19 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Lived on My Sailboat Full-Time

Before moving onto a sailboat in 2017, I watched countless YouTube videos and read as many books as possible. It was a significant change, so…

Before moving onto a sailboat in 2017, I watched countless YouTube videos and read as many books as possible. It was a significant change, so I wanted to prepare as best as possible for the realities of the boat life. 

Looking at all that material was insightful. I had a good idea of what living on a boat full-time would be like, but there were many things I hadn’t figured out or fully understood. 

I have collected a list of the most important things I wish I’d known before moving onto a sailboat. Some of these points might seem obvious when you first see them. However, the implications behind each are far-reaching. If you’re considering boat life, don’t stop at the titles; read through each paragraph to appreciate each point fully.

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1) You Will Likely Need To Give Up Some Hobbies 

Photo Credit: Elena Manighetti

You rarely think of this when you plan to move onto a sailboat, but chances are you will need to forget about some of your hobbies. It might seem like a small sacrifice, but you will miss your old pastimes dearly once you’re stuck on the boat for multiple days due to bad weather. 

When we moved on board our first sailboat, my husband and I were determined to keep rock climbing. Except, we could never find anchorages near crags. We had to embark on a two-hour public transport journey when we could. We gave up in year two. We didn’t realize for years that it had a toll on our physical and mental health. We should have found a replacement activity or two.

2) Anyone Can Get Seasick In The Right Conditions

Elena and Ryan sailing their bluewater boat, a Tayana 37
Photo: Sailing Kittiwake

You might think you’re immune from seasickness. But you likely haven’t been out in the “right” conditions. A crossed swell, choppy seas in light wind, a Beaufort Force 8 storm… whatever sets you off might happen when you least expect it. We’re all different, so we respond to conditions in our ways.

I thought my husband Ryan was immune. But a crossed swell on a two-day passage affected us both heavily. We spent nearly the whole passage hugging buckets, praying we didn’t need to adjust the sails.

So don’t set sail without carrying seasickness tablets and remedies on board. You might need them sooner or later. 

3) The Weather Rules Your Plans

Cost of cruising: How one couple does it on a budget
Photo Credit: Sailing Kittiwake

We often think of living on a sailboat as absolute freedom. But it’s not exactly like that. Rather than depending on your boss and billing schedules, you rely on the weather to make every decision. 

Want to head south? The wind and swell might not allow it. Want to stay put and wait for your friends to reach you? The swell might make your current anchorage unsafe. You must adjust your plans around the weather and other factors, such as refueling, shopping, buying boat parts, and more.

By the way, the best marine forecast models are accurate about 70-80% of the time for the next 2-4 days.

4) You Have Zero Privacy 

Photo Credit: Elena Manighetti

Sailing into the sunset is often romanticized in the media. Think of the blissful days before the hurricane hits in the movie Adrift. But the truth is that you don’t have any privacy, not even for farting. The head is small, and it sits behind a skinny door. Yes, I found that out for myself.

Unless you have a boat with more than one cabin, you will usually hang out with your crew. To stay sane, you should organize some time apart. This is easier if you stay in marinas regularly. If you don’t, enforce some time apart when the weather allows you to use the dinghy. My hubby and I used to do that – sometimes, he went fishing in the dinghy, and other times I went to shore alone.

5) Sailboats Break All The Time, Even New Ones

Photo Credit: The Wayward Home

I knew boats need regular maintenance, but I naively thought most work could be done during the off-season when you’re ready to haul out and spend a few months in the boatyard. Well, sailboats don’t wait for it to be an excellent time to break down. They just do. They break when you’re hungover, underway, or about to jump in the dinghy to pick up visiting family. And sometimes you need to fix the issue there and then, even if you’re sailing through a storm. 

To my surprise, I discovered this applies to new boats, too. I’ve met a few couples who bought brand-new boats and were stuck in marinas for months due to manufacturing issues. One couple had engine issues because the manufacturer forgot a plastic bag in one of the gas tanks(!). Another had electrical problems because of faulty wiring.

