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On our recent trip to St. Thomas, USVI, we decided to veer away from the traditional resort or hotel stay and instead booked a stay through Airbnb on a houseboat. The boat we stayed on was a 36′ boat docked in Vessup Bay next to Latitude 18, a chill and fun restaurant/bar in the East End of St. Thomas near Red Hook. We had never stayed on a houseboat before and thought it would be a fun adventure. We were right about that, but there was so much we didn’t know about staying on a boat before we booked our trip. Hopefully we can spread the knowledge so you can make an informed decision about whether boat life is the life for you and be more well prepared on your first houseboat stay. Here are 40 things you should know before living on a houseboat.
1. The boat is docked, but its steadiness is highly weather dependent.
The first day we arrived, our boat was relatively calm with just the occasional larger rocks from the choppy waters. Day 2 brought much higher winds and, with that, much choppier water. The rocking inside the boat was nonstop and made it difficult at times to even stand without losing our balance.
2. With that said, being docked is still steadier than being out in the middle of sea.
Given how rocky the boat was moored to the dock, we can only imagine what it would feel like out at sea. As much as it may feel like the boat is being blown over, rest assured you are safe as long as it’s docked.
3. But when the storms come, the boat can still become extremely rocky.
You know that dropping feeling when you ride the Tower of Terror? We felt mini versions of that on the boat at times. The boat WILL be rockier than you think.
4. Which means you should carry dramamine with you if you think you have any chance of becoming seasick.
Other medications that are known to cure seasickness include Marezine, Transderm Scop, and even Benadryl. Try to stay hydrated and lay off the caffeine and alcohol. We found it also helps to lay down and try to fall asleep or go for a walk outside on land.
5. Storms can also cause power on the boat to disappear.
Bring backup power sources, like flashlights, for emergencies. Generally, you’ll be fine though. Go to the beach, lay outside on the deck and gaze at the stars, grab a drink from the local bar – there are endless options other than sitting inside your boat with the lights on.
6. So if you rely on wifi for work, you may not want to live on a houseboat.
But let’s be real, why are you doing work on vacation? The first rule of boat life is that you must turn off your real life when you jump into boat life.
7. When you want to use water from the sink or shower, you’ll need to turn on the water pressure valve.
If you want more than a mere trickle from the sink, you’ll need to turn on the water pressure which causes the water to come pouring out of the valve so you can wash your hands, shower, etc.
8. But don’t forget to turn it off when you’re done using it.
It takes a lot for the boat to force strong pressure out of the water valves, so make sure you turn off this valve when you’re not using it.
9. Or else you’ll find yourself without water very quickly (we learned this the hard way).
We had a hard time remembering to turn on and off the water pressure valve in the first couple of days and completely ran out of water after one day! We had to call our host who very kindly came and replaced our water tank so we could shower. Sorry, Jeremy!
10. Speaking of showers, there is no hot water on houseboats.
Yep, if you’ve never taken a cold shower before, you will experience it when you live on a houseboat. It feels quite good actually, since it’s usually pretty hot outside, but sometimes when we wanted to shower at night, we dreaded it a bit since we were already cold. Hint: shower during the day when the sun’s still out so you can just step outside and dry off/warm up.
11. And some boats don’t have separate rooms for the toilet and shower.
We rented two boats next to each other since we had five people total, and one of the boats did not have a separate shower room. Rather, there was a shower head next to the sink, and when we wanted to shower, we would just clear everything from the counter, close the toilet lid, and run the water in the bathroom.
12. You will quickly learn how to flush a toilet manually.
This was a first for us. We had never used a toilet without a flusher before, but basically the procedure is to turn the switch to the water filler function, pump the toilet until the water clears, then turn the switch to the drain function and pump until the toilet bowl completely drains of any water, then turn the switch back to the water filler function and pump a few times until the toilet bowl fills up a bit with clean water. If you don’t understand anything we just said – don’t worry – it took us a while to figure it out in person.
13. Which will in turn cause you to develop a newfound, bizarre love for toilet flushers.
I don’t think I ever thought about how lucky I was to be able to flush my toilet at home until I experienced living on a houseboat and having to pump my own excretions down the toilet.
