Thursday, January 7, 2021

Selecting a Live Aboard Boat

Even in winter, a boat can be a snug little home


We get asked—after living now for some seven years aboard--”how do I pick a live aboard boat?”

 Sure, like we'd know.

Okay, here's our advice:  before you take that jump, there are a couple of practical questions you need to ask yourself .  The first and most important one is:  What do you want to do on the boat?  Yeah, yeah, I know “live on it,” but that's not the issue.  Here's the thing:  a live-aboard boat is something that floats in which you live, but what you're doing while you're floating is a key issue.  So after a bit of discussion, here's our take on how you should go about deciding.

First and foremost:  do you want to travel?  If the answer is: “not really,” and you're just looking for a cheap spot to live on the water, then you're in luck.  Just about every marina I've ever seen accumulates a number of “dock queens,” boats with generally one or two dysfunctional engines or transmissions that are otherwise in decent shape that can be had for a song. . .no, I mean that literally, as long as it isn't “Baby Shark,” the marinas are often that happy to rid themselves of them.  The boats have long since ceased paying storage or slip fees, are old enough that nobody particularly wants them without running engines, and having them crushed up and hauled away costs money.  If you turn that liability into a paying asset, most marinas will be happy to accommodate.  If you can't live aboard where you find the vessel, it's easy enough to get it towed to where you can.


For some, the dock is home.  For others, travel is where you belong

If the answer about travel is a “yes,” then you need to ask yourself what kind of travel we're talking about.  Are you happy to be a casual boater who also lives aboard, content to go out for a few hours or a weekend before returning to your home dock?  A boat that can do that may have few amenities that will function away from shore (think electric ranges and refrigerators), but will suit you just fine for a day or so, and can be pretty affordable.  Do you want to do extended cruising or cruise full time?  Then you'll need a vessel that can supply most of it's own power, refrigeration, and water.  This entails (functional) things like solar panels, alternators, generators, desalinization units, large water tanks, water filters, batteries, and enough fuel capacity to make sure all that can run for more than a few hours. 


Speaking of that:  The second part of that is:  how fast do  you need to go?  Power boats are a dime a dozen, but require a lot more maintenance than a lot of folks are willing to put into them (hence the proliferation of dock queens), and they absolutely suck fuel.  Seriously, if you're not a boater, finding a power boat in a live aboard size with a fuel consumption of more than two miles to a gallon is a gift.  Usually an expensive one.  The more motors, the more speed, the more money it takes to run. 


Now there are power vessels that sip fuel.  Trawler yachts, often with small diesel engines, sip fuel, but they are among the absolutely most expensive vessels to buy, new or used (a new small trawler in the 25' range can run you $175-200K)  That said, the trawlers are often spectacularly well built, will take some rough water, and are built for comfort.  They also are quite a bit slower than your average twin engine gas gofast, with top speeds around 14 knots instead of 40, but they'll take you just about anywhere, and their large fuel tanks can take you hundreds of miles at a stretch.


Sail boats, of course can go anywhere with little or no fuel, can take (generally) much heavier seas than most power vessels, and don't eat fuel.   They do, however, require their own special set of skills (as in, sailing) and their deep draft and tall masts may limit where you can travel (think bridges and shallows). 


I should probably mention houseboats here as well.  Houseboats are, of course, the flat out most comfortable of the movable live-aboards.  Some are more like an apartment or a hotel room than a boat, and that makes for some easy living.  They are, however, also often pricey, and are not designed for heavy seas (some are suitable only for highly protected waters like lakes, and many are more “boat house” than “house boat” and are never intended to move), and, being a big box on floats, they are also a major wind magnet.  Of all vessels, though, they are the most comfortable.


Most marinas have a number of virtually abandoned boats you can have for a song.

So while we're on that subject, let's talk about amenities.  I've often said: I don't take up any more room in a phone booth than I take up in a baseball stadium, and that's true.  We've become convinced in this country that we need massive amounts of room we never use, which we quickly fill with things we don't need, but after a few years of living aboard, we've learned a few things about ourselves and space usage and the boats in which we use the space.  First of all, sailboats:  Sailboats, of all vessels, are dedicated to the process of sailing.  Hull shape, hatch placement, porthole placement, all are subservient (by necessity) to the fact that the sailboat is a machine to extract energy from the wind to move it across the water.   Some are fairly comfortable, but be aware that that necessity can lead to some bizarrely shaped storage spaces, weird bunks, iffy headroom, and an internal space utterly, totally, completely lacking in straight lines, right angles, or level spaces.  We live on a sailboat at the moment, and we love the thing, but caveat. 


