Sunday, July 15, 2012

Small-Space Living ... Afloat

So, CNN (!!) is developing a piece on small space living and they asked for contributions from people who live in less than 500 square feet.  I'd been wanting to write about what downsizers could learn from our living aboard experiences for some time anyway, I just needed a push.  Below is a slightly modified version of my very first submission for them.  The CNN version is here; the version in this blog has more photos than I was able to include for CNN, and here I was able to include captions with the photos.

Imagine downsizing to the point where everything you own now fits in the cabinets of the average kitchen.  Everything – not just your pots and pans and dishes and canned food and boxes of breakfast cereal, but also your hiking boots and tools and guest towels and computer printer and winter sweaters.  That was the challenge we faced when we moved from a 3-bedroom house to a 33-foot sailboat, 10 years ago.

The main salon in its everyday configuration

Our space is tiny – the main cabin is roughly 9 feet by 12 feet (about the size of a small bedroom) yet we have everything we need: a place to socialize with friends, a place to cook, a place to sit and think, a place to sleep.  Many people ask how living in such a tiny space affects our marriage, do we get on each other’s nerves?  Actually, the closeness has made our already solid marriage better, we’re more in tune with each other.  Perforce, communication is better and we know what each other is thinking without need for words, now. There’s no physical privacy but we give each other what we call virtual privacy. You can't really get away from each other but you can have enough respect for mental space - no shoulder-surfing, reading each others rough drafts without permission, commenting on overheard cellphone conversations or (*bathroom noises*) etc etc.  And if we really need space, well, we have the whole outdoors to escape to.  Having fewer things to take care of – no lawn to mow! No leaves in the rain gutters! – lets us spend a lot more time playing, and the financial benefits of living more simply and far less expensively than we did on land also takes away one more source of marital stress.

The actual downsizing process was very emotionally draining.  Packing up souvenirs of places we had visited was weirdly disorienting.  I felt rootless, as though I was losing my history.  A few special things, the quilt his grandmother made for us when we were married; my mother’s favorite crystal vase, are stored with good friends; the sofa was just a sofa and we sold it at a garage sale for $45. We even sold the silver goblets we used to toast each other at our wedding.  I told the buyer that as long as I had Dan, I didn’t need the goblets as a reminder, and if I didn’t have him, then the goblets would only make me sad.  (Besides, I wasn’t that crazy about the way wine tastes in metal.)

How did we decide what to keep?  Anything that would keep us safe at sea or at anchor came first, then tools to help maintain our boat, then “everything else.”  Going digital has helped with space constraints, as we scanned photo albums, moved our music to an ipod, and turned our cookbook collection into tidy computer files.  Things that we brought fit two categories.  They had to be useful or necessary; or they had to enhance our lives, which they could do by being beautiful, or make us smile, or make us comfortable or happy.  Ideally, our things would fit both of these categories at the same time, by being functional AND beautiful.  Owning fewer things, and no longer indulging in “recreational shopping” (where would we put whatever we bought?) means we can afford to invest in better quality for the few things we do buy. Wherever possible we chose things that serve two or more purposes.  I don’t have one of those fancy hard-boiled egg slicer gizmos that slices eggs perfectly but does nothing else, or a bagel-slicing machine, instead I have a good chef’s knife that can do a variety of chores.  And the “bolsters” on the settees aren’t filled with foam; they are actually stuff sacks that store our off-season clothes.  Even the furniture does double duty as the settee folds out to become a double bed and the coffee table leaves fold out to accommodate dinner for four.  At the same time, sorting through our possessions, separating what we had to have from what was nice to have, brought our priorities into clear focus.  The most important things in life take no space to store and never need dusting.  We have come to value friends, experiences, memories, knowledge more than things.

The main salon again, with the table leaves extended for a dinner party

Table leaves closed again, settee folded out to make a cozy double bed

The galley is about 5 feet x 5 feet.  The fridge and freezer are both chest-type top loaders, just below the spice rack.  The range is mounted on gimbals so it can swing to stay level when at sea.


  1. Just started following along. Awesome posting.

    Fair Winds
    Sabrina & Tom
    s/v Honey Ryder Caliber 40 LRC

  2. Thank you. Hey, just skimmed your blog; Dan's from Kansas, although we haven't been back for many years. Seems to lack any sea coastline...