Boat Life Reality: 9 Things Nobody Tells You About Living on a Sailboat

Sailing boat in Casco Bay Maine

Racing alongside dolphins playing in your bow waves, gazing up at the stars in remote anchorages, and sipping cocktails as the sun sets – living on a sailboat makes these dreams a reality almost every day. It’s true that living aboard has some incredible moments and gives you experiences that most would only dream of, but is living on a sailboat right for you?

When we decided to give up our jobs and homes in London nearly three years ago and move onto a rickety old sailboat in Sicily, most people thought we were crazy. In fact, I thought we were crazy! I had no idea how we were going to make this lifestyle work. Slowly but surely we ‘learned the lines’, until now, three years later, I can confidently say that living on a sailboat is right for us.

Now those people who thought we were a little insane turn a little green when we talk about the incredible sunsets and crystal clear waters we swim in every single day. It has been a very steep learning curve, and there are many things I wish I had known before moving aboard. There are so many aspects of boat life that you just can’t envision from home. 

If living on a sailboat is something you’re dreaming of but you’re not sure whether it’s right for you, here’s some of the realities of boat life that might sway you either way!

Can you live in a very small space?

Living on a sailboat is not right for you if you can’t stand being in a confined space for long periods of time! This is one of the main things about sailboat life that people can’t stand the thought of, and I can understand why!

If you can imagine being locked in your bedroom for days at a time, with a small balcony for some fresh air, a camping stove, and a composting toilet then you’ve probably started to get a good idea of what sailboat life can be like.

There will be times when it’s simply impossible to leave the boat. Perhaps because you need to guard the boat during high winds at anchor, or you might be on passage for days at a time. The boat might be constantly moving and hard to walk around on. It might be stiflingly hot or too cold. Your other half might be driving you insane!

Only you can decide whether the sunset beers and days of snorkeling will cancel out these more frustrating times for you!

Try living with limited resources

You can forget lovely, hot showers every day when you live on a sailboat. As soon as you move aboard resources become gold dust, and you start the never-ending game of trying to conserve as much as you can.

Before splashing out on a water-maker (a very expensive device that makes freshwater from seawater!), I would shower with fresh water once a week or sometimes even less. Even then, it was a case of using as little water as possible. I was proud to get my washing routine down to a single 2l bottle of water. If you find the thought of washing in the sea or not washing at all too disgusting to imagine then you might want to rethink your liveaboard dreams!

Very few sailors out there have a washing machine on board, so you’ll need to carefully consider your sailing clothes and their durability! There have been times we’ve gone several months before finding a washing machine we can use onshore – I’m not sure what suffered more, the clothes or people passing us in the street!

The electricity onboard comes from the sun and the wind, so you only have limited amounts to keep all your appliances running. If you can’t cope without watching a film every evening or can’t imagine living without a freezer then you’ll struggle with boat life.

The positive of this is that you become resourceful, and use only what you really need. I now watch the sunset instead of Netflix and I will never take a running tap for granted again. I love how much I’ve managed to reduce the resources I use and feel better for living a simpler life that is far more eco-friendly.

You’ll be totally dependant on the elements

If you’re someone who copes well with frequent change and doesn’t mind the feeling of being out of control then you’ll find living on a sailboat a lot easier. When you become a liveaboard your plans will depend heavily on the weather. You won’t have any control over when you can leave a place, how long it will take you to get to a new destination, or whether it’s possible to get off the boat and explore. You will be completely controlled by the wind, tide, waves, swell, weather conditions, and more.

Once you have accepted that, to a certain extent, you can’t control the way you live when you’re on a sailboat, you’ll find things a lot easier. If you can be flexible and patient then you’re already halfway there with the skills needed to become a liveaboard sailor!

There’s no such thing as a perfect boat

No matter how much time you spend on choosing the right boat for you, you have to accept that no boat is perfect. You will have to make compromises that might, at times, seem like a big sacrifice.

For example, you might want a bluewater sailboat that can take you across oceans and through storms. These tend to have long keels for better stability, which makes them a nightmare to maneuver in tight spaces in marinas.

