How to Survive Your First 6 Months as a Liveaboard

We’re now 6 months into living aboard, and it’s going great. Basically all the things we expected to be great, are, and the cons are manageable. We feel more connected with nature, have fantastic views and sunsets on a regular basis, and enjoy a simpler life with less stuff.

What’s more is we discovered a wonderful community at Shilshole which gives it a neighborly feel we never had living in the city. Living in apartments and condos over the last 10+ years, the most interaction we usually had with our neighbors was a “good morning” as they tore their eyes away from their phones in the elevator.

In apartments, though you’re close to many people, you really aren’t close with any of them.

At Shilshole we’ve done STYC’s Race Your House, hosted neighbors and trick-or-treaters on Halloween, and we know the names of most of the dozen or so people on our dock.

We’ve had a few logistical challenges which we didn’t expect. Much of the preparatory advice we heard focused on the obvious things (like the weather) rather than the practicalities (how to change your address, where to put stuff, etc).

The classic problems have been easily addressed for the most part. Rainforest-like condensation? Easily fixed. The cold, dark winter weather? Nothing you can really do about that but have a good attitude. But our heater has helped (more on that later).

Here are the top 5 unexpected challenges we’ve had from our point of view:

  1. Dealing with Stuff. We did a lot of downsizing in May before moving aboard, selling and giving away car loads full of stuff. We have a lot less stuff now, but a 38’ boat doesn’t have a lot of storage, so we still spend a fair amount of timing moving stuff around in order to keep it tidy.

    We both sometimes travel for work, so we’re often moving our suitcases from storage locker, to car, to boat. We had a wedding to attend this September, so that meant retrieving formal wear from the storage locker and then returning it after.

    On the boat, we’re always moving stuff around, depending on season and needs (when we’re going sailing, some of it needs to be stowed). This can get exhausting. Agreeing on where all the stuff should go is a challenge too. 

    October brought some awesome fall colors and sunsets

  2. Chores / Time management. Some chores simply take longer on a boat – walking up the dock to do our laundry, showering on shore, and meal prep + cleanup. There are also some additional chores we never had in a condo – filling the water tank once every week or two, pumping out the holding tank, and wiping down the solar panels after birds bomb them.
    These little things add up, and can make it feel like it’s hard to keep up. When we get home from a tiring day at work, the idea of trekking up the dock 3 times in the rain + wind to do laundry isn’t appealing.

    Overall it’s good though, because most of the chores get us outside; and what would we be doing with this extra time in a condo? Probably sitting on the couch watching TV. 
  3. Changing Your Address. Receiving our mail is easy, thanks to Dockside Solutions’ excellent and affordable service. But convincing our banks we live there wasn’t quite so simple.

    Banks and financial institutions are required to ask for your physical address, which cannot be a PO Box and may be different from your mailing address. Some of them have automated validations that reject addresses that appear to be a PO box or business address. So our Dockside Solutions suite # got flagged a couple times.

    Eventually I had to call them up and explain that I live on a boat. Giving them the address of the marina (the same as Dockside Solutions but without the suite #) seemed to satisfy them. It was only a minor hassle, but it felt weird to have to justify our lifestyle. I realized we were now in the same category as homeless people and vagabonders (digital nomads) from the perspective of the banks.  The U.S. doesn’t deal well with outliers and alternative lifestyles.  
  4. Managing the holding tank. We thought we were on top of this, because we’ve already replaced the toilet pump with a new one, and most of the hoses. But our holding tank is small (12-15 gallons?), has no gauge, and is opaque – no way to tell how full it is. We could count days, like some people do when they don’t have a tank monitor, but that’s difficult because sometimes one or both of us is away (traveling for work), or we have varying usage patterns (more usage when we’re at anchor for a weekend without shore bathrooms to use).

    We could also pay for a pumpout service on a schedule, but we’re trying to save the $100/month this would cost. Since we sail ~2x/month, we don’t mind pumping out ourselves, but problems occur when we don’t have a regular sailing schedule (ex, due to a long stormy period or just being busy).

    The plan is to replace the holding tank so I can install a tank monitor on it and upgrade the vent line to larger diameter. Unfortunately we have no room on our C&C to increase the holding tank size. 
  5. Commuting. We knew we’d have more driving due to living in Ballard, but it’s a bit worse than expected. Ballard is far from most other neighborhoods of Seattle, and Shilshole is on the outer western edge of Ballard, with no bus line within a mile. It’s a 45 minute drive to Capitol Hill. Visiting friends is more difficult unless they’re in Ballard or Fremont. Busing to downtown takes over an hour. We were used to living in a city with decent transit accessibility, so living at Shilshole feels more like being in the suburbs.

