Monday, February 27, 2017

Suddenly Sailing - A bit about Boat Living

The Boat Life

When this whole living aboard thing started, there were a lot of questions on our minds. We weren't really certain what would change with moving aboard a boat. Sure, there were obvious things like having less space and the new neighborhood being somewhere on the water. However, for every obvious thing, there seems to be about half a dozen less obvious considerations. Many people have mentioned that moving onto a boat was a dream of theirs (and far more have made it very clear that it's a bit too "out there" for their taste). For those who are curious, I wanted to share my own experiences and findings with regards to the day-to-day of living aboard. If you're seriously considering living aboard and want to dig into the details, there are a lot of great books out there full of useful information. And of course, if you have any questions for me, feel free to leave a comment. 

You'd be surprised what you can find out on the water...

Boats offer most of the same amenities that can be found on land. I've walked onto boats with much nicer amenities and furnishings than the condo that I used to own.  A trawler at the boat show had a full-sized dining table, granite counter-tops in the kitchen, and framed art on the walls. I'm sure it cost a small fortune, but you also might be surprised by what you can find on a more affordable vessel. Boats can be as primitive or as sophisticated as one wants. Some of the niceties that are taken for granted on land can be more expensive or impractical when actually sailing, but most things are just a matter of cost and trade-offs, especially for people who might not be as interested in crossing an ocean as occasionally puttering around. With that said, I'll share my experiences aboard Blackthorn.

Breathing Room

Sailboats tend to have low ceilings, and generally, not a lot of space. With both The Sir and I measuring in at right around 5'5" we didn't have any real concerns about this. Blackthorn actually has a fairly high ceiling, making it possible for taller individuals to walk around comfortably. Coming in and out of the boat involves climbing two small sets of stairs, giving you ample opportunities to knock your head on both the cabin roof and the boom. It's something that is easy to adapt to, but nearly everyone who has stepped aboard has banged their head at least once. 

Inside the boat, things are simultaneously compact and surprisingly roomy. You can't really stretch out inside the boat unless you're laying on the forward berth, but there is plenty of storage space, with compartments in all sections of the boat. After our substantial downsizing, we found that we had room for nearly all of our belongings, with the exception of some framed art and a handful of other items that we felt more comfortable storing with relatives. The space is remarkably well-designed and thought out, not to mention beautifully-outfitted by its original builders. There's also plenty of room up on deck, but the usability of it is largely governed by the weather. 

Looking forward from the companionway


Looking back from the hall to the head and forward berth
Our cozy bed

Looking down the length of the bed... don't mind the ropes.
 One thing that quickly becomes apparent is how much moving about is necessary with two people in such a small space. For example, the table at the center of the main cabin has two leaves that fold out. The leaves can not be swung up or down while someone is sitting on the same side that you are trying to adjust, and it takes two people to switch from having both leaves up to having one or none. Likewise, you cannot get out from the corner with the stove without coming back towards the galley and around, forcing anyone sitting next to you at the table to get up and out of your way. Moving back and forth through the boat usually involves carefully shuffling around each other.

Our favorite corner, next to the little wood stove on the port side


The starboard settee

The Necessities

The standard boat has a toilet, commonly called a head,  which empties into a holding tank, much like an RV. Blackthorn is no exception, equipped with a suction pump that drains the head off into a small tank. With the tank being quite small and mostly there as a formality to meet coast guard standards, we opt to go ashore and use the facilities there. Does it suck when there are 30 mph winds and sheets of rain, or when you wake up at 4 AM with a full bladder? Absolutely. It's a nuisance, but given our current setup, it's the most practical solution. We'll most likely end up switching our current head for a composting one that would need to be emptied out once every month with routine use, as this will allow us to spend substantial amounts of time out at anchor without taking the dinghy ashore several times a day. 



The head, in all its glory.

