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Making Your Boat a Home

Whether in Sweden or the US, cruising sailors the world over are easy to spot.
Having traveled as a family on bicycles, boats, in an assortment of vehicles, and even on foot, I can honestly say that sailboats make the best homes. Even renting a ready-made home abroad requires a certain amount of packing and unpacking, organization and familiarizing as you find yourself trying to accommodate to someone else's domicile. Boats, however, manage to incorporate all the necessary attributes of a family home while still being able to travel extensively.

Rowing back from shore one evening, I was struck by the intense personality that emanated from our boat. In addition to all the usual liveaboard paraphernalia, we had a plastic wagon residing on the foredeck, a variety of objects dangling from lines off the stern (a favorite game with our children), dish towels fluttering from the lifelines, a reading book and cushion abandoned on the cabin top, bananas lashed to the boom, and what looked like an entire playhouse constructed under the bimini. No one, I thought, would ever mistake us for weekend cruisers or charterers. Instead, our sailboat was a true reflection of us as a family. She had become, through no deliberate action on our part, a true family home.

Wind generators, solar panels, radar, and wind vanes, all conspire to make each cruising vessel unique.
Liveaboard sailboats are easy to spot. They're the ones in the anchorage with wind generators and solar panels strategically placed around the boat, laundry fastened in the rigging, jerry cans lashed to the lifelines, and as assortment of accouterments from sailboards to bicycles strewn about the decks.  Families are even easier to spot as their children dash about the anchorage exhibiting a paradoxical air of self-reliance and maturity, coupled with sheer deviltry. Just like a house, each liveaboard boat possesses a unique flavor, one that reflects the person, couple, or family that lives on it. While charter boats are characterized by a certain uniformity, and weekend and vacation cruisers exhibit a neatness that suggests temporary residency, liveaboard sailboats have personality.

When first attempting to turn a sailboat into a home, the primary goal should be to assess realistically your needs and determine your priorities. Ask yourself why you have chosen to move the family aboard a boat. If, like most families, your goal is to not only travel, (after all, there are plenty of other easier ways to travel), but also to implement a change in lifestyle, then keep this firmly in mind as you outfit your boat/home. Too often, people seek the sailing lifestyle to break away from the materialistic, stressful, fast-paced lifestyle that prevails on shore, only to find themselves bringing it all with them. Twenty years ago, when we first moved aboard a boat with our young children, practically the only other families out there doing this were on small, frequently home-built, reduced-needs boats. Electronic gadgetry was at a minimum, self-sufficiency was high, and sailing families were committed to a sort of pioneering afloat policy. This didn't mean that our lives were grueling compared to life on shore—simply different.

A pair of bicycles and a barbecue grill are useful and help mark the boat as a cruiser of leisure.
With its higher degree of self-sufficiency and independence, the sailing lifestyle encourages pleasure in smaller, simpler things. As cruising has become increasingly popular, boats have become larger, more expensive, and equipped with more and more of the so-called "comforts of home." Ten years after our initial introduction to living aboard, we were sorry to see that so many families seemed to bring their shore lifestyle with them. Dinghies with engines replaced rowboats, with families dashing about like suburbanites in their cars. Expensive extras like pressurized hot and cold water, refrigeration, freezers, showers, and washing machines were suddenly regarded as a necessity rather than a luxury, and children were all too often still afforded the same TV, video, and computer addiction as on shore.

Don't be afraid to leave these things behind. A solar shower can be just as refreshing as a pressurized one—all you need to do is heat the water. Refrigeration and freezers can easily be lived without, a hand water pump works as well as a pressurized one, and laundromats abound in anchorages around the world. Most importantly, leave the television and the VCR, the video and the computer games behind. Without these entertainment devices, sailing children become creative, imaginative, energetic individuals, capable of entertaining themselves in even the most remote anchorages or on the longest ocean passages.

After you have determined your reasons for moving aboard a sailboat and assessed your needs, you are ready to create a home.Try to keep possessions to a minimum on your initial move. This way you will have room to add things as you see the need, rather than having to give them away to remove the clutter.With young children, I initially focused on bringing enough toys and activities to keep them happy on rainy days or long passages, although I quickly discovered that they preferred playing with boat equipment when at all possible. The galley was a particularly popular spot with all its cooking equipment, as were the foredeck (all those lines, sail bags, and anchoring equipment) and the dinghy. With older children, we learned that books were of primary importance and far more important than any of the expensive things that teenagers seem to require these days.

A few books and other personal items will give the boat an acceptable level of comfort and personality—although the author does recommend that you leave the TV and VCR at home.
Incorporate whatever changes or additions you feel are necessary to give the boat an acceptable level of comfort, attractiveness, and personality. For some families this can mean potted plants scattered about, pictures on the walls, real bedding (forget the sleeping bags—that's for weekend cruisers), a variety of pets, built-in bookshelves, and a comfortable cockpit arrangement. One of the first things I did was to make cockpit cushions, as well as covers for the salon cushions. Neither cost much money, but gave those two principal living areas a personalized feeling. The children's cabin was instantly transformed as we added netting to the double berth, filled one wall with books, hung pictures, and stowed toys. The galley was soon equipped with all the usual, non-electric amenities, although on a smaller scale. One of the things I've always loved about producing meals on board a boat is how little clean-up there is afterward. There just isn't enough room for all those dishes, mixing bowls, casseroles, and cutlery that habitually find their way into a house.

Probably the most noticeable transformation on board your boat will be above decks where most of your time will be spent. Not only does your sailboat become your house, but also, to a certain extent, your yard as well. Children, I find, love to collect things, many of which seem to have an intrinsic value to them which largely escapes the adult world. Sticks, buoys, shells, rocks, and other assorted souvenirs all find their way aboard, all to be seemingly permanently lodged topsides. Surreptitious efforts to eliminate them tend to meet with anything from mild resistance to mass hysteria. It's possessions like these that make your boat look and feel like a home. Instead of sandboxes and swings, your children will have a continually evolving collection of items gleaned from their travels, things that make them feel like the boat is their home too.

Kevin Jeffrey is offline  
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