Houseboats are great for recreation and living aboard, specifically in rivers and lakes. But can they sail in the sea or cross an ocean?
Houseboats aren’t designed for blue water, so they can’t go into or cross oceans. They’re too boxy, top-heavy, and underpowered to navigate safely and usually not watertight in key areas. Plus, flat houseboat hulls pound excessively in rough water.
In this article, we'll go over why most houseboats aren't designed for (or safe to use) in open-ocean conditions. Additionally, we'll cover the aspects of other boats that houseboats would need to safely venture out to sea.
We sourced the information used in this article from trusted marine design guides and the advice of experienced boaters.
Can Houseboats Cross an Ocean?
Generally, no—houseboats can’t cross an ocean. In fact, the vast majority of houseboats can’t go anywhere near the open ocean safely. These vessels are not designed to be used in oceans, and doing so can be very hazardous.
Some weather conditions, which are perfectly safe for sailboats and trawler-type yachts, are almost guaranteed to damage or sink a typical houseboat. Houseboats can’t go offshore for the same reasons why you don’t see pontoon boats or flat-bottom ski boats on the open ocean.
Houseboat Design Limitations
Houseboat design is a tradeoff, like many things in engineering. Houseboats are not designed to be used in the open ocean.
Instead, they’re designed for comfort and living space. In a way, you can think of their seaworthiness as an afterthought, as they’re essentially just floating platforms for living spaces.
Lack of Water Tightness
Most houseboats don’t even have a minimal level of water tightness. Why would they? These vessels hardly ever encounter waves of any kind, so they don’t need to be protected from foundering in rough weather.
Sailboats and ocean-going power boats have watertight hatches, watertight doors, watertight compartments—the list goes on. They also commonly have positive buoyancy material throughout to protect the vessel from sinking if water intrusion occurs.
More often than not, houseboats have none of this. Additionally, the strength of houseboat hulls is comparatively low, and the decks aren’t designed to be swamped with tons of water from a crashing wave.
Underpowered Houseboat Engines
Houseboat engines are usually run-of-the-mill marine engines, which are great for use in rivers and lakes—but not so much in the open ocean. Most houseboats have outboard motors. There are many outboard-powered Bluewater boats, but they’re usually only designed for coastal use.
There are a couple of examples of people crossing oceans in outboard-powered boats. Plenty of sailboats do it (albeit with sails as their primary propulsion and an outboard motor backup).
But all other examples were in boats with seaworthy hull shapes, thousands of gallons of fuel, and experienced crews looking to set records or prove a point. In other words, if it was practical, it wouldn’t be in the record books.
Houseboat inboard engines are better suited for offshore use but often lack the installed equipment necessary to handle rough weather and saltwater.
Fuel polishing systems, multi-stage filters, and robust exhaust systems that you usually find on offshore boats are usually absent from houseboats.
Low Houseboat Fuel Capacity
The primary limitation of houseboat engines is fuel capacity. A true bluewater cruising powerboat, like a sport fisher, has enormous fuel tanks that give it enough range to motor great distances.
This is necessary for offshore use, as the typical ocean journey requires more fuel due to weather and emergencies. A houseboat may have a 250-gallon fuel capacity, but if it consumes five gallons per hour, you’ll be out of fuel a lot quicker than you think.
Low Houseboat Speed
Another issue with houseboats is their speed—or lack thereof. The fastest typical cruising houseboats can travel between 5 and 8 knots, which is enough to overcome river currents and cruise around lakes but not enough for efficient offshore use.
Many small power boats use planing to navigate rough ocean conditions. Getting up on plane requires a lot of power and an efficient hull shape, which houseboats almost universally lack. Houseboats
Boxy Houseboat Hull Shape
Houseboats have long, comparatively boxy hulls. Some variations exist, and many houseboats have V-bottom hulls for easier cruising when the weather gets dicey. This is an improvement off of pontoon and flat-bottom designs, but it’s still not good enough for the ocean.
Houseboats have comparatively low freeboard, as the living quarters begin almost immediately after the water ends. This leaves virtually no room for waves, which can easily wash over or smash up against the low-lying superstructure of a houseboat.
Long Houseboat Length
Sometimes, bigger isn’t better in the open ocean. Houseboats commonly reach 50 or 60 feet in length, which can provide a false sense of security to their owners.
A large houseboat can be even more dangerous in ocean weather, as waves can crest and trough underneath the boat and cause the hull to buckle.
Picture it this way: the top parts of two waves are on either end of the boat, and the pit between them is under it amidships. The stress overcomes the keel, and the houseboat buckles in under its own weight.
Granted, this doesn’t happen very often. But it’s a distinct possibility if a houseboat is taken out into the ocean during unfavorable weather conditions.
Houseboats are Top Heavy
Top heaviness is another design element of houseboats that makes them unsuitable for open ocean travel. A houseboat is essentially just a big box on a hull or pontoons, and it has a very shallow draft. This is great for lakes and rivers, but not so good in the open ocean.
High winds, large waves, and unpredictable swells can easily unbalance a houseboat and throw it off-center. This can cause the vessel to roll over, as the weight of its superstructure acts as a counterbalance when tipped. Compare this to a displacement sailboat, which has most of its ballast well below the waterline.
The interior is another element of houseboats that’s totally unsuitable for open ocean travel. Houseboat interiors are lavish compared to sailboats, fishing boats, and trawlers. This is because they’re not designed for rough weather and thus not limited by marine design parameters.
Appliances, furniture, and fixtures are not always secure for dramatic motion that’s encountered at sea. Additionally, appliances like dishwashers, air conditioning units, and tanks are not designed to be tilted past the levels you’d expect on calm water.
Houseboat Safety Equipment
Houseboats don’t have the safety equipment necessary for offshore travel. Some don’t even have a VHF radio. Houseboats are optioned out at the factory for use in environments where many Bluewater safety features simply aren’t necessary.
They still have to meet the basic U.S. Coast Guard requirements, but these don’t cover everything that a wise offshore sailor needs to stay safe and navigate properly.
Can Houseboats be Modified for Offshore Use?
Generally, no, houseboats have too many built-in design limitations to be modified for offshore use. They’re simply too proportionally incompatible for the open ocean.
If you’re looking to do some bluewater traveling on a liveaboard boat, consider a trawler or a sailboat. But if you’re set on a houseboat, there are plenty of excellent bays, lakes, and rivers around the country where these design features are beneficial, and house boating is safe.
About THE AUTHOR
I have a deep love of houseboating and the life-changing experiences houseboating has brought into my life. I’ve been going to Lake Powell on our family’s houseboat for over 30 years and have made many great memories, first as a child and now as a parent. My family has a passion for helping others have similar fun, safe experiences on their houseboat.Read More About Brian Samson