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Downsizing – Fitting your life on a sailboat


Is it time to jettison your junk?

Downsizing is not specific to living on a sailboat, but if you’ve ever had to squish your worldly possessions onto a sailboat, car, or conestoga wagon you know how important it is for everyone’s safety and sanity.  People are like goldfish; we will swell (with possessions) to the size of our bowl.  It’s easy to accumulate possessions, but it’s not so easy to downsize and get rid of them.  As sailors we have pretty small bowls and it’s imperative that we get cut down on excess and superfluity.  To this end, we made a little guide and flowchart.  The chart has helped us downsize on a number of occasions; whether it was moving onto a boat from our apartment in Toronto, or hauling anchor and setting sail for Australia.

Introducing, our sailor’s guide to downsizing:

The big squeeze

  1. Start downsizing early. We found that large-scale downsizing works best in iterations. If you’re planning on moving onto a boat for the first time, give yourself a minimum of three months and try to remove everything you can once a month.
  2. Know what you can find where you’re going. One of the traps we fell into was over preparing. Not everything you will need in the foreseeable future needs to be on your boat right at this moment. If you are planning to cruise your local islands and inlets, then you don’t need all the hardware and spares required for a trip across the Pacific.  Even on our trip down to Mexico, we were so wrapped up in offshore checklists and “what if” scenarios that we wound up bringing more than we needed. Spares can be essential when you’re out at sea, but remember other parts of the world have building, boating and domestic supplies too. Of course this will vary depending on where you’re cruising so be sure to speak with cruisers who have been to your intended destination recently (i.e. within one to two years).
  3. Stay flexible. Your activities may change as you cruise so plan flexibility into your supplies. For example, as we cruised through the US we used our foldable bikes every day. Now that we’re in Mexico, where public transit is cheap and bike lanes are scarce, we’re getting rid of our bikes. Similarly, we’ve started camping so we bought a cheap tent a Walmart. Out-go the bikes and in-come the camping supplies. Just because you started with a piece of gear doesn’t mean you have to end with it.
  4. Use your stuff before you go. You may just find that after one use that you realize you don’t need it after all. For example, in a fit of self-reliance exuberance we purchased a mangle and plunger, determined to do all of our laundry while on board. One Sunday in the boatyard we decided to give it a trial run and after 6 hours plunging and mangling our dirty vestments we decided it wasn’t for us. Now the mangle sits in a box in Fiona’s mum’s basement.


Staying light

So you’ve cleared on your space and are now living on your beautifully organized boat. How to keep the junk at bay?

  1. Be ruthless about what enters your space. Just say “no” to freebies, brochures, and anything else you don’t have an immediate use for.
  2. Limit the amount of space you give an item – Designate one bookshelf for books and once that fills up, it’s time to do a drop off at the book exchange.
  3. Be generous – What goes around comes around. By freely giving our disused items to other cruisers and sailors we have also received useful things in the same manner. 


Almost Done!

Now that you’ve made the hard decisions and have exactly what you need on the boat, you may face another dilemma.  What do I do with all this stuff I took off the boat?  While it makes sense to store some of it, now is a great opportunity to keep the ball rolling. Instead of stuffing everything in the garage or storage locker, consider gifting, selling, recycling or donating some of your items.  We’ve given away and received a ton of gear and it’s always nice to have a little extra money in the cruising kitty.




Flow chart

Do I really need it? Pretty simple, but if you know right off that bat that you can live without out it then get rid of it! Another question to ask yourself is, imagine everything was destroyed on your boat – would you go out and repurchase a particular item? If not, you can probably live without it.


Can it be digitized? Scan all of your paperwork, music, movies, books and store digitally on a computer, hard-drive, or in the cloud. Don’t forget sentimental things like handwritten cards or pictures.  Nowadays, many cruisers are moving away from paper charts.  We keep our digital charts in five separate places across three devices; chartplotter, tablet and computer to provide redundancy.  In any case, make sure digital files are backed-up.


Can I get a smaller version? If it absolutely must come on board, then have it take up as little space as possible. For example, nesting pots and pans with detachable handles are great space-savers in the galley. Buy multiple brush and mop heads that will all fit the same handle.


Can I get a version that performs multiple functions? A sail bag can be used to carry laundry and groceries. A mason jar doubles for fish canning and a flower vase. A wine bottle opener can open beer bottles and ideally tin cans.  Most items on your boat should have at least a couple of functions.


Can it be easily borrowed? The confederacy among sailors is famous and provides one of the  greatest networks for sharing knowledge, skills, and tools! Keep only the essentials and know that you can likely borrow from a fellow cruiser along the way and also rent larger items, like shop-vacs, in most places.


Can I part with it? Often these items fall into a sentimental category; a hammer that your dad gave you when you were a teenager or a pair of boots that you absolutely love.  The marine environment seems particularly hard on the things we love because we don’t want them to change.  The truth is, salt, sun and humidity will breakdown almost anything.  If you want to have it for the rest of your life, it may not belong on the boat.


Will it last? If it doesn’t work well to begin with you’re likely to throw it out sooner or later, so go out and get a better version now. For example, we ditched all of our cotton bedsheets for microfiber to keep the moisture at bay.


We hope you’re feeling lighter already! Do you have any downsizing tips to share – please put them in the comment box below.


Tuesday 23rd of May 2017

Great little downsizing guide!

The idea of digitizing took hold of me a few years ago and now I scan EVERYTHING and store it in my Google Drive. It actually took me a few weeks of constant scanning when I first started, but now as soon as I get any papers/cards/letters/receipts, etc. it gets scanned, organized and shredded! What a relief to be free of the paper jungle and storage cabinets!

Hope to see y'all out there in the future.



Monday 29th of May 2017

Thanks Mike! Don't it feel good going paper-free :)

Phil Gray

Tuesday 8th of November 2016

Hi Folks, came across one of your articles which gave me a "doh!" revelation. You can't pole out a 140% genoa using my small pole, so you saved me the hassle and embarrassment of trying. Anyhow, where are you? Are you still heading to Australia?

Regards Phil Gray Bernicia

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