Everything you've ever wanted to know about the marine liveaboard life

By: Merilyn Mackenzie

Presented by
  • Trade-A-Boat

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Hate mowing, sick of peak-hour traffic, neighbours get your goat, want this summer boating holiday to last forever? Our Whitsunday yacht resident lifts the lid — or hatch — on the liveaboard society.

Everything you've ever wanted to know about the marine liveaboard life
The Liveaboard Life

So you are considering the ultimate sea change. You plan to buy a boat to live aboard. And your friends either think you have completely lost the plot or they want to run away to sea with you. I’ve owned and lived aboard boats for almost 20 years and wouldn’t change my lifestyle for quids. It’s not for everybody. But most boaties say there are more pros than cons.

 

THE LIVEABOARD LIFE

When buying a liveaboard boat the most basic advice for first-time owners is the best — check that the hull and motor are sound. You wouldn’t buy a car with rusty chassis and a seized motor because you adore the seat covers. So don’t buy a boat on the basis that the interior looks homely enough to live in. It’s not a house. It can sink and there is nothing enjoyable about having a motor fail when crossing a bar.

But you would be surprised how many first-time boat owners buy a boat because they love the way it looks and say they will worry about fixing the motor and the hull later. Bad move.

 

ANCHOR, MOORING OR MARINA

Living aboard can be as cheap or as costly as you want it to be. Being out on anchor is free, but you are constantly at the mercy of the weather and always aware you may have to find a new safe haven when the wind changes. You also need to be aware of government legislation on waste management requirements, time limits, restrictions and distances from structures applicable for your area.

The states and territory have differing legislation. In Queensland, Maritime Safety Queensland, an agency of the Department of Transport and Main Roads, is responsible for establishing controls and restrictions on marine zones. The legislation is again broken down into council areas. For example, on the Gold Coast Broadwater legislation prohibits anyone from living on a boat within 3nm of one place for more than seven consecutive days in any 60-day period. It’s a bit of an attitude test as well.

If you mouth off at the maritime boys or the water police they are unlikely to be forgiving about any of your accidental indiscretions. They’re out on the water just doing their jobs. Remember these are the same men and women who may one day be there on-the-spot doing something to save you or your boat if things go wrong.

Swing or buoy moorings are your next cheapest option. You can either rent from a yacht club for a weekly fee or apply to the government for your own swing mooring. Again, depending where you live in Australia, there may be restrictions on the amount of time you spend living aboard on your swing mooring. In Queensland there are more than 4000 swing moorings and a lease is obtained through Maritime Safety. It costs in the vicinity of $40 a year to renew the lease.

Establishing a mooring block and tackle can cost around $3000 and is the responsibility of the mooring holder to maintain. Swing mooring leases are popular and you may have to go on a long waiting list. It’s also a catch-22 situation — you have to own a boat before you can lease a swing mooring off the government.

The third option is the marina. While marinas are the most expensive, the advantages are many, including easy access, security, a safe haven for your boat, power and water on tap and a good social environment. Marina fees also vary wildly depending on the popularity of the area. For example, during a recent trip up the Queensland east coast, I paid $25 a night at Gladstone Marina, $39 a night at Mackay Marina and $85 a night in the Whitsundays.

The costs of a marina berth drop dramatically if you are able to pay a full year’s fees in advance. Prices are dependent on the size of the boat and a price list is available either at the marina office or by emailing your local marina. In the Whitsundays, at Meridien Marina, Abel Point, a recent printout of fees showed their daily rate for
a 12m monohull is $70, weekly rate $340, and quarterly $3150. At Mooloolaba Marina, a 12m monohull costs $43 a night, $241 weekly and $2082.60 quarterly. Liveaboard charges also may apply.

 

ANCILLIARY COSTS

On the plus side, life on the water means there are no more council rates but on the downside, you have to pay for boat registration and your insurance premiums are substantial. If you are mooring in a marina you will be asked to provide proof of your insurance. Most people I know are paying in the vicinity of $1000 to $2000 a year on boat insurance. When buying a boat you will also need to get a survey report by a qualified marine surveyor. It’s not only peace of mind but most insurance companies will not insure your boat unless you have provided a full out-of-water report.

There are plenty of qualified surveyors around and most marina offices and brokerages will be able to point you in the right direction.

