Pros and Cons of Living On A Boat

Pros and Cons of Living on a Boat

Walden on Wheels, by Ken Ilgunas.

I recently read a very inspiring book called Walden on Wheels. Not only was this some of the best writing I’ve ever read, the author truly gave a voice to the struggles of my generation (people now in their 20s and 30s) while simultaneously giving me an excuse to laugh my ass off about all these ‘serious’ problems.

The basic premise of the book is about a guy who simultaneously discovered his love of nature while struggling to pay off his student loans and dealing with chronic unemployment. He learned to appreciate a spartan lifestyle that allowed him closer communion with nature on extended trips into the wild. This lifestyle of voluntary simplicity naturally led him to adopt the lifestyle of van dwelling or ‘vandwelling’ as it’s called by its practitioners. By living in his van, he was able to achieve his burning desire to go to graduate school, without going back into debt.

The Pros & Cons of Living in a Boat
(As opposed to living in a van or RV)

Since a liveaboard lifestyle isn’t too different from vandwelling, I was inspired by the book to join the vandwellers mailing list. After an initial solicitation to connect with other liveaboards in my area, I receive the following question:

Hi Chris, Will you tell me what you feel are the pros and cons of living on a boat? What are the pros and cons between the two of living on a boat and living in a van or RV? Which is less cost?

The Pros

Living aboard a boat

This small, 27 foot liveaboard boat is equipped with a wrap-around couch, bathroom, V-birth. The galley kitchen has a sink, 2-burner alcohol stove, and ice box.

The biggest ‘pros’ for me, and this is highly subjective, is the freedom (defined here as lack of other homosapiens), lack of traffic, and the food.

  • I thrive on solitude. I’m very cerebral and a natural introvert. A boat works for me because as soon as I leave the dock, it’s all me. The waiting lines, traffic lights, cops, irritating neighbors, and paranoia are instantly gone. Those are land-based things and simply don’t exist on the water. True the coast guard exists, but in five years of active boating, I’ve never been hassled by them.
  • I kind of already mentioned traffic, but that is one thing that I think really sets boating apart for land-based travel. There are no traffic lanes. Even in crowded water, the only real ‘rule of the road’ is don’t run into one another. There are no traffic lines, no speed limits, and no need for them. This is as true 100 feet from the marine wall as it is 100 miles offshore. I HATE traffic. This sole ‘pro’ is big aspect for me.
  • Food is everywhere on the water. This may not be true all over the world, but it’s definitely true in the Puget Sound. It takes practice and skill to feed yourself reliably out here, but it is possible for anyone. The evidence of this is in the anthropology of the local natives. It’s rare in native cultures to have cultures with elaborate artwork, as time spent doing art takes away from time required to hunt and gather food. The natives of the Salish Sea (Puget Sound & Inside Passage) were renowned for their craftsmanship and woodworking skills. They lived in ornate log cabins, constructed fast canoes, and carved intricate totem poles. Alaskan natives invented the kayak. It’s normal for me to come back to the dock with more food than I left with.

The Cons

  • A big ‘con’ for most people is instability of the vehicle. Even in a bad storm, a van doesn’t do much more than lightly rock. It doesn’t take much bad weather to kill any possibility of sleep on a boat. Sailboats handle bad weather much better than power boats, but all boaters know when the sea is upset.
  • I would say that living in a boat is more expensive than living in a van, mostly for the reason above. A van equipped to be stealthy can be lived in year round without ever paying for parking. A boat is very difficult to live in year-round on the hook. If you’re not on the hook, it means you’re at the dock. Someone built that dock and they’ll demand payment. It could also be argued that boats require more maintenance than vans. Salt water is very corrosive, and when you mix in high winds, freezing temperatures, and a lot of movement, things break. Most affordable boats are old, that means the likelihood of leaks and dry rot are high.

Moot Points

There are also several points that I thought of that are ‘moot’ or equivalent.

