Sailboat Liveaboard Essentials - What You Must Have

Sailboat Liveaboard Essentials - What You Must Have | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

June 15, 2022

Liveaboard life requires different supplies than other lifestyles. Having the essentials makes life on a sailboat safe and comfortable.

Sailboats live in the water, which is a fairly treacherous environment. As a result, sailboats require maintenance, and living aboard a sailboat requires special skills and supplies. These items increase comfort and safety aboard your sailboat and also bring your floating home into compliance with local and state laws.


Table of contents

Tanks and Sanitation

Sanitation is an essential part of life, and the process is made more complicated onboard a sailboat. Most liveaboard sailboats have bathrooms, showers, and sinks, along with fresh, black, and greywater systems. Here's what you need to know about staying clean on a sailboat and the supplies you'll need to stay healthy and in compliance with the law.

Freshwater Tanks

Sailboats with plumbing almost always have a large freshwater tank somewhere on board. This tank holds potable water, which is only used for sinks. The toilet, on the other hand, usually uses saltwater.

Freshwater tanks are a necessity onboard a sailboat. However, many old boats that haven't been used in a while may need a new tank to keep your freshwater smelling and tasting clean.

Check the condition of your tank. If there's sediment, smell, or a foul water taste, purchase a marine, freshwater tank cleaner and run it through the tank and the freshwater lines. Avoid harsh chemical cocktails if possible, as you'll be drinking this water eventually.

Greywater Tanks

Most sailboats also have greywater tanks, which store the wastewater from the sinks and the shower. Greywater is waste, so it'll need to be pumped out eventually.

Greywater tanks should also be in good condition and cleaned periodically to avoid a buildup of grime and subsequent unsanitary conditions.

Blackwater Tanks

Blackwater is toilet water. It's nasty stuff and a biohazard, so the blackwater tank must be kept in good condition to avoid leaks. Blackwater tanks must also have a functioning air vent.

The vent is usually on the deck, and it serves multiple purposes. The vent releases gasses (such as methane) and also introduces air to prevent harmful bacteria from thriving in an oxygen-free environment.

Counterintuitively, an air-tight blackwater tank is actually a very bad thing, so make sure you have a functioning vent. The blackwater tank must also be pumped out from time to time.

Discharging Sewage

Here's a quick tip about sailboat sewage discharging. Most boats have a valve near the toilet that allows you to discharge waste directly overboard. In almost all cases, it's completely illegal to discharge anything if you're not far offshore.

MSD (Marine Sanitation Device)

Sailboats with toilets are required to have a Type I, Type II, or Type III MSD (Marine Sanitation Device). A Type I MSD treats waste with chemicals or disinfectant and macerates it into a dischargeable and safe liquid. A Type II MSD also treats waste with disinfectant but to a greater extent and discharges it.

A Type III MSD is most common. In a nutshell, a Type III MSD is the tank you probably already have installed. Type III MSDs cannot be discharged near shore and must be pumped out regularly.

Some sailboats have combined black and greywater tanks, which should always be treated like hazardous blackwater. Type I and II MSDs are costly but better overall, though a Type III MSD is suitable for most liveaboards.

Utility Connections

Shore connection lines are essential to keep your utilities functioning when living aboard. Most marinas have a minimum of two connections for power and fresh water, and others have additional connections for sewage.

Power Lines

When living aboard a sailboat, you'll need a shore-based source of electricity to avoid running your engine or generator all the time. Find a heavy-duty all-weather power cable that fits your connections and the 120V socket on the shore.


You'll also need a heavy-gauge freshwater line. Make sure you connect it to a potable water source and ensure that the hose itself is designed for potable water. Regular garden hoses are not sufficient, as they can easily become unsanitary or leech harmful chemicals into your water.

Black and Greywater (Sewage)

Sewage lines are an unsightly but necessary shore connection. If your marina offers a sewage connection, find a purpose-built line that connects to your blackwater and greywater tanks and to the sewage discharge line on the dock.

