14 Things Nobody Tells You About Living on a Boat

Are you curious what its really like living on a boat? I’ll tell you the positives and negatives here. There’s lots you might not realize about boat life.

Kristin Hanes on a sailboat

Living on a boat is a dream for many people. You might imagine tropical anchorages with darting fish, solitude deep in nature, or evening cocktails on the stern as oranges and pinks splash across the horizon. Boat life is often romanticized, and when I tell people I’ve been living on a boat since 2016, they often say something like, “You’re living the dream!” or “You’re so lucky!”

​I agree that I am lucky, but I’m not always living the dream. Living on a boat full-time has ups, downs, joys, and challenges. I wouldn’t trade my sailing lifestyle for anything, at least not yet, but it’s good to know that life aboard isn’t always as dreamy as it looks.

But sometimes it is! We’ve explored stunning anchorages in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, watching mobula rays leap in the setting sun. We’ve gone windsurfing off our sailboat’s stern amongst pods of dolphins. And we’ve experienced freedom at its most beautiful and divine.

We started by living on a boat in the San Francisco Bay area in 2016 and moved on to cruising in 2020. Getting away from big cities was the best thing we did for our boat lifestyle.

Hopefully, I’ll give you more clarity about what the liveaboard lifestyle is like. Maybe you’ll choose boat life for yourself! 

There is a Lot of Maintenance 

woman standing next to a sailboat in a boatyard in mexico

As I write this article, I am in Cabrales Boatyard at the northern tip of the Sea of Cortez. It’s our fourth time idling boat work here, along with a large community of cruisers working on their sailboats. Cruisers come here to keep maintenance costs down. If you hire someone to do the work on your boat, it will require a pretty penny. Many liveaboards seek out boatyards where they can do their own work; some are in “boat jail” for months, if not years. 

Don’t be fooled if you buy a newer boat, either. We’ve heard of brand-new boats having issues, too. Yes, boat life has a lower cost of living, but be prepared to reinvest some of those costs into maintenance. The to-do list with boat work and maintenance often seems unlimited.

You’ll Have to Be Your Own Mechanic

Life on a sailboat, especially if you want to go cruising, means there is a lot to learn. Often, you’ll be anchored in distant places where you can’t easily call a mechanic for help. The most self-sufficient sailors learn everything there is to know about their boat, including engine maintenance and repair, operating and fixing the fridge, knowledge of solar and electrical systems, and how to repair the watermaker, among other systems.

If you plan to cross oceans and visit remote islands, you must know how to fix your boat on the fly with the tools you carry onboard. Being a good problem solver is a must when living on a boat. 

There Can Be Life or Death Situations

woman waving from the cockpit while living on a boat in Mexico
Living on a boat isn’t always this perfect!

When people ask me the difference between van life and sailboat living, one of the huge ones I can think of is this: Van life doesn’t have death-defying moments. But when you’re living on a boat, anything can go wrong. Sudden, fierce weather conditions might hit you, and you must stay onboard. It’s tough to find a sailor who’s fallen overboard in the middle of the ocean, especially at night.

Along with bad weather, there are also whale strikes, one of which recently sunk a sailboat on its way to the South Pacific. Or, someone might fall ill or get injured in the middle of nowhere. It’s difficult to head to the hospital while cruising remote destinations.

Space is Limited

A man standing inside a sailboat interior while living boat life

Let’s face it: boats don’t have much space. If you plan on living on a boat, you must eliminate tons of stuff. Our boat has cupboards for storage, but most are filled with tools and food. Lack of space means we have to be efficient regarding our stuff. For example, each item has more than one purpose in the kitchen. Instead of buying a pair of onion goggles, I wear swimming goggles. We’re always getting rid of stuff, moving stuff around, and try to keep only what we need.

With the lack of space, boats can get cluttered fast, and nothing feels good about hanging out in a mess.

