Should we live on a yacht in London?
August 17, 2012 2:09 PM   Subscribe

My boyfriend and I are moving to London in the next few months. Are we crazy to consider sailing his 10m yacht there and living on it in a marina, especially going into the winter?

I've gotten a great two-year contract in London, so my boyfriend and I will be moving there in a few months. We had been planning on looking for a nice big double room in a shared house to start off while he looks for a job, but we've been seriously considering an unusual living alternative.

He's got salt water running in his veins, and I myself have gotten to love the tide's rhythm and the sound of halyards clinking on masts sending me to sleep. We've done a few 2-week sailing trips together on his 10m yacht, which is old but solid, cozy and reliable. We've hit upon the notion of "living aboard" in London: There's quite a culture of liveaboards there, mostly on narrowboats on the canals, but I've gotten in contact with a few who live on sailing yachts in some of the central marinas there. We've luckily been offered a place at a central marina and are seriously considering taking up the offer. Here's pro and con list we've made:

- We'd get to have a boaty life surrounded by a boaty community.
- The idea of living a minimalistic, efficient life really appeals to me. I feel happier with fewer things, and living on the boat would certainly encourage necessitate this.
- It would give my boyfriend a real purpose in going to London and the thought makes him much more excited about joining me there.
- We could save a really big chunk of money - at least 15% of my salary for my share alone which would otherwise have gone on rent.
- The marina is in an appealing part of London with good connections to my office
- We'd be connected to water, wifi and electricity and have access to showers, laundry facilities and toilets (with a chemical toilet on board for when we don't want to go ashore).
- It's relatively easily reversible - if we/I hate it, we can move to boat to a cheaper berth outside London and move into a shared house as originally planned.
- It's a really romantic adventure for us.

- The berth we've been offered is technically not for liveaboards, but I've been told by "locals" that the marina won't mind if we keep our heads down. This will make us feel pretty insecure, nonetheless. We're on a waiting list for residential berths that's supposedly a few months to a few years long.
- We'll have to spend to make the boat more comfortable - dehumidifiers, insulation, heating etc, eating into savings.
- Regardless of improvements, it will be cramped and cold in the winter. Hopefully not too damp, but there would be the potential for must and smells.
- A good proportion of people would think we're mad hippies, though the office I'm going to is open minded and I think most there wouldn't see this negatively.

TL;DR: I'm looking for personal stories which would help us to decide whether to go for it or not and for tips on how make this work if we do. I'm particularly interested in advice about livingaboard in London, in winter, in a small space, and/or on a sailing yacht.

Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
We've done a few 2-week sailing trips together on his 10m yacht,

Where are you located? Are you considering sailing across the Atlantic? When would you be traversing the Atlantic? Does your boyfriend have any sailing experience? Has he crossed the Atlantic before?

Apart from that, living on a sailboat is fucking cold and damp.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:16 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think you should go for it. The potential worst case scenario is that you realise you hate it, or the marina management boots you out, in which case you look for a berth elsewhere and rent a room. That's not such a terrible scenario!

But yes, it will be bloody cold.
posted by Joh at 2:22 PM on August 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

Fehr Trade lives on a boat in London, it's not a sailboat but you may find the posts she has made about it useful. They're scattered throughout her blog (which is predominately sewing related).

It certainly sounds like an adventure and it is, as you say, not permanent if it doesn't suit you but then, I have no experience with living on a boat so what sounds romantic/exciting/adventurous from the warmth of dry land may not be so in practice! :)

Good luck.
posted by halcyonday at 2:22 PM on August 17, 2012

Data point: I used to do this on an all steel 40 ft former harbour launch, and did several winters on it in North London. It was bloody cold at times, and it was damp, but it was also fun and exhilarating. Do spend money on insulation and adequate heating. Another tip told to me by an 'oldtimer' was to have bowls of salt dotted around to 'draw out' the atmospheric moisture, though I'm not sure how effective that was. Your 'locals' are a very good resource, as I'm sure you have realised, so stay on the right side of them and be a part of the community - you never know when you'll need them. Can't help you with crossing the atlantic (and good luck with that) but the same oldtimer that I quoted above also told me that the best time to start living on a boat was the winter, as if you make it through that then you know it's for you!
posted by Chairboy at 2:23 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

A few questions to think about; you're anonymous so you obviously can't answer them.

