Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Perfect Live-Aboard

 As we head into our first decade on the water, we've been talking about the limitations and advantages of some of the vessels we've inhabited.  More to the point, if we build another boat like we built the original Floating Empire, what would it be?  What elements would we include or carefully dis-include?  This is of course a highly individual list, but here are a few of the things we agreed that we definately want to address on any new boat.

First of all, Choke Points.  One of the reasons for moving aboard our current Carver dock queen was the major series of choke points that made living aboard Constellation, our beloved Pearson 30, a pain in the tuckas through the winter and pandemic.  Specifically, the boat had a great drop down table, perfect for us to sit across from one another and write or work on projects, but unfortunately, in order to go to the head, one of us had to get up, completely, clear off whatever they were doing, and fold away half of the table.  During a winter of few choices of just places to BE, it got to be a bit much.  When we moved aboard the Carver we went "Wow, there's a lot of room in here.  No more dancing around each other."


Anyone standing at the sink in the galley completely blocks going in and out of the boat in the Carver, and the dining table, though  wonderfully huge, is in the way of anyone getting in or out of the V-berth.  Did we spot these things immediately?  Nope.  

So when designing a new vessel, bear in mind that with anyone using any counter space or when tables are deployed, you're going to need an additional eighteen inches or so just to get buy without knocking someone over.

Second,  Storage.  Surprisingly, sailboats tend to have a LOT of storage.  Really.  Some of them have a stunning amount of storage.  The problem is, it's all behind something else, in the bilge, under cabinets, behind hatches.  None of the spaces are in any way rectangular, tending to be disused space matching the curve of the boat.  As a result, yeah, you can store a lot of stuff, but it's going to be buried, often in damp bilge spaces, fraught with condensation and mildew, and plan on moving five things to get to the one thing you want, which is now wringing wet for reasons that supasseth understanding.   In a new live-aboard, we would be shooting for orderly, rectangular spaces, with more shallow surface area so that you can actually SEE what's inside them.

Third, Light.  Man you would think the sailboat companies were being charged by the lumen.  Intially, our older boats featured dim, rather lame interior 12V light, which we replaced immediately with uber-bright LED fixtures.  Therein we discovered a problem:  just because the light is bright it doesn't mean it's in the right place to. . .well. . .actually illuminate anything.  In Constellation I installed an over galley counter light that you could tan by, and it was wonderful for cooking, but left the rest of the boat in shadow.  The problem is rarely encountered in houses, mostly because movable lighting fixtures--I think they call them "lamps"--are apparently pretty common.  Of course those would just fall over in most vessels, and where would you plug them in?  The solution in planning is to assign a lighting fixture for each and every seat and work space, and then add a dome light for general lighting.

And, next up, the DREADED SNAKE FARM.  This has been a constant issue on every vessel on which we've lived.  On our current boat, we have five small appliances, two computer power supplies, two cell phone power supplies, two usb power supplies for headsets, a power supply for a kindle reader. . . .you get the idea.  Add to all that the rather limited set of outlets with which boats tend to be provided and everything looks like the floor of Medusa's hairdresser.  I did help the matter somewhat by replacing outlets with 110V plus USB outlets, which cut down on the bulky power supplies all over the damn place, but it wasn't a solution.

The solution is, of course, to figure out where things are likely to live and then over-outlet those positions so you can have the fewest and shortest lines possible.  Plan on it still not being enough.  Install a few more 12V and USB outlets just in case.

And, finally, the cat.  Understand that your beloved ship's cat will want to be in the ABSOLUTE FREAKING MIDDLE of everything so they can keep tabs on stuff.  It sounds adorable, but Magellan is twenty five freaking pounds of fur covered ballast bag who will not hesitate to touch you inappropriately if preturbed.  

The solution is, of course, to create wonderful spaces for you furry crew member.  Alcoves, padded shelves, and spaces by the portholes are a wonderful idea.  You can use them for storage as no self respecting cat will want anything to do with them. least we enjoy planning.

Don and Gail Elwell

and first Cat Magellan

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Why are we here?