 

SAFETY FIRST

The fact is being on a boat is all about having quality time to yourself or with family and friends. With this in mind, once you become an owner, you need to make sure your boat is fully equipped with a decent first aid kit, first aid manual and safety equipment. Any passengers you have on board need to know where to find this equipment.

When talking safety, a 406MHz EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) that is registered with the AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) is an essential item and costs upwards of $450. Also make sure your flares are in-date and your lifejackets are properly maintained.

State laws again vary on safety equipment dependent on the size and type of boat and whether you are operating in smooth, partially smooth or open waters. Safety equipment is paramount at sea and a small price to pay for something that saves your life or the life of your friends or family.

 

MAINTENANCE & GROUND TACKLE

It’s also good to carry a toolkit and spares of things such as fuel filters, oil filters, lift pump, fan belt and assorted gaskets. If you are looking at kitting out a liveaboard boat, remember your investment is only as safe as the lines and anchor warp or anchor chain you are using.

Using an old, rusty anchor chain that is held together by the grace of god could cost you your ‘home’. It’s like parking a car on a hill with a faulty handbrake. When buying a boat it is good advice not to max out your investment and keep a few thousand dollars aside for new equipment and unexpected repairs.

 

WEATHER WATCH

Most importantly, once you have bought a liveaboard boat, you will suddenly become a weather hound. Concerns about monitoring storms shouldn’t put you off owning a boat. There are arguably more bushfire disasters in Australia than maritime tragedies, yet that doesn’t stop thousands of Aussie homeowners from buying homes in among the gum trees.

Bad weather can hit anywhere. While North Queensland, NT and WA have their fair share of cyclone warnings, NSW, SA, Victoria and Tasmania have been subjected to some nasty storms too. Marinas are rated to cope with these, so mooring in a marina is peace of mind. Dependent on your location, if on anchor, you may need to find a safer haven.

But regardless of the challenges, many of the boaties I’ve met say they could never go back to being landlubbers when their backyard is the ocean and the world is their oyster. Here’s a window into the world of liveaboard boaties and a few more words of wisdom.

 


 

CASE STUDY: 42ft CROWTHER CATAMARAN

Robert Rowan of fixed address: Night Moves, a 42ft aluminium Crowther catamaran, built in Tasmania in 1996.

After 25 years being all-at-sea, Robert Rowan says his lifestyle is unbeatable.

"I haven’t mowed a lawn for 25 years and I am not about to start," he said. "My first boat was a steel ketch and I sailed that to Sydney where I lived aboard on anchor," Robert recalls.

"The best thing about my lifestyle is being able to be an individual without having to be worried about what other people think."

Five-years ago, Robert bought Night Moves, a 42ft aluminium, Crowther catamaran for $195,000. He moors her in a berth at Airlie Beach and when not at work goes sailing to any one of the 74 sub-tropical islands which make up the Whitsundays.

Robert says marina life is far more convenient than living out on anchor, particularly given the long hours he works as a building-site manager.

"If you are in a professional job like I am you need to live in a marina," he said.

 

CASE STUDY TWO: 14.5m YACHT

Mike Blenkinsop of fixed address: Pelikan, Lawrence Giles design, LOA 14.5m, western red cedar epoxy and glass sheathed, built in Australia in the mid-1990s.

Mike Blenkinsop loves to share his yachting lifestyle with friends, turning his bluewater cruiser Pelikan into a holiday home during racing regattas. I caught up with Mike at the Audi Hamilton Island Race Week back in August. He agrees the lifestyle is unbeatable and says he has always felt confident the boat would see him through even the roughest weather.

"We recently sailed Pelikan from Melbourne to the Whitsundays. Myself and my crew have never felt at risk, even in the worst of weather," says Mike of the bluewater ketch that completed a 45,000nm circumnavigation with the previous owner and is built for long-distance cruising in comfort.

As for the costs of a cruising lifestyle, Mike says it’s all about finding a balance.

"You just need to find a balance between having a nice time and not spending much money, with being on anchor and spending no money at all — short of shopping," he explains. "But I have to say, these days the marinas are an expensive way to go."

A favourite haunt for the crew of Pelikan is Gulnare Inlet off Whitsunday Island. It’s an all-weather anchorage with its upper reaches used by some local skippers as a cyclone anchorage. It is close to Hamilton Island and is often used by boaties who work on the Island.

 

CASE STUDY THREE: 38ft 'GLASS CAT

Geoff and Cathy Cashman of fixed address: Sensation, a 38ft fibreglass Admiral catamaran, built in South Africa in 2003.