1. Where are you guys coming from? How do the winters compare? I think the winter living aboard a boat could be OK if you guys are currently based in Connecticut or something, but probably miserable if you're in Miami. Even if you winterize the boat itself, have you considered how cold it'll be to, say, walk home every night? I once had a job on NYC's Hudson River Piers. Just the walk down the pier from one part of my workplace to another during the day when the sun was out was brutal in winter.

2. Seconding KokuRyu on the sailing questions. Do you guys have the experience needed to realistically get your boat to London? Again, big difference between coming from Rotterdam and coming from North Carolina.

3. Have you considered where your berth is located in the city compared to where you'll be working? What your "neighborhood" will be like? Are there residential type facilities there? Where will you get groceries, drop off dry cleaning, get mail, etc? What happens when you don't feel like cooking and want to order in? Is there a local pub that isn't a nasty hole full of sailors with a brothel in the back room*? Is it close to a tube station? Will your commute involve long nighttime walks through abandoned dockyard areas?

4. Nitty gritty living situation details. What if you want to have people over? What if you need some kind of home maintenance -- will you be able to call a plumber (or whatever) out? How will you get mail? Can you have packages delivered there? How easy will it really be to "keep your heads down" in terms of the liveaboard thing? Will you be able to have a pizza delivered to your boat? Will you be able to have normal relationships with neighbors, or will you have to constantly pretend that you don't live there and hope people don't start to recognize you?

*I live near the Brooklyn Navy Yard and up until about six months ago there was a bar of this description near my apartment. In a very gentrified landlubber-filled neighborhood, too. If it were the only bar in walking distance, I'd be hella sad.
posted by Sara C. at 2:27 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do it! You'll meet way more people and they'll be fun. And there is so much good sailing in that part of the world you'll be glad to have the boat with you. You can do lots of week to month pong trips to amazing places and sailing is so popular you'll meet a lot of young like minded people.
posted by fshgrl at 2:29 PM on August 17, 2012

(Overall though, I think you should do it, just because it sounds so cool. But I think there's a lot to think about that you might not be considering.)
posted by Sara C. at 2:30 PM on August 17, 2012

I hope your not planning on crossing Atlantic in 'a few months'. I've crossed the Atlantic on an Aircraft Carrier in the winter/late fall and it sucks, I wouldn't do it on a sailboat.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 2:34 PM on August 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

- The berth we've been offered is technically not for liveaboards, but I've been told by "locals" that the marina won't mind if we keep our heads down. This will make us feel pretty insecure, nonetheless. We're on a waiting list for residential berths that's supposedly a few months to a few years long.
Check very carefully who the owner is and what the circumstances are. British Waterways has lately been replaced with the Canal & River Trust, and the news is that they are far less tolerant of liveaboards. Even if it is private, you need to check whether or not you will be liable for council tax. If you are liable, but the marina is non-residential, they may try to persuade you from registering and thus drawing attention to your status there. Effectively, you'll be evading tax, and if you're not a UK national, that's not a path you want to go down. In extreme situations, you can even be sent to jail for it.
posted by Jehan at 2:46 PM on August 17, 2012

Someone in my family lived on boats (firstly a narrowboat, then a yacht) for years until last winter when the cold drove him out. When I mentioned where he lived to people they mostly said how cool that sounded, which made me launch into a rant about the many inconveniences. Some more things to think about:

- if you're living somewhere you shouldn't, unless you have another address you may not be able to be on the electoral roll. This would obviously mean you can't vote but could also affect your credit rating.

- as you say, boats have very little room for stuff. You obviously know this boat well and have a sense of how much space you would have available. Think about what you need for everyday life though, not just short holidays, and whether there's room for it (eg clothes for work).

- in my experience, boats often need money spent on them unexpectedly. What would your contingency plan be for this?

- cooking facilities are often a bit minimal. This may not be an issue for you, but you might want to consider whether you could end up eating less healthily than you'd like or spending more on take-aways or food that doesn't need cooking.

- think about your tolerance for cold.

- bear in mind that the "boaty community" like any community can contain people who are difficult to deal with. Are you the sort of people who would be able to develop strategies to deal with people you may not get on with who are living very close to you?
posted by paduasoy at 2:47 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine lived on a small boat in Limehouse Basin for about three years while working around Westminster. I doubt that anyone thought she was a mad hippy for doing it, and even if they had, briefly mentioning how much she was saving on rent and how easy it was for her to get to work (including, if she fancied it, by river bus) would have made it sound like a distinctly practically-minded choice--as it appears to be for you. The first two winters were hard going; before the third, she finally got round to getting the stove fixed and couldn't believe how warm and comfortable it made the boat. But even in the first two winters she managed well enough: having easy access to a hot shower made a lot of difference. In other respects it was mostly wonderful. I stayed there a few times and have pretty fond memories myself.