Power boats tend to have more open room in them, but the boat manufacturers seem to have some odd idea that your 28 foot power cruiser will often be sleeping a party of 26 who will never need to bathe or cook anything, but will need a great deal of cup holders.  While I think I was AT that party, it doesn't make for comfortable living spaces.


Going into this, ask yourself what you really need, and by that I mean the minimums.  Do you need a head-shower combination to be comfortable or are you fine with the head and using the marina's shower facilities?  How much do you cook and how much of the interior of the boat do you need devoted to that activity?  Can you be comfortable in a V-berth?  Do you need 120 v AC power onboard away from the dock?  How you live or are willing to live will determine the answers to these questions (and, trust me, you need less than you think to be comfortable.), and the fewer your requirements, the more latitude you have in selecting a vessel (and the more likely you are to find one easily). When looking for a vessel, make those requirements the baseline.  Yes, the boat you saw this afternoon is in great shape and a bargain for the money, but can you really live with a 3' galley with no fridge and a toilet under the bunk?  Be honest with yourself.  A lack of things like usable stowage, lights in the cabin, and decent headroom can make for a sour experience down the road that probably isn't the fault of living aboard but of your choices of boat

All in all, it's a beautiful way to live.

Living aboard has been a wonderful experience for us, so much so that neither of us can really imagine having done anything else.  Finding a boat takes a bit, but you will be able to find one that suits you. We built our first boat—a barrel shanty--, bought our second as a $500 stripped out sailboat hull and refit the thing, and lucked into our current sailboat for—literally--a buck before the thing was crushed to make room for condos.  Be patient, pay attention, and be prepared to jump when just the right boat wanders into your life.


You won't be sorry.


Don and Gail Elwell

And First Cat Magellan

Aboard the SV Constellation



Sunday, December 27, 2020

Holiday food in quarantine

 So we always manage to make great food, even with one burner (or in this case one burner and a slow cooker), and this holiday was no exception.  We did, however, have a bit of a challenge:  For most of my life, my family has had roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for the holidays, and I kinda wanted it again. . .

. . .but we don't really have an oven, not that can manage the 400 plus degrees that really nice fluffy Yorkshire seems to require.  So after casting around a bit we managed to put together a stack of  cast iron dutch ovens to make a gonzo heat diffuser, pumped waaaaaay too much propane underneath it to heat the thing up, and hoped for the best.

I'm not sure OSHA would approve.  The little pot on top is just warming the gravy

Oh, yes

Happily, it worked out astonishingly well, lovely bottom, fluffy top, and absolutely delicious, as was the slow cooked roast and roasted vegetables.  I think we were both taken aback how well it worked.  Just shows you can manage if you're willing to. . .well. . .experiment.

Winter has finally come to the Chesapeake, with our new gonzo enclosure keeping us a bit warmer from the cold winds and snow.  

Snowy day on the docks.


If I've been a bit absent from posting of late it's because with the pandemic and the winter coming on, there just hasn't been a lot about which to chat.  Will promise to do better next week.  Happy holidays, everyone.


Sunday, December 6, 2020

Things you really need

 I've been meaning to post this for a bit.  Here are a few kind of innocuous things that we've found absolutely necessary as liveaboards.  None are very pricey, but you should really avail yourself of them.

Dockside social distancing at it's best.

First among these, and this seems kinda silly, is a shortie garden hose.  Just a female hose fitting and about three feet of hose with no fitting on the other end.  The reason for this one is simple:  Virtually every Marina north of Georgia turns off their dock water in winter, which means you're gonna have to hump water in containers down the docks to your boat.  Often the only functional faucets in the marina will be too low or weirdly angled for filling a container.  A short hose will help you fix this, letting you easily fill water containers not only at your own marina but when on cruise at a variety of fuel docks and dockside establishments.  You needn't spend much for this: just find someone who is throwing away a food safe hose and cut off the first three feet of it and you're in business.

