Living on a boat: I’ll be the first to tell you that breaking the mold and living differently isn’t always easy. People’s eyes always light up when I tell them I live on a sailboat like it’s all grapes and cheese and gentle sunsets in incredibly warm weather. But it’s not.
Living on a sailboat is more like bundling up against an Arctic wind and feeling seasick and really needing to use the bathroom, but knowing if you go below decks, you’ll probably barf.
It’s peeing in a Home Depot bucket when you don’t have a toilet yet.
Or, cooking over a Jetboil camping stove in a kitchen that has no running water and a hole where a real stove should go.
And waking up at 6:30am every morning and creeping off the boat so nobody sees you in a world where you’re not allowed to live aboard.
Hi, my name is Kristin, and welcome to my crazy boat life.
Living on a boat: Why I ditched the traditional house
I first started living on a sailboat two years ago when I lost my job as a radio news reporter in the San Francisco Bay area. It was a shocking loss of a job (and salary) I really loved, and I immediately knew what had to be done.
So, I gave 30-days notice and moved out of my room in Sausalito that cost $1,400 per month. Because there was no way in hell I was going into debt just for a place to live.
My boyfriend Tom had just bought a sailboat that he was restoring for world travel, which is why we didn’t have a toilet, a stove, running water, heating, etc. It was basically like glorified camping, in a very, very rustic cabin. We didn’t have liveaboard status, so would stay on the sailboat a few nights per week, then housesit a bit, travel a bit, then back to the sailboat, where we’d keep our voices down at night and sneak off bright and early in the morning.
It was hard not having a place to slowly wake up and sip my coffee, to constantly bounce from coffee shop to library to coffee shop until we returned to the sailboat in the late afternoon so Tom could work on his projects.
Don’t get me wrong – even though it was hard, I also loved living on a boat.
The interior is beautiful teak, and I truly love the closeness we feel with nature, the way the wind pushes the boat and the rain taps the cabin house.
After two years, we do have amenities, and I love cooking over our gas stove while smelling the sea breeze from the open companionway. Now that the boat is almost finished, we can take it out to anchor and change our backyard, while still having our little cabin of a home.
And, I can’t imagine living in any other way.
The sailboat wasn’t my first tiny home – I lived in a car
If we back up to about a year-and-a-half before the sailboat, Tom and I were living in a Toyota Prius and in a tent in the hills just north of San Francisco. We both still had our full-time jobs at the time, and we decided to make an incredibly drastic decision to pay off debt and save up money.
Moving out of the cozy apartment that cost me almost $1,800 per month was very difficult. I gave most of my stuff away and rented a storage unit where I kept my clothes, my shoes, a couple pots and pans, and a bed. This was my first foray into the minimalist lifestyle, and at first, it wasn’t easy.
I felt homeless and disorganized, rummaging around in the trunk of my car for an outfit or a pair of shoes for the day. I felt dependent on Tom – it was his car and his tent, and I’d only known him for six months. What if we fought? What if this didn’t work out? The what-ifs were sometimes scary.
In 2015, it seemed like van life wasn’t a thing yet, so I didn’t tell many people I lived in a car. It felt almost shameful that I was doing this drastic thing to get my finances in order. The people I did tell looked at me funny, and said things like: “I have a guest room.”
But I didn’t want a guest room. I wanted to do something crazy, to live with Tom in the trees and park the car at rest stops and marinas. On weekends, we had zero responsibilities, so we headed to Yosemite and Lassen and national forests for backpacking and camping. There was no cooking or cleaning, just paying off debt, saving money, and having adventures.
I learned a lot about myself during that time living in a car and a tent. I learned I didn’t need the stuff to feel good about myself. That I could live in an incredibly minimalistic situation and still have fun. That I could do almost anything to pay off debt. That we live in a consumerist world that I no longer want to partake in. That while getting rid of stuff can be hard, it’s worth it in the end. That Tom and I can get along in an itty, bitty space.
