Slip, Hook, Ball or Anchor.. It’s Your Choice

Cape Lookout, NC – May, 2020

Our discussion of Living and/or Cruising Aboard continues this week with a look at some of the various alternatives that are available to Cruising and Liveaboard Boaters .

This is only a general discussion as all of the variables are just too numerous to mention here.

Last post we discussed a lot of the questions and considerations that come up in the course of searching for a marina in which you would like to live aboard your boat.

This week, we’ll talk about some alternate options of Living/Cruising on the Hook and we’ll also cover “Living on the Ball” as it is very similar in nature with but a few differences.

As in Living in a marina, there are many advantages and a few disadvantages that most people allow to influence their decision to live at anchor versus living in a marina.

Back to Nature

SouthRiver, NC -2019

Herein lies one of the biggest advantages on living at anchor. Usually causing a second look when Marina Costs are a factor in designing the budget for your live aboard or Cruising lifestyle.

One must first look at the logic of considering this.

Firstly, living at anchor is usually (but not always) looked upon as a temporary alternative when traveling or cruising to different ports and or locations. You won’t be there very long so why decide to incur the extra costs of dockage, electricity and water for such a short stay? Living at anchor is free of charge (most of the time) and you can choose that beautiful, calm and serene cove that is well protected from weather. It also might offer the best vantage points to experience the best sunsets or sunrises. No noise except the birds and the occasional crab pot guy who collects his catch sometime around sunrise.

These fishermen are often friendly and very cognizant of the fact that you value your privacy. As long as you haven’t stirred around with his pots and respect his livelihood, I have found them to be friendly and especially helpful about local knowledge when asked.

When cruising, living on the hook each night also offers some extreme advantages in viewing nature in it’s natural state.

The sound a dolphin makes as it surfaces and “Blows” right next to your boat is an incredible if not surprising experience. Especially after sunset. At twilight, when the water is still and the light is fading.

The sound of an Eagle’s call as they greet the morning or the high-pitched cry of the Osprey when you get too close to their nest.

Have you ever seen a Whale’s tail as it rises above the surface and then hear it slap the water upon reentry?

And the Gulls. Irritating to most… But folklore suggests that they possess the souls of Old Sailors. Here on the waters to live forever. I think that might be really true. They’re nasty, and cause trouble. They’re loud and boisterous. They eat garbage and crap everywhere. Just like some sailors I’ve known.

It is sometimes so quiet, even the smallest of sounds can be noticed and contemplated on. It’s no wonder that many Cruiser’s are into Yoga and Meditation.

Sometimes the sounds can be alarming in that you have no idea what is making it.

One such experience, during a delivery, occurred one night about 02:30. There were 3 of us aboard that evening. It was the absolute dead of February and it was cold. Very cold.

Having gotten the anchor set and squared away in one of many coves along the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway) South of the Pamlico River, we settled down to a great meal of broiled steak and all the fixings. After the meal (and a few rum drinks)and being very tired from sailing all day in the cold, we settled in for the night. With one last check about the boat and on the anchor’s holding integrity, we all turned in for a cool but very restful sleep.

About 2:30 am, there came such a loud cacophony of noise under the boat. Wave after wave of something crashing into the underside of the hull. It was very loud and sounded like we were getting thrashed by a thunderstorm from underneath. Being terrified, I arose straight up in my bunk, Upon doing so, I slammed my head into the low overhead and fell out of bed and down onto the deck. Ouch! (I’m not going to mention here what I really said)

The rest of the crew had similar reactions and in a matter of seconds we were all wide awake wondering What the Hell was going on. The noise was coming from under the Boat!

In about 15 seconds the sound and vibrations thru the hull had subsided and things got quiet again. I don’t think any of us went back to sleep that night as we were up discussing aloud what the ruckus could have been and if it was going to come back.

For years after that experience, we searched for answers and received many explanations. That was over 35 years ago and we still talk about that night whenever we get together and toss back a few.

