What it’s like to live full time on a 400-square-foot sailboat

Living on a boat has a way of shifting your perspective, say those who do it, by freeing you from excess stuff and forcing you to exist in the moment

Dan Parsons, author of this story, with his wife Perry Cooper and their dog Rackham, in the small but fully outfitted cabin of their sailboat, the Pelican. (Madeline Gray for The Washington Post)
7 min

A previous version of this story misidentified Karen Audette as Carolyn. This version has been corrected.

Bruises are unavoidable when you live on a sailboat. You get banged around using the bathroom, cooking dinner, feeding the dog — and then you struggle to put each contusion together with a specific incident. Where did this one on my shin come from? There’s often no telling.

Ballet is required to live in about 400 square feet: My boat Pelican measures 40 feet from stem to stern and 12 feet at its widest. My wife, Perry, and I lived aboard it full time for six months during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, before buying a house in New Bern, N.C. Along the way, we met various other people who’d also opted for the floating life. Like us, they found that the benefits of making a sailboat your home often outweigh the sacrifices (of space, possessions and small comforts like long showers). Plus, much of what sailing teaches you is just as applicable on land.

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“When I moved aboard Obelix, I had one bag,” says Mads Dahlke, a former IT professional from Denmark who now sails full time, of his first boat. “That was scary, to downsize to that extent. But it was also a very liberating feeling.”

‘A large-scale balancing act’

Unlike a van or a tiny house, a sailboat moves almost constantly. While under sail, the vessel can heel — meaning lean — for hours at a time, and sometimes violently surge in one direction or the other. Everything in the galley is designed not to fall onto the floor. Even so, my wife and I have had whole pots of coffee slide off the stove.

Your house serves as your transportation as well as your protection from the wild sea around you. Steve Audette, who lives aboard a 45-foot sailboat named Angelfish with his wife, Karen, likens it to camping — you’re in the elements and attempting to carry as little as possible, while ensuring everything you need is close at hand. “Living on a boat is a large-scale balancing act,” he says.

The confines of a sailboat have a way of showing you how little you actually need to be content. Seats and bunks overlay lockers where food and tools are kept; many sailors tuck away canned goods and bottles of wine beneath the cabin floor. Balancing what you take to sea requires a lot of editing, since there is no room for the extraneous items that tend to sit unused in closets and basements on land.

Heath Phillips has lived aboard boats for four years. His current home is Philyria, a 35-foot, 1967 Alberg — which is spacious compared to his first vessel, a 25-foot Catalina. “I have always liked the idea of living in small spaces that were a little unusual,” he says. “I find living on a boat really makes me feel like a kid in some ways. Almost like Peter Pan or Tom Sawyer. It is my home and also my gateway to adventures.”

Phillips keeps three pairs of shoes (deck boots, flip flops and sneakers) and two drawers’ worth of clothing. “Even your clothes have to serve multiple purposes,” he says. “Possessions are a funny thing onboard.”

‘I thought the only plan was buying a house, having a mortgage’

Dahlke, the sailor from Denmark, ended up living on a sailboat after a fall caused severe damage to his back. “I started thinking that I could have died from falling down those stairs, and was I doing what I wanted to do?” he says. “After much contemplation, I concluded that I wanted to go sailing.”

He lived on his first boat for two years before undertaking the refit of a 38-foot Warrior named Athena about five years ago. His fiancee, Ava Corrado, joined him last year. “For a long time, I thought the only plan was buying a house, having a mortgage, getting a job, and that was it,” she says. “But now, we get to enjoy the freedom.” (Dahlke makes enough money through his YouTube channel, Sail Life, that they can afford to cruise full time.)

When we spoke, Dahlke and Corrado were stuck in Spain, awaiting favorable winds to Portugal. Being at the mercy of the elements can be frustrating, but relinquishing some control is part of the allure of sailing. A motor provides some surety if you need to hurry into port before dark or outrun a storm, but for the most part, sailing forces you to go with the flow.

Audette and his wife decided to take to the sea after the death of a son and the confines of pandemic living. “We had a very materialistic life in a kind of semi-upscale town, and all was going well, but we sort of in the back of our mind said, ‘You know, maybe at some point in our lives we want to go on one more adventure, one more lifestyle change where we are not experts, where we grow and learn and adapt and re-challenge ourselves,’” he says.

The pair — retired from lucrative-but-sedentary office jobs in Massachusetts — sold their house, gave away most of their possessions and bought Angelfish. Audette invested $100,000 into the vessel above what he paid for it, but for good reason: “It has to be working as well as it can be to keep you and your family afloat and alive.”

Indeed, when you live on a cruising sailboat, your senses become tuned to notice the slightest change. My boat is outfitted with an autopilot, which will keep it relatively on course but isn’t totally reliable. That means my wife or I must always be at the wheel, looking out for obstructions. Even when anchored or tied to a dock, we subconsciously listen through the white noise of the boat’s groaning for the odd sound that might indicate trouble.

“Living on a boat, you start learning to live in the present,” says Audette. “A couple of nights ago, our anchor dragged during a big windstorm, and I had to get up at four o’clock in the morning to reset our anchor. As we were doing that, I happened to notice that the moon was a quarter full and when I saw it earlier, it was a full moon.” He realized he was witnessing a lunar eclipse: “So we just stayed up … and watched the rest of [it]. You can’t imagine having an experience like that if you weren’t living in the moment.”

‘You develop a rhythm’

Not every moment has been so beautiful, of course. Even for a couple as long- and happily married as Audette and Karen, cohabitating in such a tight space took some getting used to. “Our living room is also our dining room which is right next to our kitchen, which is also right next to the bathroom,” says Audette. But eventually “you develop a rhythm of working around each other.”

He says the “boat yoga” required to maintain the vessel, and simply for daily life, keeps them young: “The boat has actually given me better health. In my previous materialistic land-based life, I had a very sedentary job where I would sit for 10 to 12 hours a day.”

My wife and I can relate. During those six months aboard the Pelican, we — along with our 22-pound dog, Rackham (who’s named after an 18th-century pirate) — grew accustomed to the boat ballet, figuring out how to cook, clean and even just sit and read comfortably, while respecting each other’s space.

For now, we’re weekend pirates. Pelican lives at a marina about a half-hour from our house. As two working journalists, we couldn’t keep up with the rigors of full-time sailing (or of hunting for a WiFi signal in the middle of the ocean). But from my front door, I can look down the street at the blue water of the Neuse River and dream of cutting lines for good some day.

Dan Parsons is a freelance writer in New Bern, N.C.

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