Discover 20 boat organization ideas that will help you save time, find things when and where you need to find them, and reduce the likelihood of problems. The first step with boat organization and storage is to understand what should and should not be on the boat in the first place.
1. Start with understanding priorities and having realistic expectations
Unlike living in a house where there’s often ample room for all sorts of stuff, there’s limited space on a boat. This space is reserved for must-have items. These necessities can take up all the space, leaving little room for extras. Must-have items include spare parts, tool kits, extra sails, food, water, First Aid supplies, wet weather gear, and safety equipment. Extras might include too many clothes/shoes, books, keepsakes, old photos, important jewelry, a favorite quilt cover, etc.
I never met a liveaboard cruiser that didn’t offload at least 50% of the stuff they started with by the end of year one. Instead of starting with too much, consider starting with the least extras possible.
Don’t bring anything you won’t need or use.
I know that’s hard to say if you haven’t lived the liveaboard life yet, but I’ll provide you with an idea of what you will and will not use further down. Keep reading!
Side story: I recently met a woman who sold her house, put all the large stuff, like furniture, in a storage unit, and took all her small keepsakes, important documents, jewelry, and photo albums to the boat. She paid a pretty price to ship a cargo container to the Caribbean. It took her weeks to pack the bilge with all her unnecessary items.
The result? Some of the items stored in the bilge caused the engine exhaust pipe to disconnect, leaving a gaping hole in the back of the boat. The boat took on water during the first passage, and all her important land-based keepsakes were ruined.
2. Group like items together for storage
By grouping items, you might not know exactly where something is, but you’ll have a general idea of the area. For example, we have all our spare pumps under one sofa, all our bedding under one bed, and all our electrical items under another bed. If I’m looking for a fuse, if we have one, I know it’s going to be under the port bunk bed.
The objective is to avoid having similar items stashed all over the boat. If you have some engine spare parts in the forward, a few on the side, and some in the back, you’ll go insane trying to find the one you’re looking for.
And although a boat is a small space, that doesn’t mean things can’t get lost quickly.
You’ll think you’ll remember where you put the spare do-hickey, only to find it nowhere to be found.
Side story: When we first got our boat, we were in the Mediterranean, and there weren’t many bugs. Instead of keeping all our window screens near the windows, I conveniently found a floorboard that was nearly impossible to pull up and stored in this ‘hidden’ compartment. Fast-forward years later, while we were in Charleston, South Carolina, where the mosquitos would pick you up and eat you whole, I decided we needed screens. I thought we had them but couldn’t find them anywhere, so I spent weeks making my own. Check out: How to Make Port Window Screens.
Weeks after I finished the last screen, I saw some water in the bilge. I opened one floorboard after another to see where it was coming from. When I got to the ‘hidden’ compartment, I found the screens for all the windows, to my amazement (and dismay).
3. Take into consideration the weight of groupings
Before you start stowing things away, consider how much the groupings weigh and where your water and fuel tanks are. A boat sails quicker, motors faster, and offers a smoother ride if you’re weight is equally distributed.
Also, note that if you have a catamaran, the more you load on it, the slower it goes. Mono’s can also be impacted by weight but not nearly as badly as catamarans.
The lighter a catamaran is, the quicker it will motor/sail.
If you’ve taken on a used boat, look at the waterline when the water and fuel tanks are full – is the boat listing to one side or the other? If it is listing, consider rearranging items or placing heavy groupings on the side that needs more weight. We put all our spare heavy hull anodes on our lighter side.
Side story: Remember that if a boat gets too heavy, it will dip below the antifoul line. If that happens, your hull will become susceptible to blistering and osmosis. Not a good thing. How do I know this? It happened to us. When we took the boat out of the water in Trinidad, a technician noticed damage to our hull just above where the waterline should have been. We had to lighten our load or raise our antifoul waterline. We raised the line.
4. Consider moisture/wetness levels
Some storage areas on a boat are more prone to mold, moisture, and water. For example, our lazarette (or back garage) often gets sea and rainwater. Our back bilge areas inside the boat are bone dry, but the bilge near the engine room often has some sort of leak.
We have some closets where clothes can be stored and fail to get a moldy or musty smell, and other closets reek of mold no matter how many times we clean them.
It might take some time to understand what parts of your boat are dry and what parts are not.
Look around, and if you see rust, mold, or salt water, you’ll know it’s an area where you don’t want to store items like canned foods (the cans will rust through when they come in contact with salt water) or clothing (they’ll be eaten by mold).