Next up is this thing:

Got one?  That's about five too few.

This is a deck key.  If you have a boat, the likelihood is that you have some version of this needed to open the deck ports for fuel, water, or waste.  Here's the thing, if you DON'T have one, it's damn near impossible to get these deck plugs open.  If you DO have one, you have about five too few.  Let's get real: things get dropped overboard.  People put stuff like this in their pockets while working and then walk away with it.  Stuff gets buried in the back of a cabinet, and you can't remember WHICH cabinet.  Whatever.  If you're pulling into a fuel dock with a full holding tank (having failed miserably to take our advice on building a composting toilet), an empty gas tank, and no onboard water and you CAN'T find one of these, you may find the folks at the fuel dock are a little less than sanguine about you taking up their dockspace with five boats hovering out in the river while you try to open your deck plugs with a screwdriver and a crab mallet.

We keep about five of these aboard:  one with the tools, one in the silverware drawer (since it's near the companionway), one if the head (since we can hand it out the porthole to whoever is putting in water, and one somewhere or other in my junk tray.  Regardless, ONE of them will be available when we need it.  Nuff said.

  Now as to this thing:

Yes, I know every sailor should know, but too many don't.

This is a marlinspike, and they come with and without the pocketknife (this was just the closest one to where I was sitting).  They come in large and small, in steel and bronze and plastic, and you need one.  Most sailors will know them, but if you don't, the thing is for working rope into useful line, making loops and turk's heads and monkey paws and any manner of marine macrame.  You don't want to have to do any of those things?  Fine.  But you WILL want to get that knot undone.  You know the one I mean, the one that's been under stress and gotten wet and soaked with salt spray and your alternative is to cut the damn thing off.  The marlinspike will let you pry that sucker apart and untie it.  Trust us, you need one.

The list will continue.

This has been, for everyone, a rough fall and winter, and I apologize for the lack of posts this season, but with the pandemic, the freaking endless election, the weather, and. . . well. . .life, things just get in the way.  Hope to do better in the new year.

Magellan takes comfort in difficult times by squashing our greens planter.  No one knows why.

As we approach the winter solstice and a raging plague, Gail and I are, frankly, thankful for living on a boat.  If things got bad, we say, we just raise the main.  Something to think about. But towards the end of December, the light will begin to return, lifting our spirits and hopefully signalling the beginning of a far better year than the last one.

Be safe.

More shortly, I promise.


Thursday, October 22, 2020

Moisture in the basement....

 Okay, so this is a boat, and it has a bilge, not a basement, but that's not the space to which I'm referring.

Like a lot of boats of this era, Constellation has a built in cooler in the galley, one of those things with a flush, insulated lid on the countertop and a well with a drain at the bottom for the ice to melt into.  Unfortunately, since it is right next to the engine compartment, the chances of it actually ever keeping anything cool are pretty slim.

So we, like most folks I know, use it as stowage, and because of it's inconvenience ( you have to clear virtually everything off the galley counter to get into the damn thing) its the home for bulk goods, pastas, things like bags of onions and canned goods.  We call it "the basement" as in:  "Dammit, I have to go into the basement again."

It's okay.  It's storage space, which no boat has enough of, but it comes with an additional de-convenience:  Since it's a cooler, designed to hold ice, it's completely sealed and waterproof.  That means any moisture that gets in, STAYS in.  Vegetables sweat.  Water that gets on the counter leeches under the insulated hatch.  The air in the thing is like being in a swamp.  Things mold.  Cans rust.  It's not optimal.  

So looking at the problem I decided to finally do something about it, and that the easiest thing was to replace the lid with something that would allow air circulation.

So the new lid is un-insulated exterior 1/2" ply, with a center handle and a 4" vent on the far end of the lid (as far as I could get it from the sink).  In the next few days I'll screen the opening so no bugs decide to investigate, stain, and varnish the thing.  Will post you a photo of the final product when the bandwidth cooperates.

 One more job done.  Hopefully it'll keep the moisture level down.

