Decisions Decisions: Factors in Sailboat Upgrades and Improvements

 I’ve long been a fan of Bob’s writing, having enjoyed almost 7 years of daily (practically) posts from the Caribbean. He switched off of “BoatBits” for a while now, but started up a blog known as “Volkscruiser”, the implied meaning being a cruiser for the masses.

 I didn’t know it at the time, but I was joining the Volk when I purchased SeaWitch in 2002. An aged Cal28, she was one of the thousands of reasonably priced fiberglass production boats of the 70’s available in the U.S. These “classic plastics” are an ideal choice for the young, or beginning, liveaboard. If one sticks with a firm understanding of ROI.

Return on Investment

As a financial phrase, ROI means the ratio of profit to the amount invested. In life, ROI is a flexible term with a subjective meaning. Investment could mean time, money, attention, or effort. But harder to measure is “return”.

 In 2004, while on patrol with my first submarine, USS Rhode Island, I made the choice of bringing out the latest Defender catalog. Based in New England, Defender is a well-known source of all things marine. I spent several evenings flipping through the pages with a notebook next to me, jotting down ideas for upgrades to SeaWitch’s systems. Sometimes the pictures would remind of a part I knew needed replacing. Sometimes it was an improved product that promised additional utility or efficiency. Sometimes it was a whole new concept that I “knew” I needed to incorporate, i.e. solar charging for my batteries.

 I don’t regret spending the time day dreaming, but such behavior can become destructive with an older boat.


 When doing an initial survey or taking stock of what you’ve got, there are a few important things to keep in mind.

 1) No boat will ever be perfect: Even if you had unlimited resources, there’s always “something” else that could be improved. And use will always cause systems to fail, given enough time. The state of a sailboat is constantly changing. In that way, it’s really a living thing.

 2) You must understand the minimum effective state for your vessel: Call it whatever you want, but there’s a minimal amount of equipment or capability that a sailboat must have to sail properly and safely, and to carry you (and others) from point A to B. Any future purchase should be married to one of these things.

 3) Define what success looks like ahead of time: Measuring return is tough unless you know what it is you’re looking for. If I spent $1000 on a solar charging system, but always stayed at marinas, what was my return? I charge on shore power at every opportunity, maybe my engine charges, and I have a large capacity battery bank. Those solar panels aren’t doing anything other than making me look like a “real cruiser”. Vanity may be an appropriate measure, but just understand what it is ahead of time. Do you want to look like a cruising boat, or be a boat that cruises?

 Your Money or Your Life

 Most upgrades will not provide a financial benefit to the resale value of your sailboat. That’s just facts. It’s not much different than doing home makeover and improvements; most won’t pay for themselves, but some are more valuable than others. You should try to ensure that any effort made at improving your sailboat adds real value, in the form of convenience, safety, performance, or comfort, and if it does those things, then it will likely add to the “real” value of the vessel as well. If those $1000 solar panels leave my batteries topped off at all times, no need for shore power, and I spend a significant amount of time away from other sources, then I won’t mind if the resale value of my boat doesn’t go up by the total cost of installation. But, all things equal, a sailboat with good working systems will outsell one without, especially if marketed correctly.

As Bob mentions, a good filter to test purchases is the traditional advice: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

What systems do you look at first when deciding to upgrade or replace gear? Are traditional areas of concern still valid?

Living Aboard Vs. Living Abroad

sailboat dodger spray beneteau

Definitely abroad… spray covered dodger from a recent trip of mine

The difference is in placement of that ole “R”

For many years I’ve pondered the nature of of living aboard in contrast to cruising. Starting in 2002 when I first began my research into the lifestyle, I met with significant confusion. The internet was a small place back then, but there were still a number of resources available. I figured that a simple “Excite” search of “Living aboard a sailboat” would immediately bring me to a page or two that detailed a systematic process to analyze the life. The overwhelming amount of information was all focused on sailing across oceans. While interesting, and useful to a great extent, it didn’t help one bit in finding a marina, managing services, and finding out what to expect at the dock. Frankly, even these days that’s not too far from the internet truth: most sailing magazines are focused on getting away from shore as fast as possible.

With that in mind, what makes a person a live aboard versus a cruiser?

Cruising: As a verb, cruising implies movement. Cruise ships are often places of leisure and relaxation. A warship goes on cruise, and it means a steady pace to accomplish some mission. In sailing parlance, it probably denotes someone (or someones) who reside solely (or predominantly) aboard their vessel for substantial periods of time, with an intended purpose of traveling to different locations via the water. The reason for this travel may be intrigue, work, family, safety, curiosity, or even boredom. But the fundamental verb is moving. Cruisers may stay in an single port, or even a region, for a lengthy period of time, but they are in a state of near-readiness to leave, if they choose. By the nature of their housing arrangement, they do “live aboard”.

Living Aboard: As a verb, implies staying. It describes the choice of home, as opposed to living on land. As mentioned, cruisers live aboard, but so do folks who are quite happy to stay in one location while aboard their vessel. The narrow boats of London, barges of the Netherlands, and that old relic floating in the harbor with the weirdo on board could all be classified as liveaboards.

For myself, I always believed I was a live aboard more than anything else. While I tried to maintain a sailboat capable of cruising, I recognized my primary goal was comfortable living aboard my boat while living a “typical” livelihood. This meant having easy access to shore to pursue my career (as a military officer), as well as access for my social activities like church, dinners, and exercise. A marina was a convenient platform to accomplish these things from. While it certainly seemed like a transient lifestyle to my peers, in many ways it was anything but. While I didn’t own a house, or rent an apartment, it was easy to be lulled into the mindset of permanency that shore living induced. I had a small storage unit for those things that wouldn’t easily fit aboard, but were so “essential” to my life that I chose to keep them nearby. Many of my tools fit aboard, but why not keep a few sheets of plywood available for a rainy day up the road?

The perfect cruising boat (which is a unicorn – imaginary) would have plenty of margin aboard for activities like construction and repair, exercise, and other hobbies. But in reality, the boat gets put into “cruising mode” before leaving port, which means things are less available, less convenient sometimes, and the purpose of the sailboat is now two-fold: both safe travel and tolerable living conditions.

On the other hand, the live aboard sailboat is focused on comfortable living and convenience. And in my view, there’s nothing wrong with that. So don’t let the popular magazines sway you: it’s OK to be comfortable as a working guy or gal, with the unique living arrangement, knowing you can prepare and pull lines at your leisure.

What do you think? Are liveaboards mischaracterized?