A while back I wrote some thoughts about why you might want to live aboard a boat in Singapore. I continue to get a lot of questions from people who are partly or wholly convinced, and now want to know how. So here is some of what I have to say about the mechanics of getting a boat, bringing it to Singapore, and living aboard.
As always, what I have to say reflects only my own experiences. If you are thinking of living aboard in Singapore, the route you take to make it happen will undoubtedly be shaped by your own preferences and plans and will end up looking a lot different than mine. Here are some of my basic assumptions:
- You’re not rich; if you are, you can buy your way out of most of the complications of getting a boat and living aboard and this isn’t a very interesting article.
- You’re probably going to be maintaining your boat yourself, at least some of the time.
- You need to live someplace convenient enough to go to work.
And of course, if you have more specific questions I haven’t addressed, feel free to email me at beevek at gmail dot com and I’ll do my best to help you out.
Buying a boat
If you’ve decided living aboard in Singapore is for you — or if you’re just thinking about it sort of seriously — then step one is the big one: finding a boat that’s right for you. I am not going to go into all the details of picking the right boat for your lifestyle and budget and sailing plans and all that. There are probably a zillion other discussions of the same thing out there. Same goes for understanding what to look for when you’re inspecting boats. But if you’re in Singapore and want to do some boat shopping, there are some special local considerations.
The first and most obvious is: where can you buy a boat? Singapore itself is not a great market unless you’ve got loads of money and are looking for a brand new boat. There are occasionally used boats for sale here that are in good shape (I’ve looked at some) but they are fairly rare. Instead, I recommend taking trips up to Phuket and Langkawi, both cruising havens with lots of live-aboard-ready boats (mainly sailboats) for sale. The strategy that worked for me was to shop around online with some of the various brokers in the region (start with Pippen Marine, Lee Marine, YBC, Boatshed Phuket, and Simpson Marine); come up with some candidate boats to look at; and schedule long weekend visits to Phuket and Langkawi. Flights are cheapest — and selection is probably highest — just after the NE monsoon high season is over. Arrange ahead of time with the brokers and they’ll be able to show you the boats you’re interested in and maybe recommend some others.
Your budget will largely determine the kind of boat you can end up with. Here are some rough guesses as to what you can get for how much (as of around now, end of 2011). That said, take them with a grain of salt and do your own research.
- US$10-50k: You probably can find boats in this price range that are suitable for living aboard, but almost certainly they will need some work (especially at the lower end of the range). If you’re interested in buying an older boat in need of some love and fixing it up yourself (or having it fixed up), you may find it useful to take some trips to boatyards. They tend to be full of neglected boats that can be had for (relatively) cheap.
- US$50-100k: This was the sweet spot I was trying to hit when I was shopping a couple years ago. There are quite a few boats in this price range, usually between 35-45 ft, but you will need to shop carefully and make sure the boat’s worth what it’s being sold for. You can probably get a sail-away ready to go boat in this price range, but you’ll probably also want to make some changes or upgrades.
- US$100-300k: If you want a newer boat — say, something built in the last decade that’s in good condition — this is probably what you’ll be paying. The same for somewhat older boats that have been very well taken care of. My recommendation is to prefer the latter: a 20+ year old well appointed and maintained cruising boat is probably a lot sturdier and has had all the kinks worked out; newer boats may be shinier and roomier but they also tend to be made out of balsa wood. Literally. Anyway, that’s just my personal preference.
Remember when you’re shopping that you’re going to be living aboard in Singapore. Certain equipment already aboard can be useful. A marine air conditioner is a big plus. You will need air conditioning. You’ll probably find a window air conditioner in a hatch is the most common solution. An AIS transponder is also useful, since you’ll be required to have one in Singapore waters. Best to have any AC equipment ready to use 230V at 50Hz. If you’ll be cooking aboard a lot, make sure you have electrical refrigeration instead of an engine-driven compressor so you can keep your fridge running at the dock without running the engine all the time. A chartplotter and SE Asia charts are nice to have. But don’t eliminate a boat from consideration if it’s missing those things — few boats will have them all, and you can always make changes and additions.
