How To Pick the Best Sailboat To Live On (Full Guide)

I see you are ready to sell everything you own, buy a boat, bid your old life farewell, and spend the rest of the new one on the sea. Great choice. Romantic. Adventurous. Nothing gives you the freedom sailboats do, does it? So let's have a look at how to pick the right one. Preparation is the key to success, that is, after all, why you are here.

So how do you pick the best sailboat to live on?

  1. Determine your budget
  2. If possible, try to save at least $30,000
  3. Know where you will sail to choose the right model
  4. Understand your comfort needs and choose the boat accordingly
  5. Be honest with yourself about what amenities are important to you
  6. Make sure you chose the right size

Because this is a complex topic, let's analyze this a bit.

Living on a sailboat can be sublime. The freedom to go pretty much wherever you set your mind to. The oceanic sunsets and sunrises. The neverending cradling. The feeling that you are always home, even though you are always traveling. The fact that you take your home with you wherever you go. Your micro-universe with its own rules. Your design.

Now to have all of the above, you need to pick the right boat. It's like with cars. There is a reason why the roads aren't filled with just one model. Different people have different needs. Somebody needs a comfortable, spacious, family car that can seat seven people, somebody wants a small, but a fast sports car that has style, somebody wants your average saloon car that is easy to operate, park and maintain.

There are a plethora of choices that can seem daunting at first. But know that though this is a complex topic, it isn't a complicated one. Meaning there are a lot of moving parts to it, but once you know what questions to ask, you will get where you want to get successfully.

In this article:

  1. How This Article Works
  2. Questions To Ask Yourself When Choosing A Boat
  3. Size Matters
  4. The Perfect Sailboat To Live On
  5. Conclusion

How This Article Works

This article is here to have you ask the right questions. If you do and answer them all, you will have thought about the most important categories to consider when choosing a liveaboard sailboat. I will try not to put specific boat models in your head, as I don't want to constraint you. But I want to give you a deep enough understanding of the topic so that you can arrive at the perfect answer yourself.

Questions To Ask Yourself When Choosing A Boat

  • What's my budget?
  • What's my intention?
  • What's my comfort level?
  • What things would I like to have?

What's My Budget?

I know this is not the most exciting of categories, but it is important to consider. Regardless of your passion for the sea, this should be the first thing you ask yourself. Why? Well, of course, it is easy for me to recommend to you the Amel 60, a fabulous sailboat large enough for a whole family, built like a tank, to withstand a proper storm, easy to operate with just one person on board yet still compact enough to fit into most harbors. And that recommendation could be the end of this article, which would make for a great read for those who can face the over $2,000,000 price mark. And a disappointment for those who can not.

The good news is that whatever your current budget, if you want to live on a sailboat, you can most likely afford it. Either now or within a few months of saving. In my article The Cheapest, Smallest Boat to Sail Around the World, I talk about Hurley 22 which can be yours for about $3,000. And that's not a rare find of questionable quality, that is a boat in a good condition, ready to go.

Minimal Ideal Budget

To give you a more concrete idea how to navigate the vast sea of choices (no pun intended) so that you can successfully reach the harbor of your choice (really, not intended) and drop the anchor at the right place, (ok, I'll stop now) let's answer the question 'what is the lowest ideal budget when buying a sailboat'.

Because yes, there are boats for all prices, starting at the aforementioned couple of thousands of dollars spanning all the way to hundreds of millions. Both of these extreme categories come with their sacrifices. A very cheap boat will either be in good condition but quite small or not very well equipped. Or it will be the right size but old and worn down, making you spend money down the line on repairs. On the other side of the spectrum, you'll have the quality and comfort you like, but for a price that could force you to postpone your boat life while you save up.

So at which point does a budget start to be considered a good amount of money to have when setting out to look for a boat? Around $30,000. Starting from around that budget, you won't have to make many considerable compromises in terms of quality, size, or the state of the boat.

Now that doesn't mean you can't get a great sailboat for less. In the age of the almighty internet, some rare finds are truly extraordinary. But imagine it as shopping for a car with two thousand dollars versus twenty.

$30,000 will easily get you a boat around 30 - 50 feet long, 15 - 30 years old, in a good, sailable state, without much money having to be put in repairs or refurbishment. So in case that is not a possible amount to spend for you now, yet one you could save up in a reasonable timeframe, it pays off to wait until you have it. And if you aren't ready for that liveaboard life now but know that ten or fifteen years down the road you will be, start setting aside money with this amount as a good entry budget in mind.

