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The Pros and Cons of Living Aboard a Sailboat

Having lived the cruising life aboard my small sailboat for several years, I now enjoy my life on land in Austin, TX.


Should You Live Aboard a Cruising Sailboat?

Are you tired of your boring life and thinking of trying something new? Can you imagine yourself living aboard a sailboat or anchored somewhere tropical as you drink fruity cocktails and watch the sunset? It sounds pretty good, and it is good. I've lived the liveaboard sailor life myself, and I was not rich when I did. It's not all piña coladas and white sandy beaches, though. There are some downsides to sailboat living that need to be considered first.

When I first decided to throw off all the lines connecting myself to a land-based life, I was in my late 30s, recently divorced and looking to start over in a completely new direction. I decided to sell my home, my car and many of my possessions and move aboard a little 28' Beneteau sloop which was moored in a liveaboard marina in Corpus Christi, Texas. I had no prior sailing experience, except for having crewed aboard a small racing yacht on a freshwater lake a couple of times. The inspiration for the move was given to me by a friend and coworker who, along with his wife, was planning to purchase a small Pacific Seacraft yacht and begin a circumnavigation of the world after they had both retired. After my divorce, I was ready for a change, and since I had always loved to travel, sailing aboard one's own boat seemed like the perfect conveyance, a snug turtle shell of a home that you carried along with you as you slowly explored the world.

When I would visit my good friends at their home, they would often be watching "how-to" videos about living aboard, and their coffee table would be piled high with beautifully illustrated cruising magazines and books. The seductive sailing magazines further cemented the dream inside my head. I began to believe it was a dream that I could also live and was hoping that I could possibly tag along with my friends in my own small boat. They planned on taking baby steps at first, as they sailed and motored up the intercoastal canal from Texas to Florida, then sailed across the Gulf Stream from Florida to the Bahamas and eventually onward around the world. It sounded amazing to me, and I was ready to go.

I gladly took home any magazines that my friends had already read, including Cruising World and Latitudes and Attitudes, and I devoured their books written by sailing couples such as Lin and Larry Pardey, who had lived aboard for years and circumnavigated several times.

It all seemed daunting yet doable to me at the time, especially since the local real estate market was booming and I had accumulated enough equity in my home that I could use it to purchase a small boat.

I began to make an escape plan and save every spare dime that I could so that I could have enough to live on for four years before needing to work again. Unfortunately, my friends – the older couple who were also planning their sailing escape – had to abandon their plan. My friend's wife developed a serious degenerative condition in her spine and was told by her doctor to avoid any kind of activity that could result in an injury. He said that she could be left paralyzed by sudden jarring motions, such as those possible on an ocean-going sailboat, and this was enough to deter them. I was devastated for them and considered abandoning my own liveaboard plan, yet they encouraged me to stick with it and continued to teach me what they had learned, and they introduced me to some of their friends who offered me sailing instruction.

Finding a Suitable Boat

In late 1999, I sold my home, my vehicle, and most of my belongings, and began searching up and down the Gulf Coast for a used sailboat. I probably could have found a more cruising-worthy, offshore boat to purchase, yet I settled on a 28.5' Benetau First, which was more of a near shore racer-cruiser than a liveaboard vessel. I had a small "galley" or kitchen, compact fridge, and a "head" as the bathroom on a boat is called. It was easy to sail, and I figured that if I sailed conservatively and watched the weather forecasts that I could sail it on to Florida or the Caribbean and trade it in for a larger sailboat there.

I ended up sailing the little Beneteau all the way to St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands. There I found a 33' 1968 Pearson Vanguard, which is a much more seaworthy cruising yacht. It was already set up with a Monitor Windvane self steering system and much of the offshore gear that I needed. The plan worked out, but I realize now that I would have been better off, and kept more money in my pocket, if I had found more of a real cruising sailboat to begin with and avoided the "starter model."

For a new sailor there were many hard lessons, and one of the main things that I learned, during the two years from when I first purchased my little Beneteau and upgraded to the Pearson, was that opting for heavier-duty gear is almost never a bad choice. Also, shinier and newer does not mean better or more seaworthy when it comes to boats. There are also plenty of bargains to be found in older boats, provided that you do your research and have a licensed marine surveyor thoroughly go over the vessel before you decide to buy it. Often a used sailboat that has already seen its share of blue water cruising already has many of the necessary things installed, such as radar, an HF radio, self steering gear, etc., and also in many cases necessary spare parts that the owner has accumulated along the way.

Another thing that I learned was that tried and tested offshore sailing gear is necessary for even casual sailing. If you don't think you'll need a storm jib, sea anchor, drogue, EPIRB beacon, multiple ground tackle (anchors), among other things, then you will be rudely awakened at some point, even in the calmest of cruising grounds. I took along four spare anchors and several hundred feet of extra line and ended up using all of it as I prepared my boat for a direct hit from Hurricane Floyd in the Bahamas.

These are all concerns for those who have already considered living aboard and cruising to take seriously, but is living aboard and cruising even right for you in the first place? As one who had barely sailed before setting off to live the life of a cruising sailor, I know that it can technically be accomplished, even if your current skill set is near zero. The question really becomes; is it the right thing for you to do, to go and cut your ties to the security and safety that living in a home on land provides? If you are retired, or are a "digital nomad" able to work remotely, the question really is, what things will you miss from a land-bound life that you won't be able to have when wandering on the water. and is giving up those things worth it to you?

