The Realities of Living & Working on a Boat

Ready to anchor; realities of living and working on a boat
After 21 hours from Morro Bay, we were ready to anchor in the Channel Islands

Two weeks into our maiden voyage in 2019 from Morro Bay, California, to Mexico, I had dragged out our mattress topper for the second time. After washing it again, I hung it on our boat’s boom to dry.

We had sailed about 60 nautical miles after leaving San Diego to stop in Ensenada, Mexico. We needed to check into the country and hit the local tiendas (we followed the Mexican guidelines of not bringing in food items like fresh meat, nuts, and produce).

Unfortunately, the local taquerias on the streets of Ensenada didn’t agree with my husband’s stomach, hence the cleaning.

Creature Comforts: Reality 101

I remember being so grateful for our 250-gallon water tank on our Amel Super Maramu, which was still very full at that point in our journey. We also had our onboard washing machine, which helped lighten my laundry load.

But a full mattress topper can’t be stuffed into our small washing machine, which resembles a vertical collapsable laundry basket. Armed with my large plastic bucket and latex kitchen gloves to wring excess water from the pad, I watched the creature comforts of land life slide from view.

Transitioning to a Life at Sea

Prior to this trip, we had worked diligently from 2017 to 2019. Our goal was to sail away from the mooring ball in Morro Bay, which had been our boat home for two years.

At the community college where I work, I had loadbanked 3 years’ worth of overtime units (basically, I did not get paid for extra classes I taught so that I could take an entire semester off of work.)

Kevin had retired after 30 years. And in addition to practicing our sailing skills along the Central Coast of California every weekend, we upgraded both the interior and exterior of our Amel Super Maramu. This included installing an aluminum solar arch on the stern of the boat to accommodate new solar panels. 

Installing the stainless steel arch for our solar panels; living and working on a boat
We enlisted some help to mount the solar arch and install solar panels.

We watched countless Youtube channels about tying knots, navigating severe storms at sea, and planning weather routes. I practiced my skills and gained sailing experience in the Winter’s rough seas outside of Morro Bay harbor. I also attended sailing seminars in both Northern and Southern California and offered to crew on other sailors’ boats. 

Kevin upgraded dated systems, like our B&G autopilot, and organized the hundreds of parts the previous owners left behind. He kept track of maintenance costs, made new friends in the sailing community, and basically created a full time liveaboard lifestyle for us on our type of boat, a true blue-water sailboat.

First Year and Future Plans

Our long-term plan was to give up our rental to cut down on our living expenses. We would cruise half time on our boat and travel half time in an RV. I planned work around my teaching schedule in a way that would allow us to sail–even if we could not live on the boat full-time.

We embraced the idea of living with a minimalist approach.

Our excitement about this lifestyle choice afforded a post-retirement view of our foreseeable future together on a sailing boat visiting exotic locations and accessing parts of the world we thought we might never see if we only traveled by road.

Despite all of the challenges we have faced after now 4 years of cruising, the good news is we are still beyond excited about our future sailing plans.

Los Gatos in the Sea of Cortez; the realities of living and working on a boat.
Stretching our legs in an anchorage called Los Gatos in the Sea of Cortez

5 Significant Insights: the Realities of Living and Working on a Boat

However, the realities of living and working on a boat, especially now that I am a full-time digital nomad, mean that we have to keep our expectations in check and stay flexible.

Here are the most significant insights we have discovered so far:

1) What you gain when you give up modern life with its creature comforts is an onboard landscape of constant hiccups that demand immediate problem solving. 

For instance, two times, Kevin and I have almost lost engine power as we motor sailed across an isthmus with a depth of 25 feet adjacent to Isla Corondados in the Sea of Cortez. We had plenty of room under our keel, but the temperature gauge read too hot, about 220 Fahrenheit, which required us to turn off the engine immediately.

Constant Problem-Solving in an Unpredictable Environment

I always tell Kevin how fortunate I am to have someone like him because he can fix almost anything aboard the boat. The two times our engine overheated, he dropped into the engine room while I monitored boating traffic and kept the mainsail happy. 

Another time on a three day passage to Puerto Penasco where we hauled out our boat during the off season, our autopilot stopped working. Again, Kevin was able to troubleshoot and fix the problem, but what was supposed to take only 8 more hours of sailing turned into 11 hours. This may not sound like a big deal, but arriving in Puerto Penasco–with its 18-foot tidal shifts–requires almost exact timing for an arrival.

starlink on the solar arch

The Impact of Remote Work and Connectivity

2) Additionally, digital nomads like me can now cruise for longer periods of time and spend quality time at sea or at anchor. We are no longer dependent on a marina internet connection. 

Starlink has proven to be a game changer for those of us wanting to continue working while cruising.