Unfortunately living aboard boats doesn’t come without heartbreak, as Geoff and Cathy Cashman know all too well. They lost their first boat, a catamaran called Simply, in a severe storm at Airlie Beach two years ago. The tempest claimed more than 60 vessels in one tragic night.

But Cathy says even the terrible loss of Simply would not dissuade her from the liveaboard lifestyle. Geoff and Cathy’s new boat Sensation is a 38ft fibreglass Admiral catamaran.

The Cashmans say they have the best of both worlds, spending four months of the year at their home in Adelaide and the other eight months on Sensation, either on their mooring at Airlie Beach or out sailing.

Geoff said one of the best things about living aboard is that life becomes an adventure, plus he no longer gets speeding or parking fines. And cruising is a very cheap way to live.

"Our favourite spots would have to be Dunk Island, Low Isles, Michaelmas Cay and Port Douglas," Geoff says. Incidentally, Michaelmas Cay is a highly sensitive, major seabird-nesting island in the northern Great Barrier Reef that is often home to more than 20,000 migratory seabirds.

As for Cathy, she says the best thing about being on boats is "meeting lots of really interesting people who have the same love of being outside and want to talk about boats.

"And I love seeing all the fish, dolphins, whales and turtles," she revealed.

Cathy, who had breast cancer, says she wanted to inspire others to take the leap of faith and start living life.

"I can’t think of a downside really when it comes to living aboard," she says. "I think living aboard is about moving, meeting new people and seeing beautiful sights that we wouldn’t normally see."

 

CASE STUDY FOUR: 38ft ROBERTS STEEL KETCH

Grant Devlin, Raylene McCullum, son Jordan, 9 years, and daughter Theresa, 17 years of fixed address: Virtu, a 38ft Roberts steel ketch, launched in New Zealand in 1989.

For Grant, Raylene and their family, living aboard a yacht has enabled them to move to a new country and take their home with them.

They sailed from New Zealand in August 2006, stopping off at Lord Howe Island, then Brisbane, before moving on to Bundaberg to work, sailing on to the Whitsundays and eventually stopping back at Mackay to work again.

Grant, who had previously crewed on racing yachts before buying his own yacht, said he had been after a safe bluewater cruiser that was comfortable for the whole family and Virtu fitted the bill.

"Virtu is a very strong boat, easy to handle, and she has all the safety gear on board," Grant explains. "It is a very safe boat, which you can take anywhere provided you have the time to get there."

Grant and Raylene alternate their lifestyle between living in marinas when they are working and living on anchor when they are travelling.

"We find the marinas are easier to live in, especially with Jordan at school and with my work," Grant says.

"The best thing about being on a boat is no gardens to tend to and no lawns to mow and if you don’t like your neighbours you can just leave," he said.

As for favourite locations, Grant and Raylene love both Goldsmith Island in the Whitsundays and Lord Howe Island, which is 324nm (600km) east of the Australian mainland and is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful islands in the Pacific.

"Around here, my favourite anchorage would have to be Goldsmith Island because there are never many boats there and it is a great spot to catch fish," says Grant.

"But we also liked Lord Howe Island. It took us two and a half weeks to reach Lord Howe Island where we stayed for three weeks. It is a lovely place, the people are very friendly and we liked the laidback lifestyle," he says.

 

CASE STUDY FIVE: 55ft NORMAN WRIGHT PILOT BOAT

Geoff Craig of fixed address: Buragin, a Class B pilot boat, 55ft Norman Wright, built in 1964 out of oregon and spotted gum.

Geoff, "a mad sailor at heart", has never looked back since he sold his John Pugh yacht for a Norman Wright ex-pilot boat four years ago.

"I bought this boat more or less by accident through a tender — so I sold my (liveaboard) yacht and moved onto this," Geoff explains. "The best thing about living aboard is freedom, peace and quiet, no dogs barking, no lawns to mow, no neighbours arguing, and no cars hooning, and also there is less of big brother standing on top of you."

Geoff has lived aboard boats for the past six years at Mackay Marina.

"Before moving to Mackay I use to drive boats out of Yeppoon (Qld) and did a lot of coastguard work down there. I have lived in houses in Yeppoon and up here as well, but there really is no comparison," he says.

As for recommendations, Geoff says it’s hard to go past a Norman Wright for quality of workmanship.

"This boat is very well known for her sea capabilities," Geoff explains.

