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How to Live on a Sailboat: A Live-Aboard's Story

I lived aboard my sailboat for several years and spent some of those years sailing in the Caribbean and along the coast Central America.

One of the Pitons of St. Lucia, where I sailed in my small boat.

One of the Pitons of St. Lucia, where I sailed in my small boat.

Living Aboard a Sailboat

A few years back I made the decision to cut my ties to land and live aboard a sailboat. Living aboard means different things to different kinds of boaters.

If you don't plan on leaving US waters but do plan on making a boat your home, it will probably involve living in a marina, hooked up to shore power and cable TV, and having all the conveniences of the modern world nearby.

My experience is more relevant to someone who wants to go cruising in the Caribbean or other waters.

For the first few months, as I prepared for my trip to the Bahamas, I lived in a marina in Texas. There, connected to shore power, I had a small refrigerator and was used to running a small air conditioner and using as much fresh water as I cared to. Leaving appliances such as the television on was something that I didn't pay much attention to as I was tied up to shore power.

I decided to try to live without refrigeration when I left for the islands. While the thought is unimaginable to many people, it is the way that sailors have lived for most of history. With this long history comes many ingenious ways to preserve food aboard a boat until you reach the next port.

To live without refrigeration simply involves rethinking the way you cook. Outside of the U.S. there are many products that do not have to be refrigerated such as UHT long-life whole milk, canned butter, and all kinds of canned meats. Vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and fruit can be kept in swinging hammocks to prevent mold. Root vegetables such as cabbage, as well as onions and garlic, can stay fresh for weeks swinging in a galley food hammock.

Most sailboats without refrigeration have a well insulated ice chest in the galley. You can buy block ice in most ports. A large block of ice in the ice chest will enable you to keep meat, seafood and drinks cold for several days. I added extra insulation to the built-in ice chest on my sailboat to help it stay cold longer. This helped it stay cold for about seven days with twenty five pounds of ice inside.

Why Live Without Refrigeration?

The main reason I chose to live without refrigeration was that it was very expensive to purchase enough solar panels to run the refrigerator and all the other electronics aboard my boat. I had three 50-watt solar panels as well as an Air Marine wind generator, which was spinning most of the time in the trade winds of the Caribbean. Even still, I had to run my boat's auxiliary diesel engine for more power at times, even without refrigeration. Energy hogs such as TV and fans can eat up a lot of power from your battery bank.

If you can afford it, though, a refrigeration system such as the ones Adler Barber makes is a very nice thing to have onboard. If you have a large enough budget, you may also want to install a water maker so that you can shower with fresh water every day. In my case, I collected rainwater off the sails into a 40 gallon tank. I bathed with clean sea water (Dawn brand soap makes suds like regular shampoo in salt water), and then I rinsed off with a bit of fresh water from a solar shower hanging from the mast.

When you begin to move aboard your boat, whether you are leaving for a long voyage or just going to live in a marina, you will most likely have to get rid of a lot of stuff. Don't carry more than you need and leave behind bulky items. A spartan collection of books and personal items is all you will have room for. Most of your storage will be taken up by food, boat parts, tools, and sails.

If you are headed out on an island cruise, don't skimp on charts, cruising guides, spare parts and sails, good communication equipment (including a VHF and SSB radio), a radar system, radar reflectors, emergency flares, a 406 EPIRB, and, of course, a life raft and emergency "ditch bag."

As for boat spares or spare parts, bring a duplicate of all breakable parts, such as auxiliary engine belts, pins, a spare impeller for your saltwater cooling pump, a spare tiller handle, prop, spare jib and mainsail, extra anchors, line and chain, and of course human necessities like medication, spare glasses, and first aid kits and books.

One of the biggest challenges of living aboard a boat in the islands will be adjusting from shore power use to a 12-volt system without running short of power.

To understand how to design a power system utilizing solar cells, a wind generator, and marine refrigerator, try books such as The Twelve Volt Bible, which is an excellent source of knowledge.

Communication While Living On A Sailboat

Keeping in touch while you are cruising can be an expensive and challenging endeavor. Even with all of the advances in technology, the cost of using a satellite phone is still very high. Internet and email on the high seas are for those with deep pockets. Some cruisers use prepaid GSM phone cards that they buy in the places they visit, for phone calls and internet access.

Many cruisers who can't afford satellite phones are now using two way satellite messengers such as the Delorme InReach. There are plans for these devices costing as low as $19 per month, and in addition to being able to send text messages from just about anywhere on earth, the SOS feature is a good backup for your EPIRB.

Other cruisers rely on internet cafes and wireless internet from shore. We did both, using an omindirectional WiFi antenna on deck and a Senao (Engenius) wireless USB adapter to pick up open wireless networks, or ones we paid for from onshore. In one anchorage we had unlimited high speed broadband internet for the $5.00 a day that we paid to a local resort for their access code. In another anchorage we found over ten open wireless networks that we could connect to for no charge.

For email in spots where there was no free or paid WiFi access, we used a Yaesu ham radio and a SCS Pactor modem along with a software program called Airmail. A Pactor modem is a slow speed modem that allows you to send email messages through volunteer ham radio stations on HF or shortwave frequencies. You will need a General Class amateur radio license, which is well worth getting for this purpose alone.

Another alternative is that you can pay about $250 a year to use a commercial SSB radio service that also utilizes the SCS Pactor modem but on marine frequencies. The system is called Sailmail and you will need a valid ship's radio license, a marine SSB radio, Pactor modem and a laptop. With Sailmail you can usually get a signal about 90 percent of the time, though sending email this way requires a bit of patience.

© 2008 Nolen Hart