Tuesday, October 22, 2019

My two cents: It's always about the money

(Ed note: This is a highly controversial subject. The post is the author's own opinions. There are always exceptions to every generalization.)

We spent a week binge-watching The Long Way Down, a documentary film with Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman detailing their trip from John O' Groats, Scotland through eighteen countries to Capetown, South Africa on two BMW motorcycles. Having ridden various motorcycles long-distance over our lives together, we appreciated the challenges of riding in a hostile environment (both environmental and political) but, regardless of the danger implied in the film, there was never any serious risk involved because they had two support vehicles, a medic with operating-room level supplies, a "security" agent, and a "fixer" for each country they traveled through. They started with brand new bikes (which were donated by BMW,) and racks upon racks of sponsored equipment, clothing, and spare parts. The whole time we were watching it, I kept thinking to myself that, in spite of the difficulties they encountered, there was never anything that happened that couldn't be fixed by the expansive bank account and huge support team that backed the project. It was a worthy project supporting UNICEF, it drew needed attention to many of the struggling countries in Africa, and I would watch it again, but I couldn't stop drawing the contrast to cruising.

Cruising is a hard way to live sometimes. You're pretty much responsible for yourself, and it is the rare cruiser that has that kind of expansive bank account back home to cover the unexpected or even the routine costs of living full-time on a boat. We've seen a lot of cruising dreams die in the almost six years we were out there, and it's usually either health reasons or money at the root of it.

But, wait, you say...you can cruise on five hundred bucks a month, right?

Anyone prepping to go cruising wants desperately to believe that it's possible. They want to believe it's possible because if it isn't, their cruising dream is dead. And it might be possible, but let me paint a picture for you from what we've seen in the five plus years we've been cruising.

Five hundred bucks a month is maybe far-reach type doable if:
  • you have a 40+-year-old sailboat
  • with no refrigeration
  • with no air conditioning
  • that needs bottom paint
  • that has 4 inches of growth on the bottom
  • that has 30-year-old rigging
  • that has 30-year-old sails
  • you eat beans and rice every night
  • you have no boat insurance
  • you have no health insurance
  • you have no children
  • you have a spouse who's either a saint or catatonic
  • you have no family that you need to communicate with via phone
  • you are a professional dumpster diver for spare parts
  • you don't mind using a bucket to take a dump when the head breaks
  • you live in Indonesia...
  • you have a 20-40-year-old boat that you just launched from a boatyard after spending 6 months on the hard ticking projects off a list
  • where you spent thousands of dollars buying parts for the projects on the list
  • and paid thousands of dollars for the privilege of occupying 1000 sq ft of the boatyard
  • and paid thousands of dollars outfitting the boat with all the latest electronics from the boat show
  • and paid hundreds of dollars to stock the boat with provisions for six months in the Bahamas
  • and paid hundreds of dollars to make your way down the ICW to Miami to cross to the Bahamas
  • and paid your $350 cruising fee in the Bahamas where
  • you live for 500 bucks a month on your fully refitted, paid for, stocked boat
  • until your stock of provisions run out and 
  • things start to break.
I know there are some people who manage to make it work, especially in third world countries. I know there are copious books written on the subject by well-respected authors. I know there are hundreds of blog posts, forum threads and Facebook groups that all say it's possible.

But it's not us.

When we first got married almost 50 years ago, we were dirt poor living on my $1.64/hour wage working in a pet store while Tim finished school at Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics. After his graduation and subsequent employment in the aviation industry in Wichita, Kansas, things got marginally better, but we were still poor, sharing housing and cars with friends because none of us could afford to live on our own. As the years rolled on, the jobs got better, the income higher, kids came and went, houses came and went, money started accumulating in our retirement account and, well, if you're a long-term reader of this blog you know the rest of the story.