A small yacht also means you must enjoy being with your partner. Personal space is limited, and you’ll have to find ways to get your alone time. I like going into the forward cabin and shutting the door if I need to get work done, nap, or have quiet time. Living in close quarters with your significant other is just part of life aboard, and we’ve found that many sailors who live on a boat together have a very strong bond. 

It Can Be Difficult to Find a Legal Slip

woman standing onboard a liveaboard sailboat in a marina
finding a slip is easier now that we’re cruising full time

If you’re not planning on cruising and, instead, want to stay near a big city, you’ll have to deal with finding a liveaboard slip. When we were in the San Francisco Bay area, it was almost impossible to find a liveaboard slip without getting on a waitlist for many years. Since we weren’t technically allowed to live on our boat, we did a combination of anchoring out in the Bay, housesitting, and sleeping in our vehicle. None of this was very convenient and I would have much rather lived on our sailboat full time. 

If you’re considering the sailboat life, you’ll want to get on as many live-aboard waitlists as possible. And right now. Keep in mind that liveaboard slip fees are higher than regular slip fees. For example, the liveaboard fees were around $400 more in Channel Islands Harbor near Ventura. This will depend on what part of the country you’re in, though, plus demand!

Some Marinas are Disgusting

When you are looking for a liveaboard slip, you should go to the marina first and inspect it. Since I started living on a boat, I’ve seen some truly nasty marinas. Boats in total disrepair. Boats with garbage on their decks or cluttered with rows of unruly plants. Marinas with crusty characters ambling about, shouting both to and at each other. I’ve heard marital disputes, crying, cussing, and all sorts of weird stuff.

It’s important to choose your marina carefully. Ensure you like the people you see and have similar goals. If you’re at a marina preparing your sailboat for cruising, it’s fun to be around similar folks.

Say Goodbye to Long, Hot Showers

woman standing on the deck of a sailboat while living aboard
these types of views make up for the lack of long showers

Water on a small boat is limited, so you won’t be able to take those long, hot showers you would enjoy at a house. If you’re cruising, you’ll need a watermaker to take fresh water showers, or you can boil saltwater. We do have a watermaker but choose the salt water method instead so we don’t have to run our noisy watermaker as often.

You also won’t want to take long, hot showers because it could create a mold issue inside your boat. We take “navy showers,” where we turn the water off when lathering up. We add hot water to our solar shower, which only has a capacity of 2.6 gallons. So that’s the longest shower we’ll get!

When living on our boat, I often miss the old days when I could take a steamy shower.

Sea to Summit Solar Shower
We use this Sea to Summit solar shower both on our sailboat and in our camperpvan.

There is an Incredible Sense of Community

people who live on their boat full time hanging out at a remote island
hanging out with sailboat friends at an anchorage

Living on a boat means you’ll instantly have a rapport with other sailors. We can relate to many things since we’ve been through many of the same experiences. Plus, being a cruising sailor requires a special type of personality. These people love nature, are hard-working, are self-reliant and into an alternative lifestyle.

We’ve met many life-long friends in anchorages and at the boatyard, where we all endure the same suffering. The boating community is seriously one of my very favorite things about boat life!

You’ll be Exposed to the Elements

man and woman hugging while living on a boat
A beautiful calm weather anchorage in the Sea of Cortez

There’s something joyous about living on a boat when you’re safely anchored, and the wind is howling outside. I love the sound of rain pattering against the cabinhouse. However, the proximity to nature also exposes you to extreme heat and humidity.

Most liveaboard cruising boats don’t have air conditioners as they take too much battery power when away from the dock. You may spend a lot of time sweating and sweltering inside your boat, especially if you’re in a hot climate during the summer months. If you have a liveaboard slip for your boat, it’s easier to plug in an AC unit to make those summer months more bearable.

In the boatyard in Puerto Penasco, we jerry-rigged a household air conditioning unit to cool off our boat in early July, as the heat made life aboard unbearable.

