Gardening on a sailboat?

For a while now, my fiancée and I have been talking about buying and permanently moving onto a larger sailboat with the family. The advantages for us are numerous: when on a boat / at sea, we struggle much less with our respective disabilities; our ADHD is more manageable; boats are functional units where everything has its place and its purpose as defined by practical considerations, so cleaning up is less work and takes less mental capacity; being close to the elements helps with my mental health problems; we save money compared to living in a house because we’re using less space more efficiently, and our lifestyle when at sea or mooring/anchoring forces us to save ressources. A good deal all in all.

Now, the thing is, I’m a gardener; while we both have a maritime background, my passion is digging my fingers into the soil. Many cruisers have found their own solutions for getting some fresh greens once in a while, from sprouting lentils in jars to growing rows of lettuce under the spray hood. We won’t be cruisers, our lifestyle will be less nomadic and more semi-sedentary, partly due to the kids and partly because we haven’t figured out how to permanently work off-shore yet so we’ll have to take and live off what regular employment we can get. The perspective of being moored in any one of two harbours on the Skagerrak and the Baltic Sea for most of the time gives me more opportunities for creating a food self-sufficiency that not only depends on the sea (of course we have ready-to-use fishing equipment as well) than spending large portions of the year in blue waters would.

In this post, I want to explore the possibilities and limitations of gardening aboard a 50-foot sailboat (the size we have picked for legal and practical reasons: license expenses, space aboard for a family of five and a dog, and the possibility to sail alone when in open waters while the other is resting or busy taking care of the kids). As examples for illustration purposes, I am going to use the Bavaria 50 and the Elan 50.1 Impression, two of our favourite models in that category.

First, let us talk about the limitations. The most relevant limitations to gardening on a relevant scale for human consumption on a sailboat are these four:

Moving parts: The issue is easily explained even to the most ignorant landlubber: a sailboat depends on the wind as its main means of propulsion, the wind changes direction all the time and even when it doesn’t, the boat needs to be able to adjust course. A sail acts the same way as a parachute when running from the wind, and like the wing of an airplane when sailing on the wind (we’re talking about fore-and-aft rigs here, obviously). Therefore, the sails need to be adjusted by changing their angle relative to the wind and changing their effective surface. The easiest way to achieve this is through different kinds of ropes, which in turn need contraptions like travellers and winches for easier handling in difficult conditions. In short, there are a lot of moving parts on deck that can crush or cut off plants when you’re underway or preparing to sail.

Moisture: In a nutshell, almost any space under deck is off-limits to gardening. Moisture is one of your biggest enemies on a boat – it leads to mould, which poses a serious risk to the health of everyone aboard and can lead to corrosion, and during winter moisture is what makes the almost inevitable cold even less bearable here in Scandinavia. And you’ll always get moisture in, be it in the form of wet clothes or evaporation from cooking or the sea itself, the air we breathe out, sweat… the list is long enough as it is, and you want to avoid adding to it with water evaporating from soil and leaves (not to mention that soil itself also carries mould spores).

Blocking space: As anyone who has ever sailed, be it on a dinghy or a full-rigger, will tell you, space on a boat or a ship is limited. While most modern yachts are designed for leisure and therefore have space on deck for sunbathing and other activities, we’re facing a somewhat different situation with a live-aboard sailboard: We will need space to dry your clothes, space for the kids and the dog to move about and play safely, space to work and relax, not to mention for sailing itself.

Saltwater exposure: This one is easily understood. Most food plants don’t tolerate salt very well, and when there’s rough weather or you’re sailing, you get a ton of spray, which further limits available space on deck.

Obviously, all of these limitations are highly contingent on circumstance; I am trying to highlight aspects as they are relevant in a «semi-nomadic» context, i.e. being anchored or moored most of the time while remaining ready to move the boat, either for short trips or to another city, including trips across the sea, for example to my hometown in northern Germany. Other variables here are climate and weather, or the seasons for short, and obviously one’s lifestyle; living with children always comes with a much different use of space, and having access to harbour facilities means a decreased need for space aboard.

After we’ve covered the limitations, let us move on to what actually is feasible.

While the part from the bow to the mast is pretty much off-limits to plants when we’re sailing or preparing to (let’s for example say we want to be able to fly a genoa to be able to cover more distance when travelling), there’s plenty of space available on the rear half of the boat. We can use the railing for hanging containers (using flexible hanging solutions that sway freely when the boat is rolling, minimising the amount of stress on the plants); the most important deliberation here is to choose whether to use the inside of the railing (offering more protection from the elements) or the outside (saving space for moving about). We intend to surround the railing on our boat, where possible, with low plastic avalanche fences for the kids’ and the dog’s safety, which offers more protection and stability while minimising the range of movement for the containers. Experimentation is needed to see how this would play out in practice, but safety comes first, while growing food aboard is merely a luxury and freedom I want to explore.

