Sailboat Liveaboard FAQs

Answers to questions about what it's like to Live on a Boat


Summary:  Questions we're commonly asked when people hear we live on our boat year ‘round in Port Credit, on Lake Ontario, Canada, on "Al Hoceima", our 41' steel Petit Prince ketch:


You may want to check out our Selected Books section under the Boatkeeping Ideas category for books covering hints, tips, and tricks for the live-aboard or cruising sailor.



Do you have heat in the winter?

Do you have a stove or fridge?

Do you have electricity?

Do you have a job?

Do you have water?

Doesn’t it get wavy and the boat rock a lot at your dock when it’s stormy?

What do you do about ice in the winter?

Is the boat well-insulated?

Do you shrink-wrap the boat in the winter?

With a small boat-sized fridge, isn’t it a pain to keep enough food around?

You live on your boat, so you probably get out sailing a LOT, right?

How can you stand living in such a confined space?  It would drive me nuts.

What about showers and laundry?


Q: Do you have heat in the winter?

A: Um, yes.  Sheesh. 

We actually have 60A electrical service in the winter.  We have multiple heaters, some with forced air, others are electric oil radiators. Some boats augment their electrical heat with a diesel furnace, which we’re considering adding as well – not because we’re cold but in order to make spring/fall cruising more comfortable (we’ve got a tropical bird on board who needs it warm), and as a better backup than a gasoline generator in case the hydro goes out in the winter.

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Q: Do you have a stove or fridge? 

A: Most definitely; both. 

We have a small fridge, 3-burner propane gimballed stove + oven (Angi here: three burners are not enough and since there is a flame, there is no broiler- arggh), microwave, TV with satellite feed, computers with internet access, regular phone line, just as in a normal house or apartment.

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Q: Do you have electricity?

A: Yup, both types.

“Shore Power” 120VAC as well as a 12VDC system. 

When at the dock we use both – the AC system powers all the high draw items like the fridge, heaters, microwave oven, computers, some of the lights, etc., and the DC system powers the rest of the lights, stereo and various radios.

Away from the dock, we use the DC system for everything, running it through an inverter (converts the 12VDC into 120VAC) for the AC appliances.  We’ve got two battery banks to power the DC system – a 500ah “House” bank, and a roughly 160ah “engine starting” bank that is pressed into “House” service in a pinch.

The main engine, solar panel, and wind-generator are generally enough to keep the batteries charged, with an occasional boost from a gasoline generator if we’re at anchor for a long period in a sheltered spot.

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Q: Do you have a job?

A: What an odd question! 

I’ve actually been asked that a number of times, but I’m not sure if their reason for asking is that they have the idea that liveaboards are super-rich and so don’t need to work, or are a seafaring version of a rail-riding hobo!

Everyone aboard my boat has “normal” jobs.  I work in IT as a consultant/network administrator.  We wouldn’t be able to pay the non-trivial marina fees, boat loan, car loan and lease, buy food, clothing, essential and non-essential items, and keep the boat maintained otherwise.

In fact, all the liveaboards that I know, that aren’t retired, work normal jobs and have families to support just like everyone else! We even have a couple of families with babies and toddlers here.

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Q: Do you have water?

A: Yes; however, drinking water is a bit more complicated on our boat that in a normal house/apartment.

We have a very basic system onboard, and so don’t have a hook-up to the city’s pressurized water system (some boats do have the ability to do that).  We’ve got onboard water storage tanks with about 400 liter capacity.  To get the water to come out the various taps (kitchen sink, and two head (toilet) sinks) we use manual foot pumps – much better than hand pumps since it leaves both hands free.  Many boats use an electric pump system for this, but we haven’t made the conversion yet – considering it for the kitchen sink – we’ll see.

In the summer it’s easy – we just fill our onboard water tanks every 3 weeks or so via a garden hose from the water outlet at our dock.

In the winter, the dock outlets are turned off so they won’t be damaged by freezing, so I load up a 200 liter barrel into the car (fits nicely into the hatchback of our VW Beetle), fill it up from a working water tap at the marina’s maintenance building, drive it very gingerly over to the sea wall next to our dock, and run a very long hose from it over to our boat.  The seawall plus the height of the car puts the level of the barrel well above the level of our water tanks, and so the water siphons happily down to our tanks.

Two trips with the barrel fill us up.  It works well, but it’s definitely a lot more work to get water in the winter! 

If we run out of water in the winter and it’s too miserable outside to do a proper barrel run for it, or we just don’t have the time, we resort to carrying our water in a 20 liter jug (about one day's worth) and emptying it into the tanks.  Having to carry your own water really gives you a big incentive to conserve, and by the end of the winter, we’re all very much trained to be water-misers.  Probably a good thing.

