I never had a clear intention of living board. I heard about those people, and I even met one occasionally, but I always wondered what kind of person would do that? Are they like the people that live in old VW vans or yurts? Are they crazy minimalists with no social skills? Where do they put their shoes?
After learning to sail about six years ago, the idea of having my own boat was always present. I perused boat porn regularly, only to talk myself out of it because it wasn’t financially responsible. A sailing club afforded me the opportunity to sail without the hassles of ownership. Despite this logic, I still squirreled money away each month into a fund named ‘boat money’. Eventually the desire to own my own boat overwhelmed my logic and I decided to start searching.
In order to afford rent and moorage I decided to downsize and find a smaller place while I looked. I found a 350 sq. ft. studio, the smallest place I have lived in since college. I started to wonder how I would feel in such a small space, and if I didn’t mind it, did that mean I might be able to live on a boat. I wasn’t actually planning on doing that, of course; it was just an experiment to see if I could. My boat search criteria changed to include amenities that I thought were necessary for living aboard instead of just weekend cruises – just in case.
I found my boat shortly after the move to the studio. I had been on dozens of different boats over the last few years but most were relatively new. The boat that captured my heart was just over 40 years old, a Challenger 32. There was nothing about the exterior that grabbed my attention, but as soon as I looked inside I knew it was the right boat. She was beamier and had more headroom than any other 32’ boat I had sailed. The head was relatively roomy the boat’s size, and there was a full galley which included a brand new refrigerator. The seating around the table made visions of parties dance through my head and the windows were quite large, letting the summer sunlight light up the interior. This would be my first boat.
At first it was a novelty to stay on board for the weekend, even if I didn’t leave the marina. Before long I started dreading going back to the apartment and I started spending week nights aboard. The dilemma was that I had a 7 year old diabetic cat that had already been recently traumatized by a move. If he stayed at the apartment, I had to drive back twice a day. If I brought him to the boat, how would he fare? Would he try to escape and fall in the water? What would I do with the litter box? If I couldn’t acclimate him to the boat, then I couldn’t live there. I decided I would just use the boat as an office and a weekend escape. Gradually tools and shoes and toiletries were quietly moved to the office. That lasted about a month.
It was time to try bringing the cat aboard for a long weekend. He stayed in the back of the quarter berth for two days before finding that under the blankets in the V berth was a more desirable place to hide. Somehow I let myself get talked into sailing on the third day and I decided it would be a great test to see how he would handle it. I feared yowling and projectile vomit but was pleasantly surprised to find neither. I bought a lot of cat nip and administered it liberally. Maybe this could actually work.
Gradually the cat became more accustomed to his new surroundings and came out from under the covers. I went to the apartment once or twice a week to check mail, but I never slept there. I was able to take a trip to the San Juans without worrying about hiring a cat sitter. It was like one big extended vacation! Eventually, the actual realities of living aboard, even with the amenities of a marina, started to appear.
I had to remember to get quarters for the shower, haul my toiletries and towel in the rain, and set a timer on my phone so I didn’t run out of water while soap was still in inconvenient places. I sometimes carried bags of laundry up the dock only to find all the machines were full or the quarter machine was empty. These were then stuffed into the car to wait for another day with the hope things didn’t get smelly.
The water tanks had to be filled regularly and I didn’t actually know how long a tank would last. I had to keep track of when I’d last gone to the pump out and I feared boat smells. I read an entire book on marine sanitation which served mostly to totally freak me out. . I spent a lot of time sniffing compartments and peering into my bilge and other creepy places looking for potential problems. I stuck flashlights in dark crevices looking for mildew. I dreamed about calcification building up in my sanitation hoses while I slept. I bought white vinegar by the gallon jug.
I found kitty litter everywhere – in the bed, in the head, and between my toes. It occurred to me that the most inconvenient parts of living aboard were hygiene related – poop, showers and laundry. Cooking was also becoming more difficult because the alcohol stove was giving me a splitting headache. This was going to be harder than I thought.
After about 6 weeks of living aboard full time, the cat and I started to settle in. I found a new litter box system that eliminated the litter tracking issue. My learning curve started. I did my first oil change and discovered batteries had water in them that needed to be checked (who knew?). I learned that Perkins’ engines leak oil, and if they don’t, you forgot to put oil in. I created a bilge tampon from spill wipes and changing it became a habit.
I mapped my thru hulls and pumps and started a maintenance log. I learned that mistaking the diesel heater switch for the water heater switch results in a big mess if you don’t catch it quickly. I gave my holding tank a high colonic every time I pumped out. The alcohol stove was replaced with propane. I was feeling more confident and more comfortable. Then winter came.
Thru Hull Diagram
During the first really big rain, I discovered that my wonderful, dry old boat was not so dry. I found one, then two, then four leaks from mysterious sources along the walls. I found water dripping down the mast into the head and the bilge pump came on more regularly. The aft water tank leaked if filled all the way. A cockpit drain came loose and I could hear the waterfall into the bilge. I could barely reach the hose clamp to fix it and looked as if I had lost a cat fight once it was fixed.
A new leak sprang from a window that’s normally protected by the dodger – except in 40 knot winds during a December storm. The hatch started to drip onto the galley counter. The boat rocked and jerked and heeled in the slip despite multiple spring line variations. I performed midnight halyard management in the rain and wore earplugs to sleep. At the pinnacle of the storm I awoke to a seasick cat anointing the bed, a sweater, a shoe, a cushion, a rug and then another cushion with half digested cat food. Thank goodness he spared the easily cleaned hardwood. I administered more cat nip and wrung out sponges and towels that were catching the drips.
When the storm subsided the big chill replaced it, with docks and decks covered in a thin layer of ice. My dinghy was an ice cube tray. I shivered despite two pair of long johns, and electric heater, a diesel heater, and a cat for warmth. I lied to my mother – “Oh, it’s a little chilly, but the boat is fine….toasty, even”. There was only one thing to do…a big roaring rant, a tantrum, a fit, complete with tears, and I did it. But, I did not go back to the apartment. I had too much mopping up to do.
Suddenly, other live aboard friends, and even friends of friends started calling, texting and emailing to check on me and give advice or offer assistance. “Get snubbers for your lines”, “Get this dehumidifier”, “Get an electric throw blanket”, “Drape a towel over the companionway hatch to keep out drafts”, “Get a tarp, but get a white or grey one so you don’t look cheap”. “Have you tried catnip?” There was even an offer of a couch in someone’s home. I was overwhelmed with gratitude at this small community that reached out to help me through my first big tough spot; perhaps they heard the rant.
I still have leaks, and it’s still cold, but I’ve found some short term ways to winterize. The boat motion is much improved with snubbers and I have a toasty electric throw blanket for my feet. I’m back to the inconveniences of hygiene with a side dish of cold rain and wind. I’ll always be on the search for mildew and smells, and I’ll always be changing the bilge tampon. I will always have to fill the water tanks and pump out.
But the other side, the side that keeps me here, is being able to take my home sailing, visiting different ports and anchorages. My office has a great view and no fluorescent lights. My porch has the best sunsets and it’s pretty easy to find a place to chill your wine without using the refrigerator (even indoors!). There’s still a lot of catnip being dispensed, but the big guy is settling in nicely. He is probably more social than he ever was in a house where it was easier to hide from visitors. I still go to the apartment once a week to check mail and to look at the shoes I never wear, and wonder where they will go when the lease runs out in a few months.
As seen in Pacific Northwest Boating News: Learning to live aboard: drips, catnip and heeling in slips | Three Sheets Northwest.