The cold is much easier to deal with when on a liveaboard vessel. We have a kerosene heater and a “school bus heater,” which blasts engine heat throughout our boat when we’re motoring. We were delighted to have these heating sources when living aboard in colder climates, like San Francisco in winter. 

You’ll Become Very Self-Sufficient

One amazing thing about living on a boat, especially when cruising, is you’ll feel self-sufficient. My grandma calls me a “Pioneer Woman,” as we live without many modern-day comforts. Thanks to Starlink, we have high-speed internet access, but we live without so much, including running hot water, a washer and dryer, dishwater, and other things most people take for granted. 

On the flip side, we have learned to rely on ourselves. We make our water using our watermaker, catch fish, bake sourdough bread, and learn about which plants are edible. The marine environment becomes our free food source, and when we buy “real” groceries, we can live off them for weeks if necessary. We love that we can move around with the power of the wind and run our entire boat off solar panels and lithium batteries. Our sailboat is its own self-sustaining tiny house.

Living on a Boat Can be Uncomfortable 

woman feeling seasick on a sailboat
Here I am feeling very seasick during a passage

Sometimes when living on a boat, I dream of ways I can get off the boat. This is when anchorages are rough and rolly, when sea conditions are terrible, or when high wind prevents us from leaving a particular anchorage.

We’ve often woken up in the middle of the night to our sailboat bucking around like a wild horse, and we have to pull up anchor and motor somewhere else at 2 am. One time, an anchorage was so uncomfortable that my partner Tom threw up off the side of the boat even when we were anchored! When the motion is bad, it feels awful to be seasick, and you’ll want to be anywhere else but on a boat.

You’re at the Mercy of the Weather

High winds kept us in the Turtle Bay anchorage for five days when we were cruising south along the Baja Peninsula in the winter of 2020-2021. I felt like I was going crazy at that time, as there was no way to get off the boat, go on walks, or go paddleboarding. Everything was cold, and the bad weather was like an anchor, keeping us in the same spot.

Whether you go or stay when living on a sailboat depends on the wind and sea state. You might have to wait out storms for days. You might suffer from boredom and restlessness, and you’ll long for the day when you’re blessed with fair winds and following seas.

Speaking of weather, you’ll also have to be a weather forecaster. You can attend training or take classes on the art of weather prediction. We recommend the weather service Predict Wind, which we use in conjunction with an Iridium Go satellite device. 

You’ll Enjoy Fewer Possessions

woman steering a boat in the sea of cortez
steering the boat in the Sea of Cortez

It can be hard at first to downsize and get used to less space, but after a while, you’ll get used to the feeling of minimalism. Everything on your boat will have a purpose, and you’ll think twice before buying new things.

Freedom from stuff is one of the greatest parts of boat life, and the limited space is not a big deal over time. After many years of living on our CT-41 sailboat, we are still thinking of ways to get rid of even more stuff and slim down our lives. Empty cabinets are a positive thing in our book! 

The Adventure is Endless

With so much hard work and hardship, you might be wondering why people even choose to live on a boat. The good news is that living on a boat can be as rewarding as it is challenging. We love the sailing experience, dancing with the wind on the beam, relaxing on the stern with a book and a sun shirt.

There have been incredible days with whales spouting alongside us or getting swarmed with a pod of dolphins. I love that boat ownership brings endless adventures and destinations. When you think about it, most people won’t get to explore those remote anchorages, hidden islands, or cross oceans.

You’ll have stories and memories for life and always treasure your experience with the liveaboard lifestyle. 

I Hope You Enjoy Life Aboard

If you choose to live on a boat, whether a sailboat like ours or a power boat, we hope you take advantage of your new home. You may enjoy getting a liveaboard slip near a city and taking weekend adventures to islands or other marinas.

Or you may decide, like us, to go cruising on your boat year-round. There are many different ways to live on a boat, and we hope you find your dream lifestyle, whatever that may be. 