The Other Side of Paradise

The idea of living aboard your sailboat and lingering in exotic locations such as the Exumas, a chain of idyllic islands in the Bahamas, or even sailing to French Polynesia in your own little floating home is very compelling. I've been there, and it can be amazing most of the time. There were many times, though, that I wished I had not made the choice to live aboard a sailboat and go cruising. There were several times when family and friends were gravely ill, and I happened to be out at sea on a passage between islands, with no way of dropping what I was doing and flying "home" before it was too late.

Sailboats are slow, and you can't just zoom one to the nearest airport parking space and fly out when you want to. Over the years, I missed weddings, funerals, sick and dying friends, holidays with family and much more. The farther you get from your home country, the harder and more expensive it gets to return or even to keep in touch. Back when I went cruising, I relied on a system of very slow email that utilized an unpredictable radio network to keep in touch with family. Now, with onboard internet and satellite phones becoming more affordable, it is easier to keep in touch, yet it's still not free. Satellite calls can still cost more than a dollar a minute, depending on where you are and what system you are using. Being so far away and out of touch can weigh on you emotionally, and when important things are happening back home – the birth of a new grandchild, for instance – you may seriously question your choice to go cruising so far from home.

Another factor that may eventually weigh on you is the lack of room for your things. Even though Marie Condo has shown how to live better with less, we humans are still acquisitive creatures, and your boat may very well begin filling up with new treasures that you accumulate along the way. I know that my own boat certainly did, and several "purges" were necessary along the way when in port.

Also, the constant rocking and rolling, not in a musical sense, may not be for everyone. I've known sailors who swear that they can't sleep on land and talk about how they miss the gentle movement of their boats, yet I've also met others who were eventually driven crazy from the constant motion that is present even in the calmest harbors. This is not a small concern if you are bothered by such things. If you don't like constant motion and enjoy being level, straight and on stable ground most of the time, then living aboard is probably not for you.

For the ladies out there, if you enjoy having nice hair, makeup and even frequent bathing, I have some bad news for you. Unless you are lucky enough to afford an expensive reverse osmosis water maker, a device that makes fresh water from seawater, then your onboard shower, if you have one, will rely on whatever water you bring along from your last port. In the tropics, many of my fellow cruisers bathed with seawater, using dish soaps that worked with salt water to wash with, and then rinsed off with a few cups of precious fresh water. If you have certain hair types, then every day in paradise will be a bad hair day with the constant humidity and wind.

Many of the aforementioned downsides to living and cruising in paradise are simply inconveniences. A real issue for many people, especially those of us who are getting older, is that of reliable health care. If you choose to leave your home country and your primary care physician behind, you run the risk of ending up in a place where you're not able to get the care you need if you develop a life-threatening condition. Even preventative care – regular mammograms for women, for example – can suffer if you do not take exceptional measures to stay on course. There are workarounds for most of these issues, though. There are travelers insurance programs, medical flight insurance, etc., if you are able to afford them.

I once anchored here, near one of the Pitons of St. Lucia, in my little sailboat.

I once anchored here, near one of the Pitons of St. Lucia, in my little sailboat.

It Is Definitely a Change

There will be some things that you miss about your present life if you decide to give it all up and go cruising. You may miss your favorite foods, friends, family, your city and the changing of the seasons, among other things. Yet, for each of those things that you miss, there will be the rewards of new and different experiences. These rewards won't necessarily replace any of the things you miss, yet they will be rewarding nonetheless in their own ways.

I recall one evening, sitting aboard my little boat in a harbor in Georgetown, Exuma, in the Bahamas. I had just met my wife, of 20 years now, who was vacationing in the islands, at a little beach party on the shore. I had prepared a dinner for us of pasta and lobster from one that I had caught earlier that day. A young dolphin had decided to adopt us and swim playfully around our boat for nearly an hour as we ate and drank. On another occasion, I was invited to come ashore in a dugout canoe to the wedding of a Kuna Indian chief's daughter in the San Blas Islands of Panama. I had met these wonderful people only days before, yet was treated as an honored guest and allowed to share in an intimate family celebration.

There were moments like these, and many others, that I would have never been able to experience had I stayed behind working at my nine-to-five job and had not taken the chances that I did. While I do have regrets about things that I missed, living the cruising life for those few years forever changed me.

Whether life is right for you personally is a question that only you can answer after a lot, and I mean a lot, of careful consideration. Either way that you choose, I hope that you've found my article helpful and won't just take my word for it. Anyone who is considering living a cruising life should avail themselves of as many resources as possible beforehand. Go ahead and subscribe to those magazines, join online groups and listen in on the conversations of people who are already living the sailboat cruising life. Maybe you choose to do something else, and you're out only a few dollars in subscription fees and were able to live vicariously through the articles. If you decide to go for it, know that in the end, most of the biggest hurdles can be overcome, and it is a dream that many others have made possible for themselves with the right amount of planning and preparation. Fair Winds!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Nolen Hart