Living Aboard

Living Aboard

by Janet Groene, Gordon Groene, Janet Groene

So you want to live aboard a boat? Come on in, the water's fine! It isn't the purpose of this book to tell you whether you need a ketch or yawl, how to anchor, or how to take a sun sight with a sextant. A sailboat was our home for ten years, but your dream might be to move aboard a houseboat, trawler, speedboat, megayacht, or even a trailerable houseboat that also…  See more details below


So you want to live aboard a boat? Come on in, the water's fine! It isn't the purpose of this book to tell you whether you need a ketch or yawl, how to anchor, or how to take a sun sight with a sextant. A sailboat was our home for ten years, but your dream might be to move aboard a houseboat, trawler, speedboat, megayacht, or even a trailerable houseboat that also doubles as an RV.

We chose to head for Florida, the Keys, and the Bahamas. You, however, might prefer to cruise a mountain lake, the canals and rivers of Europe, the islands of the Caribbean, the California Delta, or the Tennessee Valley, or sail all the way around the world.

Our choice was to cruise constantly, in passages no more than three or four days at sea, staying in anchorages or marinas no more than a month. Still, we are all different. You may want to sail around the world nonstop, or to live on board at one marina for years, going to jobs on shore each day. Some liveaboards never leave their berth for months and even years.

Some liveaboards are retirees. Others are young parents, who want to take their children on a world cruise lasting several years. Still others are single, having a last fling before settling down to shore jobs. You may have enough money to live on; others have to work along the way. When we went cruising, we left behind Gordon's dream job as a professional pilot and thought of his Airline Transport Rating only as something to fall back on if we had to refill the savings account. We had enough savings to last a few years if we were careful. Then, as we began selling our books and magazine articles, we began to realize we could continue to cruise forever, without going back to what we now call "real life." With modern electronics, liveaboards of any age can live anywhere in the world and make a living through the Internet.

We started out when Janet was 31 and Gordon was 38. You may be far younger, wanting to live the carefree, liveaboard life before starting a family. Or, you may be an empty-nester, a family with school-age children, or youthful grandparents who love having the grandkids join you for a week here and there. We are a husband-wife team. You could be college chums, a loner, a family of two or three generations, or just partners who complement each others' strengths.

Living aboard, as this book will point out, is not one way of life but a different modus vivendi for every person that chooses to make a hull a home. What we all have in common are a love for boats and the water, too little space, too much mildew, and never enough time and money to take advantage of all the wonderful things available to us in every port.

Here's Our Story

Gordon's career path as a professional pilot took us from Ohio, our home state, to down state Illinois. I'd been writing for money since junior high, and was able to find writing jobs in most places Gordon's job took us, but my own career plans hadn't jelled further. Because Gordon's hours were so irregular, I decided to try freelance writing as a way of being at home when he was. Working around his hours, I was able to write when he was gone and enjoy days off when he was at home. I treated freelancing as a business, and was soon selling regularly.

When we decided to sell everything we owned and go to sea, we had a modest savings account but no hope that freelancing could support us. Still, I wrote whenever time allowed, not focusing on boating topics. Gordon polished his skills as a photographer, and soon we were selling illustrated cruising and how-to articles to national boating magazines. We cruised the tropics in winter, put the boat in storage during hurricane season, and bought a used car to take north to visit our families. When we returned to the boat, we sold the car and went cruising again.

In time, we bought a small, diesel RV that would be our summer home while the boat was in storage. Our writing horizons now expanded to general travel and RV travel features. At first, our bank account stopped shrinking and, when it began to grow, we started toying with the idea of staying away permanently. We bought land in central Florida and, after ten years of living full-time on the go, we settled there. In the final chapter, we'll cover The Road Back, for those who want to, or have to, move back ashore.

Our assignments now take us all over the world on boats of all sizes, from canoes to "love boat" cruise liners. Our credits include thousands of magazine and newspaper articles and more than a dozen books. We owe it all to making the big break with convention, and taking up life on a boat.

Plus Ça Change...

A lot of water has gone over the hull since the first edition of this book appeared in the 1980s. The most dramatic changes have been in electronics. When a stranded sailor was rescued in a remote ocean after making a Mayday call on a cell phone from inside a capsized hull, we realized how awesome the revolution has been. The electronic revolution extends to everything from entertainment electronics to schooling, communications, and navigation. You may choose to do without them and continue living the carefree, simple life, but most of today's liveaboards wouldn't be out there at all if it weren't for the comforts and security provided by the new techno-cyber e-miracles.