(Angi here: We don’t have hot water though.  When we do dishes, we heat water in a kettle on a propane burner on the stove and add the heated water to the water which has been foot-pumped into the sink. 

We may install a propane water heater at some point, but one which heats the water only as its going through the pipes, rather than storing hot water in a tank.  Real water heaters take up too much room, even little boat water heaters. We are always looking for MORE room in the boat, so just having readily available hot water doesn’t warrant the loss of space. I’ve even learned to wash my face with cold water, which is thrilling in winter – the water in the tanks is below the waterline and against the hull, so extremely cold. Brushing your teeth with cold water is easier because you can hold the water in your mouth for a few seconds before swooshing it around. Maybe this is like winter camping…)

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Q: Doesn’t it get wavy and the boat rock a lot at your dock when it’s stormy?

A: Generally not unless it is really bad outside.

The marina basin is quite well-protected, and very little in the way of wave action makes it into the marina.  I think the main source of surge where we are happens in SE winds when large lake waves crash against the Ridgetown (a retired freighter that now acts as a breakwall on the southern portion of the marina basin).  Some surge can sneak in between the stern of the Ridgetown and the rock portion of the seawall, and causes some movement in the marina.

But really, it’s mostly the wind in the rigging that causes the boat to lean over a bit during storms – and it’s got to be absolutely howling outside in order for it to be noticeable to us.  Al Hoceima is a heavy old girl, and she generally stays put.  In fact, most of the time, you’d think you were living on shore, she’s so steady.

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Q: What do you do about ice in the winter?

A: Most of the boats run agitators to keep the water moving in order to keep a pocket around the boat ice-free.  An agitator is a powerful submersible electric motor mounted in a tubular cowling that drives a small propeller that thrusts the water towards the surface and keeps it moving enough to prevent ice from forming. 

I used an agitator for the first half of my first winter aboard.  When it stopped running, I just let the boat freeze-in and didn’t bother restarting it.  I found that the steel hull suffered no ill effects from the ice other than the waterline paint getting worn (the fiberglass and wooden boats wouldn’t fare as well though, I think).  I’ve passed my 5th winter aboard, and we’re at the point now that it’s time to repaint the waterline area – not too bad.

(Angi here:  In addition to scraping off the waterline, ice tends to make LOTS of noise when it starts to melt.  When ice flows break up and hit the side of the boat, the noise is thunderous.) 

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Q: Is the boat well-insulated?

A: Not as well as I’d like.

The hull has sprayed-in foam covering the inside of most of the hull, but the underside of the decks and coach roof is really hit-and-miss.  I’ve been gradually adding insulation, but it’s a real pain, and I’ve been avoiding doing it in some areas.  As a compromise, we use “deck blankets” in the winter to provide insulation from the top side.

I visited many of the area thrift stores in my first winter aboard and bought up all of their quilts and sleeping bags.  I spread them out on deck in the under-insulated areas, and they do the trick quite nicely, for very little money.  In the summer months, I bag them and put them in storage.

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Q: Do you shrink-wrap the boat in the winter?

A: Yes, but not with the standard white opaque plastic that is typically used in marinas.

We build a wooden frame over the deck in the winter with about a 7’ 6” peak and 5’ high sides so that we have full use of the deck, except for the very bow of the boat, and the snow will slide off.  We’ve been re-using the same wood for four years now, disassembling and storing it away during the summer.

We then cover the frame with heavy construction grade clear plastic and use paint removing heat-guns to shrink it and weld the seams. We’re jealous of those that have propane-powered torches to do the shrinking!

It works very well, stands up to any weather the winter can throw at us (2008’s winter was the worst in 50 years in the area for snow fall, cold, and storms), and provides a marvelous greenhouse effect.

(Angi here: Since I’m the person who does most of the plastic welding, I don’t care about the giant torches.  The little heat guns work well and I have control over where they go. Oh, and, we’re so proficient at setting up the frame and plastic now that we can do it in about 8 hours, using 3 or 4 people. Shrinking the plastic takes an additional day or so. Taking the frame and plastic down and storing the wood takes about 3 or 4 hours with 2 people.)

Some of my favourite boat-living happens on sunny winter weekends when the outside temperature is -5 C or so with snow on the ground.  Inside the plastic enclosure, the temperature gets up into the 25 C range, and sitting on deck with a book and beer, in T-shirt and shorts enjoying the sun while being separated from the cold and snow by a less than a millimeter of plastic is a lot of fun.