"Her draft is 7ft with 45.41 tonnage and she is powered by 180hp Rolls Royce.

"It is the original motor, which was rebuilt in 1985 and it purrs along beautifully.

"Buragin is a big heavy boat and heavy boats are definitely best in a big sea," he adds.

Geoff enjoys his comforts, such as air-conditioning and the microwave, but he is being extremely careful in refitting the boat to ensure he does not sacrifice its traditional character. Buragin’s roomy layout includes a full-size stateroom, large separate galley and walk-in engineroom with full headroom.

 

CASE STUDY SIX: ME! ABOARD MY 44ft KETCH

Me! Merilyn MacKenzie of fixed address: Aardvark, a 44ft fibreglass Gulfstar ketch, designer Vincent Lazzara, built in Florida, USA, in 1974.

My current Gulfstar 44 ketch is setup to operate similar to an apartment. The substantial bank of batteries, genset, solar panels, wind generators, 2kVa inverter, oven, fridge, freezer and eutectic hot-water system provide hot showers, video player, stereo, internet connections, ice cream and roast dinners.

This may not be "the traditional life at sea" but it sure beats a cold shower and packet pasta by lantern light in a leaky boat. Incidentally, that is the way I lived on my first boat a 1945, 32ft bay cruiser two decades ago.

Doing it rough and playing it tough may be fine for weekend warriors who use their boat every blue moon, but not day in and day out as a ‘liveaboarder’. The closer you can make your lifestyle ‘out to sea’ the same as being ‘on the grid’ the more enjoyable it is in the long run. How much you spend on bringing your boat up to a standard depends on how many luxuries you can do without.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions or admit you don’t know something about a boat. While advice differs wildly and everyone has his or her own opinion on boats, if you don’t ask you will never learn. It’s a law of averages, the best advice is usually the majority opinion.

There is a hard way to live aboard and an easy way. Pretending to be a know-it-all is the hard way. Take advantage of the fact there is always an old sea dog out there, with more knowledge, who can fix your problem in a tenth of the time.

 

THE BOTTOM LINE

On paper, living aboard sounds both easy and daunting. It’s neither. It boils down to common sense. It’s no different to what you went through when you bought your first home. As for me, I wouldn’t swap my lifestyle for anything. Most other ‘liveaboarders’ I know agree.

When I bought my first boat in Southport 20-years ago, I’d never steered a boat in my life. But there were plenty of yachties there willing to give me as much of their time as I needed and all of their immense knowledge. They taught me the basics from how to repack a stern gland to setting tappets.

If you want an insight into maintaining a boat and safety at sea, I have found the Volunteer Marine Rescue navigation course, and TAFE’s Coxswains and Masters Class Five were invaluable. Books such as Captain Dick Grady’s Australian Boating Manual cover many of the basics on good seamanship, which go hand-in-hand with living aboard and safety at sea.

At the end of the day, and night, a well-maintained liveaboard boat is like a good friend — it will always look after you.

As for what living aboard means to me, I would have to agree with Aardvark’s designer and builder, Vince Lazzara, who had a saying: "God only gives you so many days, but the ones you spend at sea don't count against you."

 

LIVING ABOARD YOUR BOAT: PROS & CONS

PROS
* Your boat can be better maintained because you are there on the spot
* Good for the environment — you learn to conserve water and conserve power
* No electricity bills
* No council rates
* No lawn mowers on a Sunday morning
* Neighbours with barking dogs and screaming kids are a rarity rather than the norm
* You can rent your house out for more than it costs in marina fees for your boat
* Marinas have a great sense of community
* Your neighbours also own boats so everybody has a common interest
* To move to a new town you just hoist the sails or start the motor
* One week your home can be in Sydney the next week the Whitsundays
* No junk mail
* No religious doorknockers
* It’s a lot of fun

CONS
* Weather and finding a safe haven for your boat is always a consideration
* Boats don’t appreciate in value like houses do
* Sacrificing some household luxuries such as baths
* Shortage of storage and cupboard space can be a problem
* Getting drenched walking down the marina or going to shore in a dinghy during the rainy season
* Doing your washing at a laundromat (if you don’t have a washer/dryer fitted)

 

WHAT’S THE BEST LIVEABOARD?

When asked about the best boat to live aboard, there is no definitive answer. It really depends on your location and your lifestyle. If you are living on the Gold Coast’s Broadwater, a yacht with a nine-foot keel may not be the way to go, but in the Whitsundays you will find many a deep-drafted, retired Rolex Sydney to Hobart vessel.