Other major changes have occurred too. It was once risky to take off with little money, counting on finding jobs along the way. Today thousands of temporary jobs exist almost everywhere -- far more than employers can fill. Any American citizen with willingness to work, clean appearance, and basic skills, can find work to keep cruising the United States forever. Don't expect great pay, the money will be enough to get by and not much more.

Of course, things get more complicated when you are outside your home country and must have a visa or work permit. Thanks to the Internet, however, an e-business can be conducted anywhere in the world. Where once home schooling was unknown except to missionaries, diplomats, and families that traveled with the circus, it is now commonplace. Today's parents have a wide range of affordable ways to educate their children while cruising worldwide. Living aboard has never been better.

For everyone who wants to live aboard a boat of any size or type, here's how.

While still in their thirties, Gordon and Janet Groene "stopped the world and got off." They'd traveled to Fort Lauderdale to find a boat. Before selling everything, including the power tools, Gordon made new water tanks and a number of accessories for the boat while Janet sewed sheets, slipcovers and duffel bags. With all their remaining possessions loaded into their VW van, they headed south. After stowing everything on board, they sailed for the Bahamas and never looked back.

Janet, who had been writing for newspapers since her junior high school days, began submitting her work to magazines while Gordon took up photography. Janet's first book, Cooking on the Go, was followed by The Galley Book, How to Live Aboard a Boat and more than a dozen others.

After 10 liveaboard years, when assignments began taking them all over the world, they sold their boat and built a home base in Florida. They continue to cruise worldwide under power, paddle and sail.

Among their honors is the NMMA Directors' Award for boating journalism, two Captain Fred E. Lawton Boating Safety Awards and a Fireboy Safety Afloat Award of Excellence. Janet holds the Distinguished Achievement in RV Journalism Award. Both are members of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and Boating Writers International. Janet is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and Outdoor Writers Association of America.

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Editorial Reviews

Jerry Renninger
In the course of 20 chapters the Groenes touch on everything from what the prudent liveaboard looks for in terms of storage to proper illumination for the saloon.

Knowledge of boats is one thing; knowing how to live aboard is another. If you are considering the latter, buy this book.
—(Southern Boating, December 2000)

Product Details

Bristol Fashion Publications
Publication date:
Edition description:
Comb Bound
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 8.54(h) x 0.64(d)

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 1:

We rocketed back into the welcome shelter of Port Everglades on a rising tide and a friendly, following wind. It had been an exhilarating, exhausting day of sunburn, rope burn, and bridge burning as we faced our first day aboard our 29-foot sloop Sans Souci.

Everything we owned had come south with us in our minivan. The boat, purchased a few months earlier, had been in storage while we went back to Illinois to shed the job, our home, and most of the possessions we had amassed in 13 years of marriage. After buying the boat, we worked feverishly to build and sew things for the boat, then we sold most of Gordon's shop tools as well as all the furniture, lawn mower, antiques we had restored, collectibles that had once been important to us, the ice skates, gifts we had given each other. Everything. Then I cried my eyes out, pulled up my socks, and faced the new life head on.

We had never sailed in our lives except for a one-hour sailboard rental during a business trip to Grand Bahama. Yet Gordon's experience as a pilot had trained him for most of the sailing, pilotage, map reading, navigation, and mechanical savvy that the boat presented. As a child, he had lived on a small lake, where he learned to row, stow, anchor, and "mess about in small boats" after building a pram out of junk left behind at a building site. He was an instinctive seaman, amazing me with his knowledge of how to dock, anchor, tie knots, fine-tune the sails, find the merest speck in a big ocean, and come up with a Plan B when Plan A failed. The one thing he had neglected was learning to swim.

For the first three nights in Fort Lauderdale, we slept in a hotel and worked on the boat by day. We no longer had jobs or income, and had to move aboard the boat as soon as possible. Soon we were living amidst the mess for the two weeks it took to commission the boat. Today had been our first sail and, when I realized that I didn't know how to bring the boat about if Gordon fell overboard, I went to pieces. So, we made a deal. That night, Gordon jumped into the hotel pool and stayed there until he could tread water and, the next day, I learned Man Overboard maneuvers under power and sail.

All at once, we were ready for a shakedown cruise down the Florida Keys. There had been many, thudding culture shocks in our transition from comfortable suburbanites to routeless, rootless liveaboards. One occurred when we couldn't cash a cashier's check in a Fort Lauderdale discount store. In another store where we bought galley equipment, our travelers checks were refused too. Back in Illinois, we had been known and respected. Here, we were nobodies.