When we retired the first time in 2013, we left to go cruising with a well-founded boat that was comfortable, paid for, and able to take us where we wanted to go. Nothing fancy, but functional. We weren't living high on the hog, rarely eating out and almost never went to any paid function or resorts. But we were eating well by preparing home-cooked food on the boat, we had good communication with the grandkids through Skype, we had good iPads that were well-equipped with copious amounts of books from Amazon and our local library, we didn't have to sweat it financially if we wanted to touch a dock for a day or two to provision, and we could have the occasional ice cream cone as a treat. That cruising lifestyle cost us around $3,000 a month over the first couple years and more toward $3,500 a month the last two years. Those numbers include alcohol, boat maintenance, boat insurance, health insurance, medical bills, and all of the daily expenses like food, water, fuel, clothing, electricity, phones. A far cry from $500 a month. But as Tim likes to say, we've been poor, done that, have the card to prove it, and don't want to be poor again. 

After cruising full-time over five years, I am extremely skeptical of anyone who says they can live comfortably on $500 a month. In fact, I'm completely skeptical of anyone who says they can live on even $1000 a month. Why, you ask? Here's my reasoning.

Things break on boats. All boats. All the time. At the most inconvenient times. At the most expensive places to get them fixed. Always far away from parts sources. We have a friend who's one of those people who always seems to be in the right place at the right time to acquire parts for free that people are giving away or parts he can trade for things he has on his boat from the last time he traded. He's a maverick, and he's a master mechanic, and he cruises pretty cheaply. But dumpster diving in boatyards is virtually a full-time job for him. We've never seemed to be in the right place at the right time and usually end up trading green, crinkly paper for parts and then doing all the maintenance and installations ourselves. And parts in the Bahamas? Even the shipping costs to get them there would wipe out half a month's budget.

And then there's food. If you happen to be able to supplement your budget with shellfish you catch, that's certainly a bonus. Unfortunately, the Captain of Kintala has a shellfish allergy so that's supplement we don't benefit from. Everything you buy in the Bahamas is almost exactly twice the cost of their counterparts in the US: cereal ($6-$8 for smaller boxes,) milk ($8-$12 per gallon,) beer ($3 a bottle,) to name a few. We rarely eat out in the Bahamas because the food we can afford isn't very healthy, but we always try to support the local economy by buying our groceries there whenever possible. The only things we really provision prior to leaving are decaf coffee, (I am a coffee snob, I confess - it's my one vice,) beer, and some cooking ingredients that are hard to come by.

And then there's the water issue. If you happened to be in group B above and installed a watermaker prior to departing (cha-ching $$$$,) then you don't have to buy water - but you do have to buy prefilters, the occasional membrane, and all the components involved in pickling the unit whenever you leave the boat for a while. If you don't have a watermaker, then you are paying anywhere from $.20 per gallon to $1.00 per gallon for water in the Bahamas and the Florida Keys. If you're living on $500 per month, you're likely bathing in salt water. If you're living on $1000 a month then you might get a fresh water rinse. Our own water usage averaged 8-10 gallons of water per day doing dishes, drinking coffee and water, doing a couple small loads of hand wash, and doing a quick rinse off before bed. Our average water cost in the Bahamas and the Keys was $.35 per gallon for a total of close to $100 per month.

Just those three expenses would go a long way toward busting that $1000 per month budget. And that doesn't include phones, internet, fuel, cruising permits, propane, oil filters, fuel filters, registration, taxes, medical expenses...

Undoubtedly, the biggest reason we see cruisers (including us) return to land, whether temporarily or permanently, is money. The cruising life is a hard life. Weather, boat maintenance, and the myriad of daily chores all vie for time and energy and having too little money makes it all the harder. It can be a huge source of stress, the very thing that most people go cruising to get away from. So what can you do, if you're in the middle of your five-year plan to go cruising?

The most oft-quoted cruising budget meme is to "go small, go simple, go now." Certainly, outfitting a boat with the basics you need to be comfortable, and no more, is a good principle to abide by. But if living on a 24-foot boat without refrigeration or a motor is your idea of ideal cruising, I will admire you from afar. I openly admit that I'm not that person. Or I should more accurately say that I don't want to be that person.

So if you're not that person either, what can you do? Spend a considerable amount of time analyzing your expectations and check them against reality. How long do you intend to cruise? If it's a short cruise of one season, then pretty much anything can be endured. We used to camp in a 7-foot pup tent on our motorcycle trips - fine for a week or maybe two, but I couldn't live like that for years at a time. If you intend to cruise for the long term and it currently takes you $4,000 a month to live a comfortable life on land, then it will take you only slightly less to live a comfortable life on a boat. No mortgage, sure, but many many boat repairs and dockage and travel expenses. Be honest with yourself. If you're used to eating out five nights a week, it's not likely that you'll all of a sudden find cooking entertaining in a very small galley.