5 essential sailing books I love

From diesel mechanics, to predicting the weather, to heaving-to a boat in a storm, sign up to see which five essential books will never leave our sailboat's shelf. Enter your info to download the PDF!

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

11 Comments

  1. You will love being a live-a-board in Mexico! I have a friend that’s been in Mexico on his boat for almost 3 years. His favorite marina’s, so far, are La Cruz, Barra de Navidad, San Carlos (Sonora) and La Paz. The Mexican people are wonderful and getting quality boat work done in Mexico is much cheaper.
    I wish I’d found your blog sooner – my first time on his boat was two weeks out in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico. It was a HUGE adjustment for me!

    1. Hi Connie! I really can’t wait! I’m looking forward to Mexico sooo much and hope we are able to go next fall, maybe with the Bajaha. I already love Mexico, so I’m sure being there on the boat will be even better. Your first trip on the boat was two weeks in the ocean? WOW!

  2. Tim Yaotome says:

    Thanks for the heads up that living on a boat would require almost most of one’s time in getting it repaired. If I wanted to live on a boat with the rest of my family, I would first buy a large one from a dealer service. With their help, we can bond together as a family while appreciating nature’s vast bodies of water.

  3. Sounds like what were expecting but don’t have the guts/ motivation to do just yet. Are you planning on having a YouTube channel? We would totally follow you !!!

    1. Yes! When we start cruising I will make more YouTube videos for sure 🙂

  4. Excellent description of your experiences so far, living aboard. Your narrative brought many smiles, as I think back to when I first lived aboard. I too have lived aboard, for seven years
    No regrets, but as you so accurately pointed out, requires a lot of maintenance and repairs.. Over time you will acquire a lot of skills, some of which you will wish you didn’t need to learn. Such as dealing with a plugged toilet just prior to catching a slack tide through a narrow rapids.
    One of the keys to success on board, is being very organized and having dry erase boards velcroed to the inside of your cupboards and lockers, listing your current updated inventory can help in this regard..
    Knowing when to reef and serious anchor gear are always things to think about too.
    I’ve bookmarked your webpage and thanks for such an interesting description of your experiences. Kind regards, Richard

  5. Hi Richard! I’m glad you enjoyed reading the blog post. Thanks for your tips!! It will be really interesting once we start traveling aboard the boat. I’m sure I’ll learn SO many things!

  6. Frank Taylor says:

    Very nice read. I currently live on land but find that I much prefer the time that I spend on my boat. Consequently, I see living on a boat in my future. There is nothing that can take the place of the serenity and adventure of spending time on the water.

    Thanks for another great article.

  7. Pingback: I gave up my San Francisco apartment to live on a boat. Here are 9 things I wish I knew beforehand. – CapitolZero
  8. Pingback: I gave up my San Francisco apartment to live on a boat. Here are 9 things I wish I knew beforehand. | Industry news
  9. Pingback: I gave up my San Francisco apartment to live on a boat. Here are 9 things I wish I knew beforehand. - News
  10. Pingback: The best marine toilets of 2019 - The Wayward Home
  11. Pingback: Why we chose a liveaboard trawler for boat life - The Wayward Home
  12. Pingback: How to find the best liveaboard boat for you - The Wayward Home
  13. Pingback: Why Two Tiny Homes Are Better than One Big One | Make Money Online I Change Your Life
  14. Alton Wilson says:

    Hello Kristin,

    Great blog! I have already anticipated needing to do repairs when I find a boat. I am pretty handy so that does not scare me. I am curious what repairs you guys have done and what is left to be done so you can hit the ocean!

    1. Kristin Hanes says:

      Hey Alton! The repairs are too numerous to write here – it was 5 years worth! But we also have a 1972 boat. All those repairs wouldn’t have been necessary with a newer boat. We did do a 3-day passage down to the Ventura area and hope to do Mexico this winter. The boat is almost ready!

  15. Wow, this seems so cool. I’d be interested in your thoughts on how much tougher this would be solo.

Similar Posts