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7 Small-Space Tricks I Learned from Living on a Sailboat

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Watercolor pattern with sailboats

As childhood pals, my now-husband and I sailed together on dinghies. He was the skipper; I was the crew. As we got older (and started dating) we started sailing bigger boats, cruising around southern New England on weekends or short vacations. The boats we sailed weren’t huge—usually about 30 feet long (smaller than a standard RV)—which meant that living and sleeping quarters below deck were super tight. Bunks were just a few feet wide, tiny galley kitchens had even tinier stoves, and bathrooms were barely big enough to turn around in. Boat designers pack a lot of function into a tiny footprint, and sailors learn to live with it. Today, we live in a 1,700-square-foot house with two kids. (That might sound palatial compared to an urban apartment, but consider that the average American house is about 2,700 square feet.) Thankfully, my time on the water taught me a lot about small-space living; here are seven design lessons I brought back to land and call on often today.

1. Use every single inch.

Boat designers do this out of necessity. Engines are fitted under companionways; bench tops reveal hidden storage. When we renovated our house, we took this approach, too. An empty space above the basement stairs became a closet, drawers roll under beds, and tables have leaves or tops that fold down. Built-in cabinetry and vertical storage also add utility and take up less space.

2. Edit your gear.

A boat only holds so much stuff, so sometimes a pot has to double as a serving dish. At home, that means debating whether I really need an immersion blender and a Vitamix (answer: probably not), and weighing how much storage space is reasonable to dedicate to holiday decor. I have also learned to be mindful about what I buy, sticking to what I need or really love and then selling stuff that I don’t use any more.

3. Keep things tidy.

On a boat, an out-of-place bottle of beer or pair of pliers could become a risky projectile (or go overboard). And while I’m not in physical danger if I pile up clothes on the back of a chair or leave the mail unopened for days, losing my keys or stepping on the iPad because they weren’t put away can (and has) cost me time, money, and happiness. Everything has its place. Plus, taking a few minutes every day to make sure the house isn’t overrun with stuff instantly makes it feel more spacious.

4. Keep only the hardest-working essentials at hand.

Packing for a boat trip means traveling light, but you still have to be prepared for a variety of conditions. Wet weather, chilly nights, hot days, and heading ashore to a nice restaurant are all possibilities. The pieces in my duffel bag would need to layer, wear well, and match. Likewise, because my closet isn’t huge, I do a lot of strategic rotating. I come up with capsule wardrobes that I’ll wear for a few months: mix-and-match pieces that play nicely together. The rest of my clothes, meanwhile, are stored in our attic.

5. Enjoy the view.

Traveling by boat is pretty much the salty version of hiking and camping—part of the reason you do it is for the beautiful views and fresh air. One way we deal with a smaller interior is by heading outdoors. Year-round, we think of our backyard and nearby parks as an extension of our living space.

6. Focus on the little things.

To streamline surfaces, boat designers frequently make use of pulls and handles that lay flush with doors and cabinets. This is a great tool in small homes, too. Door and drawer hardware like push latches or ring pulls take up less visual space. A monotone color scheme will also make a space look bigger—the less change the eye detects, the less it gets distracted.

7. Don’t be prescriptive.

On a boat, we might set up a hammock on the bow one day and later use the same space to dry laundry or sunbathe. We only use our dining room a few times a year for parties, but do homework, pay bills, and work on art projects there almost every night. We started calling it the “family room” once we realized there’s nothing wrong with feeding guests in the kitchen. Like on a boat, we arrange our home around how we truly use it, not just how it’s “supposed” to be set up. We think in vignettes, too. A corner of the living room can become a dedicated reading nook—all it takes is a cozy chair, a few books, and your permission.

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