Basic Coast Guard Requirements

Liveaboard sailboats usually spend most of their time docked in the safety of a harbor or marina. Nonetheless, it's still a sailboat, and the Coast Guard has very clear rules about what you must keep onboard.

Coast Guard and federal requirements vary based on vessel length, installed power, and other specific aspects of your boat. Here are the general requirements and an introduction to the equipment you'll need to keep aboard.


The obvious first requirement is that you always have enough lifejackets on board for everyone. That means one for you and one for everyone who happens to be aboard—friends, family, and all. Make sure they're undamaged, new, clean, functional, and properly-sized for the people on board. Also, make sure they're stowed properly and accessible.

Make sure they're the proper type as well. Some lifejackets aren't certified, which means they don't count towards the requirement. Learn the difference between Type I, II, III, and IV PFDs (Personal Floatation Devices) and decide which is best for you. Traditional boxy orange lifejackets are usually sufficient.

Floatation Devices

In addition to lifejackets, any vessel longer than 16 feet in length must also carry a Type IV throwable device. Again, this is in addition to enough certified lifejackets for everyone on board. Both lifejackets and throwable floatation devices can be easily obtained at almost all marine supply stores.

Visual Distress Signals

Visual distress signals are another Coast Guard requirement that you'll need to keep on board. Flares, known as "pyrotechnic devices," and a flare gun are the most common visual distress signals, and they're cheap and can be obtained by anyone.

An orange distress flag is a daytime distress signal that you should keep on board. It must be certified by the Coast Guard. Visual distress flags are orange and marked with specific symbols that are recognized by emergency services across the country.

An electric distress light is another visual distress signal that's easy to obtain and necessary to keep aboard. These essential SOS devices are a must-have for any sailboat greater than 16 feet in length. Remember that the law makes it illegal to use them in any situation except an emergency.

Sound Devices

An air horn, bell, or other sound signal is also required, as you can't always see the light or flare in the fog. Be sure to meet the requirements for audible signals for your specific type of sailboat.

Fire Extinguisher

The good old fire extinguisher is a lifesaver and a legal requirement for boat owners. Fire extinguishers must meet Coast Guard requirements as well. Regularly inspect your fire extinguisher, check the pressure, and make sure it's up to date.

B-I and B-II fire extinguishers are acceptable (depending on vessel length), and they must come with a mounting bracket. The Coast Guard states that Size III fire extinguishers are usually too big for most small boats and should be avoided unless your vessel is between 40 and 65 feet in length.

Navigation Lights

You'll need functioning navigation lights even if you're not navigating. You don't need to turn them on when you're moored in a slip, but you'll need them anyway.

Sailboats generally require anchor light, port and starboard lights, a stern light, and a red, green, and white mast light. Requirements vary based on sailboat size, anchoring location, and what you're doing, so be sure to check Coast Guard requirements.


If you live on a sailboat and have any intention of sailing it, you'll need proper navigation supplies. These include charts, chart reading, and plotting tools, a navigation system, and a working compass.

Technology has made navigation much easier and safer over the years. Navigation systems make it easy to go anywhere with the press of a button. That said, you should always have backup charts and learn how to use them.

Food and Cookware

Cooking space onboard a sailboat is limited, so make the most of it by selecting compact cookware and learning to make smaller portions. Storing food is also a challenge, so consider choosing non-perishables and canned food whenever possible.


Living aboard a sailboat requires you to bring tools and learn how to use them. Things are going to break—that's a guarantee. And with the right tools, you'll be able to address small issues before they become really big problems.

You'll need basic tools such as screwdrivers, a hammer, pliers, wire cutters, wire crimpers, clamps, and a saw. Additional tools such as scrapers, paintbrushes, and spare nuts, bolts, screws, and nails are helpful.

Fiberglass and Resin

A supply of spare fiberglass sheeting and resin is essential on a sailboat, as leaks (that would normally be easy to fix) can be devastating in the long term. Marine epoxy resin and fiberglass is easy to use and can repair leaks, cracks, and other common issues quickly.