We now refer to that night as being “the attack of the killer shrimp”.

We don’t know to this day exactly what it was that night that crashed into our hull under the cold dark water but one thing for sure now is that each time the story is told, hilarity ensues and we have a good laugh at ourselves.

It is experiences like this that stick in your minds and heart forever. It additionally causes strong ties and lasting memories for the individuals you are with.

Anchors and Balls

The skill of learning how to anchor properly and having the right equipment is essential for any boat.

One never knows when you might be called upon to make use of an anchor and it’s certainly a stress reliever to know that you are comfortable with the procedure. I have even been known to anchor in the middle of a race to keep from being set back because of current and no wind.

I won’t get into the details of proper ground tackle or procedures here as it is not the subject of this post. Nevertheless, It is mandatory that you know how to do it properly before you enter a harbor, cove or anchoring field for the duration of your stay. Other boaters are depending on you to anchor properly and in the right place.

Sometimes, you don’t have a say in where this might be especially if the anchoring field is owned by the marina or city in which case, you will have to go where directed. This is very common when tying up to a buoy (or ball) as they are normally placed at the proper intervals for certain lengths of boats.

When staying in Boot Key Harbor, a very popular, long-term ball anchorage in Marathon, Florida, this is what you’ll find. I think they had 226 Mooring Balls at last count. They do it right and know what Cruisers need.

Mooring fields maintained by municipalities are generally kept in good repair enabling you to have piece-of-mind when leaving your boat or in a storm. Mooring Balls are usually anchored to the bottom using very heavy weight such as iron engine blocks or concrete. (It’s usually the condition of the mooring “pendant” that you need to be concerned about) That’s the line (rope or chain) that connects your boat to the immovable object far below. A certain amount of practice is required in “picking up” these lines which are normally designated by a large, White floating “ball”.

Outside of mooring balls, directed anchoring is a rare instance. Most of the time it is left up to you and your responsibility as to where you drop anchor.

One of the worst experiences you can have while anchoring is to not do it properly and do it in the wrong place. Anchoring “on top” of others is frowned upon as any “dragging” that might occur will leave the two of you (or more) tangled together in a huge mess.

This most always happens during the worst possible times while weathering a squall or storm in the anchorage in the middle of the night.

Usually afterwards, or the next morning, when tempers have calmed and the mess starts to get sorted out is when the Wannabe YouTubers come out with their cameras looking to capture the latest “click-bait” and headlines for their next episode. If it is your desire to be an infamous YouTube Star, you’ll most likely get your chance during these moments.


Being at anchor while cruising or as a live aboard also requires that you have suitable transportation to the dock, marina or area in which you plan to stay. If you have pets, this fact is magnified somewhat unless you have spent time to train them to do their business aboard.

She Loves a dinghy ride. Beaufort, NC 2020

There are as many ways to get around and have fun on the water as there are fish in the sea. Dinghies fulfill this role nicely and come in all shapes and forms.

Canoes, Kayaks, Standup Paddleboards (SUP’s), surfboards, nesting, fold up and inflatable and much more.

Rowing Dinghies, Sailing Dinghies and Homemade Dinghies

A reliable “car” (dinghy) is a must. Whether it be the Cadillac version or something more humble. Which like a car, can resemble just a “Beater” that you run errands on and don’t mind the inevitable dents, scrapes and dings they all eventually get.

Taking the time to acquaint yourself with proper “dinghy etiquette” is well worth the time it takes to avoid an embarrassing moment.

Broadcasting yourself as a selfish, inconsiderate dolt among your fellow boaters is not difficult to do. Blasting through a crowded mooring field or anchorage, leaving your outboard motor in the “up” position at the dinghy dock, operating at night without lights and using a short “painter” (dock line) at the dock all qualify for this judgement.

