like a ridiculously low price. Good to hear you confirm that it is indeed possible. Somehow living on a sailboat full-time seems completely foreign to me and like an impossible dream, so the more people who confirm it really can be done and pretty easily the better.
You really are an amazing person and the more I learn about you the more impressed I am!!
I thought about doing this in a homemade houseboat fashion later on.
Thanks again !!!!
You are welcome Wolf. Life aboard a boat seems like a kissing cousin to the nomadic vandwellling/RVing lifestyle. It’s easy to see how the one could appeal to the other. We all must have been pirates in a past life!!
Thanks, Bob and Brad. This is interesting. I’m a land-based person myself, so I dont know much about sailing, but I know a couple who live on a boat. Their lives are not perfect, but they’re probably the happiest folks I know most of the time.
Calvin, I’m like you, the water has no appeal to me! Having grown up in Alaska I never learned how to swim: there was no heat to escape from and the water is so miserably cold being in it was certainly not fun! When I grew up in Anchorage in the 60s there was one public pool and we couldn’t afford to go there.
I have to agree though that the mobile life (on water or land) does lead to the happiest people I know. What’s not to love?! I wouldn’t trade this life for anything!
One thing that I’ve wondered about is lightening. Do sailboats and powerboats have something similar to lightning rods or something? The thought of finding myself out in open water and an easy target to getting hit by lightning makes be uneasy.
Gabe, that’s a good question for which I have no answer. You would think they must have something or they would be struck by lightening constantly. Hopefully Brad or someone else will write in to tell us.
Sailboats have a grounding wire run to a through-hull (a metal pipe with valve that lets water into or out of the boat). The idea is to pass the charge through the boat — from masthead to water. The conventional wisdom is that if you’re aboard, you’re in a sort of cone of safety. But some boats have had their electronics fried or even had their through-hulls blown out by a lightning strike — not good to have a hole suddenly blown through the hull, below the water level. Generally, though, your chance of being struck by lightning isn’t really any worse on a sailboat than on land.
I’ve lived aboard two sailboats plus spent a year on a little houseboat in Seattle. Now I’m looking for a small class c RV …
That’s very interesting Becca! Sometimes I think I learn more from my readers than they do from me! Good luck on your search for the perfect Class C!
Fantastic post!!! Great living once a person gets their sea legs.
Thanks Tim, Brad really did a great job of writing that. He made it seem very reasonable and like you really could do it. That’s good writing!
Hi, I’ve always loved the water and being on boats, I’ve owned two sailing boats myself, I bought my last boat (a 19ft long keeled sailing cruiser) with the intention of bumming around the Med for a few years.
The trouble is, here in Europe at least, the costs are high, especially for marina moorings, and eventually I had to sell the boat at a knock down price.
These days I earn a few extra Euros working on other people’s boats, the money they spend is quite amazing, who you believe €1500 for an afternoon’s diesel…?
I still stroll around marinas looking at nice sailing boats and think… maybe with a bit of work…
Then I come to my senses.
Anyway, it’s interesting to read about people who do live on a boat.
Great blog, keep up the good work.
Thanks Dave, it is always interesting to hear a different perspective from our European brethren.
No harm in dreaming! That’s the way everything worthwhile starts!
Thank you, Brad, for writing that piece, and thank you, Bob, for publishing it. You guys beautifully illustrated that RV-living isn’t the only fun, liberating alternative dwelling in town.
Buena suerte with your writing, Brad! It was great meeting you at the RTR.
Scott, you are welcome. Living on a boat has no interest to me whatsoever, but I can see how knowing about it would benefit my audience, and that is what is important!
Love the post. I know from locals in Key West you can drop anchor and live there for free, but a land-lock lake seems a much safer bet, no hurricanes. Does anyone know if you can drop anchor and live on any of the lakes in the southwest, Lake Powell, Lake Havasue, Lake Mead? If so, are there places you can use a dinghy to go ashore and get supplies? Thanks Tom
Lighttrip, I am not terribly familiar with the details of how it works, but I know for a fact there are a huge number of house boats on both Lake Powell and Mead. I assume those lakes are Federal property and under Federal control, but I have no idea how it works or what the regs are. I know there are plenty of places to get supplies. Lake Mead is right next to Las Vegas so getting supplies would be easy. Page, Az is right by lake Powell, so I guess you would get supplies there.
Seems like it would be worth looking into. I’m not a water guy so I won’t be, but if you do let us know what you find out.
It would be interesting to learn what tricks of boat living are applicable to van living. I imagine some marine products (though they tend to be pricey) would solve some problems we have in vans. And since you can’t run to the store for food and ice when your’re in the middle of the ocean, there are probably things boat owners could teach us about boondocking.
Al, there are a lot of similarities between boating and RVing. Like you said, if you are in the middle of the ocean and something breaks you can’t just run down to the store and get a new one, so marine products tend to be very high quality–and very high prices! But if only the best will do they are what you want.
All the boaters that I know are sailers and there is a high level of camaraderie among the sailing group. As with any group once you are involved and people learn the direction that you are heading there will be many suggestions of anchorages, restaurants, bars to look for as well as places to avoid. I have a friend that traveled for years in a small boat and as far as I know never paid a fee. There are lots of crazy local rules on anchoring over night. Suggestion, don’t anchor in the middle of a channel (people do it).
If a person is handy with tools many bargains can be had in some areas. Here in Pensacola it isn’t unusual to see free boats on Craig’s List. After a hurricane is obviously a buyers market.
I didn’t notice that any comment mentioned fishing or diving as added bonuses to this choice of lifestyle. Drop the anchor, throw out the crab trap and get your hook wet, dinner is on it’s way!
Finally, I would recommend one thing to anyone new to boating and to experienced boaters as well. Take a BOATERS SAFETY CLASS!! They are inexpensive and given by the Coast Guard Auxiliary or the US Power Squadron and others. Some are available online. Being on the water is a higher level of commitment that being on the road.
Guy those are very good tips! Boating and vandwelling have so much in common that I am always looking for all the info I can get on it.
Recently a friend told me that some people will sometimes sublet their boat that is docked in a marina for a monthly rent as apposed to renting out an apartment or condo. My friend said they will pay a monthly fee and sometimes pay the docking fee. This immediately got my interest and I have been looking in my area (los angeles, marina del ray or even san fran [if the price is right and if I can find a job]) for people that are willing to do this. I have been having trouble finding any information on this or even any boats for sublet. I don’t make a lot of money (enough to pay rent in L.A.) but I would love to do something like this, whether its for a couple months or even six months. Do you have any information on this or possibly a website with these kind of listings? Or is this even true? I would appreciate any information you could give me.
Jason, I’m sorry but this is something I know nothing about. A friend wrote that article and I know nothing at all about boat living.
The best I could offer is to use Google and Craigslist.
I�ll take hold of your rss feed right away, as I can not find your email subscription hyperlink or e-newsletter service. Do you have one?|
Not yet, but I hope to have one back up soon.
I was just wondering if islands are still available out in the south pacific for the taking? Back in the 60’s I heard this was true. It would be nice to find one with a sandy beach and declare it Freedom Island with no government or taxes 🙂
Can’t help you with that one Joe, I have no idea.
How do I get started if I was to sail around the world with a crew?