(Angi here: About the plastic: one of our neighbours used the opaque plastic one winter and they found two problems: one, they never knew what the weather was because they couldn’t see out, and two, they found the plastic did not let the sun in, so their deck never got warm, or hot, as in our case.  There were days in February and March when it was cold outside,  -5 degrees C, but so hot under our plastic - upwards of +35 C, we turned all the heaters down or off.  They couldn’t do that at all. The following year they changed back to the clear plastic.)

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Q: With a small boat-sized fridge, isn’t it a pain to keep enough food around?

A: It’s not so bad.

We’ve got 3 adults aboard, plus a Goffin Cockatoo named Charlie, so we do go through a fair amount of food.  That means frequent smaller shopping trips for fresh foods, but that actually makes it easy to experiment with things since you’re not stuck with any one thing for very long.

Our fridge, which is not built-in and therefore uses up valuable floor space, has the tiniest freezer, and it only really freezes the item in direct contact with the cold plate, so we can only have a few days’ worth of frozen stuff on hand at any one time. On long trips, the fridge is the principle, and sometimes only, drain on the batteries, but it is significant.

We do, however, have a fairly decent capacity for non-refrigerated foods like pastas, rice, canned goods, etc.  So in an emergency, if fully stocked, we could probably get by for a month or more with what we’ve got on hand.

Probably the biggest curse is keeping bread for any length of time – it tends to go moldy fairly quickly in the humid environment of a boat.

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Q: You live on your boat, so you probably get out sailing a LOT, right?

A: Unfortunately, not nearly as much as I’d like.

When we’re not on a trip, we actually find it too much work to get the boat sorted out for short day sail outings.

That may seem strange, but imagine if you took your living room and kitchen, tilted them 30 degrees, and gave them a good shake.  There would be bedlam, with stuff strewn about all over the place. 

That’s basically what happens to a boat when sailing, and so before we go out, we’ve got to stow everything properly and have everything tied down so it won’t self-destruct when underway.  When we’re at the dock for a while, it’s too easy to get lazy and not stow stuff properly (Angi or Malcolm: Yes, I really do need those books and papers every minute of the day for days on end right there where I can touch them.), so when a day sail opportunity comes up, we’re faced with more work than it’s worth to put the boat in “go” condition.

I’ve talked to a lot of liveaboards, and this seems to be a common affliction.  I tend to use the dinghy and kayak more than the main boat. One of our neighbours has actually bought a 26' sailboat which will be empty and used for just sailing day trips, since he rarely, if ever, goes out in the boat in which he lives.

Of course, when on a cruise, our boat is kept in “go” conditions at all times, and so it isn’t an issue.

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Q: How can you stand living in such a confined space?  It would drive me nuts.

A (Angi): We did a rough calculation of the square footage and came up with 340.  That IS tiny, but about the size of a small trailer.  Our boat contains a kitchen (galley), two bedrooms fore and aft, which can sleep four (but the two in the V-berth have to be pint-sized), a living room/dining room (saloon) which seats eight friendlies and can sleep two, a navigation station with a table and built-in bench, a tool room which is an unfinished area that we use for storage for now but could eventually become a separate room to sleep one, and two bathrooms (heads) containing sinks and toilets.  It sounds like a lot in a small space and is.

 We regularly are all in the saloon: one may be on the computer and another reading or working at the table and the third may be watching television.  All this can be going on in an area which is about 13’ x 8’.  It seems that we compartmentalize physically and mentally; we can be in the same enclosed space, but doing our own thing and not feel confined.  We do get along for the most part, though.

The worst part is the lack of privacy for the person/people sleeping in the saloon (Sorry, Malcolm).  Luckily, Malcolm sleeps like a log most of the time, not even hearing the screams from the cockatoo, who lives at the end of Malcolm’s berth, two feet from his two feet, at 7 in the morning. 

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Q: What about showers and laundry?

A (Angi): We do have to get dressed to go out in the worst weather to have a shower.  Our winter slip is closer to the showers and laundry than the summer slip, but still far enough away to complain by the time you get there.

Laundry requires having a handful of coins and hauling a giant bag, detergent and yourself out of the boat and into the marina building. Lots of people go to laundromats, so this is no different.  I miss my washer and dryer though.  Some boats have washers and dryers and dishwashers (machines, not people) and showers and air conditioners.  Not ours.

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If anyone has any other questions for us about what it's like to live on our boat year 'round, please contact us - we'd be glad to hear from anyone considering living aboard a boat.


© Copyright 2008 David S. Malar and Angelika Jardine. All rights reserved.
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