Sailing Journey: Liveaboard in Sydney

So, what’s it like living aboard an unfinished boat on Sydney Harbour during the late 1980s to early 1990s?

Bittersweet. Hard. Challenging. Tremendous achievement.

How did we arrive in Sydney?

After launching the boat in 1987, taking her down the Hawkesbury River and in to Pittwater, we set out on the 5-hour maiden voyage to Sydney. This is where we finish building the boat, which takes another 4.5 years whilst working and saving hard.

Liveaboard, Sydney, Australia, Oceania

Oyster Cove, Ball’s Head Bay

This cosy pocket in Ball’s Head Bay is known as Oyster Cove and is in beautiful Sydney Harbour.

The only way from the harbour below is up. And, two sets of steep stairs on almost opposing sides of the cove is the only way. Around 230 steep stairs lead up to the street, parking, and public transport.

Think about this for a minute, if you forget something on the boat after dragging yourself to the top of the stairs, it’s 230 steps down, then back up again – I don’t go back often.

Getting to and from the boat is by rowing as we don’t yet own an outboard.

Rowing, Sydney, NSW, Australia, Oceania

Occasionally, visitors arrive for a peek.

Sydney, NSW, Australia, Oceania

A duck befriends us and becomes a regular visitor…

duck, Sydney, NSW, Australia, Oceania

Doing these stairs at least twice each day and regardless of age, it’s the fittest I’ve been in my life. But, also join a gym for the convenience of showers, ironing, and getting ready for work. Especially whilst the unfinished boat (home) is in a disarrayed mess – need to be presentable for work.

Building a boat, Sydney, NSW, Australia, Oceania
Photo credit: Colin Palmer

As this is a small community of several boats, it’s easy to become good friends with everyone, so we all look out for each other.

Grocery shopping

We take the boat grocery shopping across Sydney Harbour to Birkenhead Point for major supplies. Initially, this is with the mast firmly strapped to the side of the boat, which does attract incredulous side-glances, especially from crews on flashy vessels.

It’s tricky motoring with a much longer stick than the boat’s length and requires some quick manoeuvring when berthing or trying to miss other craft. Although this adventure becomes a part of life, it’s still a nervous time as the appendage can break loose from the turbulent waters of continual water traffic ploughing up and down. Seeing everything sink to the bottom of in Sydney Harbour. Luckily, the appendage manages to stay strapped in place during the shopping exercise.

A rule of thumb is never to bring a cardboard box on a boat as cockroaches lay eggs between the folded flaps. Once hatched, your boat becomes infested and extremely difficult to get rid of cockroaches from a boat. In the old days, skippers used to sink boats to rid the boat from vermin.

Before carting the groceries back to the boat, cardboard is stripped before packing everything away – time-consuming.


Of course, our small boat doesn’t include a washing machine – which home-built boat does?

As there isn’t a laundromat in Waverton, each week it’s a mission to do the laundry. Lugging washing up 230-plus-steps before walking 5 minutes to the Waverton train station and taking the train to the next stop where the laundromat lives is a weekly mission. Finishing the laundry, we return the same way so this takes a couple of hours or more, depending on train schedules.

This part of living in Sydney initially makes me feel a little like a hobo, but after several years, this is the norm.

Bureaucracy and resentment

Launching in 1987 and living in Sydney for months undisturbed, all is well with the world until…

Australia’s 1988 Bi-centenary rolls around with much festivity and expensive showtime of maritime splendour in Sydney Harbour just minutes from our boat.

Bi-centenary, Sydney, NSW, Australia, Oceania

Australia is on the global stage and no expense is spared.

Although, when the Bi-centenary fanfare is over, the friendly Maritime Services Board (MSB) start making it a priority to clean up freeloaders.

Bi-centenary, Sydney, NSW, Australia, Oceania

What does this actually mean?

All boats on anchor and not in a marina or on a paid buoy are deemed as “not paying their way in society” – exact words during a conversation with the MSB.

What does this involve?

Whilst boat owners are at work, the MSB sneakily tows away boats that are anchored to Goat Island in Sydney Harbour. Once the unattended boat is moored at Goat Island, it’s open season. Too many tales of boats stripped of everything are feverishly passed on as a warning to boat owners that are still anchored around Sydney Harbour.