Often, especially in Sailboats, water depths play a big part in the use and ease of using dinghys. In general, the closer you are to shore, the shorter your dinghy ride will be. This will result in less gasoline used, drier clothing and groceries you’ll inevitably have to schlep to get back aboard to re-provision.

Keep in mind that sometimes, water depths or reefs will prohibit close in anchoring. This is when an abundance of horsepower is needed to make short work of long and time consuming dinghy rides.

As you can see, the dinghy plays an important role in the quality of an on-the-water lifestyle. There are lots of styles to choose from and there is no “one size fits all”. Choose yours carefully.

Usually, dinghy docks are present at most localities, some with a small charge, most of which are free.

A “Three Car Garage” for the evening. SouthRiver, Lukens, NC, 2018
Near Rockland Harbor, Maine. August, 2010

Off the Grid

Many boats out there today utilize watermakers, wind, solar power and/or generators to minimize the number of times they have to visit Marinas. Equipping your boat so that you can “live off the grid” will give you much freedom and minimize your costs in the long run.

These additions come at a cost but they are well worth it and mandatory in some parts of the world. Solar and /or wind-power have consistently proven to be the most cost-effective means of going “off the grid” on boats. Technological and Electronic advances have taken this to a high level of ingenuity. There is an entire Industry dedicated toward doing this on a boat and is something you would probably need to consider if you plan to cruise at all.

One word about generators, don’t be “that guy” that runs his old generator all night just to keep his reluctant partner and himself comfortable. The noise and fumes are really looked down upon in a crowded or a quiet anchorage.

That being said, Generator technology has come a long way toward easing the aforementioned pain. for everyone. Honda makes some excellent products that excel in fuel efficiency, portability and low noise operation.

Shown Here: Solar Panel Arch serving double duty as a dinghy hoist.

Runs to shore in your dinghy is a commonplace occurrence. The fact that the ride into shore will not always be pleasant must be considered when choosing a spot to anchor.

Lot’s of boaters even make use of folding bicycles to make this job easier. But even folding bicycles take up precious room aboard and can be a real challenge in a dinghy unless you can store them securely ashore.

I have saved for last one of the biggest reasons (for most) to anchor instead of going to a marina for dockage

There be Land! ….and the costs that come with it!

With the rising costs of operating marinas and the subsequent passing on of those costs to boaters, it makes sense that if you value your privacy, are on a limited budget, love nature and solitude or wish to leave a smaller footprint on the environment, then choosing an anchorage or Mooring field might be more to your liking.

Not surprisingly, there is an increasing trend that implies that there are those who might be thinking that living aboard at a marina will be much cheaper than living in a house, I ask you to look again at what you could be responsible for paying for.

It is a known fact that renting a slip in a marina is not an inexpensive proposition.

With slip rents approaching $10-$12 a foot, (here in Eastern NC and much higher elsewhere) a modest live aboard boat can be very expensive to tie up. Add to that:

The cost of Utilities – It is not much cheaper to have electrical service onboard your boat than at your home. In fact, it can and is much more in a lot of cases. Homes built on dirt the past 20 years have reasonable insulation and efficient heating and air conditioning units. Lower than 50 degree water temperature will result in very inefficient use of a boat’s onboard heating system and will undoubtedly need to be supplemented by an additional source. Trying to stay warm using this method will result in long run times for the unit and usually provide only lukewarm comfort.

On the other hand, the same units, (which carry the term “reverse-cycle”) don’t really provide good A/C cooling when water temps go over 80 degrees. And in Marinas, the raw water intakes on these units clog up. (a lot)

These extremes are a fact of life even here in NC where in the Winter, Water temps can reach down to 35 degrees (and I have seen lower) and those same Summertime temps will regularly hover over 90 degrees. It is normal to have water temps reach 83 degrees in the Southeast Summer. Add in the factor that the boat is floating in this water and that fiberglass is a great conductor of heat and cold.

