We’ve received many inquiries from our blog about choosing the right liveaboard boat. Folks have many questions ranging from style of boat, length of boat and horsepower to interior layout and aesthetics. I decided to post our experience with choosing Blue Turtle and what we initially looked for versus what we might have done differently today. First though, I want to point out that we are liveaboard cruisers, which mean we liveaboard our boat in a marina, but we also cruise places rather frequently (at least once a month). This post is about liveaboard boats that are fit for cruising. If you want to liveaboard but never plan to leave the dock, you can really choose any type of boat that suits your space and aesthetic needs. Houseboats would be the way to go as they offer the most space, but they are more fit for lake cruising than coastal cruising.
Trawler/Motor Yacht vs. Sailboat?
Since Randy and I aren’t sailors, we obviously looked for a trawler style boat. Both style boats have their pros and cons. Obviously, sailboats are more economical when it comes to cruising, but they do lack the space that powerboats have (unless you’re looking at a catamaran). I’ll focus on the trawler/motor yachts category since that is what we have. When we started looking for a liveaboard boat in 2012, my parents were living aboard their 37′ Carver at the time and shopping for a trawler in which to do the Great Loop (see their blog about their trip at islandtimecruiser.com). We learned from them that trawler style boats are made for longer passages (larger fuel and water tanks), living aboard and offer good living and storage space. Motor Yachts are similar to trawlers but typically they have 2 engines and a planing hull, so they aren’t as fuel efficient or economical. They do typically have more living space than trawlers and are like floating condos but it will cost more to cruise with one. Deciding whether go go with a trawler or a motor yacht will depend on what you want to do—if you want more creature comforts and living space and only plan to cruise a few times a year, a motor yacht may be the way to go. But if you want to cruise longer distances like the Keys or Bahamas, a trawler might be more economical.
Our current liveaboard setup
We live on a 1974 DeFever Passagemaker trawler. She has a single 185hp Perkins engine that cruises at 6.5 to 7 knots. We estimate our fuel consumption to be 1.5 – 2.5 gallons per hour at 1300 rpms (it’s hard to tell when your fuel gauge doesn’t work). We do have a bow thruster and hydraulic stern thrusters which is a nice addition, but not necessary. Blue Turtle came equipped with them so that was a plus, but really you can cruise and dock a single engine without them—it’s all about what you become accustomed to. We have an Onan 7.5 kw generator and we carry 500 gallons of fuel and 200 gallons of water.
2012 — Purchasing Blue Turtle
Back in 2012, when Randy and I first started looking for boats to live on, we went to boat shows and looked at as many different types of boats possible so that we could get an idea of what we liked and didn’t like. We knew we were looking for something around a 40′ boat to accommodate 3 people living aboard and we knew we didn’t want to go any bigger because of the cost to dock the boat in a marina. Typically you pay by the foot at marinas and we figured out that anything over 40′ put us a little too high on slip rental for our comfort zone. You definitely want to think about slip costs when deciding on boat length. We mostly looked at trawlers, but there were a few “cruiser” style boats and as well as motor yachts. We knew we wanted a generator since we wanted to be able to cruise Florida and the Keys all year. Air conditioning is a must for us in the summer and it’s nice to be able to power luxury things like our TV and DVD player for movies. Other than a generator and a 40′ trawler-style boat, our search was mostly based on cost—what we could get with our limited budget. We were also looking for something we could pay cash for and own outright. We did look into boat loans and found it difficult to attain them for the terms we wanted, plus it’s nice to not to have to think about a payment in addition to the slippage fees. This turned out to be one of the best decisions we made.
Randy found Blue Turtle (then known as “Down Time”) in Longboat Key near Sarasota and went to look at it on his own one day. He liked it enough to take me back to look at it again. We both loved the style and layout of the cabins and decks. It was important to us to have a lot of deck space and easy access to the swim platform since we have a boy and we are all very active on the water (fishing, snorkeling, scuba diving, etc.). The boat was a little older than we wanted (1974) and it required some modifications to make it more comfortable for living aboard. The engine and generator were in good shape for the age and had been regularly serviced. With a sturdy hull design and sound engines, we decided it would work for us.