The fact that it is, as you say, quite easily reversible makes it sound even better--assuming you can get mail delivered and do other things (like open a bank account?) that require an address.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 3:17 PM on August 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh--a couple of other practical points. Cooking on two tiny (and feeble) gas rings was a challenge but she managed pretty well. The 'poo boat' came round regularly to empty the chemical toilet, though during the day she would often use the toilets on the quayside. These, and the showers, were key/keypad access (as was the marina), and so fairly private. Since many of the other boats were either larger, with less cramped bathroom facilities aboard, or not 'livedaboard', the common bathroom/laundry facilities didn't suffer from over-heavy use. There were small shops and a deli nearby and a large supermarket not too far away, at Canary Wharf.

The only disadvantages of the setting were the DLR trains clanking back and forth, and the slight sense of exposure that came from being looked down on by the balconies of about six hundred yuppie flats. But knowing how much less she was paying in rent than them eased that particular pain.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 3:26 PM on August 17, 2012

I just spent 9 months living in London and I came pretty close to living in a houseboat on the Thames. It was a 2 bedroom and the second room was for rent. The community of boats there was so lovely, so peaceful and quiet compared to the chaos and grime of the city, with gardens and trees on the boat roofs, little patios, even a community bike rack at the entrance. It is hard, so hard, in London, to get away from the urban prison, and really your only choice is to find water. And it is hard, so so so so hard, to find a decent apartment or even room in London, with things we take for granted like a living room and a walk to the tube that's less than ten minutes and even (good god, the holy grail) outdoor space . It didn't work out for me, because I thought it was a little too cozy for roommates (better for a couple), and she thought she'd prefer a longer-term tenant, but it was desperately tempting.

There are a lot of people in London who would kill for the opportunity to live on a boat in the city, and the only reason they don't is because they can't, because there are no berths. It's not for everyone, but there are nearly 14 million people in greater London and romanticism is not dead in all of their hearts. Having a berth in an appealing part of London with good connections to your office drop into your lap is a winning lotto ticket. Provided you have a reasonable backup plan for your boat if things go foul or if the winters are unbearable, I say go for it, all the way.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:40 PM on August 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

The berth we've been offered is technically not for liveaboards, but I've been told by "locals" that the marina won't mind if we keep our heads down.

I admit to being hypersensitive about this sort of thing, but the "locals" won't be of much help if/when someone catches you.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:17 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're considering crossing the North Atlantic in the fall/winter and you need to ask whether it's a good idea for you, then the answer is no. If you're coming from Belgium or something, then go for it.
posted by cmoj at 4:20 PM on August 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

I know several professional non-hippies who live on boats all year round in London, and who have done so for years. It's a laid-back, fun way to be.

1 - the boat has to be well maintained, insulated and well-heated. Do not underestimate how expensive material-intensive things are in the UK relative to the US.

2 - You'll run in to endless difficulties if you don't have an official address: no bank account, no bills, no utilities, no salary payment. Plus all the comments above about tax avoidance are true. You don't legally need a place to live as a UK citizen, but in practice you absolutely do. As a foreigner on a working visa, good luck with persuading the UKBA you'll be living "on a boat on the Thames". Basically you need a residential marina, and preferably in advance.

3 - You must know this better than me so I'm guessing it's just a phrasing thing, but sailing across the Atlantic isn't usually something people have to ask question about...
posted by cromagnon at 4:32 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Renting in London is astonishingly expensive - if you want to live in Zone 1 you can expect to pay £2k a month for a flat for both of you, maybe half that for a flatshare for you both, and renting here is a lot different in terms of what you can do to the place than it is in the US - so if I had a yacht to live on I'd be considering this too. You have the option of not doing it anymore if it doesn't work out, and if you save the money that would have been on rent for that possibility, it doesn't seem a bad idea at all.

AFAIK you don't have to pay council tax as a liveaboard, which will be a significant saving.
posted by mippy at 5:29 PM on August 17, 2012

I would NOT cross the Atlantic in a 32 foot long sailboat.
posted by jbenben at 5:45 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

It all depends where you are leaving from.
If from the East coast of the USA or Canada bound for the UK you should leave in May or no later than June. (Hurricane season starts on June 1st).
And yes, 10m over all is rather small for such a voyage.
posted by lungtaworld at 5:49 PM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've crossed the Atlantic in a 28 foot sailboat.

