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 off with understanding priorities and having realistic expectations
Unlike living in a house where there’s often ample room for all sorts of stuff, on a boat, there’s limited space. And this space is reserved for must-have items. These necessities can take all the space leaving very 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 and so forth.
Never have I 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 off with the least amount of extras that you can.
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 as to what you will and will not use further down. Keep reading!
Side story: I recently met a woman that 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 then took her weeks to pack the bilge with all her unnecessary items.
The end 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 together you might not know exactly where something is but you’ll have a general idea as to 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 that things can’t get lost quickly.
You’ll think that you’ll remember where you put the spare do-hickey only to find that it’s nowhere to be found.
Side-story: When we first got our boat we were in the Mediterranean and there weren’t that many bugs. Instead of keeping all our window screens near the windows I conveniently found a floorboard that was near impossible to pull up and stored them in this ‘hidden’ compartment. Fast-forward years later while we were in Charleston, South Carolina where the mosquitos will 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, to my utter amazement (and dismay), I found the screens for all the windows.
3. Take into consideration the weight of groupings
Before you get started stowing things away, consider how much the groupings weigh in addition to 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 bad as catamarans.
The lighter a catamaran is the quicker it will motor/sail.
If you’ve taken on a used boat, have a 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: Keep in mind 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 that there was damage to our hull just above where the waterline should have been. We had to either 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 get sea and rainwater in it. 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 can 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, if you don’t want something destroyed, don’t put it in the bilge. 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 what storage areas are easiest 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 to areas.
Let me give you some examples. In our galley, I have the common canned items we use often such as tomatoes, sweet corn, tuna, condiments, coffee and so forth. All our back up canned items goes under our saloon sofa. This area has a floor so it’s above the bilge and it’s 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 up. Under the hardest saloon seat to open, I have our sewing machine, material, and repair kits that I don’t use too often.
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 that are in groupings it’s good to have some sort of refined location system AND a way to know if you actually 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 that has what I’m searching for.
I use our Inventory list for all items that are 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. If we can get the replacement where we are, the job’s done. If we can’t, we buy it online and send it to the next person flying out to the boat.
It takes a long time to do an inventory 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: While we journeyed down the ICW in Florida our windless died. 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.
To buy time our buddy boat anchored and we tied onto him.
There was no wind or heavy tide so although it was 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 that we had some fuses but 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 that 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 some kind of alarm system letting you know that some items in storage need to be serviced. We have a safety equipment document that lists all of our safety equipment, it’s location, when it was last serviced and when it next needs to be serviced.
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. In my closet, I keep my sewing kit as I use it often. The bulk 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 to sometimes 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, the caulking gun, acetone, blue tape, and baby wipes. When we repair a line of black caulking it’s not a huge ordeal to get everything ready.
We also have big tool kits and smaller took 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. Depending on what job you’re doing, you can pull out the correct box and get to work.
- Put your toolset or tools that 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, is 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 in addition to 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 take up much space at all.
- 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 all 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 end up being slippery. Canvas shoes will turn brown and anything that’s 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 do look at it.
- If you do have a saltwater leak and it 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 veg that you can hang in the galley or even 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. If you can prevent something from molding or rusting it’s a good thing!
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 none-the-less 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 you 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. Keep in mind that your bilges need to 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 ultimately 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 in creative ways, 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, we have a bung 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 not in use.
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 that’s 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 a bit of money from them.
20. Avoid any kind of storage unit that has metal or metal zippers.
Bags with metal zippers will either corrode open or closed. Keep this in mind for toiletries, First Aid bags, and large canvas storage bags. If it has a metal zipper it will soon be a corroded metal zipper!
What boat organization ideas do you have?
Please share them with us below by leaving a comment.