Many communities don't like liveaboards, perceiving them as freeloaders who don't pay taxes. Good anchorages everywhere are being closed to overnighters in an effort to keep liveaboards from settling in. With no place else to go now, we motored into a seedy marina and paid a dockage fee that, computed on a monthly basis, was more than the mortgage payments had been on our 10-room house back in Illinois. We slept fitfully, wondering what new defeats we would suffer in our victory over the rat race.

The best way to describe the liveaboard life is probably to list what it is not. It is not a way to escape yourself, a bad marriage, taxes, or responsibility. It is not an island idyll, a free lunch, a free ride, or the way to write the Great American Novel. It won't cure your addiction to cigarettes, drugs, or alcohol. These days, with more people living aboard than ever before, it isn't even an escape from crime, pollution, or crowding. Our nearest marina neighbor was hardly 36 inches away. Living aboard is so commonplace today, it's almost mainstream, so don't expect awe, admiration, or even a mild gee whiz. The only envy ever voiced to us was that of men who wanted to live aboard but couldn't talk their wives into it. From the wives, we got only hostility or quizzing looks that clearly said, "You're out of your minds."

Lastly and most surprisingly, we found that living aboard does not provide freedom. We were free now from winter, jobs, and a house that didn't move, but our new masters were the tides, weather in all its moods, petty bureaucrats, and a constant need to provide everything for ourselves including water, sewage disposal, and electricity -- utilities that homeowners take for granted. Half the time, living aboard is hardly comfortable, let alone chic.

With that out of the way, let's get to the good stuff. Living on your boat can be a low-cost way to go anywhere in the world where waterways exist. It can be more exciting, rewarding, educational, and inspiring than any other way of life. It can be a warm, family-bonding way to raise responsible, smart kids. In the great, global brotherhood of liveaboards, you make lifelong friends. Living aboard is a way to travel without a suitcase, carrying everything you need to wear and work with, and much of what you will eat. You don't just visit a variety of cultures as vacationers do. You live among them for as long as you like.

Living aboard, you can test yourself to your physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological limits. It is a way to grow, to achieve, to take control of your life.

The first step comes well before buying the boat. It is to make the commitment, an honest agreement with yourself and your partners that this is something you all want to do. A boat can be a shrewd investment, but not if you buy on impulse and sell in a panic after a family showdown. Any raw edges in your relationship(s) will unravel quickly in the close quarters of boat living. Hammer it all out on shore where you'll still have room to throw crockery at each other.

After making the decision, your next steps will be to research the boat purchase, buy and equip the boat, take on the challenges of boat life step by step, and, lastly, make the transition out of boat life just as graciously, lovingly and economically as you did moving aboard.

In the privacy of your boudoir, you have decided to take up life afloat. Even so, it may not be best to make a public announcement just yet. It took us three years to get our ship together. If we had been yammering about it all that time, we would have bored our landlocked friends beyond all caring. Keeping mum was better socially, and better in the workplace. When we began selling out, we didn't appear to be as desperate as we really were. Besides, keeping quiet for a while gave us the option of backing out without looking like fools.

Recently, we had dinner with a couple who had spent years readying their boat for the Big Cruise. They had backups for their backups. They knew all the answers, even when surrounded by older, wiser, liveaboards and ex-liveaboards. Nobody could tell them anything. When their e-mail began coming back about one disaster after another, from domestic ports and not from the exotic locales they had said they would visit, they were a laughingstock.

Everyone who lives aboard has a different story of how it all began. For many, moving aboard comes at a pivotal time of life such as graduation, marriage, divorce, retirement, or getting the children through some milestone such as potty training, college, or marriage. Others must work out arrangements for the care of elderly parents or a disabled sibling. For a lucky few, living aboard becomes possible due to a windfall such as an inheritance, lottery win, or legal settlement. For others, one straw breaks the camel's back and they leave the job or the spouse and run away to sea.

Most of us, though, simply get the liveaboard bug and begin building towards our goal slowly and steadily, over months and even years. Gordon had spent years to reach his career goal in corporate aviation. Now he had a job he enjoyed, with a company and coworkers that were tops. Both of us liked living in a small city, where he could get to work on a road with only one traffic light, and I could do most of my shopping and errands by bicycle. Our neighbors were our best friends, and the corporate future seemed star-spangled.