One scary part about living on a boat (or, living differently in general)
When we first started breaking the mold and living in the car and the tent, we had one scary experience that has made me totally rethink camping. I’ve always camped from an early age, and have always thought of it as incredibly safe.
One night, Tom and I were the only ones camping on Mt. Tamalpais when a diesel truck and a few other cars pulled up just after 10pm. The group of people was noisy and rough; a group that had come up to party.
We both had to work the next day, so Tom told them to quiet down. They didn’t listen, instead, hurling swear words our way. We called 9-1-1 when we began to feel unsafe, asking if a park ranger could come up and give them to boot.
A police officer did show, but simply walked up to their campsite and gave them a talking to. We heard booze being poured out of bottles onto the hard ground. Not a good sign. Then, the police officer left. LEFT! Can you believe it? We looked at each other in horror when we heard his boots crunching past on the trail near our tent.
Needless to say, the group was pissed. We heard them outside our tent, saying scary things like, “Let’s pull them out of that tent!” and “Let’s kick their ass!”
We were on full alert as a few guys paced up and down the trail talking shit to us, hearing the girls say, “Come on guys, no.” One guy even went down to his pickup truck yelling “Yolo!” It was so scary.
We crept out of our sleeping bags and grabbed our shoes, poised to run out of the tent when a car drove by, hoping the angry men wouldn’t hear our tent zipper. They were up at their site, deciding what they wanted to do to us. A car drove by. Tom unzipped the tent and we ran. Down the hill in our pajamas, down a side trail. We called the cops again, who asked us to stay on the line while they sent more officers.
This time, three cop cars showed up. We watched, hidden in the bushes, as they went up to that campsite and officially kicked the group out. After they drove away, we approached the cops, who told us those men are known troublemakers.
By that point it was 2am, and we were exhausted. We climbed back into our sleeping bags, but couldn’t sleep. Never again would we feel entirely safe in a tent. In those early morning hours, we packed up our gear, drove to another campground, and sleep in the car, feeling safer behind metal and glass that we did behind mesh.
We’ve never camped at that campground again.
I am so glad things didn’t turn out worse, but I learned that when living in a tent or a car, things can go bad quickly. We are living on the edge, experiencing things people wouldn’t experience if living in a regular house.
How I live on a boat almost rent-free in the San Francisco Bay area
Now, I think I have the minimalist living thing down pat. I just bought a Chevy Astro van, which will supplement our time on the sailboat. Now, we’ll be able to go camping and sleep in a vehicle bigger than a Prius. I’ll be able to drive to the beach and write or work while sitting in the back with the hatch wide open. The van gives me yet another level of freedom, my land yacht, my mountain traveler, my forest friend.
It’s so cool and interesting to have both the land and sea covered, awaiting exploration. I am beyond thrilled to just be in nature. We only have this one life, and it’s essential to enjoy it.
Besides the sailboat and the van, I am now housesitting a large part of the time. Sometimes, I watch dogs and actually get paid to stay in $3 million homes. Cleaning people come in once per week. Landscapers take care of the dog crap in the yard. Sometimes I laugh that I get paid to live like royalty. But then I start to get antsy, wanting to head out and explore, to experience outbound living.
To be honest, sometimes, the thought of having a real house slips into my mind. What would it be like to have a refrigerator, a yard, a garden, a couch where I could lie and read? It sounds nice….for like 5 seconds. Then I think about cleaning it, buying stuff for it, paying for it, being tied to it, and then I balk. I love the freedom and adventure I feel in my everyday life, and I am not ready to trade it for anything.
The world is my oyster, and I’m ready to explore it with 100% of my being.
Kristin Hanes is a journalist and writer who lives on a sailboat in San Francisco. Her blog, The Wayward Home, explores van life, RVing, tiny homes and sailboat living. She hopes to inspire others to live tiny and lead a life of adventure.