On a side note, It's not all just about the upfront cost. Another thing to consider is the expenses that living on a boat needs. I am talking about potential marina fees, repairs, winterization, fuel, maintenance, all that jazz. Before beginning your onboard life, it is good to know about these and make a calculated decision so that your travels aren't cut short. I won't spend more time on this topic since it is just a part of the whole liveaboard matter, but do consult our article Average Cost of Buying & Owning a Sailboat, which goes in much more detail about these boat purchase costs as well as costs that wait on the other side once the boat is yours.

What's My Intention?

This is a big one. If you are planning on buying a liveaboard, know what you intend to do with it. Not all boats are created equal.

Do you plan on staying relatively close to the coast, never very far from a marina? Do you want to sail on lakes, maybe explore some rivers around, never venturing out of sweetwater? Do you plan on staying in a harbor most of the time, taking the boat for a spin occasionally, not far from your home port? Do you want the freedom of a bluewater boat that can go anywhere?

Your choice of a sailboat will be mirrored in this. If you are a lake person, you might want to get yourself a shallow draft boat since you will probably run into many situations where too deep of a keel would limit you from entering. That either means something with a bilge keel or perhaps a wing keel, such as the Moody s31, a boat that is affordable, decently sized and nicely furnished, to provide that home sweet home coziness you want from a liveaboard. Or, if the Moody's age puts you off and your budget allows it, you can go for something like the brand new GT35. Both are shallow draft friendly.

If you want to be in a harbor most of the time, you don't have to care about the boat's performance, or its bluewater ability much. You would be spending money that could instead be spent on more comfortable equipment or layout. Why invest in stability for instance, when harbors tend to be in areas protected from the waves. Why care too much about whether all the ratios are correct, whether the sail setup is good enough for extreme conditions, and so on. You won't be making long passages and the times that you take the boat out, you can just wait for good weather, instead of having to face storms. An example of such boats would arguably be smaller Bavarias, Jeanneaus or Beneteaus and similar - sailboats that are capable of ocean crossings, but they are primarily designed for coastal cruising, putting emphasis on comfort and convenience, sacrificing rigidity, weight, tank size and so on.

If you want the freedom of a circumnavigator, you will need a seaworthy boat that will be able to face whatever the oceans send your way. For such scenario, a full-keel boat could come in hand. It will provide enough stability for crossing the oceans and add comfort to your ride when things get bumpy. You will also want to make sure your energy and water management makes sense when it comes to either storing or generating it. Without the ability to be connected to a grid, having solar panels will be something you will want to consider. Also, your boat will have to be in a solid condition, as opposed to those being docked most of the time at a place where help is easy to find in case something breaks.

What's My Comfort Level?

Sure, nobody wants to live on a racing boat that was constructed to be as light as possible without as much as a bench to sit on inside. But even among cruisers, there are various levels of equippedness, ranging from boats that focus on performance and stability, which, at times, can mean sacrificing comfort, to boats that are made to please your senses, even though they might not be the most practical to sail long-distances with.

Now although you might consider yourself an adventurer who needs little more than a rock under your head and a blanket of starry night over you, spending a few days on an uncomfortable boat versus actually making one your home are two very different things. So knowing this is your private moment and nobody sees inside your head, be honest to yourself about what you need. Especially men out there tend to act tough before and regret later.

This is highly personal, varies from person to person, so I won't put ideas in your head, but when looking for a boat, ask yourself:

  • Does it feel spacious enough that I won't feel like I'm living in a coffin?
  • Can I stand up straight in the salon?

If the space feels cramped, but that's all I can afford size-wise, does the deck make up for it?

  • Am I okay with a manual pump toilet or do I want an electric one?
  • Is the kitchen well equipped enough for me to store and make the food I want to
  • Is the lack of a warm water shower not a problem, and if I want a hot shower, I'll just use my solar camp shower?
  • Is there enough storage space for all the things I want to have with me? Is the boat well equipped with enough handles, cup holders, hooks for hanging things, places to sit comfortably?

Simply, has it been designed with the user comfort in mind and if not, am I okay with that?

Last but not least, is the ease of use sufficient, meaning can I reach all I need to reach from the helm or do I have to run marathons around the deck to operate the boat well?

If your answer to any of these questions is negative, don't worry, it's not a dealbreaker. A lot of things can be fixed with aftermarket solutions. But know about them and know that a potential fix will be within your budget.