Luckily, we’re aboard when the MSB approaches our boat and starts to flex its muscle. Enquiring about a mooring next to us that’s been vacant throughout our time here, the MSB confirms we can take this mooring. But, we must pay for and sink another new substantial mooring as the MSB can’t confirm the existing mooring is safe. The southerly winds blow hard across the harbour and into this bay. And, we also need to pay a yearly fee of a couple of hundred dollars for the privilege of renting the mooring’s spot of water. Of course, when we leave, we can’t physically take this mooring with us so the MSB gains a good mooring for free. Fair, isn’t it? Back then, the wait for a mooring in this anchorage was around 7 years. This is the reason for anchoring.

For me, the MSB’s mentality really hits home.

The resentment experienced and callousness exercised by authorities are the impetus to leave NSW. The other nasty and ridiculous law in this State is that you’re only legally allowed to live on a boat for 3 consecutive days in one spot before the MSB can legally move you on or tow you away.

Much of the time the MSB turns a blind eye as long as you keep a low profile not giving residents on land any ammunition for complaints. Let’s face it, they paid for multi-million-dollar harbour-side apartments and homes, whilst some “grotty yachtie” is living for free down below murking their harbour views. Time to leave to a friendlier state.

Good-bye Sydney, it’s been real swell…

With only a 6-week overseas break on Honeymoon to Malaysia, Thailand, and Laos, the building state of flux and disarray in Sydney last 4 long years before finally finishing the build. Some 9.5 years from start to finish for the boat-building project, we now own our own boat and can finally go sailing.

Time to shed unwanted stuff and make the boat lighter.

Building a boat, Sydney, NSW, Australia, Oceania

If you want to read more about what it’s like finishing the boat over the 4.5 years in Sydney, then check out my Sailing Journey: Completing the Boat in Sydney. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 for what to expect if you’re thinking of building a boat.

Building a boat, Sydney, NSW, Australia, Oceania
Photo credit: Colin Palmer

Ready to tackle the first real sail to enjoy a well-earned rest, finally venture on some coastal cruising along Australia’s very long coastline from Sydney to Brisbane.

Building a boat, Sydney, NSW, Australia, Oceania
Photo credit: Colin Palmer

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more global images. More posts on Australia at Image Earth Travel.

More boat-building chapters

Check out more of my chapters in this boat-building series!

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29 responses to “Sailing Journey: Liveaboard in Sydney”

  1. Kris Bumbaca Avatar

    Hi, site is very useful for those who are passionate about boats, like
    Also, I found where to download boat plans: I hope it will be useful!

    Cheers! 🙂

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi Kris, thanks for stopping by and leaving me your link, which I’ll check out soon… 🙂

  2. equinoxio21 Avatar

    Fascinating. I figured 10 years building the boat out of the 20 you lived on it. 🙂
    Now, about MSB? A variation of Parkinson’s law on resources is that if you give power to any human being it will be used to its fullest force… Sigh.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Actually, 21 years all up if you count 12 months on the second boat ‘Reality’ – but that’s another chapter. 😉
      Exactly! This happens world over and it doesn’t matter what uniform! That deserted island is sounding even better…

      1. equinoxio21 Avatar

        The uniform only hides universal human nature at its worst…
        I’ve put the desert island on the back burner. We’ll go to Montpellier in the South of France this summer and have a look around. Possibly buy a house there if the place is to our liking. 🙂

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        So very true…
        Wow, that sounds fabulous! Good luck with the house hunting. 🙂

      3. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Grazie. How are things going back home? All well?

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Yep! We’re working 12+ hours, 7 days/week renovating. My tenants of 14 years didn’t leave the house in a great state although they paid their rent on time. I’ve been cleaning, sanding, undercoating, painting, and more cleaning so much that think all the Minutia from my fingertips have worn off and I’ve also re-kindled my intense love affair with the belt sander! 🤣

        To top it all off, had to go to the doctors yesterday as my hand has been growing a plague on it for the last 8-10 days, blisters and all. Turns out a severe allergic reaction to some sort of insect bite – welcome back to Oz! Trying to catch up with friends before we leave on the 3rd of April for a wedding in the UK – if they let us leave!

        It’s weird being back – everything is so orderly compared with Italy!

        How are things with you?

