Is Living On A Boat For You?

When we started looking into cruising and living on a sailboat full-time, I often secretly wondered whether it would be for me. I knew I’d love exploring new places, getting to see nature and wildlife often, and swimming most days. However, I had no idea whether cabin fever would drive me nuts, or how I’d react to rough weather. Two cruising seasons later, I cannot imagine a different way of life for myself and Ryan. Now, the big question is: is cruising for YOU?

Disclosure: I wrote this article with people who cruise and anchor out most of the time in mind, so if you plan to sail from marina to marina and occasionally go to a hotel, some of the things I talk about won’t apply to you.

Cabin fever

This one is a biggie in bad weather, near busy beaches, in unbearable heat, or if you’re unwell. Whatever the reason may be, sometimes you get stuck on your boat for longer than you’d like to. Imagine being stuck in your house for three or more days. You’re already getting a headache, right? Now, take a camping stove, a portable toilet, and a table and chairs into your bedroom. Can you imagine living in that space for three or more days? Sure, this is taking things to the extreme, but you’ll find even a biggish boat shrinks when you cannot leave it.

The most time I spent on board without touching land (not due to a passage) has been six days so far. By the end of those six days I was ready to jump around and run a marathon; and I hate running!

Can you put up with the restless feeling of being trapped on a boat for days? Will the good days of snorkelling and exploring foreign shores make up for it?

Elena Sailing Kittiwake in cockpit

Flexibility and patience

If you don’t like change and are rather impatient, you will hate cruising. You won’t have any control over the forecast (and when you can leave), the wind speed (and what time you’ll get to your next destination), the sea conditions (and how you feel). You can make plans, but they will change, unless you’re ready to face adverse conditions or motor a lot. If you want to become a happy sailor, you’ll have to slow down.

Learn to be flexible – allow someone or something to change your plans at the very last minute. Practice patience – take the bus home rather than the car. Try to forget you’re wasting or losing precious time. Once you live on a sailboat, time goes slower and if you can’t put up with it, you will be one frustrated sailor.

Sleep

Whether you plan to anchor out or stay in marinas, good sleep is not guaranteed. The wind might suddenly shift (against the forecast) in the middle of the night, making the anchorage extremely uncomfortable. A flotilla might arrive at the dock at 2am and drunk charterers might start shouting by your slip. A party boat might keep you up until 5am. The possibilities are almost endless. These things happen. Not very often, but they do. There really is no remedy, but be prepared for losing some sleep and have some rather grumpy mornings.

I often used earplugs like these to help me sleep – I’m a very light sleeper. They help me so much when we have to take turns at being on anchor watch through the night.

Friends

I have to be honest; cruising can sometimes feel lonely. While it’s guaranteed you’ll make some incredible friends and meet likeminded people who share some core values with you; there will be times when you’ll be alone. Depending on where you’re cruising, you’ll either find very remote places where seeing other boats it’s rare, or very crowded spots where most boats are day trippers and charters who have no interest in making friends with other cruisers. We once went two entire months without making any new friends. My parents came to see us right after, and once they left we felt incredibly alone. If you’re a people person, you’ll have to get used to some level of loneliness. On the upside, you’ll realise how great your relationship with your partner  is (hopefully?) – we truly did.

Food

If you plan on sailing on a budget and you prefer wild anchorages to marinas in busy seaside towns, like us, you’ll cook 99% of your meals. When living on a boat, buying food isn’t as simple as jumping in the car or popping into the convenience store on the way home. It takes some planning, especially if you’re sailing a remote coast.

Wherever you cruise – even in Europe – you will often find it hard to get the exact food items you want. And you’ll often run out of nice food. It’s just the way it is – you can’t plan your weekly shopping as you did on land. Can you put up with that or will you freak out?

Family and old friends

Once you tell your family and friends you’re off cruising, everyone will tell you how they look forward to seeing the boat and how they’d love to spend their summer holidays on board. They mean well; they really would love to. However, it’s very difficult to plan a visit to a sailboat with no fixed schedule other than the weather and the whims of the sailors.

Land people can’t book a flight a week in advance – they need to book the days off at work months in advance and they naturally want to get cheap deals, rather than get an overpriced last-minute flight and hotel. So the more you cruise, the more it’ll become evident that most family and friends won’t be able to visit you, unless you’re prepared to make promises you may not be able to maintain. Following a schedule when sailing can be rather frustrating and at times risky. Most sailing accidents seem to start like this: “The weather was bad, but they needed to get to X by Y time.” We’re very safety-conscious and we know our sailing plans change all the time, so we accept that we won’t be able to see family and friends often. We prefer to go visit them at our convenience.

Your life is your own responsibility

This might seem like an obvious statement, but bear with me. When you go out sailing, you realise that your life is truly in your own hands. You need to make some important decisions – when to leave an anchorage, when to approach a harbour, what to do in heavy weather, and more. All of these decisions have consequences. Because you’re on a small boat in the open sea, the consequences can have a big impact. Sometimes, you’ll make the wrong decisions. Sometimes, these decisions could have bad outcomes.

You don’t understand this until you find yourself in big seas, in need of help, and no one can come to assist you. We experienced something similar in the Isles of Scilly, during a storm. The wind had shifted, so we had to abandon our anchor and escape to a safer harbour. As we got out into the storm, we realised our engine wasn’t powerful enough to motor against 60knots of wind and through the big waves. We called the Coastguard and they said no one could come and help us. There, in the middle of a storm, we realised we were on our own. Thankfully, the harbourmaster later agreed to come out in his RIB and towed us to a mooring ball, or we would have had to wait out the storm in open sea.

Sailing Kittiwake

The key, as always, is to be prepared for the worst. Practice man overboard every other month. Read up about heavy weather sailing tactics (Lin and Larry Pardeys’ book “Storm tactics” is excellent) and try them out in a force 3 or 4 to get used to them and form that muscle memory. Prepare as best as you can, so you know what to do in an emergency.

 

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8 COMMENTS
  • Robyn Hawkins
    Reply

    Everything you’ve said, I completely agree with. They’re the type of things you don’t really consider before you leave to go cruising but really need to! It’s definitely a complete lifestyle change but one that is worth it in my books 🙂

    1. Sailing Kittiwake
      Reply

      Very true! 🙂 Thanks for reading.

  • Marco Stolk
    Reply

    As always, great insightful article, thank you…. Safe sailing!!

    1. Sailing Kittiwake
      Reply

      Cheers Marco! So nice of you to stop by once again 🙂

  • Anthony
    Reply

    This was a very thoughtful, great post. I see this topic covered by many sailors, to one extent or another and I know it’s an important one. I truly do wonder how many people who want to live aboard realize the things you mention. Lots of food for thought!

    1. Sailing Kittiwake
      Reply

      Cheers Anthony. Yes, I agree – not everyone is cut out for this life.

  • Warren
    Reply

    That’s a great post , I’ve never done long term cruising but being able to make my own decisions and not expecting to be rescued if I snub my toe appeals to me. I’m happy to accept help but don’t expect it to be provided! Thanks Warren

    1. Sailing Kittiwake
      Reply

      Cheers Warren! You’re a very wise man.

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