What’s It Really Like To Live On A Sailboat?

Elena pulling up anchor

When Ryan and I planned to sail away, we had a vague idea of what living on a sailboat, on a budget, would be like. But we wanted to know what it was like to get Wi-Fi, to go food shopping, to find water and petrol, and more. So we watched tons of YouTube sailing videos – we thought vlogs would give us more of an insight into the daily lives of liveaboards. We spent every single evening at home watching sailing videos for about a year, and loved every second of it. We still love watching those channels when we have enough data.

We soon realised though, that most of the people behind the popular sailing channels most certainly had bigger cruising kitties than us. And none of them were working as they went along! We read lots of blogs and some of the Pardeys books, but no matter how amazing they were, we felt our experience would be somewhat different because 40 years had passed since they were written.

So when we left we just hoped the lifestyle would suit us, that working from a laptop would be ok, and that we could make a small budget work. Five months later, we’ve learned this beautiful life does mean tons of compromises and sacrifices, as we expected, but it’s totally worth it!

So what’s it really like to live on a sailboat as a young couple who need to make money to keep going? I’ll tell it like it is, no filters. But beware – I’m not complaining, at all. I’m still 100% happy with my choice; I love my new life. I’m simply telling you what the reality of living on Kittiwake is – it’s great, but it’s not perfect. I want to give you a true depiction of the lifestyle, so you can figure out if it’s for you.

Nature & wildlife

Living on a sailboat means spending a lot of time outdoors. Most of this time will be spent by the sea, where you’ll see amazing things – dolphins, whales, jumping tuna, sunfish, basking sharks, … Some of this time will be spent inside the boat, seeking shelter from the cold and rain, and a smaller portion of it will be spent on shore, either resupplying, or exploring.

Dolphins

We tend not to stay inside our cabins unless it’s cold or rainy or it’s too sunny to see the laptop screen. This means we spend a ton of time out on deck, where we are lucky to see stunning coastlines and beautiful wildlife. This is definitely one of the highlights of living aboard.

Working from a sailboat

I do most of my work aboard Kittiwake. It’s comfy, I can take calls without worrying about noise, and I don’t need to spend a penny on drinks or food. Some days it’s great, some days it sucks.

The best thing is that you decide when to work and how long for; I usually choose rainy or cold days, or days when we’re in an anchorage with good phone coverage.

Freelance work is just the same on land and on a boat – you don’t know when you’ll get paid, you get last minute requests and calls, it can be lonely, and you need to prove every minute of your work is value for money. But, and it’s a big but, you’re your own boss.

Things can get a little stressful sometimes, and when they do, you’re stuck on a tiny boat with little space. Sometimes, it drives you nuts and you need your boyfriend to remind you you need to get off the boat, jump on the dinghy, and go for a walk. Thanks Ryan!

Working on a sailboat

Work can also make you change your sailing plans – you may need to be on a conference call on the only day with favourable winds, and you get stuck in a place for a week or two because of it. Or you may have a deadline just in the middle of the good weather window for a passage. You just have to be patient and rationalise things – work is what allows you to lead this lifestyle, so you have to accept its limitations. And when you’re cruising, you’re usually in no rush, anyway!

Mind you, I’m not whinging, I’m just letting you know what it’s truly like to have work commitments while cruising. If this is your plan, I’d recommend you cruise slowly and don’t set yourself ambitious targets, so you can make time to work and play. Try to avoid making long passages, when you won’t be available to reply to emails and calls, more than once or twice a month.

Planning

Planning is kind of impossible. You can try, and we love to try and roughly plan things, but more often than not, plans change due to weather and wind conditions. Sometimes plans change for the better – a weather window suddenly appears for that passage you need to do. Some other times, something (no wind, a storm, a boat part that breaks, waiting on mail,…) will slow you down. It’s all part of the lifestyle and you get used to it, but  you need to learn to stop planning, which can be hard after a whole life based around a routine.

