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