Cruising: The Liveaboard Life

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Living aboard during a New England winter is not for the faint of heart

Living aboard during a New England winter is not for the faint of heart

Rare, indeed, is the sailor who has not at one point in his or her life dreamed of shrugging off the bonds of the landlubber’s life and moving aboard a sailboat. It’s a seductive vision, usually colored with promises of soft tropical breezes and joyous beam reaches over azure seas.

Unfortunately, as I’ve come to realize over two years of part-time liveaboard life, the reality is somewhat different. Leaving the landbound life behind is not as easy as it sounds. Nor, in many cases, is it much fun, at least to begin with. There’s a huge difference between living on a sailboat for, say, a week or two and moving aboard fulltime. For everything you gain, something must be surrendered.

I thought I was well ahead of the life-adjustment game, having spent many months living on small boats over the last few decades. I also had a head start, having downsized from a house to a condo to a studio apartment, gleefully shedding possessions every step of the way, like a dog shaking off water. Still, even now, after almost three years of part-time liveaboard life on a relatively spacious 39-footer, I find myself stuffing one T-shirt too many into a miniscule drawer, moving stuff from one flat surface to another, pondering how I can get away with less than three pairs of shoes and building new bookshelves to hold all those “vital” tomes I can’t possibly leave behind.

My first summer of liveaboard life was actually pretty pleasant. The boat was on a mooring in a sheltered harbor with decent launch service, and I had few problems commuting to work. Of an evening, I would fire up the charcoal grill, kick back in the cockpit with a gin and tonic and more often than not find myself treated to yet another spectacular New England sunset. On weekends (well, some weekends) I would clear for action navy-style and go sailing.

In fact, so pleasant was my summer that I decided to stay on board over the winter as well—first booking a slip in a nearby marina, then having the boat shrink-wrapped in translucent plastic in an effort to harness a bit of the greenhouse effect. The latter, in particular, was much appreciated by patrons of the nearby waterfront bar. Discerning caterpillar-like movements inside my opaque chrysalis, they would raise their glasses in salute upon seeing me emerge from my cocoon and waddle up the icy dock swathed in layer upon layer of gear. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t awful, either.

Unfortunately, as fate would have it, it was also an unusually warm winter, at least by northeastern standards, which lulled me into a false sense of security. Two mild winters in a row is too much to count on in New England, and the winter of 2017-18 was a doozy. It got so cold so quickly the shrink-wrap guy ran out of time to cover my boat. Enter the dreaded polar vortex. Not only the marina, but the entire harbor froze over. Some mornings I woke with the cabin temperature in the high 30s.

One night a “wintry mix” of snow and rain froze my hatches shut, forcing me to have to melt them open with a heat gun. That same morning there was a layer of sheet ice on the narrow finger dock, and fearful of slipping in and plunging beneath the ice, I had to crawl on hands and knees like a giant, cursing baby until I reached safety. It was then I decided this would be either my last New England winter or my last one on a boat—or both. Soon after, I gratefully deserted both the boat and the marina and moved into a friend’s spare room.

The following summer, I sailed a lot. This is another thing about living aboard. A lot of liveaboards never seem to go sailing, and I kind of understand why. It’s a bit of a hassle. You have to move everything you’ve been meaning to put away, but haven’t because you know you’ll soon have to move it all over again to get to whatever it’s blocking access to when it’s in its proper place. All that stuff you can safely leave lying around in your house on land? Forget it. As for that drawer from hell we all have in our houses onshore—you know, the one full of things that don’t seem to belong anywhere else? If you’re not careful, every cubbyhole in your boat will look like that. One of the secrets of successful liveaboards is ruthless efficiency.

This sailing thing also marks one of the subtle differences between liveaboards and fulltime cruisers. Specifically, there are many people living on sailboats who never actually go sailing on them. In fact, whether it’s because work and family obligations keep them anchored, or because they lack the finances or will to leave (or simply because they are non-sailors who have been driven by circumstances to a presumably cheaper life afloat), I would say the greater proportion of liveaboards actually fit into this category.

Determined, therefore, not to fall under this sedentary spell, I sailed—first up to Maine, then down the coast to Florida, a hellish enough journey in the fall of 2018 that would drive a smarter and/or less stubborn person to the RV life forever. Once in Florida, I parked for the winter at Reynolds Park Yacht Center in Green Cove Springs, 40 miles up the St John’s River and became a liveaboard once more. A most pleasant winter it was, too. I even went sailing once or twice, or was it just once? No matter. It reinforced another truth about living aboard—if you’re working fulltime, it’s much easier to do so when you can go ashore without having to call a launch or climb into a dinghy. I’m of the school that thinks you should take a dinghy ride when you want to, not because you have to.

Living the dream on an idyllic New England evening

Living the dream on an idyllic New England evening

After leaving the boat on the hard there last summer and becoming a landlubber again, I am now back aboard and busy plotting the final metamorphosis from part-time liveaboard to fulltime cruiser. In the meantime, I ponder these observations on the fun of life afloat, from fulltime cruiser Caren Smith:

• You trade your old job for new ones: mechanic, electrician rigger, sailmaker, jack of all trades.

• You plan the rest of the week, but don’t know where you’ll be tonight.

• You wear the same clothes multiple days, then swim in those clothes and call it “doing laundry.”

• You hope for rain to rinse both your clothes and the boat, while also hoping the leaks won’t be too bad.

• You find every job has at least three sub-tasks, each of which has another three sub-tasks.

• You inevitably run out of water when the nearest marina only sells it for $0.35 a gallon.

• You find the day after you take your boat into that same marina to fill the tanks, it rains two inches.

• You inevitably run out of propane while baking bread, never while cooking a casserole.

Of course, on the plus side, every morning you wake to find yourself on a boat, surrounded by water and the magic that inevitably abounds there—and that ain’t so bad either. 

Photos by Peter Nielsen

May 2020

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