Navigation

We’re still learning to let go, and are getting more relaxed about things. After all, if we end up being a little late for winter, we know we can do some big passages and escape the storms on time.

Lows and highs

Now this is almost a cliché, but when living on a sailboat the lows are very low and the highs are very high. It’s completely true. The lows can be being stuck on the boat due to bad weather for days, or having a near miss collision with another vessel, or spending hours fighting rough seas and have to be towed back to safety. The highs can be an amazing night passage with shooting stars, or seeing baby dolphins play with your bows, or discovering a stunning deserted beach.

aby dolphin

Luckily there are many days where not much happens to even it all out, or you’d be at risk of a heart attack! Just joking.

Personal space

Unless you’re seriously lucky and find a 50ft boat for a bargain price, you are likely to live on a small to medium sailboat and no matter how lovely it is, personal space is very limited. You need to be comfortable spending a lot of time (24 hours a day, usually) with your crew.

We find good ways to get personal space are reading, spending time in different cabins (Ryan in the berth, myself in the saloon), and going on different chore missions on shore. Sometimes Ryan likes to jump on the dinghy to go fishing, so we get a boat each. Try and find ways to get personal space; it’s important for your mental well-being and to bring new experiences and topics to your conversations.

A new pace of life

When you move onboard your life suddenly slows right down, but you also fills with a lot of experiences. Chores take more time. For example, to get some groceries you need to lock up the boat, get the dinghy ready, row ashore, lock up the dinghy, walk to the nearest shop (sometimes it’s about 40 minutes away), try and get everything you need into your backpacks, then walk back, get rid of as much packaging as you can, ride the dinghy back to the boat, get everything out of it, and finally start the long unpacking process onboard. It’s not unpleasant, it just takes a bit of time. It helps if you enjoy being in a dinghy and walking.

Cies Islands beach

However, while a lot of things take a long time, you’ll be constantly travelling, so you’ll feel like time goes by really fast. Even when we’ve been stuck in a place for over two weeks waiting for a weather window, looking back, we felt we covered a lot of cruising ground. It’s all an amazing, slightly blurred, memory.

Compromises

If you’re cruising on a small budget, then it’s a given that you’ll have to make compromises and sacrifices. These include not eating out, not buying many new clothes, not going to places where the only mooring option is an expensive marina, missing out on cool attractions because there is an entry fee or they’re inland and you can’t afford to rent a car. And sometimes you’ll have to try and save on your monthly expenses in order to buy a boat part.

If you enjoy the lifestyle, these sacrifices will be very easy to make and you won’t have any regrets, like us. It’s also a good idea to go to countries with a low cost of living, so you can afford to go out every now and then.

Barra beach

Laundry and staying dry

Laundry can be a bit of a pain. If we make good money and are by a town, we try and find a cheap laundrette, which makes things much easier.

Washing everything by hand and drying it out is time-consuming and uses a lot of your fresh water supply (even if you wash in salt water and rinse in fresh). Also, unless you sail in the tropics or only in the summer, you have to plan laundry (together with everything else – sailing, working, exploring, …) around the weather. Another little problem is that the salty air makes it impossible for anything to dry through completely, leaving you with lots of soggy socks and hoodies.

Learning new things

While in our old “normal” lives we just went about our routine and learned a thing or two a week through workmates or books. Now we learn something new almost every day. We explore new places, learn a new sail trimming technique, read up about the dolphins we saw on that day, ask a local about their fishing technique, … There is a lot to be learned out here and we love the process of it.

Dolphins

Getting Internet

This can be a challenge when you’re on a budget. You can’t afford to spend £50 a month on a local mobile contract, nor to spend money at a cafè with Wi-Fi every time you need to check your emails.

For now, we’re lucky our old and cheap phone contracts work abroad, but we know we’ll face the challenge in the next few months and hope to find an OK deal in Portugal. There are alternative methods, of course, like Google Fi or Apple SIM, but they’re way out of our budget.

