Your boat is an overlooked survival tool
Most boats are designed to spend significant time out on the water, away from shore facilities. Whether your motivation is due to a coronavirus outbreak, exploding houses, water supply problems, power outages, civil unrest, or something else, a boat can help you live “off grid”. That means it can be a good option when shore facilities aren’t available, even if you never leave the dock. In this article, I hope to give you a new appreciation for your boat as a versatile prepping tool.
Any boat with an enclosed cabin can provide shelter in a pinch, and larger ones can even keep you comfortable. Cruising boats have all the necessary facilities to be a temporary home: beds, a galley (kitchen), and a head (toilet). For this reason, many such boats can be considered by the IRS as a home for mortgage interest deduction purposes. (Consult a tax professional to learn if you can take advantage of this deduction.)
A boat doesn’t have to be a temporary home. I (and now my wife) have been living aboard boats full time, year round, for almost 10 years.
Just about every boat large enough to provide shelter also has fresh water tanks. If your tanks are clean and made out of safe materials, you can probably drink this water, though you’ll want to carefully prepare before you need to rely on it. Keeping your water tanks full and potable is an easy hedge against something happening to the water supply in your city.
Depending on the size of your tanks, this water might not last you very long. I recommend you keep at least one large jug (“jerry can”) suitable for potable water on board – it increases the amount of water you have, and you can refill it on quick resupply trips ashore. If you’re lucky enough to have a watermaker (desalinator) on board, you can make your own drinking water. These systems work by forcing sea water through a reverse osmosis membrane at high pressure to separate the water from impurities. When properly cared for, the membranes last for a long time, so the amount of water you can produce would mostly be limited to the amount of power you have to run the pump.
You can improve the taste, and perhaps even safety, of your on-board drinking water by installing filters in the system. I have a whole-boat carbon filter to improve the water quality, and I also have a dedicated drinking water faucet equipped with a General Ecology filter to remove bacteria and other stuff that might have slipped through the whole-boat filter. I’ll do a full write-up on water systems in a future article.
Ok, so a boat can’t directly provide food – unless you count fishing – but it does provide a place to store food. You probably already have a few canned or dried goods stashed about. If you ever undertake passages out of sight of land, hopefully you have a couple days of emergency rations aboard in case something goes wrong and you have to wait for the Coast Guard to rescue you. Just increase those supplies a little more than you normally would. A freezer, if you have one, gives you even more options.
Bluewater cruising boats can likely be stocked up with months of supplies. Treat it just like you’re preparing for a long cruise (or, conversely, treat preparing for a cruise like prepping for staying at home for a few weeks/months). Before my wife and I left on our cruise of the Caribbean, we filled our boat with toilet paper, paper towels, pasta, rice, beans, mac & cheese, and plenty of other non-perishables that would be expensive or difficult to get in small ports. We even had some left when we returned home.
Odds are, you already have the ability to generate some form of electricity on your boat with the engine, a dedicated generator, solar panels, or a wind generator. You’ll want to ensure you have the right chargers for your phone, laptop, etc. One bit of advice: often you can save a lot of power by using a car charger instead of running a normal household charger from an inverter. You might want a jerry can or two for whatever fuel your engine or generator requires.
My wife designed a 500W solar power system for our boat. We also have a generator and the main engine, but on sunny days, we barely need them.
As mentioned above, your boat should let you keep your phone charged so you’ll be able to communicate that way. But if your phone is broken, or you’re in an area with no service, or the land-based communications infrastructure is no longer functioning, there are other options. Almost every boat is equipped with a VHF radio. That lets you communicate with other boats and shore stations over line-of-sight distances, so in the event of a true disaster, you can stay informed. Many VHFs also include the ability to listen to weather radio broadcasts.
If your boat is equipped with Single Side Band (SSB) radio, you have a lot more options. These systems have a range of thousands of miles and many of them can listen to ham radio, which is often used to disseminate emergency communications during natural disasters. They require specialized knowledge and licenses to use, so prepare for this ahead of time. Some SSB setups even include rudimentary internet access which lets you send and receive email.
Another increasingly-popular option is satellite communication. These systems have widely varying capabilities and costs, so I won’t go into detail here, but it’s worth considering. Most ocean-crossing cruisers these days won’t leave port without some form of satellite communication, even if it’s just an EPIRB.
Unlike most land-based dwellings where you might take shelter, boats can move. If conditions where you are become untenable, you can cast off the lines and try somewhere else. You don’t need to worry about traffic clogging highways and that sort of thing (though you do need to cautious of bad weather). Sailboats in particular can travel vast distances with little to no fuel, if the skipper is up to the task.
Sometimes boating isn’t just about voyaging off into the sunset. I hope I’ve given you some ideas to help you prepare your boat to be a comfortable space to weather a literal or figurative storm, even if you never leave the dock.