In the past two decades, I’ve lived on several yachts, a power home cruiser and several bay cruisers, each vessel suiting my circumstances at the time. It’s best to look around your local marinas and see what type of boats are the most popular. You really have to consider whether you are planning to muck around in a river, lake or bay or want to sail the seven seas.

Boats types differ depending on whether you have a family and work commitments, or you are a single-hander with no particular time frame.

My penchant is for yachts that are easily singlehanded, or for traditionally-built cruisers. But that’s not for everybody.

Don’t forget, regardless of the manufacturer’s name, the quality of a second-hand boat does vary significantly depending on the way it has been treated and maintained by previous owners. A survey should be considered mandatory.

 

MERILYN’S TOP 10 LIVEABOARD BOATS

1. Hunter 45 centre cockpit: This is a beautiful liveaboard. A lot of thought has gone into the design of the interior. Good off-shore vessel. When world markets toughened up this company didn’t slacken off on quality. This boat depending on age and condition can set you back $500,000.

2. Perry Passagemaker: A comfortable and roomy sailing catamaran with good freeboard. Perfect for families who plan to sail behind the Great Barrier Reef. You can anchor in close to the islands. Second-hand, one of these luxury catamarans will set you back around $500,000-plus.

3. Gulfstar yachts & powerboats 43ft-plus: It’s a personal preference for reasonably priced boats that were built solid to last, are roomy and have easy access to all engine components. The man behind Gulfstar was chemical engineer, Vincent Lazzara, who built his first fibreglass sailboat in 1955. Lazzara launched Gulfstar Inc, producing boats from the early 1970s until 1991, the Lazzara family now build Lazzara yachts. A Gulfstar will set you back $180,000 upwards depending on condition.

4. Cavalier 37: This is a top boat for single-handers or couples who plan to cruise internationally. It’s strong and dependable. This proven bluewater sailing boat took Kay Cottee around the world. You may pick one up around the $100,000 mark.

5. Halvorsen cruisers: These gentlemen’s boats have definitely stood the test of time. This company and its shipwrights simply didn’t cut any corners. Love the traditional fitout. Terrific for rivers and inland waterways where you need to pass under bridges or powerlines. In top condition, a Halverson can set you back a few hundred thousand dollars.

6. Nauticat 38 ft: These are very strongly built, traditional. ketch-rigged motorsailers and pilothouse sailing yachts that are engineered to last. Electronics in most of these vessels are superbly set-out and user-friendly. The pilothouse offers shelter from both the burning sun and freezing winds. Price range second-hand is $180,000-plus.

7. S&S 34: May not be the roomiest of boats but this proven vessel is easy to handle. It will look after a single-hander or a couple planning to bluewater sail. If you are looking at safety first then this yacht "keeps on doing it’s best". The S&S 34 took Jesse Martin around the world and now Jesscia Watson
Upwards of $40,000 depending on age and maintenance.

8. Norman Wright bay cruiser: These traditional cruisers were built by true tradesmen. Don’t forget wooden boats require substantial dedication to a maintenance program but it’s worth the effort. Prices vary dramatically depending on condition and age usually upwards of $40,000.

9. Roberts 38ft-plus: These are roomy, safe, sea boats for the budget-minded, which means you can afford to buy extra safety equipment and luxuries to make your life more comfortable. They are often homebuilt, so pay extra attention to detail when shopping for one. Prices vary between $80,000 to $160,000.

10. Beneteau 39ft-plus: This is a popular charter-fleet vessel. It’s a reasonably priced day-sailing boat. If living aboard doesn’t fit with you, a good-quality Beneteau in survey can be put to work in a bareboat fleet. Second-hand ranges from $140,000-plus.

Prices do vary dramatically on second-hand boats and just because it is cheaper than you expected to pay doesn’t mean that it’s not a good boat. Yet there are bargains to be had. Similarly an over-priced boat doesn’t necessarily guarantee any extra qualities. It is a case of a buyer doing their homework and having the boat surveyed and valued before purchase.

Photo: Swing moorings at Shute Harbour; Merilyn with the Blenkinsop family; The crew of Pelikan out for a sail; Airlie Beach swing moorings; Aardvark in Mackay Marina; The Rowan family relaxing on Night Moves; Buragin; Meridian Marina at Abel Point; A liveaboarder's backyard.

 


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