Our thoughts about our choice today
Fast forward 4 years later, and Blue Turtle is looking spectacular. We’ve made many repairs, cosmetic enhancements, and modifications to her to make her work for us. Taking a look at the endless boat projects we’ve worked on, you can tell she’s morphed into one great liveaboard boat. We do have some things we would change in retrospect, but we are still very happy with this boat. She has served us well in the 4 years aboard and she’s taken us to many great places. Randy and I like to say that she was the perfect starter boat for us because she is simple—simple layout of the interior and simple in the fact that it’s a single engine (less repairs and maintenance than having 2). Randy says since this is an old boat, it was a great one in which to learn about maintaining the diesel engine and fixing things when they broke. He would have been a lot more nervous learning on a newer engine/boat.
If we had the opportunity to change anything about our boat, I think it would be to purchase a boat with no exterior wood. We have learned that maintaining the wood on the outside of the boat (rails, doors, etc) is incredibly hard. Not that we don’t know how to do it, just that it takes a lot of time and the Florida sun and salt wreaks havoc on it.
Other considerations for choosing the right liveaboard boat
Here are a few suggestions we have for choosing a cruising liveaboard boat:
- Try to find a boat that someone is actively cruising on vs. a weekend get away boat that sits at a dock most of the time. If someone is actively cruising with the vessel, you can be sure most of the main systems are running and have been properly maintained. Also, it will probably be better set up for living aboard full time rather than a boat that is just used on weekends.
- Look for a boat that doesn’t have furniture built in. If you plan to liveaboard full time, you will find that a lot of the built-in bench/table seating isn’t very comfortable after a while. It’s much better to have the option to bring in furniture (sofa, chairs, etc) that is more comfortable. Blue Turtle had a built-in L shaped bench with fixed table. We lived with it for a year, but realized it was very uncomfortable after a couple of hours and we couldn’t recline and relax when watching movies. We ended up ripping it out and replacing it with a recliner sofa.
- Think of how you plan to use the boat and what you’ll need to do that. Do you need to have a generator to run the air conditioning if cruising in the heat of summer? Do you need an inverter to run anything while away from shore? Will you need a dinghy and if so, how will you tow or carry it?
- Ask about the various power sources on the boat and what things are powered by 120-volt AC and 12-volt DC. How is the refrigerator and stove powered? If both are electric, you may want to have an inverter system so you can run them while away from shore. Blue Turtle originally had a Novacool refrigerator that ran on 12-volt, but we replaced it with electric. Luckily, we have an inverter system and can run it while we are away from land.
- If you are planning to liveboard in Florida, make sure to run the air conditioning to ensure that it cools the cabins efficiently and effectively.
- Check the condition of the canvas and ising glass (if it has it). Florida sun destroys it relatively quickly. We replaced all of the canvas and ising glass on Blue Turtle when we first got her and now regret getting the ising glass. Ising glass requires regular polishing to keep it clear and it’s one of the first things damaged in summer storms. Our ising glass has literally be ripped away from the canvas piece by piece this year from storms. We’ve found that it just isn’t worth the cost and hassle here in Florida. In fact, we get a much better breeze without it.
- Consider learning how to perform basic repairs and maintenance on the engines and generator. Learning to fix and maintain most the systems on your boat is not only a huge money saver, but also comes in handy when away from shore and things break (and they always do!).
We hope this helps others in finding the right liveaboard boat. The best place to start is to first decide how you plan to use it and what space and creature comforts you require. Climb around as many boats as possible to see what you like and don’t like. Ask a lot of questions about engines, fuel and water capacity, power and electrical systems, etc. It will be difficult to find the perfect boat that has everything you want so you’ll need to decided what are musts and work from there. If you have any other suggestions for choosing a liveaboard boat, feel free to leave it in the comments below.