6) Chores Take Time When You Live On A Boat

Photo Credit: The Wayward Home

Even if you spend much of your time in a marina, everything takes longer on a boat—whether doing laundry, ditching the trash, or going shopping for food. 

You can make your sailboat as comfy as you like, but you won’t be able to install a standard washing machine or dishwasher on board. Going to the grocery store will always involve either getting in the dinghy and walking, or stepping onto the dock and calling a taxi. 

Living on a sailboat means a much slower pace of life. Learn to embrace it rather than resent it. 

7) When The Weather Is Bad, The Boat Feels Tiny

Photo Credit: The Wayward Home

No matter the size of your boat, when you end up stuck on board for hours or days due to bad weather, it will feel tiny. You’ve probably experienced this at home, especially during lockdown. Even a mansion can make you feel claustrophobic. You can quickly go to the mall or a restaurant at home. On a boat, you must stay on board to ensure she doesn’t get blown out to sea.

While overloading a boat is a terrible idea, bring some entertainment for those days. Think of board games, podcasts, movies, books, crosswords, and more. I loved making pizza, watching movies, and playing board games during storms at anchor.

8) You Will Regret Rushing Through Some Areas

Photo Credit: The Wayward Home

When you first move on board your sailboat, you’re typically overcome by a sense of urgency. You want to get going and see all the places. You want to catch up with friends who left a week before you. You want to head south where the weather is warmer. At least, that’s how every cruiser I know and I felt.

But rushing through some areas is often a mistake. You will look back to those early days with nostalgia and wish you had stayed a little longer. You might never sail back to those places, so you will have missed the opportunity to explore them.

9) Boat Parts Are Expensive

Photo Credit: The Wayward Home

This might seem like something other than news. But if you’re on a budget, aren’t we all? This is a much bigger deal than you probably expect it to be. 

As I mentioned earlier, boats break all the time. Add that to regular maintenance, and you see how many boat parts (and the tools you need to install them) you must buy every year. And there’s no way to “put off” a repair or replacement, no matter how expensive the part is. 

We circumvented this issue by setting aside an “emergency fund” on top of a “maintenance fund.” That way, we never panicked about a breakdown. 

10) You Can Feel Isolated Sometimes

Photo Credit: The Wayward Home

The cruising community is exceptional. Through our sailing years, we made friends with amazing people we would have never had a chance to meet on land. These encounters make you feel like you belong to a big family. It’s a fantastic feeling.

But you will spend a lot of time sailing and traveling to different places. You will get stuck in empty anchorages. You will have to stop to wait for a package. And catching up with friends or finding new ones will be impossible for a while. That’s when loneliness will hit you. 

I felt lonely much of the time on our sailboat because we always made plans that suited our workload and the forecast. 

11) You Will Likely End Up Drinking More Than You Did On Land

Cost of cruising: How one couple does it on a budget
Photo Credit: Sailing Kittiwake

On a sailboat, every evening becomes an occasion to drink. Cruisers call alcoholic beverages sundowners – a toast to the stunning sunset they see every evening. But booze isn’t restricted to the evenings only. Many cruisers start drinking at noon in the Caribbean.

My husband and I ended up drinking at least a beer a night, even if alone, which is a lot more than we were used to at home. Initially, we craved the release after a stressful sail or boat repair. Over the years, we simply got into the habit of unwinding with alcohol every day. Be warned.

12) Living On A Sailboat Won’t Solve All Your Problems

Cost of cruising: How one couple does it on a budget
Photo Credit: Sailing Kittiwake

If you’re trying to escape from a big problem, living on a boat won’t erase it. Whatever you’re running from will pop up in your life again as unhealthy coping mechanisms that make you argue with your partner, inexplicable low mood, or an identity crisis. I’m no therapist, but I believe you will eventually need to deal with your problems at sea.

I thought moving to a sailboat was a way out of my career. My industry didn’t suit me, and I felt stuck. Going freelance when I moved on board helped, but the fact that I didn’t enjoy much of what I did didn’t change. I had to narrow down and specialize to do what I love the most—writing. 

13) Some People Can’t Sleep While Underway 

Photo Credit: Deposit Photos

I didn’t believe this was possible until it happened. Most books and expert captains say anyone can get used to sleeping on a boat after three to five consecutive nights on passage. 