  • A lot of people are afraid of boats because of the ‘oh shit’ factor – breaking down when on a trip. It happens – much more frequently than it does for automobiles. Any avid boater will have tow insurance. These days it’s incredibly affordable at $100 to $150 per year (through Boat US). This is the boat equivalent of AAA. In my opinion, you’re an idiot if you leave the dock without it. Breakdowns happen.
  • Size is also another moot point. In my mind a van is equivalent to a 25 foot boat, a cargo van a 27 foot boat, and and RV a 40 foot boat. I’m talking about both square footage as well as amenities. Bigger boats require more maintenance, and I’m pretty sure the same would go for vans and RVs.

Help Me Add More Points

Now it’s your turn. What are the pros and cons of living on a boat VS living in a van or RV? What have I missed? Do you agree with my points or disagree? Let me hear your opinions.

Related posts:

Matia Island State Park
Swallowing The Anchor
Summer Adventures
9 Responses to “Pros and Cons of Living On A Boat”
  1. Bob says:

    Your comments are accurate.
    I would have some issues. I get sea sick even tied to the dock. I never eat fish.
    So live aboard would have me starve to death in a couple weeks.
    You don’t mention water, power or sanitation. In salt water you would need to have a water purifier or a large tank. It might be hard to fill up while on the hook. do you dump your black and gray water tanks while on the hook, or wait till your at a dock?

    • Chris says:

      Good points, Bob. Personally, I haven’t spent much more than five days away from the dock at a time. There are numerous places in the Puget Sound to take on water and pump out the black water tank, even if you don’t want to pay for overnight moorage. Boats typically don’t have grey water tanks.

      As for energy, I have a large battery bank, a generator, and the engines have alternators. I also have plans to install a wind turbine and solar panels.

  2. liz says:

    Problems with boats

    Mold and mildew on a boat is more common in terms of damp stuff, especially if you happen to get salt water on something fabric.

    Woke up one night to the bilge alarm docked in the NYC harbor. Spent the night pumping by hand. Stuffing box had lost the stuffing. My boyfriend sunk at the dock once. Opps. While you can have car wrecks, usually when you are asleep there isn’t a crisis.

    Getting lost can be more of a crisis, especially if you are somewhere like the Chesapeake Bay where they can screw up loran and GPS on purpose for Navy Base exercises

    Harder to “run away” if a hurricane is coming (of course tornados are the car equivalent, however they don’t last nearly as long and it is easier to drive away from trouble). Also if 60 knot winds blow up suddenly while you are out things can be dicy. So can lightning strikes even with a lightning rod. And then there was the water spout (tornado on the water) that we narrowly got out of the way of (sailboat).

    Grocery store runs can be pricy if you happen not to have a bike on your boat or there is a lack of public transportation. Laundry can be an issue for the same reason if you are not at a marina that has a washer and dryer.

    Daily maintenance I think is often higher on a boat. Maybe not a houseboat on pontoons but certainly on a wooden sailboat or even a metal or fiberglass boat if it has a wooden deck – you need to make sure, for example, fresh water doesn’t sit on wood or you are more likely to get dry rot so you need to do a salt water deck wash. You need to deal with the weak electrical currents that run through boats and eventually corrode the metal… You need to know more, I think, to live aboard if you are not permanently tethered to a dock and even if you are, there are more issues. You can’t always haul out the boat and take it to the shop to get it repaired and it can be expensive to have the repair person come to you.

    All that being said I like boats better than campers…

  3. Perhaps this is generational and will change with the times, but living in a van does not have the same ‘feel’ to it as living on a boat. There is a ‘coolness’ factor of living on a boat that does not say ‘I’m basically homeless’. I know it’s a stereotype and it’s wrong, and, again, I think it may be generational. But I think people who live in automobiles of some kind have to work to convince people they are doing so out of choice rather than necessity. (And kudos to the young man who chose that rather than more school debt.) I’d like to be wrong about that. What do you think?
    All I know is that if my daughter brought home a young man who lived out of his car, I’d have a different feeling about it up front than if she brought one home that lived on a boat. Why is that? Totally not fair, I admit. But there it is. Your generation is going to change these stereotypes and find your freedom in the doing.
    For the record, I asked my 28 year old daughter if living on a boat and living in a van sounded the same to her. She said absolutely not. Living on a boat sounded like freedom, living in a van sounded depressing. Living space on a boat is not limited to the inside of a boat. You can’t exactly walk around on the outside of a van. Also, a van cannot go places under its own power like a sailboat can. (Of course, she’s a sailor’s daughter and has no experience of power boats.)
    Anyhow, this is from a young woman who just left her job and is now becoming an entrepreneur and will begin her travel adventures in December.