 The Wife and I were sitting on the back deck the other afternoon, talking about or adventures living aboard, talking about why we do it.  It was rather a revelatory conversation.

So why do we do it?  Why do we stay on the water?

Living on the river, of course, has some distinct drawbacks.  Wet is as much a state of mind as it is a lifstyle, and the weather can be a bother.  In cold weather the docks can get slippery and in hot weather, they can burn your feet.  Morons in go-fasts persist in ignoring the no wake rules around marinas and can create a "ride-em cowboy" moment at the worst times, ususally when you're doing something precarious with something droppable, fragile, or edible.  Every action involves multiple trips up the docks to the parking lot for tools, garbage, groceries or to deal with sanitation.  Boats can be stifling in summer.  They can be freezing and damp in winter.  With the internal humidity in cold weather, it can sometimes literally rain inside a fiberglass boat.  

So Why do we do it?

We started ennumerating the reasons.  It's cheaper of course, at least the way we do it.  Our lives are simpler, and that's a plus.  We both love the water--we grew up on it, though in different regions--and it feels like home.  We love watching wildlife and the parade of the seasons along the river banks.  We both love the ego boost and uniqueness of telling people:  "no, we live on our boat year round" and watching the often envious responses.  All that is true, all those are plusses.

But none of those are enough.  So why do we do it?

It's rather like sitting on your front porch in a small town.

A number of years ago a friend of ours--a sociologist and former colleague--was down visiting with his wife at the marina.  Everyone was laughing and eating and drinking and talking, but I noticed he was completely absorbed in watching the docks, looking at people coming and going.

"What are you watching?" I asked.  He smiled.  "I didn't expect this."  he said, "It's like a small town.  Each of the docks is a street, and each one has its own character, its own residents.  It's like a little town."

It was then that I got it:  It's the community that keeps us here.

Those of us who live on or have boats in the marina are constantly engaged with one another.  You're always helping someone come into dock or pull an engine, or someone is helping you mess with the rigging.  We've gifted people with dinghies and pumps and dock cables.  We've been gifted air conditioners and once even a sail boat that we lived aboard for several years.  In the evenings, we often gather on the dock, share drinks and stories and food.  It's a community.

Like any community, its not immune to conflict and controversy.  The 2020 election was hard on us here, friendships were lost, families were split, and we considered leaving.  We've got a pretty good group here on "S" dock right now, though.  We all get along, we help one another.  If I fell in the water there would be eight people trying to pull me out, and that's a comfort.  It's also a part of boating culture: the piching in, the familial feelings of friendship and responsibility and charity.

So it's the people that keep us here.  While other forces in society seem bent on driving folks apart, the livaboard life is an intentional community that the water draws together.  It's why we stay.

If you'll excuse me, now, I promised to check in on a slipmate's cat.


Sunday, June 6, 2021

IF you're wondering where we've been. . . .

(aside from surviving the pandemic)

We've just acquired an older Carver Santego and have been making her ready for the water.  Don't get me wrong, we love our Pearson 30, but spending a winter in lockdown in 55 square feet had us longing for a bit more living space.

Gail gets her first dedicated studio since we build Floating Empire.

Over the next months or so we'll be refitting what will be our new floating residence with an extensive solar system, setting up a studio for Gail, and, in general, making her into a home. 

After living aboard a 30 foot sailboat for two plus years, it's like being in a ballroom.

 Much more soon.  BYW, the Pearson, complete with workind A4 motor and large solar system and inverter, is for sale.  Drop me a note ( if you're interested or leave a comment below.


Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Eternal Spring Question

 So yesterday was the first really nice day we'd had this year.  We sat in the sun in the cockpit with a glass of wine and contemplated the coming year.  It's always the question, isn't it?

Where do you want to go?

I'm so done with this bit
This led me to ponder on all the options available to us h
ere in the north end of the Chesapeake, and, boy, are there a lot.  I started thinking about the kind of decision tree we always go through before making plans.

In our case its more like a decision-shrubbery, but I digress.