Having only gone on two to four-night passages, I thought I would finally get used to it on the Atlantic crossing. Well, that didn’t happen. I spent 25 days on the ocean, sleeping a few hours every few nights. Even on days when I managed to get some shut-eye, I felt terribly tired. 

I don’t want to put you off from ocean passages, though. I’m a light sleeper, and I can experience anxiety that’s why I couldn’t rest well.

14) Staying Fit On A Boat Takes Creativity And Commitment

Photo Credit: Zero to Cruising

Exercising on a boat isn’t easy – you need to make the most of the deck by using resistance bands or lifting dumbbells and kettlebells down below. If workouts like these aren’t your thing, things can get challenging. Unless you stay in marinas, you can’t make plans to go running or head to the gym.

My husband and I became very unfit while on the boat. We tried incorporating resistance band exercises, but we kept falling out of the habit because we didn’t enjoy the workouts. Things got a lot better once we bought a SUP and a kayak—we used them daily to get some activity in. 

15) The Boat Life Isn’t Worry-Free

Photo Credit: Sailing Kittiwake

You will leave many of your worries behind but worry about new things. If you quit your job before moving onto a sailboat, you won’t need to worry about traffic, getting to the office on time, meeting your boss’ expectations, and more. 

But you will inevitably start worrying about other stuff, like whether the anchor will hold through the night, why your engine isn’t running smoothly, or whether your freelance gig will pay for the boat work you need to get done.

I didn’t think living on a sailboat was bliss, but I didn’t realize just how many things you need to think about and stay on top of. When you live on a sailboat, you’re in charge of your safety, so the responsibilities are bigger.

16) Boat Work Takes A Long Time And Tons Of Effort 

Photo Credit: The Wayward Home

All cruisers have an ongoing “effin’ to-do list” when it comes to boat work. Keeping your vessel ship-shape takes a lot of time, effort, and money. For example, cleaning the hull means diving under the boat with a scraper to dislodge the growth over and over again. The alternative is spending a lot on hauling out and a pressure wash.

If you think money can solve the issue entirely, think again. The reality is that you might not have access to the right specialist when you need them. So, you will have to learn how to fix something yourself. 

17) You Never Have Enough Fridge Space

Image Credits: Unsplash

You will only have enough fridge storage if you live on a big catamaran with two or three fridges. Fridges on boats are small, and you don’t want to overfill them, so the batteries don’t work overtime.

On our first boat, we had a standing 40L fridge, similar to a hotel minibar. It was not enough. On our second boat was a top-opening 60L fridge, which still filled up super fast. And we kept all produce, including eggs, out of it. 

18) You Need A Purpose Or Job 

Photo Credit: The Wayward Home

No matter what you do with your life, you need purpose. Whether that’s turning your boat into the home on the ocean of your dreams, launching a YouTube channel, or starting your own business.

On our sailboat, whenever I was low on work, I lacked direction, and my self-worth plummeted. You might not need or want to run a freelance business from your boat, but you need some purpose to feel happy. So pick one thing that gives you purpose to start or continue doing on the boat – writing a book, learning a new skill, or mentoring someone.

19) Toys Make The Boat Life Better

Photo Credit: The Wayward Home

If you have space on board to fit some toys, I highly recommend you buy some. They will stimulate you to get off the boat and do something active and fun and explore an anchorage. 

On our boat, we had an inflatable SUP, a two-person kayak, and free diving gear. It didn’t weigh much, and we could store it all on deck. Yes, inflating and deflating the toys was a bit annoying, but the enjoyment we got out of them made it all worth it. Paddling around the anchorage also helped us make friends with our neighbors.

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2 Comments

  1. Great summary of some of the challenges of living aboard! I experienced many of these things during our first season of cruising. I especially like the point that boat toys are worth it. I’ve been arguing with my husband about whether it’s worth it to buy SUPs. He thinks it’s unnecessary added stuff on the boat; I think they’d be fun and easy tools for exercise and exploration. We’re definitely getting them now!

  2. Any any freedom is offset by freedom though

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