    • Chris says:

      Ha ha! Too right Melissa, I think it *is* a generational thing. The author has a section about the cultural history of living in a van. In the 70’s it was all rage, but he talks about how in the last 20 years, with the relative boom in real estate and the economy, popular culture has viewed living in a van as ‘creepy’. He also argues that vandwelling is making a comeback with a declining economy and high unemployment, especially among those in their 20’s and 30’s. I think it’ll be interesting to see how/if the culture shifts in the future.

      • Hmm, well as a child of the ’70s what I remember was that if someone lived in a van, we considered them likely to be murderers or child molesters, or worse. But I do think that with the difficulty people in their 20’s and 30’s are having in terms of finding suitable long term employment that doesn’t rob them of their self respect or suck the soul out the top of their heads we are going to be seeing a lot more ‘creative’ ways of living and of making a living. I think I’ll take a look for that book!
        Here’s what we used to think about ‘living in a van’:

  4. Alan says:

    I’ve done both, I spent 18 months living out of my Honda Element while filming the documentary The New Homeless,it was an awesome adventure with countless thousands of miles driven, hiked and biked but it always cost money. I paid for the film as a migrant worker and its a time of my life I will always cherish. i ONLY SET SAIL A FEW WEEKS AGO BUT IT Hasn’t COST A PENNY WHICH IS Good CAUSE i WAS PENNILESS WHEN i LEFT. sINCE THEN i HAVE MADE MANY good friends, sailed all over and even earned a grand. The car thing way easy, sailing can be stressful but rarely is. Cars are hard to park without being hassled, I can drop the hook anywhere, Given my choice I would go by boat but in a car I can drive 2k miles sound and be warm in 2 days, then again I can sail the same distance for free in 20, whats my hurry 🙂 typing in the dark with crappy internet from my boat drinking a glass of 2 buck chuck, jazz on my AA Stereo moored next to a bunch of bored old people on their million dollar yachts. Any journey is what you make of it beit boat van or hoofin it 🙂

  5. mike says:

    Well I’m in England. A very populated little island. I am entering the latter third of my life span, and it scares me. So time doth fly. Lived in regular houses ,caravans, vans and now finally I’ve settled on a 36 foot aft cabin cruiser. All the pros and cons have been discussed and are true. But regarding where to have you’re boat so as not to be paying big bucks( yeah we say that over here, well my dad did.) I found more by luck than judgement a huge( for England) river estuary that stretches miles in to quiet country side. Perfect. Not a soul. No men with badges. Row to shore hide a bike in the undergrowth and go to the shop. Love it. Bye.

  6. dale says:

    Thanks Chris. I just bought the Kindle version. The statement about coming home with more food than you left with is the ‘hook’ that got to me. 🙂 It will be an interesting read. I’m here in South Sound for the time being and hope to start my extended cruising this next summer. At this point in time, I am a ‘docker’ as opposed to being a ‘hooker’. I can’t think of any real cons to living on a boat; especially here in the Salish Sea. Facilities are never more than a day away from anywhere you might be anchored. The privacy is probably the most ‘pro’ I can think of, even here at the dock. As to maintenance, there are those that are constantly doing some sort of maintenance on their boats. Either there is many repairs needed or, I think this is the same mentality as the guy next door that washes and waxes his car at least once a week or is forever tuning it for that perfect, smooth sound. To each his or her own. I find that now that I have done the major refit, there is very little maintenance needed. Washing the boat about once a month is a necessity for the crud in the air that settles on the deck and lines. Once I’m away from the dock for good, that opinion of little or no maintenance may need to be adjusted, but based on past experience, probably not too much. At any rate, thanks for the info on the local cuisine. My sailing experience is from the Gulf of Mexico and somewhat more benign than here. The tide range has taken a bit getting used to as has the hard bottoms. All doable. 🙂

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