What’s the Best Liveaboard Boat? Three Things to Consider

by Tom Tripp

The Motor Yacht Lady Star -- Photo by her owners

The Motor Yacht Lady Star -- Photo by her owners

I thought this might be a natural conversation-starter here on Write on the Water, since some of the authors and many of the readers are actual liveaboards. The title is a bit misleading, since obviously there is no single “best” liveaboard boat for all the different kinds of folks who would consider the lifestyle. So maybe what we’re really talking about is, “How do I make the best decision about which boat to live aboard?”

That, it seems, might be a bit easier to answer by using a simple 3-step checklist.

Use of the Boat – How will you actually use the boat? A large percentage of liveaboards never, or rarely, leave their moorings. They talk about cruising, make plans and preparations, but never actually seem to go. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except that many of them purchased a boat to cruise aboard and probably would have bought a different boat if they knew they were really looking for a dock queen.

So, be brutally honest with yourself about what you’re really going to do with your boat. Do you really need a true bluewater passagemaker? Exceedingly few people ever actually cross oceans in their yachts. You might be one of them, but ask the question anyway. Maybe a good coastal cruiser is a better fit. Perhaps your cruising ambitions don’t include oceans at all. A Great Circle cruise in the United States wouldn’t necessarily require a boat capable of withstanding heavy seas.

What about sail vs. power? Many liveaboards on a tight budget have chosen smaller sailboats because of the generally simpler and less expensive equipment. That advantage in cost may be more of a perception than a reality if your sailboat isn’t well-founded and equipped with up-to-date systems. And if you want to bring many of the lubberly luxuries aboard, you may find yourself having to install a generator and AC electrical system; both often found more standard on dedicated power-cruising boats.

Even within the two propulsion categories there are choices to be made. If your sailboat is to be navigated mainly in tropical island-hopping mode – The Bahamas, for example – you’ll need a shoal draft that allows you to get into more bays and coves. If your power cruiser is meant to cross large expanses of blue water, will you rely on a wing engine or perhaps a Power TakeOff (PTO) from the main powerplant or a hydraulic motor for an emergency backup? Maybe you’ll have twins instead.

The important thing here is that you need to start with the general question of how your boat will be used and then move deliberately down through the decision trees that will result. Go through the process more than once, and after you’ve been aboard many different kinds of candidate boats. You may be surprised at how your priorities seem to change.

Budget — How much to spend on your new floating home is the second most important decision process. If you have and know your absolute limits in terms of the amount of money you have to spend for the boat and related expenditures, then you can use that as a filter when you go through the “Use of the Boat” evaluation. That process may push you to move your budget in one direction or the other a little bit as you settle on your priorities.

It may sound obvious, but don’t forget that purchase price is only part of the financial equation, and might be the most transparent. How much more money will it take to bring your new boat (or “new to you” boat) up to a standard that meets your “use” requirement. The answer is usually, “more than you planned for.” So plan for more than you think. Pre-purchase surveys can do a good job of starting to identify that financial commitment, but won’t uncover everything you need to fix, change or add.

Other areas that can significantly affect your budget include whether you plan to keep the boat on a mooring ball, tied to a dock, or up on the hard when you’re not using it. Add to those costs the price of care and storage if you’re not living aboard full time. Every boater since Noah has tried to estimate and budget for maintenance and overhaul costs and as far as I can tell, none have really succeeded. You may have heard the old “10% rule” that suggested that amount of the purchase price would be needed for operation and maintenance of a boat. Some say that applies to new boats only and doesn’t really include reserves needed for major overhauls and replacement of key systems. In any event, you can get some estimates from others with identical or similar boats – check online discussion forums for good leads.

Reconsider — Finally, when you’ve settled on a “true use” of your boat and a budget for its acquisition and ongoing ownership, reconsider all of it. Have you really considered what it will mean to downsize your lifestyle and material possessions to fit into your new (and inevitably smaller) home? How about all your books? Readers and writers on this blog in particular have talked about how hard that task is.

Are you planning on doing all the major maintenance yourself? Many do but few have the hands-on experience with diesel, electrical and hydraulic systems to really be self-sufficient. It’s not that you can’t reach that status, but it might be a fairly costly road to get there.

There are some great online resources to help you consider these issues, and others, in more depth. In addition to some of the posts on living aboard by our own writers here, here and here, check out:

The sailing vessel Bella Rose.

The sailing vessel Terratima.

The motor yacht Lady Star.

The discussion forums at the Livingaboard website.

Lastly, I’m hoping all of those of you who already live aboard will chime in with your own views on the most important considerations when making the decision to move aboard your boat. Please let us know in the comments.

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4 Responses to What’s the Best Liveaboard Boat? Three Things to Consider

  1. Like you say, there are two types of liveaboards – dockside queens and offshore machines. Down here in South Florida, my number one request for liveaboarding dockside is air conditioning whether built-in or a hatch mounted unit – especially in the summer.

  2. Tom Tripp says:

    Richard – and in the PNW they insist on diesel heating (Webasto or some such) and don’t want to mess with air conditioning. Different folks have different latitudes about stuff…

  3. Tom – this is always an interesting subject – but so subjective. My little 33-foot sailboat is not a blue water cruiser (and certainly not equipped as one given her tired old sails and lack of a liferaft) but I am out here (Charleston at the moment) sailing her around anyway. But I also spent years living at the dock. And I have neither air conditioning nor heating. Currently I am tied to a dock at the Charleston Maritime Center and the heat and the bugs would be enough to drive some people crazy. I need a boat small enough that a night on the dock doesn’t break the budget. I absolutely need ports or windows to be able to see out and a light and airy interior, and I need shade on the exterior. I need a hatch over my bunk that pumps the air into my face in the slightest breeze. I need a space to write where I will not be in anyone’s way. Easiest way to do that is to single hand. I need space for about 50 books and battery capacity for a minimum of 8 hours a day of computer usage off the dock. I need a reliable engine and the ability to sail moderately well without the engine.
    I guess I have too many needs 🙂 My little boat does fill most, though.

  4. All true. We have posted an expense spreadsheet to help people calculate the true cost of boating on http://www.livingaboard.net, as well as videos on choosing a boat. I do believe that largely we’re drawn to our type of boat through emotional means and your factors will certainly help take it from there. Thanks for the article.

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