The fall days have been beautiful of late, with pleasant days, cool and sleepable nights, and life has been fairly low key (as a contrast to the election crap going on all around us).  We've taken some hikes out at Marshy Point Nature Center, one of our favorite places, just to get out and move our bones a bit.

Fall is a great time for long walks.

In the next few days, we'll probably take to boat out and anchor up at Worton Creek or one of our other favorite havens.  Winter will be here soon enough.  Right now, enjoy the fall.


As usual, Magellan has the right idea.


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Bucket heater saga: Why didn't you people tell me about these?!

See this little contraption? It's a bucket heater.  You want one.

So in casting about trying to find a decent way to heat our little collapsing hottub at dock, someone suggested I look into one of these contraptions.  It's called a bucket heater and it's for...well...heating stuff in buckets.  I bet you figured that one out already.  It's basically an electrically heated coil within a circulation tube, and draws about 1000-1500 watts, which is well within the range of most dock power supplies.

The contraption is largely used in agriculture and for heating water on construction sites.  You just splash the heater in a bucket and plug it in.  I had rather assumed it would rather be like one of those little beverage heaters you stick in a teacup, that is to say, slow.  It isn't.

It cranks up the heat amazingly quickly.

Starting with 70 degree (F) water, it heated five gallons up to over 120 degrees in about 20 minutes.(Your mileage may, of course, vary, depending on ambient temperature and how cold the water was to begin with.)  That means that we can have a hot soak in our new little ofuro tub in about an hour.  The max temperature seems to top off at around 168F

Little Gail, Happy again.

This thing, of course, has it's limitations.  Take it out of the water while it's on, or let the water evaporate while it's running, and the thing would likely catch fire.  They don't recommend that you run it, even in appropriate conditions, for over three hours. And, of course, the wattage is sufficient that you're not going to be running it aboard while on the hook (for more than about six seconds if you're on solar).  It's a dockside-only convenience unless you're running a generator.

But still, the idea of having quick hot water for dishes, for washing up, or just for warming up is a great convenience, and at less than $30, it's rather hard to pass up.

 Why didn't you tell me about these things before.....?    Sheesh.

 Fall is suddenly here on the Chesapeake, and I do mean suddenly.  We scrambled to get the electric blanket out of the car, and to dig the sweatshirts out of the forward lazarette where they've been languishing for the last several months.  But still, after months of pretty brutal heat and humidity, it's a welcome break, and the fall is the best part of the sailing season.

Much more shortly.  Stay safe.  Stay warm.


Friday, September 11, 2020

Cockpit Enhancements for the Excessive

 So on the web we found this cool little Ofuro tub which exactly, EXACTLY, fit our cockpit sole.  About fifteen gallons of warm water is enough to soak up to your shoulders, and it folds away flat.

29.5 inches EXACTLY.  And now we have a tub in the cockpit.

 So, we used it as a cold plunge on a hot day yesterday, and tonight we'll try it as a hot bath.  Give you a full report in a bit.

Much more coming.

Stay safe.


Sunday, August 16, 2020

Some Composting Toilet Mods

You know, sometimes it seems like we do a disproportionate amount of writing on this blog about composting toilet systems, but there seems--by what you guys are viewing--to be a huge amount of interest in them.
The current iteration of our design, using a snap on lid.  Instructions are here.

The new system aboard Constellation continues to work quite well, but as with any other boat, we hurt for storage and floor space, so with that in mind we decided to built a bench seat for the composter.  This would allow us to use the bench for the wood pellets we use as biomass, as well as trivial stuff like, say, toilet paper.

An additional bonus would be that we can use a conventional toilet seat.  Most of our composting toilet designs have been build around the snap-on lids that let you turn a 5 gallon bucket into a camping toilet.  These work fine, and are a quick and easy solution, but they seem to have a limited lifespan.  The ears on which the lid pivots tend to crack off eventually, and though that is a minor expense and inconvenience, doing something more permanent seemed prudent.