The top expected challenge we’ve had is of course:

  1. Weather.  We had our first snowfall on November 1 this year – quite early. We also had a week or so of cold arctic-like air blowing from the north (Fraser River outflow) at 20 knots or so. 35 F with 20 knots of wind is *cold*! This was a good test of our heating system though.

    Then the weather switched to 10+ days of rain and wind. We had a wind storm with gusts to 50 knots and sheets of pounding sideways rain. That was fun, but it gets old after day 10 of rain. Somehow living aboard is bringing out new leaks even though we thought we had found and fixed most of them already.

    Managing to keep the boat warm has been a challenge. We’re finding we need to run our electric oil radiator basically 24/7 on at least medium power with a moderate temperature setting. If the boat is allowed to get too cold, it takes a long time to heat it back up.

By the way we’re a fan of this DeLonghi oil heater because it’s safe and compact, with a squat profile and sturdy feet (you don’t want roller feet on a boat!) so we don’t have to worry about it tipping over.

We also have a Caframo heater (a model West Marine also sells, rebranded at a higher price) which uses a fan to blow air over heated plates. Other things that help are closing bulkhead doors, turning the boat around to face the bow into the southerly wind, and putting up our full enclosure to reduce drafts from the cockpit.

Of course, our Eva-Dry 4000 dehumidifier is also essential and runs non-stop, doing a great job of keeping cabin humidity to a level where it doesn’t rain indoors.

Side-Note: Getting an Outboard at an Auction

Last week we heard about a public auction of the Ballard Inflatables Store inventory (the shop closed up – we heard the owner retired). We had never been to an auction before – let me tell you, it was an interesting experience! It was basically a huge lot with tons of stuff, and an auctioneer driving around doing the fast-talking style I had only heard in movies. There were near 1000 people there, all braving heavy rain to score some deals on marine equipment.

Ballard Inflatables had so much stuff! Dozens of inflatable dinghies as old as 2005 model year, two dozen outboards, and a whole lot more stuff I wouldn’t have expected – an old Yanmar 3GM diesel, boat fenders, two dozen kayaks, and tons of shop tools (huge C-clamps, pipe wrenches, drills, hoists, etc).

The auction prices weren’t going as cheap as I expected (I imagined about 50% off retail, because all these items are untested, non-returnable, and without warranty); but instead everything was going for just a little less than whatever you could sell it on Craigslist for. Nearly every item had multiple bidders. We also learned that Natalie should bid instead of me next time – bidding happens in fractions of a second, and I don’t make decisions quickly, so she’s way better at auctions.

In the end, we got a new 6 hp Tohatsu 4-stroke floor model for $400-500 less than it normally goes for (but, an auction means no warranty, so take off whatever you value that at). Was it worth it? Probably, but just barely – 2 hours of driving (you have to come back a different day to pick it up), 3 hours of standing in the rain, for a motor of unknown condition, missing a few accessories (the kill switch cord, spares, manual). But, it was an experience for sure!

5 thoughts on “How to Survive Your First 6 Months as a Liveaboard

  1. Viki Moore

    Great post! Can’t wait until we do the same. For now I am just looking forward to my two weeks cruising over Christmas. Boiling hot here in New Zealand at the moment!

    1. Patrick

      Hard for me to imagine boiling hot right now! There’s a chance we may be visiting NZ next year about this time (not by sailing there :)). More on that later this year if plans firm up.

  2. Never for Ever

    I never until now realized how lucky we were to be self-employed when we were living aboard. Laundry and other house keeping chores were never jammed into non-working hours. I could see how that would be such a pain, especially during the short daylight hours over winter.

    We abandoned our oil heater in favour of two Camfranos… it could never really keep up. I will have to look into the Delonghi next time we overwinter aboard.

    And let’s here about some of those 2x a month sailing trips. Some of us are having to get our fixes vicariously you know…


    1. Patrick

      The oil heater on full power (1200 watts) is able to keep our main cabin at 62-64F when it’s 36-40F out. It’s not fast, but it’s quiet. We turn on the noisier Caframo when we need to heat a space fast or go over 64F.

      I’ll try to write about some of our sails! We might only get out once in December. 🙁 Thanks for the comment because I don’t always know what people want to hear about. We had some adventures over Thanksgiving weekend with squally weather to/from Poulsbo.


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