For a 38 foot boat with 3 cabins, utilities can average out to be about $100/ month where the cost of kilowatt hours is currently above $0.12 per kwh. Plus, most marinas charge a “Pedestal Fee” of $15-$20/Month. That is here in this part of North Carolina. This usage figure is an average for all 12 months of the year even though there are some months I do not even have the unit activated. I have also improved the insulation in the hull and refrigeration unit. Shading properties of the hull and cabintop can make as much of a difference as 10-12 degrees Fahrenheit inside the cabin in the Summer.

If you’re reading this and are located elsewhere I know what you’re thinking.

You are probably amazed at how cheap it is here in Eastern North Carolina. And you are mostly correct. But not in most cases. It takes diligent research and time to find the “hidden jewels” of economic utilities out there. Even here.

There are alternate sources of heat which involve electric cabin heaters, Fans (both 120vac and 12vdc) and fossil fuel fired bulkhead mounted heaters which can stand alone as a heat source or supplement your boat’s main unit. While not as expensive as operating the boat’s built in environmental system, there still remains a cost to be realized.

Having your boat in a more temperate climate helps a lot during any season but temperate climates cost more in the marinas where they are located (Florida and Maine for example)

St Petersburg Municipal Marina in the distance – Florida. July, 2017

The following is a short list of things to consider about Marinas and is in no way indigenous to any area.

  • Property Taxes (in a Marina) Yes.. if you liveaboard at a Marina in some places, the local Government wants it’s pound of flesh as well. Just like a house.
  • Going out for or accessibility to restaurants, entertainment and/or drinks – As you make friends around you in Marinas, you will no doubt make use of nearby shore restaurants, bars and entertainment facilities.
  • Fees. Pedestal Fees, “Convenience” Fees, “Envionmental” Fees, Membership Fees, Parking Fees, Trash Fees, Liveaboard Fees, Historical District Fees (No kidding) and more. Seriously.
  • Internet and cable. These are sometimes offered as “perks” in a Marina but guess what.. You are paying for them anyway (In your slip or transit rent) and oftentimes they don’t even work, requiring you to contract with a local cable provider. Talk to current marina dwellers.
  • Ground transportation – Especially if you and/or your spouse/partner still work. It’s tough to find nearby work at most Marinas.
  • Regular and in/consistent rate hikes. These can be significant. In rebuttal, What’s the difference in going up on rates $0.50/ft/year and going up $2.00/ft/every 4 years? Personally, I prefer the first option, if they must.
  • And the latest thing…“Discreet” Slip Charges. For long-term (over 1 month) renters. (Marinas have a plethora of excuses ready to combat the “designed to confuse” argument on this) Don’t get me started.

Face It. The “Upscale”, City-centric, or “Resort” type places practice some (if not all) of the above business models.

Huge, “conglomerate” type marinas are fast becoming the norm and are the worst culprits in my experience for the obvious reasons of cost, impersonal business relationships, inexperienced, underpaid and burned out overworked staff. And last but not least, greedy property owners, so called real-estate tycoons and shareholders all see opportunities here.

It reminds me of exactly what happened to truckstops in a life far away and long ago.

My advice (if you want to stay in a Marina), is to find that “Mom and Pop” type place that sits in those beautiful, out-of-the-way quiet areas where the living is much easier and respect/kindness from experienced and caring staff is a two-way street. Disclaimer: This JUST my advice. And it’s Free. So let that be your guiding light on this matter.

Many of these smaller (and more remote) places still hold to the notion that every single convenience and necessity doesn’t have to be charged for, but yet, they are still in business and know what it takes to be run profitably.

I know a few that come to mind, but be aware, they are sometimes closely guarded secrets because they don’t do a lot of Marketing hype and the residents don’t like a lot of publicity. Do your research.