Getting water and personal hygiene

We’ve always worried about water before leaving – we thought it’d be hard to find it or costly. The truth is, we always find water when we need to and only had to pay for it once (5 Euros!). You’ll find water rather easily, but you’ll need to be very careful with consumption, unless you have a watermaker.

This also means your personal hygiene standards will adjust slightly, unless you fancy carrying hundreds of liters of water back to the boat every couple of days. We try and avoid consuming a lot of fresh water – we use saltwater for everything and then either rinse or spray with fresh water.

Friends

When you leave home, you’ll likely leave your dearest friends behind, which is really sad. We manage to keep in touch OK, thanks to WhatsApp and Facebook. So far, we haven’t made many yachties friends because we haven’t been cruising popular areas and at times I’ve felt a little desperate for some social interaction, I have to admit.

However, sometimes we have spells of speaking to a lot of cruisers or locals, depending on where we are. We are meeting new interesting people along the way and we hope we’ll be part of a community over winter, when we’ll be a little more stationary. We thoroughly enjoy meeting people from all walks of life and realise how much we actually have in common, thanks to sailing. You’ll never forget your cruising friends.

Fellow cruisers

Boat maintenance

Once you move onboard and leave the boatyard, boat maintenance is slightly more challenging. Not only you have to do the repairs afloat, dealing with that good old rocking and rolling, but also you won’t be able to easily find the parts you need.

It’s tough to find a well-stocked chandlery away from big cities and even more difficult to get a package sent to you when you have no address. So far, we’ve stocked up on what we needed where we could and made do for the rest. We had a sail sent to a friend in Spain, which was lucky timing, and bought some bits and bobs from a store that does online orders; while this winter we’ll get some things delivered to my parents’ place and pick them up at Christmas.

You’ll need to get a little cunning about these things, but most of the times it’ll be OK – you’ll find a temporary solution. However, if something important breaks and you can’t find a way to repair it where you are, you might have to spend money to travel to go buy it somewhere else or to stay in a marina to get it delivered to you.

Moon

Sleeping

Unless you suffer from insomnia, you don’t know what it means to live on a sailboat. Joking! Kind of. We thought we wouldn’t sleep much on the boat at first, due to low confidence in our anchoring technique, and then we’d get better at it and sleep better.

The truth is, we’ve never dragged anchor and we know we anchor the right way, but a good night sleep is never taken for granted. High winds, swell, other boats anchored too close, waves crashing on our hull, fishing vessels motoring fast by our boat, city lights, an irrational fear of dragging, loud live music on the promenade, and more keep us up. On passage, we usually can’t sleep for more than a couple of hours a day, due to the noise and movement of the boat. We’re OK with it – we try to recover the next night (or the one after), but some mornings we can’t help but being a little grumpy.

A boat anchoring too close

 

Overall, we’re very happy living on board Kittiwake and wouldn’t trade it with our old, more boring lives. Our adjustment to cruising on the cheap was rather gradual, as we lived on board while refitting Kittiwake for a week or so at a time. This meant it wasn’t difficult to get used to this new lifestyle. And while some days are tough and we’ve had some scary experiences, we feel we’re finally truly living!

Did I miss something out? Is there anything else you’d like to know about living aboard a small sailboat? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll add to the blog post!


12 COMMENTS
  • Paige
    Reply

    Great article! The day-to-day, nitty gritty above is often overlooked on other blogs and it’s very helpful to have realistic expectations! One question, what do you do for work? Were you able to continue working for your old company? Having an income is one of my biggest unknowns/concerns. Thanks!

    1. Sailing Kittiwake
      Reply

      Thanks Paige! We do copywriting, online marketing, website building, … and if we find boat work, we go for that too. For example, Ryan is sanding and repainting the decks of another boat at the moment. We didn’t ask if we could keep working for our companies when we left – we doubt we could have. But if you’re happy to work full-time on the boat (we weren’t), then it’s a question worth asking to your employer. We also wrote this article on ways to make money on a boat: http://sailingkittiwake.com/how-to-make-money-while-travelling-on-a-sailboat/ Hope it helps 🙂 Elena

  • David
    Reply

    I was so glad to see your blog and videos. Nice job!