As a rule of thumb, don’t put something in the bilge if you don’t want something destroyed. Put it in a storage area higher than the waterline. And even then, there is no guarantee.
Keep reading for more boat organization ideas…
5. Think about easy access versus long-term storage
Some groupings and elements within a group are not used as often as others. Think about the easiest storage areas to get to and put your day-to-day items there. Then think about things you won’t use in a long time or perhaps ever and tuck them away in the hard-to-get areas.
Let me give you some examples. In our galley, I have the common canned items we often use, such as tomatoes, sweet corn, tuna, condiments, coffee, etc. All our backup canned items go under our saloon sofa. This area has a floor, so it’s above the bilge and dry.
When I open up the sofa, I replenish the galley cupboard.
I store our paper towels, which we tend to buy in bulk because it’s cheaper, under the saloon seat that is easiest to lift. Under the hardest saloon seat to open, I have our sewing machine, material, and repair kits that I rarely use.
In our high-up but hard-to-get-to closets, I have our spare alternator, starter motor, and other large items that need to be safe and away from moisture.
6. Create an inventory record, or else you’ll go insane.
Even if you have items in groupings, it’s good to have a refined location system AND a way to know if you have the item you’re looking for.
We have a spreadsheet on our computer that lists the type of grouping, location of the part, part number, if applicable, quantity, and any notes. All our engine and generator parts are listed, so I can search for a part number or look up a location on the boat with what I’m searching for.
I use our Inventory list for all items tucked away behind the scenes rather than food and cupboards used regularly. We have a rule that when we use a spare part, we immediately order or buy the replacement. The job’s done if we can get the replacement where we are. If we can’t, we buy it online and send it to the next person flying out to the boat.
Doing an inventory takes a long time, but it’s well worth the time invested.
When emergencies happen, and you need to find something, you’ll be thankful that you’re not pulling up floorboards on a wild goose chase.
Consider making a print-out of your inventory list and keeping it in your nav station desk. By having a hard copy, you won’t have to drag out your computer if you’re on passage and bouncing around.
Side story: Our windless died while we journeyed down the ICW in Florida. We were ‘stuck’ between two bridges having this one place to anchor with no option of tying to a dock. Our anchor is too heavy to pull up manually, so there was a bit of panic.
Our buddy boat anchored to buy time, and we tied onto him.
There was no wind or heavy tide, so although it was not ideal, it was a good option. While tied up, I looked at the fuses and found that a large 30-amp fuse blew. I knew we had some fuses, but I wasn’t sure if we had a 30 amp. I pulled up the inventory list on my computer and not only discovered that we had a 30 amp fuse, but I knew it was on the aft side of the bottom bunk rather than the middle or front saving me time looking through all the electrics.
7. Create a reminder calendar for dated items
Some items on a boat that get stored away have servicing dates. For many of us, it’s out-of-sight, out-of-mind, so we fail to keep them in good shape. Things like fire extinguishers, life jackets, flares, First Aid medicine, and even food will go out of date.
Whether you use a paper calendar or a reminder system on your phone, it’s worth it to create an alarm system that lets you know that some items in storage need to be serviced. We have a safety equipment document that lists all of our safety equipment, its location when it was last serviced, and when it next needs to be serviced.
You can create the same document by following our Boat Safety Audit – watch the video on how to do an audit and download your free audit here: Boat Safety Audit.
The best is yet to come. Keep on reading for more boat organization ideas.
8. Create smaller kits used for particular projects for easy access
We have a variety of smaller project bags and/or boxes that allow us to pick up the bag/box and service, fix, or clean something. Let me give you some examples. I keep my sewing kit in my closet as I use it often. Most of my sewing stuff, including my sewing machine, is tucked away, but when I need to repair some canvas stitching on the Bimini or sew a button back on a cushion, I can access my kit immediately. By having immediate access, the job gets done. On the flip side, when I have to sew something with my machine, it takes weeks for me sometimes to get the motivation to dig the sewing machine out.
Another kit we have is for the teak deck.
We have the caulking, caulk piercer, caulking dig-out tool, caulking gun, acetone, blue tape, and baby wipes. When we repair a line of black caulking, getting everything ready is not a huge ordeal.
We also have big tool kits and smaller tool kits. Some are in boxes, and others are wrapped in cloth for better storage. Over time you start to realize what you use all the time and what you don’t. For the things you use, you can make them more readily accessible, helping to ensure that jobs can get done quickly.
9. Specific engine(s) and genset ideas
- Create a box for servicing and a box of spares for each. You can pull out the correct box and get to work depending on your job.
- Put your toolset or tools you use most frequently in a side box for each engine inside the door of the engine/genset.