So we began with just clearing the space and measuring the height of the existing toilet/urine diverter set up.  This, being a boat, is a little iffy because almost nothing is square, but one does what one can.
The container bucket, base, and urine diverter.
Shelf supports attached.
The shelf itself is pretty simple.  Cut out is the same diameter as the urine diverter, and there is a support running along what will be the front of the shelf.
New shelf in place with toilet seat.  Plenty of room for Magellan's litter box and the urine container.
You'll need to find a Round toilet seat to accommodate the urine diverter (lots of them are oval, and far deeper than you'll want).  The back of the seat is just bolted through the shelf like it would be bolted through a porcelain toilet bowl (bolts are generally delrin plastic or nylon, which is nice since they don't rust, and generally come with the lid).

So far we're pretty pleased.

It's been one day of rain after another here on the Chesapeake, and our pier suffered a nasty lightning strike a few days ago, damaging a lot of electronics on several boats (some running into several grand).  Fortunately, all we lost was our ceiling light in the galley, which I'm replacing today.  With a little luck and some better weather tomorrow, we'll get to go out.

Stay Tuned


Friday, August 7, 2020

Prepping for the fall (and getting a bit local on you)

You know, it always amazes us how many folks pull their boats when September hits here on the Chesapeake.  Every sailor around here knows that the fall and early winter makes up the absolute best in boating weather hereabouts (hurricanes being excepted of course).  Even, predictable winds, mild temperatures, good fishing. . . .what's not to like?

Another thing TO like is that, as of the beginning of fall, a lot of the boaters that turn the Bay into a weekend amateur hour have pulled their vessels  The guy with his Carver's trim tabs set to "gouge" has gone away, resulting in fewer wake incidents, less congestion, fewer floating beercans and, at least on my part, a lot lower blood pressure.

Some of the fall sunsets on the Chesapeake are glorious.  This from last year.
The better weather and fewer crowds, that and being rather housebound from the whole Pandemic thing, gives us a yen to travel.  Already (having dodged a tropical storm) we're making ready for some fall journeys.  We've rebuilt the carb and fuel pump on our redoubtable Atomic 4 made some rigging repairs and adjustments, and, in general, gotten prepped for sea.  "So where do you want to go?" is one of our most frequent conversations of late, so I thought I'd pass some of those ideas along to you.

First of all, don't pass up the opportunity to revisit places you've loved.  Favorite anchorages and waterfront towns just off-season are a whole different experience than when flocks of (occasionally reckless) tourists are about, and with the whole Covid-19 thing, they'll be happy to see you (as long as you're careful and keep people safe).  I grew up in a tourist trap in Florida and I've always loved tourist towns off season, while the galleries and shops are still open but the places aren't mobbed.

Second, don't forget that fall is harvest season, and the farmer's markets, many of them in walking distance from the water, are in full swing.  Think taking a short walk ashore on a fine fall day and returning to the boat with bags of fresh corn, tomatoes, and squash for a sunset dinner.

Fall harvests can make for some really spectacular dinners aboard.

Fall is also a time of festivals, many of them either staged down or hurting because of the pandemic. Check out the calendars of the places you'll be cruising near.  You may discover some gems you've never even dreamed of attending.

Nothing like a local wine festival to introduce you to some things you've never tried.
  I will put one thing out there as a caveat though:  The Pandemic is real.  We know--personally--people who have become ill and some who have had family members die of it.  I only just completed the Covid-19 Contact Tracer training through Johns Hopkins, and I know just how virulent this thing can be.  At sea, you're about as socially isolated as you can be.  Once you step ashore, don't get casual.  Your life and the lives of others may depend on you're paying attention and being responsible.

The fall and early winter are, for my money, the absolute best times for cruising and gunkholing on the Chesapeake.  Do some planning, load up the larder, and head out.  It's our time

Be safe.


Sunday, July 26, 2020

Hot, Hot Summer

Dealing with heat is always an issue, but this summer, limited as we are by the virus lockdown, it seems more acute.  Neither of us was raised with air conditioning, so we're not used to it, but there are some days when the heat index wanders over 100 degrees that it becomes an issue. 

The problem is, of course, power.  Our solar system is just fine for most applications, but it just won't handle them AND an air conditioner.  I could, of course, plug in at dock, but an AC is an awfully large hunk of metal to lug around and store.   I keep getting asked how we fare without air conditioning.  Usually it's okay, but at times it gets to be an effort.  We do have a few things that help us get through the nastier parts of it.