14. And being able to throw toilet paper into the toilet bowl.
Do NOT throw toilet paper in the toilet. If you didn’t eat it, don’t put it in the toilet. Throw all toilet paper in the trash can and make sure to take out the trash regularly since it will smell!
15. But boy, will that fresh sea air feel good coming into your bathroom.
And remember to open the bathroom window to let in some fresh air.
16. You can also get more than just a whiff of that fresh sea air by stepping outside the boat.
One thing we loved about living on a boat was being just steps away from fresh island air.
17. At night, you can lay out on the boat deck and star gaze the night away.
Coming from the city, we hardly recognize stars because we never see them, so this aspect of staying in a boat house was really something we could appreciate.
18. And feel the cool evening air.
Speaking of which, it actually got pretty chilly on the water at night. Bring a jacket because the air over the water will be cooler than the air over land.
19. In the mornings, we woke up to beautiful sunny weather.
The sun woke me up every morning at around 7:00 AM, but you can also easily sleep through it as well. It’s definitely easier to get out of bed with the sun shining on you than in a dark room, which is pretty much all winter for me in Chicago.
20. At times we would simply move ourselves from inside the boat to continue sleeping out on the deck and get a nice tan while we’re at it.
If I woke up too early or was still tired when I woke up, I would simply get out of bed, change into my swim suit, and lay outside on the boat deck and continue to sleep in the sun until the rest of my family woke up.
21. If that’s too much work for you, you can also sleep outside on the deck at night.
Just remember to wear bug spray so you don’t wake up with mosquito bites all over your body.
22. Because it really is just that safe in houseboat communities.
While you may need to worry about bugs, you won’t need to worry about safety. Although we didn’t do it, it’s pretty common for people to sleep outside on the boat deck when the weather is nice.
23. Most people don’t board up their boats before they leave for the day.
There’s no door at the entrance of the boat. There are a few wooden planks that you can use to board up your boat, but most people don’t use them. We left the boat open while we were out for the day and never had a problem.
24. You’ll see valuables such as guitars lying out on the boat deck for an entire day unaccompanied.
I was surprised to see this at first but very quickly realized that I needed to change my mentality from the city dwelling crime infused ideology to the peaceful and crime-free boat community life.
25. We left our laptops, cameras, iPads, and other valuables inside our boat completely unaccompanied and open to the public and never had to worry.
We usually tried to stow them away in our backpacks, but we did leave them lying out a couple of times and it was fine.
26. With that said, I’d still recommend leaving them below deck inside the boat at least, rather than out on the deck.
Still, I would not recommend leaving your laptop out on the top deck for all to see while you’re away all day. You might actually be fine doing this, but just toss your valuables below deck to be safe.
27. People in houseboat communities are also extremely friendly.
Everyone’s operating on island time with not a care in the world. They’re more than happy to stop and chat with you or give you some advice for where to go that day.
28. Everyone will say hello when they pass by and maybe even chat you up.
While I was sitting outside on the top deck of the boat every morning, passerby would all say “hello” or “good morning” to me.
29. If you’re not much of a talker, at least flash a smile.
But really, would it kill ya to say hello?
30. Everyone knows everyone.
Hope met our host, Jeremy, at Latitude 18, the bar at the end of the dock, when she first arrived. She very quickly realized that Jeremy knew everyone at the bar and everyone knew him. In fact, people not only knew him but respected him enough to say that no one else would start a boat Airbnb business because that’s “Jeremy’s thing.”
31. All of the above make it very easy for you to make friends and integrate into the houseboat community like a local.
We became friends with the local houseboat residents, the bartenders, the musicians who played at the bar, and anyone else we happened to stumble across at the bar. Seriously, everyone is so friendly and it will be impossible for you to not make friends in this community.
32. Leading to a much more authentic experience.
These people were locals, not tourists. Most came from mainland US or nearby islands, but most of the people we met had been living in St. Thomas for years if not decades and by all accounts would consider themselves natives to the island.
33. Take advantage of the locals’ knowledge and ask them which sights to see, which beaches to visit, and where to eat and drink.