Wood Stain and Varnish

Grab yourself some stain, spar varnish, and sandpaper to keep the teak parts of your sailboat in good shape. Deck rails, interior fittings, and spars look better and last longer when they're properly varnished. Additionally, keeping a fresh coat of marine varnish on your wood can prevent rot, which can be costly to repair and unsightly.

Cleaning Supplies

You'll need a good set of cleaning supplies to maintain a sanitary and comfortable living environment onboard a sailboat. Due to size limitations, you might have to get creative with your cleaning tools to make the most out of the space you have.

Handheld Vacuum

A handheld vacuum is a fantastic tool to have onboard a sailboat. These compact and powerful vacuums take care of dust, dirt, crumbs, hair, and other daily messes without taking up too much space.


Dusters keep your surfaces clean from dust, which can often harbor mold spores, fiberglass dust, and other nasty marine byproducts that you don't want in your living space. A traditional feather duster will work well.

Wipes and a Mop

Wipes are a great alternative to a full-sized mop, and they're useful for cleaning surfaces in the galley, bathroom, and dining area. A mop is useful for larger boats, but smaller cabins may not have enough 'moppable surfaces' to justify having one.

Boat Soap and Brushes

Boat soap and brushes are essential for keeping your hull and deck clean. A light scrubbing once per month or so can keep your boat from developing that unsightly green dirty tinge that's so common on poorly-maintained fiberglass sailboats.

Sanitizing Sprays and Window Cleaner

Sanitizing sprays are essential for keeping the galley and head clean, along with any other commonly-used interior surfaces. Germs can proliferate a small sailboat cabin rapidly, so it's essential to stay sanitary. Window cleaner is useful for cleaning windows and mirrors, especially in the compact head of a sailboat.

Cockpit Canopy

A cockpit canopy is a tarp that drapes over the boom and turns the cockpit of your sailboat into usable space. A cockpit canopy can be used to turn the cockpit into a place to cook, work, hang out, do laundry, and store items that you don't need down below. Cockpit canopies are usually made of waterproof canvas, similar to traditional sail covers.

Solar Panels

Back in the day, solar panels were clunky, expensive, and inefficient. Some boats had them, but they offered limited utility. However, modern solar panels are efficient and affordable, making them a great addition to the unused deck space of your sailboat.

Solar panels can reduce your power bill and keep your marine batteries charged. If you want to rely entirely on off-the-grid power, a wind turbine makes an excellent addition to a solar charging system. Just be sure to grab an inverter and a solar charge controller if you don't already have one.

Rail-Mounted Barbecue

Lots of sailboats have a small round rail-mounted barbecue in the corner of the cockpit. These small stainless steel grills are available in charcoal or gas, and they're an excellent addition to any liveaboard sailboat.

Barbecues give you an easy way to cook fish and meat, and they keep cooking smells out of the cabin. If you live in an area with nice weather, you could use a gas or charcoal grill to do the majority of your cooking. This frees up cabin space and reduces clean-up time.

Vacuum-Seal Bags

Vacuum-seal bags are a creative storage solution on sailboats. Seasonal clothing like winter gear, bedding, and other compressible items can be kept compact and dry in vacuum-seal bags, which increases storage space and prevents mold and moths from doing damage to your expensive clothing.

Clothes Pins

Speaking of clothing, you're going to have to figure out a way to do laundry on board. Many liveaboards use marina washing facilities or laundromats, but these services aren't always convenient or available.

Another solution is to wash your clothes with a washboard or a hand washer. In such cases, you'll need heavy-duty clothespins to hang your clothes on the standing rigging to dry. It works quite well, and it's a practically free way to wash your clothes.

Folding Bike

If you live near a city or town, consider purchasing a compact folding bicycle to get around. You can fold the bike in half and store it below, and you have ready transportation wherever you go.

Folding bikes are relatively inexpensive, and they significantly cut down transportation time, especially if you don't have a car. Walking is fine, but owning a bicycle while living aboard a sailboat is a great way to exercise and get around at the same time.

Sailboat Liveaboard Essentials - What You Must Have
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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