This Couple Moved Into a Boat to Pursue Their Artistic Goals

Don and Gail Elwell keep their artistic adventures afloat by living on a boat

boat living big little spaces

The Spruce / Illustration by Amy Sheehan / Don Elwell

Don and Gail Elwell’s first love is the arts, and the couple spent many years working at retail jobs and teaching in order to have the necessary funds to pursue their creative passions. Gail adores the arts, and Don is focused on theater and writing. The Elwells crunched the numbers and realized that with a drastic reduction in their expenses, they could trade in their name tags for a full-time immersion in what they really wanted to do with their lives. What better way to reach this goal than by making a boat their home?

Meet the Expert

Don and Gail Elwell have lived on several boats and are working on building their next one. They moved to a marina in 2014 and have been happily living with First Mate Magellan, their cat, ever since. Their boat is located on the Middle River just north of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

Origin Story: Trading Retail for Their Passion

“I grew up sailing and spending long periods of time aboard, so I knew it was possible,” says Don. “We spent about a year working on designs, and then, finally, I quit my job and built the original ‘Floating Empire’ in the backyard.” You read that correctly: The couple built their boat themselves! In 2014, the Elwells took to the water in their new floating home and have lived in several boats since that day. 

Decluttering and Storing for the Move

As with any move to a tiny space, one of the first steps the couple had to take before embarking on the boating life was to shed a large portion of their belongings. They do keep a storage shed for family items that they weren't sure how to handle. Though decluttering was ultimately a freeing act, it was not without its challenges. And there are other challenges as well.

“You have to decide ahead of time what things you’ll actually use on a regular basis and the rest goes into storage,” Don says. “This becomes an element even in shopping. Not ‘Do I want that?’ but ‘Where will we put that?’ becomes a concern.” Going from land to sea gives you a new perspective on things that might once have been taken for granted, he says. “Power consumption is an issue (we’ve spent most of our time on solar power), water tanks must be filled or carried aboard, garbage taken ashore to dump,” he says. “In general you get very aware of consumption and waste, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Boat bath
Gail Elwell relishes a rare hot water soak

Don Elwell

Be Sure to Have a Plan

A lot of preparation goes into not only the move into a tiny space but also the build or renovations, depending on whether your space is new or has been lived in already. Nothing can turn a money-saving move into a money-pit mess faster than playing it all by ear. 

“Everything costs more than you plan and takes far more time than you anticipate,” Don says. "Boat projects are notorious for nickel-and-diming you to bits for parts, fittings, and chemicals. Weather and deliveries can easily get in the way and drag things out.  The more planning you do, the more research, the more concrete you make your plans, the fewer nasty surprises you will have. That being said, fewer is not none,” he says. 

Less Stress, More Nature

Most people who take on the tiny life do so at least in part to regain a sense of control over how they live their lives. For the Elwells, it was definitely the catalyst but the change also brought shifts they might not have entirely expected. 

“The stress level has seriously reduced. Our schedules became our own,” Don says. “Living this close to nature, we also became far more aware of and in tune with the ebb and flow (literally) of the water, the wind, and temperatures.”

When people starting keeping to themselves in 2020, the Elwells and other marina dwellers in their north Chesapeake Bay site would have outdoor happy hours from their decks, raising a glass and chatting (louder, of course) to keep socialization alive and learn more about one another. “This is an amazing, wonderful lifestyle, and we’ve also discovered a great community of live-aboards here at the marina that have become help-mates and great friends,” Don says.

Don Elwell
The Elwells and marina mates

Don Elwell

Sailing into the Sunset?

The Elwells obviously enjoy life on the water. “We have, since the original build of 'Floating Empire' lived aboard four vessels, all at the same marina, including an old sailboat hull we converted to a sternwheel paddle boat, a rather nice sailboat, and a rather disused power cruiser where we’re currently living while designing the new boat we plan to build this summer,” Don says.

But will the couple continue to live this way or do they plan to find their sea legs again in the future? The Elwells are perfectly happy living as they are for quite a while. “As long as it suits our needs,” Don says. “As long as we’re having fun. We love our neighbors and the lifestyle and recommend it highly.”

Rapid-Fire Questions

Square footage: “Floating Empire” was about 200 square feet. The new vessel, “Floating Empire II,”  will be about 135 square feet.
Favorite area of your home: The galley

Something you had to get rid of to live here: A ton of books.

Biggest monthly expense: Slip rental, $225 a month.

Most challenging spot to keep organized: The part of the galley where I do my writing, mostly because I’m a slob.

Favorite appliance that makes tiny-home living easier:  When we first moved aboard, we decided due to space concerns and power handling requirements that we would forgo the traditional refrigerator for a medical freezer. We freeze water bottles for a high-end cooler that serves as our fridge. Everything else goes in the zero-degree freezer. It’s worked out beautifully.

Something you learned while isolating at home:  When you have a compact life, and have reduced your needs to the minimum, things like pandemics don’t do a lot of damage to your lifestyle. Still, we did miss going out for a drink or dinner occasionally.