I recently heard a story on NPR about a study that Princeton had done in 2010. They studied a very large group of people to try to determine if money brought happiness. What they found was that for those living near or below the poverty line, receiving more money had a profound impact on their happiness. As the income approached $50,000 per year the increase in happiness tapered off, and at $75,000 per year there was no increase in happiness at all when money was added. It was an interesting study. It clearly showed that there is immense stress when there are insufficient funds to cover the basic needs of food, shelter, and comfort. Once those needs were provided, additional money did nothing to increase the participants' happiness. Living on a boat poor would add the stress of the fact that, without proper maintenance, your home can sink. Spending too much would add the stress of more complex systems to maintain.

We don't have any desire to live poor on a boat, and we don't have the money to be extravagant either, but we've found this very nice balance in between where we have a boat big enough that we don't get in each other's way but not so big we can't care for it. We have enough gadgets to be safe in our navigation without becoming unsafe from the complexity of it. The balance works for us, but there are as many ways to cruise as there are cruisers out there doing it, so examine your expectations, analyze your needs, and find the balance that works for you because, for my two cents' worth, it's always about the money.

    Thursday, October 3, 2019

    Throwback Thursday - Favorite Places Series - Foxtown, Bahamas

    When we have traveled over the course of our lives, whether in our old VW bus, our various assortment of motorcycles, or on Kintala, we've always tended to visit the places less visited. We aren't the touristy types - we really can't ever imagine ourselves taking a cruise with 3,000 other people - and what we really enjoy the most about traveling is getting to know the local folks and hanging out in their hangouts. One of our most memorable finds was a little dumpy gas station in the rural areas of Maryland near Salisbury. We were on the bikes and traveling down some back roads when we needed a break. We pulled into this little gas station and on going in to pay we discovered that they sold ice cream in the back out of a deep freeze for 25¢ for this huge double decker cone. We went back there several years in a row but it eventually fell the way of so many little country businesses and closed due to a modern gas station opening up nearby.

    Our travels on the boat were the same. While the draw for most people visiting Treasure Cay is to spend time in the pool, drinking at the beach bar or sunbathing on the beach, we spent our time in Flo's Cafe, having hillarious conversations with the locals about the state of U.S. politics. Not to say that there's anything wrong with the resort atmosphere, it's just different strokes for different folks.

    Foxtown, Bahamas is one of those places that gets skipped by a lot of people. Quite a few cruisers head out from Lake Worth, FL and cross the Bahamas Banks straight for Green Turtle Cay, passing right by Foxtown. Maybe when we transition to a trawler that will be an urge we'll have to fight, that destination urge. But in Kintala we traveled at a leisurely pace, and almost always sailing, so Foxtown was a good stop to make between Great Sale Cay and Crab Cay. The anchorage can be a bit challenging to get into, and is not always the best in rough weather, but it's strewn with these odd large rocks that make it feel a lot like some other places we've been and draws us in.

    The town is quite poor and doesn't have much in the way of support services. There are three food shops that are each about 12-foot square and it takes a trip to all three to get everything you need. There's no ice there except for at the bait shop the commercial fishermen use, and the only water available is in five-gallon jugs that you have to haul to the boat, empty, and bring back at $1.00 per gallon. But there's an amazing community of people there, including a whole bunch of kids in the local school that we were able to visit and read one of the children's books I wrote.

    While Foxtown fared better than most through Dorian, they had all access to support services cut off by a bridge that washed away. They were trapped there and many had to be evacuated by helicopter because of the lack of access to food, water, and fuel from other parts of Grand Abaco. Our hearts go out to these special people and we hope that once we head back to the water we can go back to visit.

    School Day …

    After getting up this morning I made sure my shirt was clean and there were no big stains on my pants. Coffee, breakfast, brush teeth, shave close, generally making myself as presentable as possible. Load up, dink into shore, head down the road. Destination? Fox Town Preparatory school. Once there Deb was introduced to the students in the First / Second grade classroom as an Author from America (which she is), and then she read the class Mr. Sun and the Super Sleepy Sunday. After the story she answered questions from the kids and then left a signed copy of the book for their library.

