A couple of days ago two guys were outside on the dock admiring Wandering Dolphin. I am sure they didn’t know anyone was aboard so I listened to them for a few minutes before I made myself known to them. They were both dreaming about offshore. I invited them aboard and they told me about their families and their dreams. One of their concerns was the idea of space for a whole family on board a boat. I love to see the look on peoples faces when I tell them that we have five kids and that this is our only home.
As you can imagine because we have lived on a relatively small boat with five kids for so many years we get a lot of questions about living space.
Most people who dream of moving the whole family, kids and all, onboard a sailboat full time seriously overestimate the amount of space they need. We did the same thing. Ten years ago when we were in the “searching for the boat” stage we assumed that we would need a boat with a minimum of 50 feet on deck. We were not looking for an actual cabin for each kid or anything but we figured that our only girl, EmilyAnne, would need her own room, Rebecca and I would need a cabin and our four boys would all need dedicated berths in a shared cabin somewhere on the boat. We also figured that we would need at least two heads and copious storage for provisions etc.
What we ended up with is Wandering Dolphin. She is 47 feet over all, only 41 feet on deck and has only one head. My wife and I share the V-berth cabin, two kids have pilot berths in the salon area and there are two small aft cabins for the older kids. When our oldest son was still onboard our youngest was small enough to sleep in the convertible table berth in the salon. If this sounds a lot like camping in a motorhome or trailer that is because it actually is.
The common misconception is that because this living arrangement is similar to camping it will not work full time. The reality of our life is that within the first year we were all used to the small space and it has never even been an issue at all.
Our kids have grown up a little differently as a result of this close living. They do not have the normal American bubble space requirement. When we visit family in a house our kids, even now as teenagers, all sit on a couch snuggled close together. Don’t get me wrong, they still bicker and fight like normal teenage siblings they just do it close together rather than across the room from one another. One common thing teens say in anger is,
“Mom! He’s touching me!!!”
It is an interesting thing to note that this is never one of the complaints our kids make. They are always close, often rubbing arms, legs or feet, but more often what we do hear is,
“Mom! Tell him to stop bugging me when my headset is on!” or
“Dad! He’s eating with his mouth open again!”
Our bedroom is the V-Berth. This has worked out very well over the years and has not been a problem unless we were on an offshore passage to windward. While the V-Berth is not usable as a berth to windward it is actually very comfortable when the wind is anywhere aft of the beam. Our V-berth is down a short hall, past the head and has no door, only a curtain. The very first thought that comes to the minds of most adults is,
“Well how do you... you know?”
All I have to say is that it might explain to our friends on Water Island in St Thomas why our children were sent to the beach so often.
When we first bought the boat I was actually quite concerned that we only had one head. Now, If I did ever own a boat with more than one head the first thing I would do would be to take the head itself out of the little room and turn it into either a storage pantry or a workshop. Even one head is a constant battle of maintenance and work. The head has been the single biggest maintenance pain in my ass. (pun intended) One of the things that has helped in this area is that with five guys on board and only two ladies we a large bottle in the cockpit for urine for the guys and just dump them over board. If we had only two guys and five girls we might think two heads would be worth it after all.
We have found that the advantages in owning a smaller sized vessel under fifty feet far outweigh the disadvantages. Most often rate hikes on docks and in haul out facilities start at fifty feet. There are cruising places like the Bahamas where at more than 40 feet the cost of your permit actually doubles. The other thing to consider is that all maintenance issues are reduced by a lot. Everything is smaller on a 45 foot boat, sails, engine, etc. The boat is also very easy for two people to sail, or even one person in a pinch. It’s not that we don’t have enough people onboard but it sure makes the offshore passages a lot easier if only two people are needed on deck for any job.
Wandering Dolphin is not only a smaller vessel but she is a performance sailer designed by Gary Mull. Her fast, light weight hull design with a flush deck means that she has less storage space below. When we first moved aboard, we had hammocks hanging all over filled with stuff that we thought we needed. We piled the decks high with extra crap. The lifelines had boards with jerry jugs tied to them and water jugs full all the time. We had to actually raise the water line six inches because the boat was so heavy.
Over the years we discovered that we didn’t need all of that stuff. We discovered the freedom and joy of living with less clutter and slowly the hammocks came down, the tons of extra spares were disposed of or used and not replaced. The decks were completely cleared off. We carry only the fuel and water in her tanks and the water line is back to the design specs. The difference in the performance of our boat was shocking. Now anything that is coming aboard our boat full time has to pass a pretty rigid test of its need in relation to its weight or the space required for it.
Provisions are also a common concern. Once again, when we first moved aboard, Rebecca tried to provision the boat for months and, of course, we didn’t have the storage for all of the food. Let me assure you that this next truth is commonly overlooked. People everywhere you cruise have to eat! There is absolutely no need to carry a ton of provisions everywhere you go! We have found that most of the food in other countries is actually cheaper than in the US Islands. When we first sailed from St Thomas to Trinidad we loaded the boat with provisions and discovered that the food in the huge grocery stores in Trinidad were almost half the price over all of the food in St Thomas. In Dominica we bought fresh eggs, fruit and bread from the boat boys for peanuts. As a disclaimer however, I do want to note that if there are certain “American” foods that you or your kids cannot live without like peanut butter, strawberry jam, or Miracle Whip. You should stock quite a bit of that stuff somewhere on the boat. The other note is: If you are planning on wintering in the Bahamas you should stock your boat with about as much food as you can load on her in Florida. Food in the Bahamas is easy to find, unless you are in the out islands, but it is ridiculously expensive. Also, a watermaker will extend your time out in the out islands and while the savings won’t pay for your watermaker it sure feels a lot better to make your own water rather than pay some guy a couple dollars a gallon for it!
We did survive for almost a month anchored off a deserted little island in the Bahamas living only on the fish we caught and the rice and beans we had stored on board. I also lost a lot of weight from both the diet and the fact that I was out spearfishing for a few hours every day.
I know that there are a lot of families out there trying to decide how much space they need and I would like to assure you that you can get out cruising a lot faster if you do not make the space requirement such a rigid problem.
On a side note, we have met other families with two or three kids who were happily cruising on even smaller boats.
Live Small! Live Happy!