You might need to go for a smaller sailboat due to your budget, which will mean living in a very small space and sacrificing some home comforts along the way. Or you might choose to spend your money on a bigger sailboat which will be slightly more comfortable, but cost more to maintain and to dock in marinas.

Can you put up with discomfort and annoyances? Because no matter what sailboat you end up with you are bound to dislike something about it, no matter your initial budget!

Poor sleep

One of the things that shocked me most about living on a sailboat is how little sleep you actually get! Good sleep is never guaranteed onboard a sailboat!

If you’re out at anchor then you’re constantly aware of the elements. It can be a lovely calm evening until, for no foreseen reason, a swell comes into the anchorage and your lovely floating home turns into a rollercoaster ride. Or the wind might pick up in the middle of the night and you’ll be forced to stay awake and anchor watch in case your boat (or one in front of you) drags anchor and puts you in a dangerous situation.

In a marina you have to worry about your lines in bad weather, so you are constantly checking for chafe or helping other people who have found themselves in trouble. You could find yourself moored up next to a flotilla of boats that stay awake drinking into the early hours or find yourself next to a Greek wedding that goes on until 4 am – as we were once forced to (not) sleep next to!

Your sailing plans will also disrupt your sleep. You might have to leave in the middle of the night to catch favorable conditions, or to arrive at your next destination in the daylight. While on passage, you’ll take it in turns to sleep, so it’s just as taxing.

If a bad night’s sleep puts you in a foul mood for days then you might want to reconsider whether living on a sailboat is right for you.

It can be isolating

While there will certainly be times that you’ll meet incredible people, make friends for life and hear the most interesting stories, there will also be times when you’ll feel quite alone.

You can control this a little by going to popular cruising destinations and always using marinas or town quays, but if you’re on any kind of budget then there will definitely be periods of time where you’re anchored out alone.

Sometimes this remoteness can be desirable, and there’s something pretty magical about having a beautiful anchorage all to yourself. But where at home you can just pick up the phone and arrange a night out with friends when you’re bored or lonely, when you’re sailing this just isn’t an option.

Consider this when deciding whether living on a sailboat is right for you.

Food faffs

One of the things I miss most about my old life on land is being able to pop to the shops and buy whatever food I fancied. Finding food when you live on a sailboat is a right faff!

Firstly, you need to sail to a town or village that claims to have a supermarket. Then you need to get the dinghy in the water, put the outboard on the dinghy, lock up the boat, start the outboard (not as easy as it sounds!), find somewhere to leave the dinghy and lock it up, trek to the supermarket, do your shopping and then do it all in repeat with a heavy bag of groceries to get back!

You’ll often have to shop in small, expensive stores that don’t have much choice at all. You frequently run out of fresh food and have to get inventive with cans and dried food. And you can forget dashing out for last-minute ingredients or pick up a snack you’re craving!

On the flip side, you will appreciate fresh fruit and vegetables so much more. You will sometimes get lucky and catch a decent fish, which is the best feeling in the world! You also have the option to eat in some lovely local restaurants and cafes just as you would on holiday.

If you enjoy getting creative with food and can see the hassle of getting it as a great excuse for exercise then you’ll get on well with living on a sailboat!

As you can see, there’s no easy answer when it comes to deciding if living on a sailboat is right for you. If you can look at most of these negatives and see the positive sides to them then you’ll probably get on well with boat life, but if you read any of these and want to run a mile then it’s probably best you avoid this lifestyle! Sailboat life really isn’t for everyone.

If you still aren’t sure then why not try a long charter holiday, or join a sailboat crew before you make the commitment to buy a boat yourself. There are plenty of ways to sail for free that will give you a good understanding of the ups and downs of a life at sea. And if this article has convinced you that sailing life is for you, then we can’t wait to bump into you one day on this big, blue ocean of ours!

Emily is a keen traveler, adventure seeker, and scrabble fanatic. In an attempt to follow her dreams of learning to sail she quit her full-time job as a primary school teacher two years ago, bought a sailboat in Sicily called Hot Chocolate, and now explores the world from her tiny home on the ocean.

She writes travel guides and blogs about her experiences at sea and documents her adventures through film. You can find out more at Two Get Lost.