Sure, you may have to put up with bicycles on the dock, being another mile or two from your favorite ice-cream bar or laundry hung out to dry on lifelines. There might even be a few derelict boats waiting for their owners to return. But you won’t go broke Jones’in with the crowd and very often, these places have much cleaner facilities, better quality water you float in and a small, but hard working staff on hand.

Rest assured. You’ll also run into all of the “different” people that populate all marinas. Sometimes that’s the best part!

So, the argument for anchoring or ballin’ out (as the case may be) seems to be a much less costly decision to make. Do Your homework and realistically assess your needs and likes.

But it doesn’t come without it’s own considerations.

As pointed out before, anchoring out is generally free. Some municipalities have jumped on the bandwagon and are now charging for an anchorage on their waterfront albeit for a much more reasonable cost than tying up to a dock.

A fine line is present here in the fact that most Boaters bring much needed commerce into many remote coastal areas in the forms of Fuel and Maintenance purchases.

Small Business, Professional Services, local grocery and other shopping venues also benefit. Incredibly, Many towns/cities don’t seem to care about this.

As more and more people take to the water and these areas become more crowded, expect the inevitable ordinances to follow. Behaving as good citizens in these areas will go a long way towards the welcome you’ll get when going ashore to explore, shop or provision.

Loud, late night parties, trashy vessel appearances, disregard for local laws and pumping waste overboard into No Discharge Zones by only an irresponsible few can totally ruin it for the rest of us. By and large, It has always been my observation that the long-term cruiser or liveaboard are very good environmental stewards. We can’t believe it when we find out reasonable sized municipalities have no provision for recycling.

Beside being highly illegal to do so, would you want someone to dump their oil, trash or human waste in your front yard?

Thankfully, more and more shore-side businesses and towns are seeing the logic in investing in equipment that is made available to all boaters for a reasonable fee.

In our area, The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality maintains a helpful list of facility locations for sewage pump-outs and their related charges. Many facilities do this free of charge because they see the advantage in doing so. It’s always a good idea to “tip” the personnel that get handed this job. Being there and a willingness to help (if needed) is also a “good neighbor” thing to do.

In this Author’s opinion, costs incurred from operating these facilities should be kept at an affordable level for Everyone. To do otherwise and use it as a profit center only encourages disregard for surrounding waters in weaker individuals.

I am certainly no advocate for big government but if need be, City and County governments should be pressed to be involved in the procurement, operation and pricing structure of using such facilities. I’ve seen pump-out prices range from Free to upwards of $40 per tank (most cruising boats have two) locally.

A great example of good stewardship on the part of a municipality to encourage conservation and clean water nearby is one of which is located at the Washington Town Docks in Washington, NC.

The following statement outlines how Federal, State and Local Governments cooperate to offer these services.

The NC Division of Coastal Management (DCM) believes boaters should be able to get a sewage pumpout for your boat as easily as they can get other common boating services, such as fuel. So DCM is working to make pumpout and dump stations readily available through the Marine Sewage Pumpout and Dump Station Grant Program.

Using funding from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, DCM has made grants of up to $15,000 available on a yearly basis to private and commercial marinas, gas/service docks, fish houses/seafood dealers and other boat docking facilities in the 20 coastal counties. Beginning Oct. 1, 2013, the grant amount has increased to $20,000. A 25 percent match is required of the marinas. A 25 percent match also is required of local governments installing pumpouts at public docks.”

The program, established as a result of the federal Clean Vessel Act of 1992, provides financial assistance to marinas and other boat-docking facilities for the installation and renovation of pumpout and dump stations in North Carolina.

“Pump-out boats” will normally be in presence at many marinas. Making rounds to offer their services in the Mooring field. Quite often, there is no charge for the service.

Mooring Field at Bristol Yacht Club, Bristol R.I. October, 2017

Comfort on the Hook

You still have to stay warm in Winter and Cool in Summer. At anchor or on a Ball, Staying comfortable is possible especially if you are using one of the many types of fuel heating devices. Staying cool is a different story. Most folks just get used to it but in some cases, you might find yourself moored close to “that guy” again who will crank up his generator to run his A/C. All night.