Finding a nice anchorage with a nice breeze can help a lot.
Hanging out at anchor is certainly one of them.  The air can be thermal and dead still at dock, but sitting at anchor there's almost always a breeze.  With a little exploring, one can even find secluded inlets with that most rare of all commodities:  shade, along with a nice little breeze.
Magellan is not amused by the heat.

And hey, we're on boats, right?  In, like, water?  Swimming is always an option, though I have to confess, there are times in summer where the river is at bathwater temperatures.
A simple white tarp can really cut the heat from the sun beating on your boat.
The simplest thing we'd recommend is a white tarp.  Doesn't seem major, but, tented above our boom and with an air gap between it and the bimini and covering at least a portion of the dog house of the boat, it literally drops the temperature by ten degrees or so, especially in the cockpit.

At anchor or underway, there are a number of small, usb and 12v fans available that will keep you cool(er) where your sitting, but at dock, there's really no substitute for the old reliable box fan.  They're big, they're ugly, they collect dust and cat hair (especially the latter) but they move a lot of air and can really help you flush the heat out of the boat.

It's big, it's perpetually dirty, but at dock it sure can move air.
 We've resorted lately to the "hillbilly air conditioner" version of this, parking a bucket full of ice in front of the box fan.  It's wet and ridiculous, but it does keep it cooler in here for several hours, and then you have some lovely cool water to swab yourself with.

Of course, it's occurred to us to give up and just do the "AC in the companionway" thing.

It's an option a lot of sailors use.  Makes getting on and off the boat iffy, but the cabin's cool at least.
But, hey, we're stubborn, and the heat is like to break in a week or so.  So lots of cold drinks, a daily swim, and some cool breezes.....we persevere.

more shortly


Saturday, July 4, 2020

Some additional (and important) composting toilet notes.

The new design continues to work well, but here's some things you should know:
The new version of our composting toilet design continues to work beautifully, and to be easy to deal with, but I realized recently that there were a few things--particularly for hot weather--that I should pass along:

First of all, a bit of advice on the urine container:  With the quarantine in effect, we've found we're using our onboard setup a lot more than usual.  Now, typically, we empty the 'pee bottle" as it mostly gets referred to every 1 1/2 to two days.  Now it's every day.  I've found the basic rule is:  Empty the thing even if it doesn't need it.  Dump it when you think of it, and you'll never do the "where did this water come from?. . ..ohhh!" thing.  The Urine container is really easy to deal with, and I give it a quick rinse whenever we empty it just to make sure we don't have any odors (which we don't).

Dumping the new solid waste design is really easy, just pull off the top and urine diverter (making sure that any remaining urine in the hose goes into its bottle) and take  the bucket up and dump it.  When on the hook or at cruise, I keep a second bucket on deck with a lid so they can be switched out and dumped onshore later.  At least once a month, take the whole contraption ashore and hose it off.  That will keep any of the upper parts of the toilet from getting grubby looking and disgusting.  It's a simple, largely no-touch operation and that comprises basically all the minimal maintenance needed for this system.

Speaking of disgusting. . .

In hot weather in some places, flies can be an issue.  Not flies, maggots.  Yes, nothing says "I love my boat" like the possibility of maggots crawling up your butt when you're on the john.  They're attracted by the scent of scat, and, in our case, it doesn't help that the cat box shares the head with our composting toilet.

But fear not, gentle reader, there is a solution to this.  First of all, almost all fly problems are caused by an inadequate amount of dry material in the loo.  The flies require the moisture to lay their eggs, and desiccated droppings won't do it for them.  Just keep up with an adequate amount of wood stove pellets or sawdust, and you shouldn't have an issue (we add a bit more in the warm months or when flies are present, just to be safe).  We will also add a few drops of lemon eucalyptus oil which seems to deter them from even being interested in the space.

After a rather cool spring, summer has come here to the Chesapeake with a vengeance.  The heat index yesterday was 105F with the same predicted today.  They are literally loading the barges for the fireworks display on the river 60 feet behind our stern. (um, no smoking please)

These ominous looking canisters are Forth of July Fireworks, which are being loaded rather uncomfortably close to our stern.  Ah well, it's just for the day.
With the heat and the continued and growing threat of Covid 19, we'll be staying put.  Enjoy your 4th, folks.  Be safe out there.