In May and it took 32 days from the US East Coast just to the Azores (it was a slow year). So factor ample sailing time into your schedule.

If you feel you lack enough experience, you can ask around for crew to accompany you but that will cost you at least a return air ticket. How much off-shore experience does your boyfriend have? How capable is he at repairing gear?

I've wintered over in a sailboat that was shrink-wrapped to keep the snow off. An electric heater and an electric blanket made it snug enough but that was a very solid boat. Coming back from the showers with wet hair was tough. Ice on the ramp at low tide was tougher, especially if you had your hands full.

I've also illegally lived aboard for several years in a warm climate. The first harbormaster was a genial drunk and didn't care. The next one was a real piece of work with a clipboard and an attitude. It was hard to conceal live-aboard status when climbing off at 8 am every morning dressed for work with a briefcase.

But living aboard a boat is the best way to live. Like you said, it forces you to live simply and it's never boring. You can live in an apartment building and never meet your neighbors but living in a marina, you will get to know everyone.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:01 PM on August 17, 2012

I know a married couple who live on their sailboat full-time, and part of the year they spend in London. They are experienced sailors, having sailed all the way around the world, just the two of them. They have crossed the Atlantic twice, on a 40-food yacht with state-of-the-art navigation systems -- once with supplementary crew, once without. They have vowed never to do it again, because they had such harrowing experiences on the passage. They now have their boat brought to them when they cross the Atlantic (they're very rich, which always helps). An "old" boat, with a 2-man crew that's only done 2-week sailing trips -- sounds unwise. (If you're already on the London side of the Atlantic, sorry and disregard.)
posted by palliser at 8:05 PM on August 17, 2012

The berth we've been offered is technically not for liveaboards, but I've been told by "locals" that the marina won't mind if we keep our heads down. This will make us feel pretty insecure, nonetheless. We're on a waiting list for residential berths that's supposedly a few months to a few years long.

So I know fuckall about living on a boat. But having been in various other quasi-legal living situations over the years, the question you gotta ask yourself here is "What's the worst-case outcome if I get caught and the owners decide they DO care?"

Will they let you keep the boat there but make you get an apartment? (Will you be in a position to do that on short notice if you have to?) Will they force you to move the boat elsewhere? (How quickly will you be able to find another spot for it? How long does it take to "evict" a boat in England? Do you have any legal protections or can they just show up with police at a moment's notice and tell you to sail away immediately?) Could they fine you? Press criminal charges against you? Is there a deposit that you'll forfeit?

If the worst-case scenario is something that wouldn't ruin you (even if it would suck a lot) then what the hell, do it. If the worst-case scenario would leave you broke and homeless, or in jail, then don't, even if you're told the worst-case scenario is unlikely.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:48 AM on August 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

The big risk is making it (or not) across the Atlantic. Everything after that is fixable: park the boat (or sell it) and go live in a nice warm flat with a real address.

Is this boat literally seaworthy? Not just riverworthy or bayworthy or coastworthy, but built for sailing over a wide bloody ocean that has swallowed no small number of boats. If it's not built for it, they might just find your stuff floating on the surface.

And try to look at this without the girlfriend blinders: is the boyfriend seaworthy? Assuming you're more a passenger than a sailor (though for all I know you're a master sailor): has he ever sailed alone across the Atlantic? Does he really know what that entails? If the boat loses a mast or flips on its side in a storm, will he get you both out of danger?

If you're absolutely sure he will take you across the Atlantic without killing you both, do it.
posted by pracowity at 4:52 PM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

[EDIT: Oh man, why did I reply to an ancient post? What a waste of time. Oh well. Leaving it here in case it's helpful for some Google searchers.]

I don't know about boaty stuff, but I do know about London.

Worst case scenario, you can't live on the boat. You'd be able to find a small 1-bed flat in a reasonable part of zone 2 for £1000-1200/month, you can easily get 6 month contracts on those and the deposit is likely to be 6 weeks rent. Random letting agent fees will come to £300-500. You could certainly find something suitable to move into within 10 days of starting to look, and you could find a hotel at short notice to cover that period - average cost is likely to be £80/night, max.

So if you make sure you always have £4000 or so in the bank to spend at a moment's notice, and assuming you can afford that rent plus mooring fees, you can go for it and feel pretty secure about your alternative options.
posted by dickasso at 4:30 AM on January 3, 2013

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