However, sometimes Starlink, or your mobile hotspot, or your sim card fail, and this means beating into wind and/or waves to reach a destination with high-speed internet access. Completing a productive work day may mean a lot of time is spent finding adequate Wifi.

Adapting to Limited Space for Work and Living

Not to mention, the small space aboard a pleasure boat requires crew or a partner to keep tabs on the working environment.

I can’t tell you how many times I have had to move myself to another location onboard or get my husband’s attention when the noise level prevented me from having a quiet Zoom meeting. Or when bad weather interferes with my ability to read my computer screen for too long in the rolly conditions, I find myself forcing crew to be quiet so I can work from the cockpit rather than the small living space down below. 

Cruising party for a cruising kid

The Reality of Diversity in the Boating Community

With easier access in recent years to remote work, more families and young couples have become liveaboard boaters and renounced “normal” life. This means there is more diversity on the water now. Gone are the days of older retired couples occupying the marinas and the anchorages. 

Most people in the boating community applaud this change, but unfortunately, marinas have increased liveaboard slip fees, haul out fees, and boat storage fees.

Not to mention, mooring fields are often few and far between. The increases in Mexico marinas, for instance, have forced cruisers to book up to a year in advance for a boat slip. And now we’re hearing that rich yacht owners simply purchase a slip for an entire year; this means securing a slip in a marina to do boat maintenance becomes more challenging for the average cruiser.

Energy and Water Conservation

3) Besides not having adequate space to work, the biggest adjustment is constantly monitoring and conserving energy and water aboard the boat.

I would not consider myself a high-maintenance woman at all. But after sweating in the sun or jumping in and out of the ocean all day (after work has been completed, of course), all I want to do is take a shower.

Weird quirk, I know, but when I get into bed, I want my feet to feel clean and moisturized (same thing for my face). However, fresh water showers cannot be taken every night, unless the water maker is constantly going. And most people do not use the water maker unless they are motorsailing or running the generator. This means if we are stuck at anchor for more than a few days, we really watch our water consumption.

Utilizing less water is even more important if more than two people are on board. And here’s an important PSA from someone like me going through menopause: jumping into the ocean isn’t a bath.

Your already dry skin and hair will not feel refreshed from the salt water. These cruisers who tout the thrill of simply jumping into the ocean for their shower more than likely sleep in a crusty cocoon. 

trusty dinghy awaits our departure

Transportation and Logistics

4) Of course, the dinghy becomes the main means of transportation when you wish to get away from the boat or need to run errands.

We have visited countless anchorages (or even Marinas, like Dana Point Marina) where we spent at least an hour trying to find a safe and secure place to park the dinghy. The best thing to do is consult other sailors or the boating community in advance of arrival. Of course, consulting your navigation apps like Navionics can provide much-needed local knowledge.

Parking the dinghy in the most approximate location to where you need to shop or haul jerry cans to get gas or diesel always requires patience and a great pair of waterproof walking shoes.

But we are still shocked by how much walking we have to do because there are no taxis and, of course, few to no Uber drivers.

Also, depending on the location, renting a car is sometimes impossible. There are either not enough vehicles available to rent, even in bigger cities such as LA Cruz near Puerto Vallarta, or rental places don’t exist.

Unexpected Medical Emergencies

5) Then there are the realities of finding medical care when someone gets injured or becomes ill.

I never considered this as an issue in our first sailing season because I knew we would be relatively close to land. However, while we were in La Paz, Mexico, I found myself at 11:00 p.m. the night before all 7 of our kids had to fly home looking up the nearest hospital to our Airbnb.

We had just cruised with our kids for several days aboard our sailboat. Let’s just say that the stress took a toll on my body. To hear the details of that medical adventure, please see my article about remote living and medical emergencies.

I had consulted a cruisers’ guidebook about the local area hospitals (there were 3 choices in La Paz). Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, I chose a training hospital. A team of four male under-25-year-old doctors hovered above my hips, like a pack of bent-over middle schoolers trying to light a campfire.

After three failed catheter insertions when my belly distended like a 6-month pregnant woman, I finally begged them to find an OB-trained nurse who could properly insert a catheter.

After 8 hours in the hospital, with an X-ray, 4 catheters, enema, and IV fluids, the bill was exactly $90 U.S. dollars. Let me reassure you that this was the only highlight of my hospital stay.

The Realities Include the Reward of Feeling Alive

For the most part, when dolphins clearly divert from their path to race toward our boat and hang out with us on the bow, the hardships of boat life glance off our memory like the water lapping at the hull.

At the end of the day, perhaps the joyous moments ripen because of the hardships. Feeling and being alive surround us and our boat, which means we give up a comfortable life in favor of the next adventure.

dolphins on the bow

About The Author

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *