The Reality of
Living Aboard a Sailboat

The people that I've met that have chosen living aboard a sailboat as their preferred lifestyle generally have no regrets about their decision. But changing one lifestyle for another is not an undertaking to be taken lightly, particularly if one involves life in a house securely planted on terra firma, and the other in a small boat bobbing about on the 'oggin.

Only a total chancer would embark upon it without making some assessment of the associated risks and rewards.

Not being of that ilk, we had gone to some lengths to convince ourselves that the implications of exchanging the existing safe, cosy lifestyle ashore for the exciting new one of living aboard a sailboat had been fully considered and were properly understood by us both.

We had high expectation as to the pleasure and satisfaction that this new lifestyle would bring us, but we did recognise that as in all projects things could, and would, go awry occasionally.

The Perceived Risks of Living Aboard a Sailboat

Consequently, we considered a number of possible events that represented risks to the success of living aboard a sailboat in terms of:~

  • their probability of occurrence, and
  • their impact upon our new lifestyle.

They are set out below in order of diminishing severity:

  1. Initially rewarding lifestyle would pall, and become mundane and boring;
  2. Out-of-pocket expense budget would be exceeded;
  3. Incapacitating injury or illness;
  4. Personal relationship would not stand up to prolonged period of living in close proximity to each other;
  5. Boat would prove to be unsuitable for long distance cruising;
  6. Total loss of the boat;
  7. Bad tenant would damage home, or not pay rent;
  8. Domestic, or family issue at home would require return to UK;
  9. One, or both of us, would find the insecurity of being away from the working environment untenable.

With our first year of living aboard our sailboat Alacazam far behind us, during which we cruised France, Spain, Portugal, Madeira, The Canary Islands and the West Indies, we are able to take stock and ponder the events of those first twelve months.

Were our concerns justified, and how did it all pan out?

1. Initially rewarding lifestyle would pall, and become mundane and boring

This was perceived to be the big risk, and of course it could still happen. But it certainly hasn't done so yet, and we are determined not to let it.

We particularly enjoy the passage planning, together with the anticipation and trepidation that it evokes. But extended delays awaiting a suitable weather window can get a bit galling when you're itching to get to sea, particularly if you're having to shell out for a marina berth. We experienced this for weeks at a time at Falmouth, Portimao, Porto Santo and Santa Cruz de Tenerife, and our budget was hit heavily as a result of it.

Meeting other cruisers has been, with the notable exception of a drunken British single-hander who threatened to knife me, a delight.

The sense of achievement on completing our first ocean crossing will remain with us for a long time yet, as will our smugness that we have set out on an endeavour that could have so easily remained a dream.

Mary has developed the explorational drive of Magellan, each new island landfall having to be tramped all over at the first opportunity.

The cruising life has turned out to be a succession of random opportunities, that unshackled from the routine of enforced office attendance, we are free to exploit or decline as our judgement decrees. Treks through the Caribbean rainforests, snorkelling on the reefs, chatting with the locals in a beach bar, sundowners while awaiting the elusive green flash or simply reading in the cockpit remain rewarding ways to while away the day. And oh yes, I've started writing stuff.

A boyhood fascination with wildlife has been rekindled. Every new bird, reptile, insect or marine creature sends me scuttling below for the appropriate reference book. Dolphins, whales and the shoals of flying fish remain an endless source of pleasure for both of us.

Fishing, both on passage and at anchor, has introduced many a tuna, dorado, wahoo and snapper to a fatal gillfull of rum and subsequently to Mary's culinary expertise.

Each new landfall normally means a trip to Customs and Immigration. These two organisations frequently do not occupy the same building and can be a taxi ride apart. All documents are given close scrutiny and any infraction of the rules is likely to be pounced upon. Patience and courtesy are the key requirements here. But if the cricket is on the ever-present TV, you will not be their first priority. If you're lucky you might get a look in when a wicket falls, but after the post mortem of course. Interrupting the commentary will not bring forth the desired result. After all, what's the rush?

But boring and beginning to pall? I don't think so.

2. Out-of-pocket expense budget would be exceeded

Something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, this one.

We had estimated before leaving the UK in 2002 that our monthly out-of-pocket expenses would be in the order of:

Communications £20 ($32) per month
Yacht running costs £50 ($80) per month
Yacht berthing £50 ($80) per month
Food £400 ($640) per month
Clothes £20 ($32) per month
Entertainment £200 ($320) per month
Total £740 ($1,184) per month

This was then adopted as the out-of-pocket budget against which our expenditure could be monitored.

It did not include for other cruising related costs, such as yacht insurance, travel and health insurance, yacht club membership, laying-up costs or return airfares.

Similarly, domestic costs at home such as mortgages, insurance, accountancy costs, property management and maintenance costs continued to haemorrhage the bank account through standing orders and direct debits.

In fact the budget wasn't that far out. Our records show that we spent an average of £975 ($1,560) per month in Europe and the Atlantic Islands where the marina charges caught us out, and £850 ($1,360) in the Caribbean.

We were holed up in the Canary Islands for most of December and January, all of it on a marina berth owing to the scarcity of tenable anchorages in the prevailing southerly conditions.

On arrival in Guadeloupe after the Atlantic crossing we languished for a couple of weeks in the marina at Pointe-a-Pitre, and ate ashore fairly regularly. The nearby Route du Rhum Restaurant became a firm favourite, with its signed sketches of famous French single-handers adorning the walls, justifying the expenditure through Mary's observation that we hadn't managed to spend anything at all during the 18 day crossing from Tenerife.

It is possible to live on considerably less than £850 per month in the Caribbean, providing you shop in the local markets, eat aboard and stay clear of alcohol. There are few marinas, and we use them only briefly to take on fuel and water. Anchoring is a far more attractive prospect anyway, and is so far free of charge in most places. There does seem to be a twin pricing regime in the markets however; one for us and one for the locals. However, a bit of bargaining and friendly banter can go a long way towards negating the difference.

We have met cruisers who spent a lot more than us and others who live on next to nothing. If there is a lesson to be learned it is that whatever your budget is, you'll spend a bit more.

3. Incapacitating injury or illness

Cruising is a very healthy lifestyle, and the common shoreside allergies are usually avoided. After seeking advice from MASTA (Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad), we were inoculated against all the real nasties before leaving the UK. These included polio, hepatitis A and typhoid, together with a tetanus booster. We will need a further jab for yellow fever before going on to Venezuela.

Apart from the Dominican Republic, where malaria is a very real risk, this disease has been eradicated from the West Indies. Nevertheless we keep anti-malarial tablets onboard, but they are only effective for a specific strain of the disease.

It is therefore important that if you are going to get bitten by a mosquito, you get bitten by the right one. Apparently it is only the female mosquitoes that bite - well, it would be wouldn't it?. These can be identified as the ones that hesitate when flying past a mirror, surreptitiously giving their hair a delicate pat.

Dengue fever is prevalent throughout the Windward Islands. In Trinidad concerted attempts to eradicate the disease have been made, but local press reports indicate that a more virulent strain of the disease may be on the increase. There is nothing that can be taken to reduce the effects of this debilitating mosquito-borne disease.

We also took out Travel and Sickness Insurance through Pantaenius UK Ltd. They have a policy tailored specifically for people living aboard a sailboat, for which in my opinion is a very reasonable fee. I would encourage anyone contemplating a similar voyage to us to at least have a word with them.

After all, an uninsured broken leg in Florida will have a similar effect on your cruising budget as the demise of WorldCom had on many investment portfolios.

Mary smothers herself with so much insect repellent and sun cream that it is very difficult to get a firm grip on her. Even so, all biting or stinging insects south of the Tropic of Cancer make a bee-line (sorry) for her, quite properly disregarding the skipper with due regard for rank. She is my own personal flypaper. Every cruising boat should have one.

4. Personal relationship would not stand up to prolonged period living in close proximity to each other

I was very wary of looking too deeply into this one, although I thought we ought to recognise it as a risk.

Afterall Mary's Irish/Spanish heritage, though distant, takes charge at times and she can talk for England when the mood takes her. Unprovoked attacks during times of acute stress are not unknown.

I, on the other hand, am tolerance itself; a mute witness and emotional sponge to the onslaught of unjustifiable outrage.

The following anecdote will lend credence to my concern, and gives an insight into the appalling character of the woman that shares my life.