These are some of the reasons that many boaters migrate to Florida each Winter Season. Especially North Florida. It’s costly to keep a boat there for the average boater and the opportunities are dwindling (especially for anchoring) fast. But the climate is certainly more bearable in the winter and the costs are not as high as in points further South. Remember, Wintertime in Florida is the “High” Season. Likewise in the more Northern climes in the Summer.

Recent advances in battery technology and more efficient solar panels are finally making it possible to stay cool from just the energy that the Sun provides.

As the population gets older and the influx of new boaters get more accustomed and concerned about their comfort, marinas offer the “necessary” amenities that most people now cannot or will not live without.

Everything gets to be more of a challenge while at anchor. Laundry, (unless you do your own) provisioning, access to land because of the needs of a pet. Access to water for drinking and washing and electricity. If you don’t make your own, sooner or later you have to go in and don’t forget trash disposal. Dinghy rides into shore can be a cold, wet and miserable proposition.

What about Mail?

Getting mail while living “on the hook” and cruising is entirely doable. very easy in fact thanks to traveler’s mail services like St. Brendan’s Isle, Dockside Mail or Earth Class Mail. In a nutshell, the services provided include scanning, forwarding and shredding. In some cases, certain ones will help you to establish a bonafide land-based address (In a tax free state to preserve income or help you keep your Driver’s License). It is important to note here that the restrictions on having a residential address placed by financial institutions are getting tighter as a result of The Patriot Act passed some years ago. Information about the individual services and rates vary quite a bit and bears a small amount of time to research what is best for you.

More on Traveling and Cruising

Sometimes during the peak seasons of transit on the ICW, anchoring out might be the only option due to limited space at marinas. After all, Peace and Solitude while anchoring allows the perfect environment for us to really understand and comprehend our place in the world. Being close to Mother Nature helps us to gain insight and knowledge about the world around us that we would never get a chance to experience otherwise. And the views can’t be beat.

While cruising, anchoring out or tying up to a mooring ball is the natural choice for a lot of people.

Keep in mind that during violent weather, most cruisers will head for the perceived safety and convenience of a marina. Again, there are different schools of thought on this. Remaining aboard during Hurricanes is asking for trouble. Having the proper ground tackle, equipment and training will go a long way towards helping you to feel confident about your anchoring skills.

If you find that social companionship with having close-by neighbors is more to your liking or the convenience of accessibility to land for all that it offers and the cost is a secondary issue, then a marina may be just what you need. Only you can answer that question.

If, on the other hand, it is the tranquility, the solitude of early morning in the cockpit with your coffee and an expanded sense of freedom you desire, then an anchor or a ball might be your best option.

In closing, research and more research will go a long way toward your ultimate happiness. Ask around too. Most boaters will be blatantly honest about discussing their individual likes and dislikes. Make sure you ask experienced cruisers and marina dwellers to get the down low.

Word of mouth travels fast and deep in the cruising and boating community. It won’t be difficult to find out who/what/when and where best fits your budget and lifestyle.

Of great help, are Mobile Applications such as Active Captain, Navionics and Aquamaps. These are primarily navigational programs but they also employ complete listings in the shape of Icons that offer all the information you need to find just the right Marina, Mooring field or Anchorage. They offer applications for Android, Ios and various popular chartplotters.

Navionics Boating. Sample – Marinas and Anchorages Circled

Waterway Guide is offered both as a stand alone print version as well as a “plug-in” for various programs such as iNavX, Apple’s outstanding proprietary mobile navigational application that uses US Government NOAA charts.

Beware of Cruising and Boating Forums on the Internet. There is some great advice there but it takes diligence to separate the chaff from the good stuff.

Somewhere in the Gulf of Maine – August 2020

Hold Fast and we’ll see you out there…

Cruising and Living On The Water