Here in the upper Bay, we have a glut of wonderful places to explore.  This is Gunpowder Creek.

So I thought I'd lay out the kinds of things that go through our minds as we contemplate setting out for the spring.

First and foremost:  How much do I trust the boat right now?  It's not an idle question.  Your faith in your boat tells you how far you're willing to go away from civilization, how far off shore, and in what kinds of weather.  For us, we've gotten our venerable Atomic 4 cranking along beautifully, but our sails are iffy, and the Genoa is trash.  That, for us, means light air and more an eye to gunk holing than to any grand cruising.  

Be realistic.  How far do you really want to go?

Second, how long can we be away?  In my case, I write, and my wife is an artist, so we work from where ever we happen to be, so schedules aren't an issue.  Things can get in the way, though, even without work commitments.  Family events, doctor's appointments, any number of must-do social events (rather done in this year by the plague), all have to be figured in.

Third, what does the wallet look like?  How much fuel costs can we bear right now, how much provisioning.  Not so much an issue on a liveaboard sailboat, but if you're cranking twin 450's on a Sea Ray, you could discover yourself washing dishes on the Eastern Shore in order to get home.

Then there's the raw question of how long we feel light being away from dock?  How long without a proper shower, easy internet access, and the occasional pizza.  Living aboard, there's frankly not much difference for us, but there may be for you.

And finally:  What haven't we seen?  What sounds like fun?  What would we like to revisit?  What sings to us this year?

The answer to that last one is:  A lot of things.

We can't wait!

This spring is shaping up to be lovely, weather-wise.  We're getting our inoculations this month, so we're feeling a bit better about calling at strange ports (and we're smart enough to be careful and take precautions, and you should as well).  After a long winter and the lockdown, a few weeks on the water sounds like just the ticket.


Friday, February 26, 2021

A small Live-Aboard compendium

 Sorry we've not been much in evidence of late.  The truth is between winter and the Covid-19 lockdown, there frankly hasn't been a great deal on this end of things of which to report.

Ah, winter.....

We finally got a break in the weather the last few days and got to take a couple of nice walks, which improves one's mood quite a bit.  All in all, this winter here in Md hasn't been anywhere near terrible but still, you wind up spending a lot of time inside, and days you'd normally get bored and go up to the local pub our out to' a film, now with the virus, one rather thinks twice about doing so.  We're making plans for travel in a few weeks when the weather becomes a bit more stable.  We've even talked about changing to another vessel.

With that in mind, I started thinking about the things we'd want to shift over, which led me to thinking about the differences between being at dock and being on cruise and being on the hook.  

Here's a couple of little things you might wish to include in your DOCKside living.  

First and foremost, the single plug-in appliance we use the most is a hot water kettle.  Literally, three or four times a day for Tea and Coffee in the morning, hot water bottles (which I highly recommend, because they can also warm your hands and toes at anchor), and hot chocolate in the evenings.  Wonderful things, and well worth the space.
Winters make the galley all the more important.

This year, on a whim, we got a slow cooker.  I know, I know, the things are heavy, but they do well at dock to make soups and stews without burning up propane that I then have to haul in.  Lately, rather randomly, we discovered you can actually BAKE in the things.  I mean, as in breads, rolls, lasagnas.  We've been surprised at how well things turn out in them, all on only about 150watts.  They even brown, which was kind amazing.  Thus far we've turned out scratch made rolls and soda breads and herb and onion bread which was superb. 

Electric blankets!  Can I sing enough of the praises of the humble electric blanket?  After an evening watching movies on the laptop, or sitting and reading, to be able to curl  up in a V berth that is dry and toasty warm is a true treat.  

Yesterday was the first day since November that felt warm enough to sit in the sun in the cockpit and just enjoy being aboard.  With the current plague--finally--beginning to wind down and boating season coming on, we're looking forward to getting out, to seeing friends once again, to lifting a glass at a dockside tavern, and, in general, to an easier life.

You know, what we started boating to do in the first place.

More shortly, I promise

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