Some years ago I was working on a tunnel project in London and Mary was working in an equally stressful environment in Plymouth. She phoned me;

"We both need a break" she said, "I'm booking a long weekend for us both in Ireland"

"Great idea", said I, "How much is it going to cost?"

She told me.

"What?" said I "You've got to be joking. There has to be a better deal than that around. Go find it!"

She called me back an hour later:

"I've found that deal you were looking for" she said, "I've got 50% off".

"Fantastic" said I, " How did you manage that?"

"I've cancelled your ticket." she said.

As it turned out we have got on famously, each of us having learned when to keep quiet and avoid explosive situations. A sense of humour is the antidote when all other senses point to outright war. Now we only disagree when Mary is wrong.

Mary tells me that she misses the girlie chat with the coven back home, and I have to confess to missing male company at times. One day at anchor off Mustique, I caught myself musing in silent envy of all my mates quaffing pints of Bass in my local pub, the Royal Albert Bridge Inn back in Plymouth, at that very moment. I consoled myself with the thought that they may be talking about that lucky sod checking out the watering holes of the West Indies.

5. Boat would prove to be unsuitable for long distance sailing

Our light displacement sailboat Alacazam proved to be fast, safe and rewarding to sail on passage, and practical and comfortable at anchor. Had it not been so I would probably have fallen on my own sword, after having first skewered the designer with it!

6. Total loss of the boat

We took care of Alacazam exactly as we would have done had she not been insured, but relied on Pantaenius Yacht Insurance for recompense in the event of total loss. Pantaenius take a sensible, pragmatic approach to long distance cruisers and are happy to insure two people to sail their own boat across the Atlantic, provided they're suitably experienced and their vessel is seaworthy.

Many other companies require a third hand, which we did not want or need. Our policy like many others did not cover us for damage caused by named tropical storms (that's hurricanes or something nasty thinking of becoming one) through July to December. We had to be south of 12° 40' North during that period, effectively meaning a stopover in either Grenada or Trinidad. Alternatively we could have cruised the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) or Venezuela.

(Note that following hurricane Ivan which devastated Grenada in 2005, this policy has changed in many yacht insurance policies)

7. Bad tenant would damage home, or not pay rent.

We interviewed several rental agencies before settling on one that we felt had our best interests at heart. We finally settled on Town & Country Lettings of Plymouth, particularly liking the selection process that they put prospective tenants through, and the professional manner in which they approached the whole business. We have had no problems so far in this area.

8. Domestic, or family issue at home would require long-term return to the UK

It didn't happen, but we did choose to make a scheduled trip back home to visit family and friends at the end of the first year. We kept in touch at other times by e-mail and the occasional phone call. Post cards of the 'wish you were here' variety are generally well received and go a long way to avoid that 'come back home' call.

9. One, or both of us, would find the insecurity of being away from the working environment untenable.

Neither of us expected this to come up, but it has to a degree for me. Maybe it's the work ethic, the male thing to provide or the recognition of ones peers, but I haven't managed to completely break the ties yet. Consequently, I take on short-term contracts back in Europe now and then.

To me, the contrast between the work environment and the cruising lifestyle enhances both endeavours. I can apply myself with great enthusiasm to achieve the set objective, knowing that on completion I will be back in the sunshine on Alacazam. It fits in nicely with our approach to random events, and of course does the cruising budget no harm at all!

Mary on the other hand, has no such reservations. She has embraced the cruising lifestyle completely and would be happy to devote the rest of her life to it. But she has taken to writing a daily journal, and applies herself to it much as if she was required to do so under a contract of employment. Job satisfaction by clandestine means perhaps? The journal is turning out to be a major tome recording as it does our daily exploits, warts and all.

Somewhat predictably perhaps, most of the warts are mine.


About changing our old lifestyle for the new one? None!

But we do regret not having spent time in the Cape Verdes and crossing to Brazil rather than the West Indies. We would then have cruised the Brazilian coastline the first year, arriving in Trinidad with the prospect of a West Indies cruise the next.

Prevailing winds and currents being unfavourable for a passage from Trinidad to Brazil, we might just have to go round again sometime.

Meanwhile another season of living aboard a sailboat in the glorious Caribbean awaits us.

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