Once you’ve found the right boat, you’ll work with your broker to close the deal. My recommendation — at least if you’re not Singaporean — is not to expect to find financing. Pay cash. That probably applies the same for Singaporeans if you’re buying your boat in Malaysia or Thailand.
Make sure you get a survey from an accredited marine surveyor. Your broker can probably make recommendations. I bought my boat in Phuket and had my survey done by Jeroen from Waterline Marine. He did a great job, wrote a really thorough report that I still use as a reference today, and saved me US$5k by finding some issues I’d overlooked. That’s the best reason to get a survey; but the other reason is that your insurer will require it anyway. You’ll need to book your surveyor in advance and be flexible. There aren’t many of them in Phuket and Langkawi so they’re busy guys. Try to be there for the survey so your surveyor can show you what they find and talk to you about the boat. Take a lot of photos while the boat’s out of the water, since if it’s a sail-away purchase you may not haul out again for a while, and understanding the lines of the boat below the waterline is useful.
Once you’ve bought your boat you’ll need to choose a port of registry and get insurance lined up. Your broker probably has recommendations. I registered my boat in Langkawi since it seemed easy and relatively inexpensive (and was both, despite some annoyances). Many people choose other ports of convenience. If you’re planning to have the boat in Singapore for a really long time, you may want to consider registering it as a Singaporean vessel, but be prepared to pay GST on the value of the boat, and deal with all the paperwork. A foreign flagged vessel can stay in Singapore without issue; there are lots of technicalities and you may want to discuss them with MPA — but honestly, as long as you follow the port clearance and immigration procedures reasonably well, I think adhering strictly to every last regulation is not a concern.
If you’ve bought a boat outside of Singapore and are ready to bring it back, well, it’s a boat, so you should sail it here. If you bought your boat in Phuket or Langkawi, you’ll be coming via the Straits of Malacca. Don’t do the trip by yourself or with friends and family, on a boat you’re unfamiliar with, unless you’re an experienced sailor. It’s one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and is also fraught with all sorts of other annoyances: poorly marked fishing nets, trawlers, sleeping tugboat captains towing huge unlit barges, sometimes-dramatic tidal currents, and fast-moving squalls. If you ask around at marinas in Singapore or wherever your boat is, you can find an experienced delivery captain who will be happy to help you with the trip.
Where to keep your boat
Another huge consideration is where you should keep your boat once you’ve got it. There are a number of marinas in Singapore. Location will probably be your biggest factor, but availability is coming into play now too, as some marinas are quite full. As far as I know, there is no place in Singapore waters where you can reasonably stay at a swing mooring or at anchor for long. With all marinas, I recommend calling ahead and/or visiting them to check on berth availability and see whether the marina is for you. I don’t know of any marinas in Singapore that would have a real problem with you living aboard, regardless of whatever policies they may have.
Most of my experience is with One 15 Marina in Sentosa as that’s where I’ve kept Oia. There is a new dock at this marina, but it’s filling up fast. When I sailed off for Malaysia in late October, there was a pretty reasonable liveaboard population at One 15. My personal opinion is that it’s the best place to live aboard in Singapore: it’s away from the city and quiet, but it’s still fairly convenient to downtown. There is an employee bus that you can take half-hourly through most of the day that brings you right to the Harbourfront MRT. Entry by taxi or car is an annoyance: you’ll usually have to pay the Sentosa entry fee (between S$2-7 depending on day and time). Sometimes you can argue your way out of it. You need not be a member to keep your boat at One 15, and frankly I don’t think a membership is worth the exorbitant cost even though it reduces the berthing and fuel fees (marginally). The finger pontoons are not the best (short and narrow), and the conditions can get a bit rolly, especially on the L/M dock where Oia was berthed. The facilities are top-notch: great swimming pool, wonderful rain showers, and a few tasty (if expensive) restaurants.
Keppel Bay Marina is maybe even more conveniently located, but as far as I know there are no berths available. I put myself on the waiting list there a year and a half ago and never heard a thing. If you can somehow magically get a berth there, you’re in (long) walking distance to Harbourfront, surrounded by swanky apartments and restaurants, and probably have pretty darn nice facilities (though I haven’t really checked on that).