Generally speaking, coastal cruisers that are primarily aimed at weekend sailors or the charter market are very good at comfort. I am talking about the aforementioned Bavarias, Jeanneaus, or Beneteaus. Then there is Hanse, Elan, Dufour… brands that you will often encounter when chartering a boat. These manufacturers know their target audience well and though they do make boats capable of interesting speeds and impressive crossings, their primary goal is to provide comfort. This means you will always have a handle to hold onto, making the heeled passages more convenient. It means there will be plenty of cushions and storage for all the little things you need. It means that things will be within reach. It means that the sailboat will likely be quite easy to operate since it is designed for people without much sailing experience. All in all, it means the lady or gentleman who designed the boat looked at their sketches thinking 'will this be a pleasant place to be at?' And that kind of mindset is what you need when it comes to living on a sailboat.

What Do I Consider Good Things To Have?

Going further, here are categories to consider when looking for a sailboat to live on. This partially relates to the previous chapter about comfort, partially to practicality. I'm not saying you need all of the things listed below, but know that these are important categories and very 'nice to haves'. They are important elements that many sailors would go for when choosing a liveaboard. So in case you decide not to have them, know about it and be consciously okay with it.

Headroom

Not all sailboats will allow a grown-up to stand up in them. Though it is not a definite requirement, you will probably want to make sure you can move around the salon freely without the need to bow your head all the time.

Well equipped kitchen

Though you can cut your onions on the dining table just as well, and though you can boil your rice in a portable gas cooker, having a dedicated kitchen space with all the usual amenities is a big plus. That means a stove, sink, some counter space, and ideally a fridge. You want to keep the homeyness alive, which isn't gonna happen if you'll feel like you are on a camping trip. The less improvised certain things are, the better.

Proper Toilet

The above point relates to a toilet too. Though it is possible to do your business overboard or to use those nasty little smelly portable toilets, you don't want that to be the case. Thus a proper room with a proper toilet with proper storage or disposal mechanics will be highly appreciated by the future you.

Shower

We've touched upon this before. The portable solar showers or any other improvised way of going about this are a possibility and bathing in the sea has its charm too. But a shower is a shower. Even if it is just a shower head in your toilet room, as is quite often the case.

Interior Lights

The ability to flip a switch and have light indoors is a big one. Portable LED lamps work just as well, but they will add to the feeling of being on a camping trip. And that just doesn't sit well with the feeling of home sweet home.

Power Outlets

Though 12-volt outlets paired with converters work, you don't want to limit your options to that. A classical 120V wiring system with enough power outlets will make you happy when you have to charge your computer, phone, tablet, portable AC, and the smoothie maker you just couldn't resist buying.

Couch

That simple, yes. The small, one-room sailboats where the seating space is also your bed, lose their charm very quickly for most people. You want a sleeping place to be a sleeping place and a seat to be a seat. Again, we aren't talking about a 'must-have', but about something that will make you feel like home.

Air Management

Cooking on a boat gets the place steamy. Not mentioning the food smell, which is delicious, but you don't want it to linger for longer than necessary. Since there will be water all around, you want to make sure that your boat is mold-free, ventilated, so that the clothes you are drying indoors don't make the place all humid. This is something quite a few boats underestimate. Many weekend cruisers, otherwise well equipped, forget this, since a couple of days in a humid interior isn't a big deal, especially if you spend most of your days on deck. But a liveaboard is something different.

Comfortable Sleeping Space

A well-rested soul is a happy soul. Again, a few days on a holiday cruiser without comfortable sleep isn't a big deal, but a liveaboard should have a bedroom that is as ideal as possible. That means a large enough cabin with enough ventilation and the possibility to cover the windows with something light proof. One that is ideally close to the helm so that you don't have to run too far if an alarm wakes you up in the night.

Storage Space

Luckily, this is something most sailboats get right. But be sure that yours has all the storage you need. Yes, living on a sailboat will probably mean minimizing your lifestyle a notch, but the few unnecessary things you like to have should have a space of their own.

Size Matters

It matters, it really does. Ideally, you would want to have a sailboat as small as possible, because size costs money and can present handling and maneuvering difficulties.

The trouble is that this 'as small as possible' isn't as small as you might think. A small size presents several issues. Ranging from the obvious lack of space for you and your stuff to less obvious but very important comfort when on larger waves, to even less obvious but equally as crucial lack of speed that goes hand in hand with shorter hulls.