- Make sure important spares, like the alternator, are vacuum packed or wrapped in oily rags and bagged. You don’t want anything like that to rust!
10. Specific bedding/towels/clothes boat organization ideas
- Use vacuum seal bags for all bedding, towels, clothes, and shoes. If you don’t, they will get destroyed. I also put a dryer sheet in with the items and a list on the front of the bag outlining what’s in the bag.
- Consider getting microfiber or chamois-type towels. They’re tiny, absorb huge amounts of water, and don’t occupy much space.
- Get duvets and duvet covers. This way, you’re only cleaning the duvet cover rather than a whole comforter.
- Vacuum pack your bedding in sets. Put your mattress cover, bottom sheet, top sheet, pillowcases, duvet cover, and duvet in one pack. If it fits, put a towel in there too! When guests come, you can just hand them the set 🙂 See our Storage Organization video for ideas on how to use the vacuum packs.
- Try your best not to have extra clothing that needs to be vacuum-packed in the first place. You only need a couple of pairs of ‘shoes’ – flip-flops and walking shoes. You don’t need nice clothes as they’ll only get ruined either by the sun (bleached out), drying them on the safety rail (rust and holes), or mold (closet or bilge). Despite what people think, deck shoes are a waste of space and become slippery. Canvas shoes will turn brown, and anything not plastic will mold. Watch our video, The Best Shoes For Sailing – It’s not Deck Shoes.
11. Specific food organization ideas
- Don’t put pasta, rice, or any flour-based product where you can’t see it daily. Weevils or beetles get into everything or come already in the packaging. If you have flour tucked away and don’t look for a while, you might be in for a nasty surprise when you look at it.
- If you have a saltwater leak that gets on anything, wash it off immediately. Cans will rust out within months, clothes and furnishings will get a terrible smell that you’ll never get rid of, and anything other than plastic will start to disintegrate! Saltwater is not a nice substance.
- Get some nets for fruit and vegetables that you can hang in the galley or outside. Just make sure to learn about what fruits and veg need to be separated. For example, potatoes will sprout early if next to onions. Check out my article 20 Tips For Provisioning A Long Sailing Trip.
General Boat Organisation Ideas
12. Consider doing a yearly stock check to update your inventory records.
During emergencies or when others are on board, items may get used and not logged. It’s also good to make sure that your inventory is okay. It’s a good thing if you can prevent molding or rusting!
13. Remove cardboard.
Cockroaches lay eggs in corrugated cardboard, so remove all cardboard packaging before the contents come on your boat. Flat cardboard and books have book bugs. They’re super tiny, but they are bugs. If you don’t want bugs, don’t have any cardboard.
14. Don’t keep your inventory list in the cloud!
If you’re at sea and can’t get Internet access, you’re in trouble. Keep your inventory list on your computer hard drive and make a print copy to have on hand.
15. Remember that your bilges must empty if water gets in them.
You don’t want so many items below your floorboards that water doesn’t have a clear opportunity to exit. Don’t store anything you don’t need on your boat…keepsakes, etc.
16. Be creative! Make extra space by installing storage options behind doors, etc.
Do a Google search for tiny homes, RV, or boat storage ideas. There are loads of useful ways to create storage space from thin air. Examples include putting racks behind doors, using hanging shoe holders creatively, making bedside hanging holders, and creating storage in areas above you rather than below. Check out my Pinterest board entitled Boat Organization Ideas.
17. Think about storing some items next to where they’re needed.
For example, a bung is tied onto all our seacocks (through-hull fittings). If a seacock fails, the bung is there to plug the hole. We also have some of our extra fuses taped inside our fuse box.
18. Look for collapsible or nesting-style items that can be reduced in size when unused.
Examples include Magma Galley Pots and Pans and a collapsible bucket. Check out How To Free Up Space in Your Galley for more information on the Magma pots and pans.
19. Have regular culling sessions.
At least twice a year, we go through all our cupboards and cabinets, getting rid of anything that we haven’t used in the last six months. We give anything that still works to a local charity and trash anything broken or ruined. If you’re in an area with many cruisers, there’s usually a daily VHF net where cruisers offer ‘Treasures Of The Bilge’. You can announce your treasures and often make some money from them.
20. Avoid any kind of storage unit with metal or metal zippers.
Bags with metal zippers will either corrode open or closed. Remember this for toiletries, First Aid bags, and large canvas storage bags. It will soon be a corroded metal zipper if it has a metal zipper!
What boat organization ideas do you have?
Please share them with us below by leaving a comment.