A Life Afloat

Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived in the big city. One day the little girl’s mother and father brought her to a big garden center. There were rows and rows of seeds and bulbs and saplings, and in the very middle there was a sailboat. She climbed on board and found a little kitchen, a little bed, and even a little toilet. Her mother called to her, “Honey, what
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Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived in the big city. One day the little girl’s mother and father brought her to a big garden center. There were rows and rows of seeds and bulbs and saplings, and in the very middle there was a sailboat. She climbed on board and found a little kitchen, a little bed, and even a little toilet. Her mother called to her, “Honey, what on earth are you doing on that boat?” And the little girl said, “I’m playing house. I have everything I need here. I think I am going to stay and live on this boat.”

And that’s just what she did, 20 years later.

It’s a true story. I come from the Midwest and hail from landlubbing, dirt-dwelling, soil-squishing folk. My dad gets seasick walking down a dock and my mom loved the ocean only when viewing it from a balcony. But I always heard the siren song and remembered that day at the garden center very clearly. It was the day I discovered that boats were not just floating tubs, but that they could be homes too.

The Family Next Door

If you meet my family now, we’re really quite normal. My husband commutes to the city and works for the federal government. He wears regular, preppy-guy clothes and loves reading sci-fi and listening to NPR. I stay at home with our four-year-old son. I take him on trips to the park and zoo, carry around snacks and sunscreen, go to play groups and soccer practice. We have a dog, two cars, high-speed Internet service, cell phones, a microwave and a fancy blender. But when I meet somebody new, there’s always an awkward moment. They ask where we live, a reasonable inquiry when arranging a playdate. I squirm. This is usually the moment of truth. Breathe deep, act casual, blurt it out: “We live on a sailboat.”

This is usually met by one of three reactions. “Wow, that’s so cool. I love the water, my husband would kill to do that!” Or: “Oh. How does that work? Do you have heat? Can you cook and sleep? Uh, you MUST have a house that you go to in the off season?” Or: Silence.

I have lived aboard for so long now I sometimes forget it’s not exactly normal. After 11 years aboard, I sometimes emerge from my bubble and realize that not everyone “gets” how we live and why we love it.

Living aboard is not like cruising. Our boat is our home and we stay at the dock most of the time. We cruised once upon a time and plan to again in a few blue moons, but for now the marina is home base. We get our mail here in a little street-side mailbox. Our boat has shore connections for electricity and cable data service. We have a parking lot to keep our cars in, we have two laundry rooms with coin-operated machines, and we have a bath house, a pool, a cafe and loads of green space and nearby woods to which to roam. I love enjoying all these amenities without the hassle of cleaning the pool, mowing the grass, or planting the flowers. I never did take to gardening.

The Trade-Offs

One perspective on life aboard might be called the glossy-magazine point of view. Gorgeous yacht with nary a flaw; a couple in hip nautical wear sporting deep tans, cool drinks in hand, heads thrown back in laughter, hair blowing in the breeze. Inside, the boat is stylishly appointed, with flowers on the saloon table and appetizers set out on the cockpit table with a bottle of wine. Beds are made with hospital corners, the heads are so clean you could eat in them, and the galley is shipshape and spotless, with ample empty counter space just waiting for a gourmet meal to be made. Yeah, right.

The reality is that when your boat is your home, it gets a little, shall we say, homey. Every cranny and surface in a liveaboard boat serves multiple purposes. Come aboard our boat at any given moment and you’ll see clothes waiting to be folded next to my son’s uneaten breakfast and the mail from last week and a Play-doh castle in progress, all on the saloon table. We do have space for everything we need; first we just need to remember where we stowed it and then have the tenacity to access the desired object, which is likely entombed under six other items. Everyday activities usually require more effort.

Getting groceries from the parking lot to your slip is a chore at the best of times. In the rain, with a toddler strapped to your back and a geriatric dog underfoot, it’s more of a chore. And there’s nothing like running back and forth from the boat to the marina laundry room in sub-freezing temperatures to change out loads. I’ve missed appointments because the wind blew from the north all night and the extreme low tide hit first thing in the morning and I literally could not get off the boat. And you will always run out of propane or fresh water on the coldest, snowiest, stormiest, darkest night of the year. Every single time.

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