Raffles Marina is far from the city center — it’s about as far West as you can go in Singapore — but if you’re working out there or don’t mind a (really) long commute, it may be a great option. It’s probably the favored marina in Singapore for cruising sailors. It’s quiet and pleasant and as I recall has a bit more of a breeze than One 15, which can make things more livable. It’s also very well protected. Despite its location, Raffles costs about as much as One 15 and Keppel Bay.
RSYC seems like it’d be a great marina. It’s where I was originally intending to keep Oia, until various mishaps resulted in our ending up at One 15 with a broken down engine. It’s in a decently convenient location near Clementi; seems like more of a sailors’ marina; and as I recall is a bit less expensive. But the one thing you will be consistently told by everyone who’s ever berthed there is that it’s rolly. The ferry terminal generates wakes that will toss your boat around all day long. For that reason it may not be the best place to live aboard.
There are a few other options, most notably SAF Changi and the Marina Country Club at Punggol, but they are both quite far East and NE, respectively, and I think much less frequented by the liveaboard crowd.
I’ve discussed berthing costs in the past; for a monohull somewhere around 38-45 ft you should be able to stay in one of the nicer marinas for something like S$850-1400/month including utilities.
Maintaining your boat
Singapore is not a do-it-yourself kind of place. And when it is, the doing-it-yourself is mostly about houses or cars — rarely boats. But it’s still a huge port, and it’s probably the best place in SE Asia to buy parts and equipment without having to order from overseas. That said, it is also usually very, very expensive and many times I’ve found it’s cheaper to order and ship items from the US than to buy them here. (As an aside: get a boat stamp made with the vessel’s name and registration details; if your vessel is foreign-flagged, you can use it to avoid paying GST on most boat related purchases, and in any case most CIQP offices expect you to have it.)
I keep a list of vendors in Singapore that I’ve dealt with, usually including some notes about my experience with them. Some are bad, others good, and a few really great to deal with.
At the top of that list are a few general-marine-service companies you can hire to do maintenance work on your boat. I’ve gotten quite a few quotes for various jobs from them, but I’ve never once hired a marine contractor here to do anything serious on my boat because the costs in Singapore are just insane. I once got a quote for S$5k+ to install fuel and water tank gauges in my boat. I just got all the hard work for that job done in Malaysia for a couple hundred SGD.
For any major work, I think the best option is indeed to sail outside of Singapore. There are a number of good boatyards in Malaysia and Thailand. Parts and supplies are mostly a lot cheaper, and labor is much less expensive. In my (limited) experience, workmanship is just as good. For really critical stuff like repower jobs, canvas work, etc, ask around to find the best contractors (your broker from the boat purchase is probably a good place to start).
Sailing around Singapore
Singapore waters themselves are not so great for cruising around. The port limit is only a few miles offshore, and if you’re planning to cross it you’ll need to do port clearance and immigration. Within the port, there are hundreds upon hundreds of anchored cargo ships, tankers, and so on. There are some good spots for day cruises, but not much beyond that.
Technically, you’re supposed to have a PPCDL to use your vessel within port limits. I have never been able to figure out if that’s a requirement for foreign flagged vessels that are here for the long term. MPA hasn’t given me the same answer twice. The same is true of the cruising permits required for foreign flagged vessels — despite following all the right procedures, sometimes the marina staff I’ve worked with has said I’m not eligible for a cruising permit; and other times it’s granted without issue. Most people I know just don’t bother. But make sure you’re as up to date as you can be on what the rules and regulations are, since they seem to be fairly dynamic.
Port clearance is easy enough to do yourself: just go to the MPA OSDC office at Tanjong Pagar with a few copies of crew and passenger lists, general declaration forms, boat registration, etc. Some marinas can do the clearance paperwork for you if you prefer. Similarly, there are immigration facilities at some marinas, but normally I just do immigration at one of the two quarantine anchorages (Western near the Sister Islands, or Eastern near Changi, depending on the direction I’m sailing).
There are plenty of international destinations within reasonable range. I’ve never made it to any of the Indonesian islands — they seem logistically kind of difficult — but both coasts of peninsular Malaysia are worth visiting.