We got some great advice from Jeremy and others at the bar about which beaches to go to that weren’t extremely crowded, where to go for the best snorkeling, where to go for the best beach bar scene, etc., and all their advice was consistent. I’d like to think we experienced some of the best beaches because of their recommendations.
34. The water on the boat comes from a mysterious tank and while it’s technically “safe” to drink, we (and locals) recommend that you drink bottled water instead.
I drank out of the tap for the first couple of days and felt fine, to be honest. Nevertheless I was told that bottled water is still safer, so we went to the local supermarket and bought a big case of bottled water for the remainder of our trip.
35. Or if you don’t have that luxury, we were told that the water from the hose on the dock was cleaner than the water from the tank.
Even though it has to travel through a long rubber tube to your mouth…
36. If you don’t use the hose for drinking water, at least take advantage of it to rinse of the sand from your body before heading back onto your boat.
There was a hose hooked up at each boat station on the dock, and this came in extremely handy for rinsing the sand off our feet after going to the beach and before stepping back onto the boat.
37. Or if shower conditions are really bad on your boat, try showering on the dock with the hose (and your swim suit on, of course).
We didn’t try this, but you could even lather soap all over your body after the beach and rinse off on the dock with the hose. Remember, the “showers” on these boats are tiny and only let out cold water anyway, so you may actually be better off showering on the dock with the hose.
38. Despite having to rough it out a bit, we did adjust quite quickly and weren’t really affected by the surprising conditions after the first day.
Full disclaimer: we are very low maintenance individuals and prefer a unique rustic adventure like this over a 5-star luxury hotel any day. If you are a regular 5-star dweller, you may not enjoy boat life as much as we did.
39. The pros greatly outweighed the cons for us, and we would absolutely stay on a houseboat again.
I could actually see myself living on a houseboat for a longer period of time – a month, perhaps even a year. One week was nothing.
40. And would recommend the experience to any of you adventure seekers!
If you crave adventure and can rough it out a bit, we would highly recommend this experience to you! It’s an experience you’ll never forget!
Looking for more fun things to do in the Caribbean? Then you might want to check out these posts:
- Guide to Taking a Day Trip to Virgin Gorda (BVI) From St. Thomas (USVI)
- Top Things to do in Cozumel
- 6 Essential Things to do in Cartagena, Colombia
- Traipsing Through Turks and Caicos Islands
- 10 Reasons to Take a Cruise
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My folks live on a major river in South Australia so we have had many houseboat adventures and I can empathize with the the water/ toilet issues. Lol. The fun outweighs the inconvenience though. It looked like the weather was awesome from your pics!
We could not have said it better ourselves, Shona! The fun indeed outweighs the inconvenience, and that’s why we’d do it again! It did rain a few times while we were there, but each time the rain would only last for a few minutes and the sun would be back out again 🙂
Hello Diana Chen, Since I have been on a large cruse ship four times After being on e crusie for our 7th wedding anaversary for seven full days I am wondering? That feeling you get while sitting still it is as though you are swaying your sitting still but you feel like your head is moving or your moving ona ship. My Cost Guard friend told me oh thats from being on ship! So does this translate to living on ship I sleep about five to six hour a day. I was told it has to do with inner ear and balance!?Whill this happen while i am on Bus or driving to wortk or just sitting at my desk?I am a vet so I ask the hard questions I ama realist when aproaching life or problems. Thanks in advance.
Hi Mary, I’m not a doctor and can’t speak to what’s going on behind the scenes there, but I did experience that feeling of sitting still on land and feeling like I was bouncing up and down on a boat, so I know what you’re talking about! It was like reverse sea sickness or something – it lasted maybe a few months for me and then went away, so I hope you feel back to normal soon!
Thanks for this list! I’ve seen those boat airbnb listed before but never took the chance. Next time I will and I’ll be prepared because I read this 🙂
Thanks for reading, guys! Would love to hear about your experience after you have a chance to stay on a boat 🙂 Feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns before your first stay!