There is also no shower aboard our boat. Our current marina has very nice facilities, with several shower stalls that provide unlimited hot water. The last marina we lived in required quarters to run the showers, similar to a campground. A solar shower can be set up on-deck, but it's not exactly practical in public. We actually had no desire for a boat with a shower, as showers are a great way to increase the humidity and cause problems with mold and moisture.

Galley Basics

Blackthorn has a wonderfully equipped little galley. The two-burner cooker runs on kerosene and has a small oven below. There's a deep sink with a butcher's block cover and a bit of counter space off to the right. There's no microwave, though many boats have them, and we've gone without using the compressor-based icebox below the counter. The largest challenge with cooking aboard so far has been the limited counter space.  That said, I've yet to try using the pressure cooker or the oven, so there be more surprises in store for me.

Looking back into the galley


The workspace, well-stocked with biscotti


The cooker itself is different than any of the propane or electric stovetops I had cooked on before. In the quarter-berth closest to the cooker, there's a small pressurized tank that holds kerosene. This gets pumped up prior to cooking, and a safety valve must be opened once you're about to light the burner. However, before the burner is ready to burn kero, it must be preheated by filling a cup beneath the burner with denatured alcohol and lighting it. Once the preheat has nearly burned out, the knob on the burner is opened up and the burner is lit for real. A small kettle of water can be brought almost to a boil during the preheat. I'll be the first to say that I don't quite have the hang of the thing. Messing up the preheat can result in small fireballs and black smoke, and it can be a bit tricky to maintain a low simmer. 

Aside from the cooker, the water manual pumps are probably the most quirky things to be found in the galley. Water can be pumped by hand or by foot, though using the foot pump puts the water through a small filter. There's also an electrical pump available, but we haven't actually used it. 

Mood Lighting

Structurally, windows are a weak point on the hull, and a common complaint we ran across during our research was boats that felt "cave-like," with little natural light entering below-decks. Fortunately, Blackthorn is quite well-lit, with several small portholes on each side, glass prisms embedded above either side of the fold-out table, and two little mirrors that help to make the interior feel roomier and brighter. There is also a large hatch over the forward berth, but this is usually covered by the dinghy, which lies on deck. When natural light is not available, the boat has both LED lights and gimballed paraffin lamps. We've used both, with the lamps creating both a little bit of heat and a pleasant candle-like glow. While the lamps are a great option when you just need a bit of light, trimming wicks is a minor art-form, and they can make the boat feel stuffy if the portholes are sealed up.  


The chart table and starboard quarter-berth, which acts as storage.

A few thoughts on electrical

When a boat isn't hooked up to a dock, it usually runs off of its 12 volt batteries, operating quite similarly to an RV. Inverters can be used to create AC power. When a boat is at dock, you normally connect to shore power, allowing the battery to be trickle charged. Some boats also utilize shore power to allow the usage of AC outlets throughout the boat. Blackthorn is not wired for AC, and instead has limited access to AC via inverters. It's a limited system, but also a very simple one with fewer points of failure. We've largely adapted by minimizing our power usage, and are looking into reworking the solar panels and possibly adding a wind generator to help the boat stay self-sufficient. Keeping an eye on our power usage and making sure that the batteries are in good condition has become part of our routine. As a general note, the electrical system on a boat cannot be taken for granted. A large number of boat fires are caused by electric heaters being run on systems that aren't designed for them. 

Final Thoughts

We've spent a fair amount of time this winter visiting family and house-sitting a nice place with all of the amenities that are so easy to take for granted. Between starting my own business and preparing for a wedding, life has been hectic. When we were first figuring out how to heat the boat and the cold weather was setting in, things were very uncomfortable for us. When major storms set in and going to the bathroom meant being drenched from head to toe with no easy way to dry out, it was definitely an inconvenience. There are definitely things that have caused frustration or required us to adapt and change our approach. Overall, though, living aboard has been quite fulfilling so far. There is a definite sense of accomplishment with each challenge that we overcome. And when we spend any more than a few days away, we both become anxious to return home. I'm very excited to see where this summer will take us.


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