Sailboats have a maximum hull speed. In short, it means longer boats are faster. Learn more about how fast sailboats goes in our article What is the Average Speed of a Sailboat?

Space Constraints

Let's not spend too much time on this one as it is quite self-explanatory. Ask yourself what is the least space you need to feel good on a boat. Not the least space you need, since for that, a 20 foot Flicka suffices, but the least space you need so that you don't feel cramped and so that you can call the place your home. The same goes for storage space. Go as small as you can to still be able to fit all you want on your boat without having the annoying feeling you had to leave behind half of what you consider dear in the world.

Comfort On The Seas

A disadvantage of a small boat is that it is light and so the waves are felt way more than on a big boat. Even in smaller waves, you will feel the difference significantly - a 20 vs a 40 footer is a different world in even just 4 ft waves. A larger hull will point better in large waves, will be easier to operate, and a bit more forgiving.

All in all, living on a twenty footer is more than possible, it just comes with some comfort compromises, as well as the need for better sailing skills.

Speed

And then there is hull speed. I don't want to get too deep into the physics of it, partially because it wasn't my favorite subject in school, but long story short, the smaller your boat, the slower you can go. And though if you live on the sea, you probably aren't in a rush to get anywhere, you still want to have a reasonable ability to outrun bad weather as well as the ability to cross long passages in the minimal time possible. Because a longer passage requires more food and water, it means more time when something can break and is difficult to fix, which means more spares… and weighing your small boat down with hundreds of kilos of food, water, and parts, is the last thing you want to do.

The Perfect Sailboat To Live On

Now I know that in the beginning, I said I won't give you specific models so that I don't rob you of the sea of options. But to put all of the above characteristics and ideas into a specific, tangible form, let me show you some concrete examples.

Great Budget Boat To Live On

We started this with a budget, so let's begin with that here too. We established that a great budget to have is around $30,000, but in case that isn't an option, let's see what would be a good choice if the funds are scarce.

And as already mentioned, Hurley 22 wins this category hands down. It is a perfectly seaworthy boat with which you can sail around the globe. It has character, despite its size. It has a separate sleeping space, two couches, a table, kitchen, possible toilet, inboard engine... Hell of a boat for that money.

Great Ideal Budget Sailboat To Live On

Back to the $30,000 budget. If you decide to spend this on a boat, a Catalina 38 would be among the ideal choices. It is large enough even for a couple that doesn't like to feel cramped and needs separate space from time to time. Kitchen, heads, all that jazz is of course included. Catalinas are generally well equipped.

Great Coastal Sailboat To Live On

Going further, we talked about those of you who want to stay in marinas most of the time, taking your boat for a spin sometimes. For this lifestyle, a great choice would, for instance, be the 40 foot Jeanneau Sun Legende. Jeanneaus are constructed to spoil and pamper you. Especially the newer types. Hardcore sailors might frown when you'd wanna take them across oceans, but with their plenty of space, light, and aim at comfort, you won't go wrong.

Great Circumnavigator To Live On

Then we mentioned those of you who need adventure and will spend much time on long crossings. For you, Hallberg Rassy 42F would be a fantastic choice. Swedes don't mess around, this one's built like a bull, to withstand pretty much anything. Its efficiency in terms of space usage is incredible, as is its attention to design. Comfort wasn't forgotten either. Plus it's fast enough to get you across the watery deserts quickly.

Great Big Sailboat To Live On

After talking about some practical equipment elements, of which most of the boats above have plenty, we said that having size helps. So without venturing too far up in terms of budget, C&C 43s or some Peterson 44s are great choices, since they are affordable models with decently long hulls. Of course, if you up the money, you can go bigger, but these two brands are among the choices where, for relatively little money, you start to get quite a lot of space.

Great Practical Sailboat To Live On

And last but not least, know that boats can and oftentimes will be a project. So the practical elements, like air ventilation, shower, heads, 120V electrical system, and so on, can sometimes be added if your boat of choice doesn't have them. Sure, it means some tinkering, and some models won't allow certain modifications. But it is good to approach choosing your future liveaboard with this in mind. Keep a few thousands aside for custom tweaks and keep the fact that tweaking can happen in mind and you will find that your possibilities just grew quite a bit larger.

Conclusion

So there we go. Choosing a liveaboard is a big thing, not unlike buying an apartment or a car. So take your time, make sure you understand what you are getting yourself into, read this article in depth, a couple of times even and before you'll know it, you will be waking up on a boat every morning.

Good luck!

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