Then we got word that a valued friend had died in his early 40s of a heart attack. Another friend died young with cancer. Taxes and inflation kept going up. Crime was creeping closer. Illinois summers were beastly hot and the winters were murder. We began to look more closely at what we really wanted and decided it was to be together all day, every day, to cruise, and to pay the piper tomorrow -- if tomorrow ever came.

"You wouldn't have any choice if you had children," many people have grumbled to us. Yet, living aboard, we met many people who lived aboard because of their children, not despite them. Some parents wanted to get their children out of schools that were physically dangerous and academically flawed. Others simply wanted to travel widely and share the adventures with their kids.

In any case, hammer it out ahead of time. We have seen too many marriages come unglued because one partner wanted to stop cruising, get a house with a picket fence, and raise conventional kids in a conventional way. Even with older couples, there is tension when Grandma wants to spend more time with the grandchildren and Grandpa has his heart set on a Transatlantic trip. If you really want to move aboard, the children can adapt even easier than you can, so do it. If you really don't want to move aboard, admit it and stop blaming those cute kids of yours.

Will you really be able to hack the liveaboard life? The answer may surprise even you. The sea has a way of cutting one down to size, especially when it becomes your home. Seasickness can be devastating. Although Gordon had blithely weathered a typhoon while crossing the Pacific on a troop ship, he can be miserable for the first few days at sea. And I, a lifelong camper and a practiced boat cook, spent one Thanksgiving in tears because the pumpkin pie I was baking in a seaway slopped out of the pan, despite the gimbals. The pie was ruined and the stove a mess.

We met one couple who had spent three years, working all day every weekend and each day after work, to build their boat. They lasted only a few months because they found out they (1) hated boats, (2) hated boating and (3) hated each other. Another couple labored for years to build their dream boat before the Missus' first sail. On the first day out in sheltered water on a calm day, she went absolutely bonkers with fear. We've known at least three people who actually moved aboard before discovering that they were terrified of boating. Even iron-gutted weekend sailors find that living aboard is another kettle of fish.

The way to sample the cruising life before committing to it is so obvious, we are amazed that we meet so few people who try before they buy. Chartering a boat sounds like a very expensive way to cruise, especially when you are scraping and saving to buy your own boat, but it's cheap compared to the financial and emotional Dunkirk of going through the entire move-aboard scene and then finding you despise the water, the boat, the lifestyle, or all of the above.

When you charter a bareboat, it's likely you will fill every bunk and split the costs. It's often more fun with a crowd, but it is not a true preview of what life will be like when you have everything you own aboard, must do all the boat chores yourself, must think about preserving the boat's capital value for as long as possible, and must operate on a lifelong budget rather than a vacation spending spree.

For a week, most of us can put up with almost anything. Then we go home and fling the laundry into the washer and dryer, take an hour-long soak in the Jacuzzi followed by a long shower, and worry about the restaurant, fuel, and souvenir bills when they come next month. That is why you need to spend at least two, and preferably three or four, weeks aboard the type of boat you want to live on with the person(s) you want to live with.

You'll pay at least $2,000 a week to rent a boat in the 36-40-foot range, but try to work a deal on a longer rental in the off season. If you are not yet a qualified boater, you may not be able to rent a sailboat or power boat, but you don't need prior boating experience to rent a houseboat. Even though your liveaboard vessel may be far different, a houseboat trip will let you sample the constant motion of a boat, fuel costs, small quarters, anchoring, dockage fees, and much more. A yearly guide to houseboat rentals is published by Houseboat magazine, which is found on larger newsstands and at Contact the publication to learn how to purchase the most recent rental guide. Rental power and sail boats are found in national and regional boating magazines.

By the end of two or three weeks aboard a bareboat with only your spouse or partner(s) on board, you will have encountered many things that the one-week charterer doesn't have to worry about: using coin laundries, changing the sheets, cleaning and routine maintenance, provisioning and re-provisioning, filling water and fuel tanks, pumping the holding tank, getting mail, staying in touch with your broker, getting around on shore without a car, nightly anchoring and docking challenges, a few weather scares, rainy days stuck in port with nothing to do, and perhaps some mechanical problems.

Best of all, you'll be living among boat owners as an equal. As a boat shopper, or as a bystander who hangs around the marina, you're an outsider. As a liveaboard, albeit a temporary one, you'll find that other boat owners open up to you about their gripes, their horror stories, the tough lessons they learned, their dreams for the next boat.

