House or boat?

What do you miss about living in a house?
What’s it like living on a boat?
What’s the most surprising thing about living on a boat?
In the past couple of months I’ve been asked these and similar questions by newfound friends, by acquaintances, by people who’ve contacted me via this blog, and even by someone who interviewed me for a magazine article.

To my ears, these questions are all of a similar theme, and there are two distinct lines I follow when attempting to answer them. The easier approach is to think about the material realities of living on a boat; the more difficult is to think about the affect our lifestyle has on emotional and relational aspects of life. The two, of course, are bound together, but it’s easier to tease them apart and explore them separately. Today I want to write about the material realities of living on a boat and save the more difficult question of the emotional side of things for another day.

Although it’s only a little over three years since we first moved aboard Carina, and despite currently working on a memoir about our life aboard, I genuinely find it difficult to remember what I imagined life aboard would be like as we prepared for the transition. I remember thinking a lot about sailing – inclement weather, running repairs, capsizing, pirates; and I thought a lot about idyllic anchorages, warm turquoise seas, spectacular sunsets. I thought far less about mundane day-to-day life on a 36 foot boat with three other people. The reality is, however, that we sail very little relative to the amount of time we spend in situ, engaged in mundane day-to-day life. The few times I had sailed prior to buying Carina I had enjoyed the caravan-type living arrangements but I hadn’t given much consideration to living like that for months and years on end.

Lily, in princess garb, and Julian preparing lunch.

Lily, in princess garb, and Julian preparing lunch.

But reflecting on our life aboard now and having been living in a very comfortable house for the past five months I can honestly say there are very few things I miss about living in a house. The one thing I really do miss is a bath! I like nothing more than a long hot soak in a bath on a cold winter’s night, a strong cup of tea resting on the edge of the bath and a good novel in my hand (careful not to let it fall in!). So I’m enjoying the occasional soak now that I’m back in a house, knowing that once we’re back aboard Carina next week it could well be a long time before I have a bath again!

So here’s perhaps the most surprising thing about life on a boat. I don’t miss any of the things I might be expected to miss – all those mod cons that are supposed to make life easier. I don’t miss a fridge or a washing machine or a shower. I don’t miss unlimited water and energy at the touch of a button or turn of a switch. I certainly don’t miss owning a car or a television, a vacuum cleaner or an iron. And there are things I have never owned, so can’t possibly miss – microwave, dishwasher, freezer.

Julian in our tiny (and not very lofty) galley

Julian washing dishes in our tiny (and not very lofty) galley

We have a fridge aboard which we use when we are on a pontoon, plugged into mains electricity. The rest of the time, when we’re at anchor or mooring, we live fridge free, because it requires more power to run than our 80 watt solar panel can provide. When we had a car and a continuously working fridge, we would shop for fresh food once a week, stocking our fridge to bursting with a week’s worth of dairy and vegetables. I’ve recently realised how much not having a fridge has become normal for Julian and me by the way we both react to the similarly packed-to-bursting fridges and freezers of my parents-in-law. ‘Surely you didn’t need that much stuff’, we gasp in disbelief, used as we are now to buying fresh food little and often and forgetting that, until recently, we used to shop in the same way.

Life without a washing machine or tumble drier is no big deal. When we have access to a launderette we do one bag of laundry a week. When there is no launderette nearby, I hand-wash small amounts of washing two or three times a week. Aboard the boat we take a different approach to our clothing. We have a lot less of it for starters. We own fewer items of clothing and we don’t own anything that’s delicate or requires special treatment. And every item of clothing is put through a sight and smell test before it goes in the laundry bag. Just because a shirt or pair of trousers has been worn doesn’t mean it’s dirty. If it’s not stained or doesn’t smell then it gets worn again the next day. Just like we used to do years ago, prior to the advent of ultra-convenient washing machines and tumble driers.

We adjusted quickly to our limited supplies of water, energy and cooking fuel aboard. We have adapted everything from the way we wash our bodies and brush our teeth, to the way we cook pasta and rice, in order to maximise our water supply. Over the past couple of years energy has become less of an issue as Julian has replaced all the old bulbs with low-energy LED bulbs, our anchor light is now powered by its own mini-solar panel, and our laptop recharger is now far more energy efficient than the one we had before. Still, energy isn’t on tap and we have grown accustomed to acting in ways that are energy efficient – making the most of daylight hours to achieve tasks that require strong light, religiously switching off cabin lights, and making decisions about whether certain uses of energy are necessary.

We’ve gotten used to this way of life relatively easily, in part because when we decided to buy a boat one of our main motivations was to live a simpler, less consumption-led life. We were both driven by a certain environmental and social consciousness and so it feels good to live that simple frugal life that we wanted.

Alice in Wonderland has nothing on Julian emerging from our bedroom!

Alice in Wonderland has nothing on Julian emerging from our bedroom!

With mod-cons out of the way, the other glaringly obvious aspect of living on a boat is size. Let’s face it, Carina is not big. She’s 36 foot from bow to stern and 11 foot wide at her broadest. Headroom is slightly less than Julian’s six feet two inches. The girls are growing with alarming speed and before long I’m going to be the shortest person aboard. And, with the exception of those few boxes of stuff stored with Julian’s parents, everything we own is aboard the boat.

Sometimes the lack of space isn’t a problem; other times it drives me mad. When the boat is tidy, when the sun is shining, when everyone’s in a good mood, space is no issue. When the boat is messy, when all four of us are trying to do things in the saloon at the same time – one of us cooking, one repairing, kids dressing up and playing noisily (or worse – fighting) – it can get a bit wild and uncomfortable. But, for the past five months we’ve been living in a house that would engulf Carina’s living spaces ten times over and it’s just as annoying when the place is messy, the kids are running wild, two or three of us are trying to do things at the same time. So I think space is as much in the mind as in the physical space around us.

Who needs space to relax? Julian, under kids, with naked dolly; bra, shoes, pepper mill and who knows what else on the table in front. We are a messy bunch.

Who needs space to relax? Julian, under kids, with naked dolly; bra, shoes, pepper mill, mobile phone, play mobile people and who knows what else on the table in front. We are a messy bunch.

On a practical note, the lack of space aboard is most obvious when we sit down to family meals, which we do three times a day. The table takes up the entire saloon when fully extended; and the four of us can barely fit around the wobbly unstable table in the cockpit. To get around these tables requires advanced contortionist skills and if the make-shift worktop in the saloon is in place (which it usually is) then you can expect to be stabbed in the back by its sharp outer corner as you try to squeeze between it and the edge of the saloon table. Thankfully both saloon and cockpit tables are collapsible so they’re not a burden most of the time.

Because of the lack of space, stored items aren’t always easy or convenient to reach. Over the years we’ve learned by trial and error and have moved food and other items around, depending on how regularly things are used. But if I run out of peppercorns half way through making dinner, gaining access to the spare tub is rarely easy, or if the weather suddenly changes and I need to get my cold weather gear, I have to strip my bed in the aft cabin, remove the mattress and burrow like a badger to reach those rarely worn clothes.

The longer we live aboard Carina the more used we grow to her idiosyncratic living space and the more tricks we develop to make life easier. But living aboard has never been a trial. I have never once regretted the decision to move from a substantial house with a huge garden in the countryside to a tiny self-contained boat. What our lives lack in mod-cons and living space is more than made up for in an abundance of time together as a family, opportunities to travel where and when we want, and opportunities to learn and grow each and every day.

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