    It was the coolest thing we have done since setting out. The children were as polite as could be and nearly as cute as my own grand kids. The Principal and Teachers were friendly, professional, and clearly dedicated to the little ones in their charge. It was a real honor to be a part of their lives for just a little while, and Fox Town is now on our “must visit” list whenever we come this way.

    In addition to the school visit we found fruit, milk, and even ICE CREAM while shopping the three small stores in the town. Everyone greeted us with a smile and a wave. A 10 pound block of ice was ours for just $5. The only shortfall was water, 5 gallons cost $6.50 and you had to return the bottle. Since we have a few days left in our tanks we decided to pass on the water, though we are in full conservation mode until finding some place to fill the tanks. (Yes, a water maker would make life easier right now, but this is the first time in 18 months where water on board is a concern.)

    Principal Curry with the teacher and assistant.

    One more thing about Fox Town. The anchorage is one of the prettiest ones we have been in. It is surrounded by little islands of rock, reminding me of the northeast coast of the US. The water isn't that deep, it is a bit of a dink ride to the dock, and there is enough fetch to make the place a little bumpy when the winds clock up to 20+ out of the east. It is still better than Dinner Key for most wind directions, and Kintala had no problem finding a good place to sit for a few days.

    Kintala in the background.

    After our school visit there was still enough time in the day to get underway. The plan was to sail to Powell Cay today, roughly 20 NM. The forecast for the Abacos is in a bit of a rut, ENE winds 15 to 20 with seas of 3 to 5 feet. It has been that way for nearly two weeks, and is forecast for the same as far into the future as the forecast goes. So, if one wants to get anywhere, 20 knots and five foot seas is what one gets to go in. Of course, the course to Powell Cay put the wind and waves directly on the bow.

    Kintala's crew has gotten used to 5 foot seas breaking over the bow. Kintala herself doesn't mind 5 foot waves breaking over the bow so long as she has enough push to shoulder them aside. Ah, but the WesterBeast... The Beast and I have come to an uneasy kind of truce. I check it every single day we are under way, keep the revs down, and basically treat it like some kind of temperamental VIP who demands all the green M&Ms be taken from the bowl and the bottled water be shipped directly from France. In return the Beast has rumbled along with no complaints. It isn't using any coolant, isn't using any oil, and runs at a constant 178°. (Amazing what a heat exchanger overhaul will do. But hp is not the Beast's forté. It will get us in and out of an anchorage and motor us along, so long as we don't task it with too many 5 foot hills to climb. Insist on that and boat speed will fall by a third in each 5 footer, bringing Kintala to a stop with the third hit in a row. A fourth will have her backing up, Beast or no Beast. Three, four, and even five consecutive hits greeted the bow once we turned on course. Twenty miles is a long, long way in those kinds of conditions.

    The medical center in town. My granddaughters would love this!

    So the decision was made to abort to Crab Cay instead. Roughly the same heading but half the distance away. An hour or so later it was still nearly half the distance away. The Beast was just no match for the waves, and there was no point of sail that would work to cover the distance, even with multiple tacks. Even it there were, time was running out of the day for making multiple tacks.

    Off the wind lay Allan's Pensacola Cay, only four miles away and with an anchorage that would offer some protection for the night. Also a place we skipped last year and wanted to see, so changing destinations yet again was an easy call. Deb turned Kintala off the wind and I spun out the staysail. Where we had been struggling to keep the average speed above 2 knots, now we were making 5+. Definitely an easy call. An added bonus was that the waves were not quite as tight to the bow, though we were still running sluices of water down the toe rail to pour off the side decks. Within two hours the hook was down, the deck set up for the night, and I had a sandwich and cold Rum & Coke in hand – complete with ice.

    The colors here are stunning. There is simply no way to capture them on film.

    Tomorrow we will try and get a little further east by leaving in the morning before the winds start their daily ramp up. That is the plan anyway.

    Kintala swinging in the light wind.
    Kacey this one's for you. One of the local bars with the ever-present Kalik sign.

    The anchorage at Allen's Pensacola