      5. equinoxio21 Avatar

        I would expect some serious renovating work after 14 years…
        Sorry about the bite. I guess it’s a matter of the right ointments and time. Just make sure you protect your hand with all the work you’re doing in the house.
        I can imagine “orderly” as compared to Italy. I feel the same in France after mexico! 😉
        We’re fine. Planning to go to Colombia at Easter. And the tickets are already bought for Paris this summer. Yes!!! 🙂
        April in the UK? Hopefully there should be no problem. I haven’t heard of major stats about the virus…

      6. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        True, but not so much grime! Thanks, I’ve been wrapping it up so the sanding dust and filth doesn’t get into anything.
        Sadly, it’s true. The driving is so different here – everyone (majority) obeys the rules for a start and there’s no double or triple-parking on the streets to clog up the roads.
        Sounds like you have a full year ahead and hope this virus doesn’t affect any plans. From the UK it’s back to southern Italy and hoping we’re allowed back in…
        Have a good one! 😉

      7. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Exactly, I get surprised in Paris when cars stop at the red light and actually stop to let you cross the street as a pedestrian…
        Best of luck for your return.

      8. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Ha, ha, in Cosenza, the cars speed up at pedestrian crossing as they’re too impatient and don’t want to wait for pedestrians to cross the road. I know of many people that have been hit on pedestrian crossings there, it’s quite bad and the police do nothing about this behaviour.
        Thanks, it’s looking touch and go at the moment!

      9. equinoxio21 Avatar

        Sounds like Mexico. They speed up when they see a pedestrian. There’s probably a reward up somewhere…
        Best of luck. I hear Italy just “shut down”… 🙁

      10. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Thanks – watching this intently and not sure if I’ll be let in again…

  3. the eternal traveller Avatar

    I was thinking you’d be fit after traversing those stairs at least twice a day.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Certainly was Carol and wish I was that fit nowadays! 😉

  4. Latitude Adjustment: A Tale of Two Wanderers Avatar

    There is nothing that compares to the freedom and peacefulness of living on a boat. We lived aboard for 6 years and cruised for 3 of them. Most folks could not understand living in a small place. Many times we were asked what d you do for water, showers, and cooking? Only other liveaboards understand the connection you receive with nature. Cheers!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Someone that understands! And yes, it’s only really others that have lived on a boat that grasp the meaning of the ocean as your back yard, most mornings is a different angle of vista, and of course the freedom of it all…a motorhome comes close but not quite the same.

      I’ve been asked those questions dozens of times and also about the Head. 😉

  5. Mohamad Toutounji Avatar

    Very nice one Nilla
    Hope you’re excited for my new novel The Last Triad
    I’ll be posting it pretty soon
    It’s full of drama and action

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you Mohamad and will check your site for the new novle – look forward to the read!

      1. Mohamad Toutounji Avatar

        Thank you Nilla

  6. Librarylady Avatar

    I don’t often comment twice on one post, but this one intrigued me. I’m wondering why the view of boats in the harbor would be offensive to the land lubbers?
    Grottie Yachties? There’s a term I hadn’t heard before. Aren’t we creative when it comes to insulting each other.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you for taking the time to comment twice!
      I still wonder about this years later and can only put it down to jealousy. And, the fact that the land lubbers paid millions for their waterfront apartments and yachties are in that space of water for a couple of hundred dollars a year.
      Totally agree with you. Yes, this is the name we were known as and think this is because yachties don’t always ‘look’ tidy. Of course depending on the size of boat, the finite space for a wardrobe is at a premium. Although, I always looked presentable for work as had to wear office clothes and suit jackets at times.

  7. easterntrekker Avatar

    236 steps is hard if you are carrying gear..We love boating.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Exactly and these were steep steps!
      It’s another life. What do you love the most about boating?

      1. easterntrekker Avatar

        I love seeing the coastline from the water…a totally different view. Sunset and sunrise are my favorites.

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Totally agree, especially when it’s a new country!
        Thanks for your feedback Anita.

  8. Librarylady Avatar

    Well this is a great story. A slice of a life I know nothing about. I’ll definitely keep reading. Thanks.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you Geanie! Happy to show you another life and one that’s not lived on land 😉
      Not sure if you’ve read how this all started? This is Part 1 of the sailing journey.

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