The more experience you have aboard boats of all types, the better. You'll have many decisions to make when buying the boat that will be your home: freestanding versus built-in furniture, diesel or gasoline, ketch or sloop, propane versus alcohol stove, conventional or marine refrigeration, what kind of mattress, and much more that we will cover later. During your boat rental, you'll live with one set of circumstances long enough to have definite opinions of what works for you and what features you want to avoid.

Renting a bareboat is a rehearsal that can save months of work, expense, misunderstandings with your cruising partners, grief, and failure.

Don't break your rice bowl is the Oriental way of saying don't burn your bridges. Take it slowly and with deliberation and due diligence, never losing sight of what is truly important, ashore and afloat, to yourself and your partner(s). Sure, there are people you'd like to give the bird as you flounce off into the sunset. Still, you never know when you might need a job reference from an old boss, a job lead from an old colleague, or a personal reference from a former neighbor.

A gradual, friendly, cooperative transition buys you goodwill for the future. It also allows you time to make the chance prudently and economically. It has always been a juggling act to sell one home and buy another without having to make double mortgage payments for a couple of months or sleep in a hotel if you have to vacate one home before the new one is available. It will be far more tricky to quit your job, sell the house and furniture, and move into a boat-- especially a boat that is hundreds of miles away -- and still have a place to sit when the music stops.

At what point should you take irrevocable steps such as quitting your job and selling your home? Perhaps never. If you can get a leave of absence, grab this lifeline. No matter how you hate this job and promise yourself never to return, your current life might look like heaven after your first all-standing jibe or your first night in a wet bed.

Selling the house is another matter, especially in these inflationary, uncertain times. If you sell out now, the same money may not buy you as much as a garden shed in ten years. But, if you rent the house, you could come back to find that the tenants and termites have teamed up to win the real estate demolition derby. If the house could bring in income, and if you plan to come back to your hometown someday, it could make sense to put it in the hands of a rental management company.

In our case, we had no family ties to Danville, and we were sure we could find a kinder climate to call home when and if we decided to settle down. Our decisions was to sell out. We'll never know if we could have made more money by keeping the house. We do know that we no longer had to worry about mortgage payments, pest control, vandalism, changing zoning, management fees, the cost of upkeep and repairs, insurance, taxes, and the ever-present risk of a law suit if someone slipped on the front steps. Besides, the equity in the house represented the bulk of our savings. We needed the money for cruising.

Most liveaboards who rent out their homes have excellent luck, and some have two or more rental properties that bring in a nice income. Still, we have heard many horror stories of liveaboards who had to fly home because tenants skipped town owing months of rent and utilities bills. In another case, the tenants left the house so badly damaged, major structural repairs were needed. All the fixtures, which had been stolen, had to be replaced. In yet another, a local zoning change threatened the character of the neighborhood. The liveaboard flew home for meeting after protest meeting, and ended up losing anyway.

Keeping the furniture is even more a problem than keeping the house. Furniture rarely appreciates as a house does. Storage space is costly both in monthly rental fees and in deterioration. One of our friends found that all of her heirloom linens had turned to powder while in a storage locker. To keep things from rusting, rotting, and mildewing you'll pay a premium price for a warehouse where temperature and humidity are controlled. "Free" storage can be even worse if Uncle Harry decides to turn his basement into a rec room or if the Petersons, who have your leather sofa in their attic, decide to move to Anchorage.

All the beloved bits and brick-a-brack that clutter our lives ashore are anchors that weigh upon the would-be liveaboard. Choosing the boat and selling the house are easy compared to selling the Mustang you've been restoring, or your Dresden collection, or the baby grand piano complete with marble bust of Mozart.

Leaving our home and possessions was a very difficult time for us, made tougher by the stock characters who are inevitably cast in life's dramas. You've seen families torn apart by arguments over who gets what when someone dies. Many of these same conflicts occur when you break up housekeeping. Vultures gather. We were lucky to have supportive family and friends, but some liveaboards carry scars for years from these fracases.

Besides family and friends, you'll deal with a variety of other wheelers and dealers: antique dealers, skinflint used-furniture dealers, long-lost relatives who want back every gift they ever gave you, auctioneers, the greedy, the seedy, and the best and worst of John Q. Public. Steel yourself for a lot of shoving from all directions, and keep your balance.

The best is yet to come.

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What People are saying about this

Rachel Apter
Living Aboard is a wonderful guide for all who ponder turning a boat into their home, for those who have already made up their minds and are preparing to pack up and do it, and for those who are living aboard.
—Rachel Apter & Dion Kolliopoulos

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