What Size Boat Do I Need to Live Aboard?

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A new GD Herring feature – Boat Life! We will be publishing information about living aboard a boat. We’ve been liveaboards and know from experience the good and the bad, the beautiful and the scary, the frustrations and the triumphs.

We had always wanted a place on the water. Nothing extravagant, just enough for the two of us. Somewhere to sit with one another, enjoy an adult beverage and watch the sun disappear in all its beautiful color below the water, night after night. Each evening more beautiful than the last. To do this together, we thought, would be the greatest and most sublime experience. 

The question was how to do this. We talked endlessly and literally looked all over the world, reading and learning. We traveled to the Carribean islands of Rotaan and Utila in Honduras to look at homes and lots to build on. The first night on Utila, sitting at the Mango Tango on the bay and excitedly talking, we noticed the sailboats bobbing gently on the water. We didn’t even know how they were secured there but it was captivating…

For two people who had never really sailed, it was a big step. It was also an exciting step. We’d figured out that if we rented out our home in land-locked Idaho, we would be able to leave full-time work and sail…maybe around the world! With a few videos of couples doing the same thing, we were hooked on the idea and started dreaming.

Fortunately my husband is a planner as well as a dreamer and before long, we had a list of decisions to make and problems to solve before we set sail. The first one was buying the boat.

Which leads me to today’s topic – what size boat do you need if you want to live aboard? And the answer is…36 feet! Nah, I’m just kidding!! The real answer, unfortunately, is “it depends.”

How long are you going to live on the boat? Are you ever going to live off the boat? How much personal space do you need? Are you trying to recreate a small apartment or are you good with a postage stamp of space below and a topside deck of space above? Is either of you tall? Also very important, where are you going to boat? Are you going to cross oceans, putter around lakes, head down the coast to Mexico and live or cruise around the Great Loop of the eastern US? There’s a lot to decide that will inform how big of a boat you need.

One thing, though, I can tell you for certain, smaller is generally better. Especially for the first time sailor. 

Why? For two reasons. The first – and this is something that we both read about before we bought our boat – is because there is just less boat to manage. When you are handling a boat with two people, it’s much easier to have a small craft. Fewer sails, less equipment, less deck to navigate. Also, smaller boats tend to be less expensive, and if you are a first time sailor this will give you some peace of mind as you contemplate crashing into a dock for the first time. Less cost means you have less loss when you do damage to your floating home.

The second is something we definitely did not read about before we bought our boat. It is very difficult to get insurance for a boat bigger than 36 feet if you’ve never sailed before. And if you’ve never sailed before, believe me, you want insurance. I would want insurance even if I was an experienced boater. I have it for my car, I need it for my boat too.

Keeping the length of your boat to 36 feet can actually be a wonderful “restriction” for the uninitiated water dweller. Less length means less choices, and having an initial limiting parameter already in place can make searching for your boat much more enjoyable.

There are a lot of different boats and lengths under 36’ and now we are getting into personal taste and needs territory. I don’t want to be too definitive about boat size, because everyone really is different, but I will say this; we are in love with the Catalina 30 and will likely buy one as our next boat. Here’s why:

  • 30 feet is very manageable for two people and easy enough for one to handle when necessary
  • They are plentiful which means they are generally less expensive. Also a lot of people know them, know their ins and outs which makes working on them easier (and cheaper)
  • They tend to have a very efficient layout, making a 30’ boat, which is small, feasible for us as a couple
  • Some have a shallow draft, which is important when cruising the Great Loop (which is the next great adventure)

Another thing we were advised to do and didn’t is go out with as many people on as many boats as possible before buying. Going to look is great, but nothing is going to give you a sense of how a boat will be to live on better than actually spending time on it. We looked at a lot of boats and discovered after living on it that we had no clue how the one we ended up buying would be. Some of what we thought were big “pros” turned out to be big “cons” (more on that later). Hopefully you have some friends who can take you out on their boats for a couple days. But if you don’t, I can tell you from experience that money spent to charter a boat for a couple of days or on someone to take you out on their boat is well spent! 

The (5’3″) author trying out the main berth on a 28′ Freedom

Very likely, though, you can find a boat to crew on through a boat club in the area. If you are landlocked, you might have to spend a couple of weeks someplace that has more sailing opportunities. Just make the most of it and try every boat you can, from make to length. You’ll get the idea of what you need.

Or just take my advice and get a 30’ Catalina. That way if you buy the “wrong” boat, it can be my fault. Happy sailing!

K.A. Lewis is a boat-loving author and insurance broker, currently land-bound in Louisville, KY. Her latest book on collecting, Drop, Throttle, Oversteer: Collecting & Investing in Classic Cars, is now available at Amazon!

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