Not planning any boat trip soon, but good to know! I always get sick when travelling on a boat…
Aw darn sorry Midori! Might still be fun to hang out on the dock and the restaurant/bar near the boats and experience the chill local vibes! 🙂
This is so great! A few years ago I was fishing in a river in FL and met this guy living on a houseboat that passed by and I made up a life goal to live on a houseboat haha. Which is pretty unrealistic – but I never even thought about Airbnb, that’s such a good idea! Will defo be looking into that.
Hahah love it! You could totally do it, Sarah! If you get a chance to go to the Virgin Islands, definitely hit up Jeremy on Airbnb – he was the best host ever and very kindly handled all our novice problems as first time boat dwellers! You’ll have to let us know if you end up living on a house boat so we can come visit 🙂
That looks like so much fun! I get seasick, and even dramamine doesn’t help so this is definitely not the thing for me.
Bummer, Maggie! Oh well, there’s always the boat community bar… 😉
I would so love to live on a houseboat I think I was a sailor in a past life as just love being on the water even if the boat doesn’t move. I love your “if you don’t eat it” don’t put it in the toilet quote lol
Haha that’s awesome, maybe you’ll live on a houseboat one day and we can come visit you on your houseboat! 😀
Ditto! And we just bought one to retire on!!-
Houseboats are pretty common in the Netherlands, but I have never stayed on one here. Your tropical adventure seems a lot nicer! Some elements do sound very familair from my 1 week ‘sailing’ cruise in Turkey which had the same toilet issues. I think it takes some getting used to but looks like great fun!
Your Turkey adventure sounds awesome, Naomi! Were you docked or was the boat traveling the whole time? And it really was great fun – enough so that we weren’t too worried about the inconveniences like the toilet!
Oh my god such a great post! I almost got a chance to stay in a boathouse once in London but then couldn’t make it in the last minute. I think the points you outline here about the shakiness, the toilet and the water are extremely helpful to those considering to stay in boat houses. Thank you for sharing! Love it!
Glad you found it to be helpful, Fiona! Sorry about your missed boathouse experience but hope you get another opportunity soon! It is really a lot of fun!
This is so funny — what a learning experience!
Helpful information too. I had no idea about the toilet flushers!
Great pictures though!
Haha yea the toilet situation was a surprise to us too! Thanks for reading and glad you enjoyed it! 🙂
I’ve always wanted to rent a houseboat (mainly after my trip to Amsterdam!) but I never thought about all the little aspects of it (aka manually flushing the toilet – haha!). But seriously, what a fun experience to have! I’ll have to get around to trying this someday!
We didn’t think about any of those little aspects of it either, so we had plenty of surprises when we got there. But that’s half the fun, right? Hope you get to try it one day!
I didn’t know there was so much to know before renting a boat! But it all makes sense!
I would love to be able to just lay on the deck at night, watching the stars with the hubby. Or sipping our morning coffee.
We’ve thought about doing it in Amsterdam but ended up staying elsewhere. I presume the water would have to be less choppy on a canal than in a bay on the open ocean! haha
And how cool is that, that people won’t start an Airbnb out of respect for their pal!
Hey Aryane, those were some of our favorite things too! Hope you get to do it one day – I imagine the canals of Amsterdam would be much more calm 🙂 Thanks for reading!
A lot of useful information there. I’d love to stay on a houseboat and travel that way 🙂 it looks like you had a lot of fun. I sleep like a baby when sleeping on a boat (my family used to have a sailboat) , which would kind of be a problem as I have a hard time waking up in the morning, already as it is. lol
I know what you mean, Kristine! I almost felt like a baby again being rocked to sleep – it was quite nice! Luckily the sun never failed to wake me up every morning so I didn’t have to worry about that. 🙂
Sounds like you had a great time. I am not sure how I would manage as I get very sea sick but I don’t think it would stop me. I would just have to take some medication. I love the idea of sleeping out on the deck, whether by day or by night. Thanks for a great read.
Kathy, I’d imagine with how adventurous you are that you would love this experience! And I’ve heard dramamine does wonders for seasickness. 🙂
Love the post! It’s truly a unique and awesome experience.
Thanks, Mom! 🙂
Staying on a boat is so much fun. We did this in Amsterdam rather then stay in a city hostel. Sounds like this was certainly a learning experience for you.