    I have been fascinated by the Heavenly Twins boats, but have always wondered about two things (I am 6’4″ tall). First, how crowded does the cockpit feel? Second, is the rear berth comfortable? Do you get a lot of side-to-side motion?

    Have fun! Enjoy the ride!

    1. Sailing Kittiwake
      Reply

      Hi David, thanks a lot! The HT is a perfect boat for two people. The berth is amazing – ours is the same size as a standard double bed, but each HT is a little different – some have the whole aft cabin as one huge berth, others have the aft cabin divided into two equal halves, where the berth is smaller than ours. You need to measure it when you go see it 😉 Ryan is 6’2″ tall and can’t stand in most of the boat, but he doesn’t mind – most boats this size don’t offer headroom and certainly don’t have as much space overall. If you suffer from back ache, maybe you should look into something bigger. And the side to side motion only happens if we get waves on the beam. At anchor, unless there is swell or wake from other boats, you don’t even know you’re on a boat.

  • Pamela
    Reply

    Thanks to a dog who insists we take her off the boat at least 2x a day, we’ve limited out cruising to the eastern United States. And even we found a lot in common with your description of daily life.

    Most surprisingly, we find it tough to get good internet for work. The Northern Neck of Virginia is a black hole for internet and cell phone. And in popular spots like Annapolis and Georgetown, SC we suspect that the wifi extenders of other people at anchor are interfering with our wifi hotspot.

    Never expected that we’d find better internet access in the Guna Yala Islands of Panama than in the coastal United States.

    Great description of “living the dream.”

    1. Sailing Kittiwake
      Reply

      Thanks so much Pamela! How odd to hear about Internet connection over there. We can usually do all coastal sails using our phone data, no problem. And for passages, we have 4G or 3G at least 4 hours from and to our destination.

  • Battista
    Reply

    Seguo con passione la vostra bella avventura, purtroppo devo affidarmi quasi sempre al traduttore, visto il mio inglese molto scarso. Spero che quando finirà tutto, trasferiate la vostra vita in mare in un libro, sarò il primo ad acquistarlo. Un caro saluto e buon vento. Battista.

    1. Sailing Kittiwake
      Reply

      Grazie mille Battista! Apprezziamo tantissimo che ci segui anche se in inglese. Ci piacerebbe molto scrivere un libro, ma chissá se avremo la disciplina per scriverlo 😉

  • Gina and Zeke
    Reply

    You guys are so inspiring. We are beginning our digital nomad life in a few weeks and already know it’s going to be uncomfortable at times… but at least we are not on a boat! Which makes your story so interesting and scary at the same time. We wish you safe travels as you continue on your journey. Thanks for sharing as it really did bring all the truths to light!

    1. Sailing Kittiwake
      Reply

      Thanks so much Gina and Zeke! We wish you the very best of luck with your new digital nomad lives! 🙂

  • Margriet
    Reply

    Great article! I recognise all of them. Did you also find you are a lot more active on board and the lifestyle is physically quite challenging? Especially in the beginning I was exhausted at the end of each day: constantly climbing up and down the stairs from the saloon to the cockpit and vice versa, keeping your balance on a listing boat, squeezing yourself into all sorts of uncomfortable positions when trying to get to a box at the back of the berth… (And that’s without considering the actual sailing tasks like pulling and winching lines etc.)

    1. Sailing Kittiwake
      Reply

      Thanks a lot Margriet! For us, we feel like our lives are much less physically active actually 🙁 We used to walk, rock climb and cycle a lot and we can’t do it every day now. Apart from pulling up the anchor, which is really heavy, everything’s super easy on Kittiwake because she’s got a tiny rig. We can do the winches with one hand and we don’t have any stairs, plus most of our storage is in sight. In a way, we wish we had a more complicated boat so we wouldn’t keep growing our bellies 😀 Haha!

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