Survival Guide to Homelessness

No matter where you go, there you are.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Boat Living

(by guest author Jibbguy)

Living near the water, there is another option to cars... boats. A cheap old fiberglass boat (sail or power), of 22 to 26 feet, can be gotten very cheaply these days (i got my sailboat for $400). Even boats made in the 1970's are often still seaworthy (always make sure they are fiberglass, "wood" requires far too much maintenance).

Boat living is not living without shelter, but you face most of the same problems as the homeless. You are definitely discriminated against when living on a small boat, and are treated exactly the same as others who live "off the grid".

Some unique problems are: Very good anchors or concrete moorings are needed. Make sure the anchor lines do not chafe. A dinghy is needed to get back and forth to shore. An old canoe or kayak works well and they are cheapest. Stay away from inflatables (they don't last long and are thief magnets). The older and cruddier the dinghy, the better.

You can also be hassled by the various forms of police when living in boats. The main issue, is being able to prove that your on-board "porti-potty" gets properly emptied at a marina or by some other legally accepted means (receipts). You must also be able to prove that you have a working engine, or a viable set of sails and rigging. The good part of this is, once you can prove these things, they must leave you be, and generally do. Sometimes they require an anchor light to be on all night. For this, the best solution is a solar-powered garden / walkway light for about $20. Never buy something that has the "marine" title to it, it will cost at least twice as much.

The biggest expense and trouble is finding a place to go into shore with the dinghy, to get water and charge a battery (solar panels are very useful), and having a safe place to leave the dinghy while on shore. The cheapest way is to cut a deal with a local resident on the water for a monthly fee... and if they have a WiFi bridge transmitter set up, you can get internet access as well (it travels pretty far over water). Otherwise, you must pay a marina a fee.

The upshot to boat living is, you always have a bunk, it is fairly private and quiet, and it is often in a beautiful environment. But it is "camping"... fairly primitive camping at that.

A great item to have is a plastic water bladder that absorbs sunlight to heat the water for a shower. Called "solar shower", they are invaluable. Ways to capture rain water are also important.

The propane stoves mentioned elsewhere in this guide are best. Alcohol marine stoves are generally not very good and take forever to cook something. Cook stoves make a decent cabin heater in cold weather.

Always pick an anchorage that is protected from all sides; so no large waves can come in depending on the wind direction. I know many people living on small boats, some for decades. It is a unique lifestyle. Not "easy", but probably no harder than "car life" and once set up properly, it can be fairly reliable and un-stressful.. and you are "cheating the system" by paying no utilities or taxes.

Concerning Bad Weather

The issues with bad weather generally are about your mooring or anchors. Even well-set multiple anchors can drag (and the lines can chafe through), and you may end up on a rocky shore or some other bad place. Usually, you will simply end up on a mud or sand bank and its no biggie. What the oldie "insiders" do, is take an old truck wheel rim, cut-down 50 gal drum, or some other steel thing, and pour "wet-drying" concrete inside it to create a permanent mooring (or use an engine block). But there is no "ownership" of moorings... someone can come along and take it if you happen to leave for a time. Likewise, you can find an abandoned one and use it. Some marinas rent moorings on a monthly basis (and include shore amenities like bathrooms, etc). But this is generally too expensive, not much cheaper than renting a dock.

Hurricanes are very bad of course, and the thing to do is evacuate before they arrive... there are shelters available for the general population to stay in.

I guess the thing is, if you do this as suggested, you will probably have no more than $1,000 invested total. So if a big storm does sink your boat, it is not too huge a tragedy. For instance, most of the costly stuff (laptop, solar panel), can be taken with you on shore. FEMA might even pay you for the loss.

Even in a good anchorage that is protected in all directions, you will get small waves from high winds. These are not really dangerous, just uncomfortable. For this reason, people who get sea-sick easily are not recommended for this lifestyle... even if the boat never leaves the harbor. Same is true for those who get claustrophobia.

We here in the Keys have nice weather year-round. But boat living up North is a bit different. Any body of water that freezes in the winter, cannot be lived on then.... although some do try, using "bubblers" to blow air around the boat under water, that keeps the ice from touching the hull (this only works in totally still areas with no current, and it takes a lot of electricity).

But i guess one of the most important factors of boat living, is "location". There was a Supreme Court decision a few years back that upheld the right of people to anchor where they like, as long as they are not a hazard to navigation. So rich folks can't have the local police "move you along" if they don't like looking at you. But they can do it in other ways, such as limiting access to shore. Some towns are boater friendly, some are not. Generally, where you see a lot of small boats anchored, is the better place.

Many thanks to Jibbguy for this superb introduction to the alternative of boat living. Click here to see some of his other writing.