That sounds awesome, Jean! I’d imagine the waters in Amsterdam were a bit calmer than the sea water. 🙂
Hi sis.l’m already 8 and I love your story .? l’m just at home.No school. We went to blue mountain with my cousin.It was so fun.l went on 2 ski lift. One was Happy Valley and aaaaaa…….. l forgot the other one but we made a Gingerbread House and cookies ? l need to go now bye sis
Hey sis! That sounds like so much fun! I haven’t been skiing yet this year and would love to go to Blue Mountain with you next time! 🙂
What a fun accommodation! I never would have thought to stay in a house boat!
It was quite the experience! I’d definitely recommend it if you’re looking for an adventure. 🙂
Such helpful tips, Diana & Hope! Looking forward from hearing more helpful tips from you!
Thanks for reading, Agness! Will be putting out a lot more tips in 2017 with all the travels we have planned. 🙂
Very nice and bright smile there Diana! Looks like quite the unique experience to be staying at a house boat for a few days. Though I’ll be worrying all day if I were to leave my laptop and valuables unlocked though!
Thanks Kristine! I was definitely worried about that at first too, but it is such a safe community and I felt more comfortable with it after I saw someone leave their guitar out on the pier all day and night and no one even touched it!
Greetings, My husband and I chose to live on a houseboat on the Gold Coast (Australia) We fully intended to free moor but on closer examination we realised this wasn’t a viable option. So here we are in a Marina. We have a community of like minded souls, hot and cold running water, composting toilet and the option to venture out when the mood and weather forecasts are in alignment. Many thanks for your joyful approach to houseboating.
I thought it was interesting that you mentioned how if the boat is docked then it might mean that it’s steadiness is highly weather dependent. My brother is looking to buy tiny houseboats for sale but this will be his first boat. I’ll be sure to talk to him about paying attention to how well it fairs against the weather.
Looks like you had fun, I don’t know what kind of houseboat your rented without hot water but my houseboat has hot water and afull bath/shower. I don’t live on mine full time but that is my plan in the future.
Ours must not have been as nice as yours. Despite all that, we had a great time!
I am not sure if you are still reading these post but after reading your article and looking at the pics. I had to write. I am a single Dad with a 15 year old daughter so right now it is not feasible for me to live on a houseboat full time but I am certainly planning it at some point. I am hoping to free moor on the Hudson above NYC and when the weather gets cold head south to warmer waters. I really enjoyed your article and your positive outlook on boat living. I have heard so much negative (maintenance, fuel costs, etc) that it was certainly refreshing to get a breathe of fresh (salt) air on the experience. Thank you so much. You would be very welcome to come and stay on my boat when I get one. I am looking for houseboats around 50 ft to 60 ft. I will however have hot water, a nice shower and a composting toilet.
Hi Michael, thanks for reading and glad to hear about your goals to transition to boat life! Just to clarify, I have never owned a house boat or lived on one full time – I have only lived on one for shorter periods of time while traveling. Thus, I cannot speak to the negative points you mentioned hearing about (i.e. maintenance costs, fuel costs, etc.) that a full time owner would have to deal with. Anyway, best of luck and I’m sure if you can find a nice boat, a lot of the common problems boat owners experience can be avoided 🙂
Depends on the size of your boat. I have a 150HP so for me, it doesn’t matter. They will all go fast. I had once a 20HP on a 16 foot aluminum and it could get a round one up with a 160 pound person, but not a 200 pound person. Never tried the triangle ones but i suspect it wouldn’t make a difference. In the end, its all up to your boat. If you want a sure thing, Get something more bullet shaped that you sit on high in the water. I had one called a ski bob, don’t know if they still make them, but they pretty much don’t need to break water, they sit pretty high up.
My houseboat has great wifi provided and an “endless” and instant hot water heater. The toilet flushes with a touch of the handle too. Your boat sounds pretty primitive compared to what’s out here. Don’t speak for all boats in regards to boat life.
Hey Charie, thanks for your feedback! By no means am I trying to speak for all boats, and I am very well aware that some boats these days are nicer than my house. However, we stayed here on vacation, and most vacation rentals we’ve found have looked about the same as this one, which you might consider to be more “primitive.”