To limit saltwater exposure, these containers can be covered in plastic bags with holes for watering, drainage, and the plants themselves. In the past, I have experimented with simple solutions for catching excess water for reuse, which would come in handy where there is space; freshwater is a precious limited ressource on a bluewater vessel and should not be «wasted» on plants. These bags would protect the soil from the spray that would cause most food plants to wither. They would not be strictly necessary in more protected spaces aboard the vessel, but for using the railing, they are indispensible.

Most modern yachts, as mentioned before, are designed for leisure and comfort; this means ample lounging space when not under sail (and most plants tolerate being stowed away for a few days surprisingly well). The part of the deck under the foresail for example, i.e. in between the mast and the bow, is one of those classic lounging areas. Since the cockpit will always be the centre of activity on a family boat (as the centre of the mental space, the captain’s/skipper’s place when sailing, and an al fresco dining area weather permitting) and there’s still enough space for resting and sunbathing, this gives us a precious square metre or two we can use for food production without limiting the quality of life aboard; rather, as many bluewater sailors experimenting with food production report, a tiny garden tends to improve the quality of life aboard. The main limitation to this solution is that it is contingent on being moored or anchored and therefore not permanent; all those plants need another space where they can be moved when needed.

Another advantage of a sailing vessel this size is that sophisticated furling systems and a high (as in overhead) boom limit the amount of space exposed to sails and moving ropes. This means a procentually higher area on deck that is permanently (or near-permanently, accounting for maintenance, cleaning, and working the sails) available in comparison to a smaller boat, and therefore leads to fewer conflicts between stationary planting containers and people or parts moving about.

The cockpit area, while serving as a working area first and foremost, often features seating space intended for charter cruise use and therefore not strictly necessary, such as rumble seats in the aft; spray hoods on larger daysailers serve many leisure sailors as useful niches for growing herbs or decorative plants; and the almost obligatory unfoldable dining table is usually well-secured against items sliding off of it, using wood ridges or metal wiring, making it suitable for keeping plants while leaving space to eat al fresco, an important opportunity for soaking up some sunlight when living in a partially submerged vehicle that needs to have small windows for reasons of structural integrity.

Especially when using a hard top or enclosure, we are provided with opportunities for hanging up shelves with leaf vegetables that even allow for primitive hydroculture while not taking up a lot of space; this has successfully been tried before and may even be combined with basic greywater recycling. Living in Scandinavia, we are more likely to use a cockpit enclosure when remaining stationary during the cold part of the year (i.e., to be laconic about it, most of it) than a hard top, which is mostly intended to provide shade while under sail in warmer climates. Hydroculture, is an advantage here because the enclosure acts as an airlock keeping moisture out of the living spaces under deck (and warmth in), and is not disturbed much by a relatively closed water cycle.

The next one may seem a bit freaky, as in unappetising, but hear me out. The heads (for the landlubbers: we’re talking about the bathrooms) on boats in this class tend to have skylights with ample overhead space; since the heads function as wet cells, having plants here does not mean more moisture under deck as a whole, and the moist climate minimises the need for watering while the plants double as an air freshener. Don’t look at me like that, I’ve successfully grown beans in my bathroom before and they were just fine.

In general, boats come with a lot of places to hang things from the ceiling; in the Age of Sail, this was a classic stowing solution for sailors to keep their personal belongings safe from moisture and rats; in our time of fiberglass hulls and sealed hatches, we have storage underfoot, so that any area that needs good ventilation anyway, such as the galley, can provide us with some precious extra space for growing food and stabilising the interior climate (after all, plants don’t just give off water into the air, they also suck up excess water from the air). In the process of becoming familiar with our vessel, we will discover spaces both on and under deck suitable for hanging containers; this is pretty much predetermined by the design of waterbourne vessels.

To try something more extravagant: Many yachts in this class are equipped with skylights above the galley and saloon (i.e., under the boom). During winter, a small fitted hoophouse placed above these would offer protection to plants while being warmed by the excess heat from the living space and acting as a layer of insulation for that same space while not taking away too much light (using transparent material). This might even double as a plant nursery in Spring, before planting. On a fiberglass deck, this hoophouse would have been built in a way to not scratch the deck; a teak deck would make this kind of construction considerably easier. However, another viable option here is to simply hang the hoophouse from the boom, which is constructed to hold the weight of several dozen square metres of sailcloth, i.e., a lot.

In conclusion, with smart planning and enough prior consideration it should be possible to squeeze out enough space out of a 50 foot sailboat to minimise our family’s dependence on the market economy for staying healthy even further (in conjunction with food sharing and dumpster diving for example) while preserving the boat’s capacity to do what it’s built to do: being a safe, comfortable, and energy-efficient vehicle.

To help us finance our vision of a more lightweight, anti-capitalist and communal life, we are currently preparing to launch our own little independent media production firm slash production label slash design agency,  Svaberg Studio, which will be transformed into a cooperative with proper legal structure and accounting as soon as we’ve raised the funds for getting it registered. If you want to support this project, you can contribute by donating to Tale & S/Y Rosa Lusita or yours truly