Thursday, July 19, 2018

Does Size Matter? (Five Year Review Post #1)

Ed Note: As we complete our fifth year of full-time cruising/living aboard, we've been taking stock of a lot of things and evaluating the life. We will be doing a series of posts about it called The Five Year Review. They will be tagged as such and can be found in a sidebar list on the right.



When you first begin to consider the life of full-time cruising, the first thing you're likely to hear espoused is, "Go small, go now!" It has its merits, as many a dreamer has waited to go cruising in a bigger boat only to discover that either they or their traveling companion have developed health issues and they can't go at all. There's also the younger couple wishing to travel on a year sabbatical before kids, or the solo sailor taking a gap year before college who would benefit going small, cheap, and soon. Its success, in my opinion, depends largely on having a short-term designated cruising period in the plan. You can endure many less levels of comfort if you know that you're going to return to your landed, comfortable life in a year or two. When we decided to go cruising, we went all in. We sold everything and moved onto the boat with an indefinite and unspecified cruising plan. We don't fit into any of the short-term categories and, after five years of cruising and after a good cruising friend began struggling with the topic, I wanted to address this issue of "Go small, go now" for any of you who might be thinking of taking the plunge.

First of all, I realize that the phrase has become the Holy Grail of cruising circles. Its authors are well-respected in the cruising community and we benefited from their knowledge as we prepared to leave. I'm grateful for their contribution to the knowledge base but, as with any generalization, this one falls short of applying to all who desire to live on the water and ply its depths. Their mantra does apply to a very large percentage of those wanna-be cruisers, but the retiring couple who wants to coastal cruise is probably not one of them.

First, let's take a look at the typical coastal-cruising retired couple. Usually (again there are exceptions) the East Coast coastal-cruising couple travels north along the coast during the warm summer months to avoid the heat and hurricanes. The trip south is made in the fall and may involve a long stay somewhere in Florida or a trip to the Bahamas over the winter, ergo the moniker "Snow Birds." Again, there are many who do not fit any mold, but the vast majority of the retired coastal cruising couples we run into fall into three categories:

  1. Those that have a home paid for that they keep as a destination for when they quit cruising. The home is rented or is lived in by family members who care for it until the couple quits cruising and returns to the home. Large amounts of possessions are either stored in the home or in a rented storage facility.
  2. Those that are "commuter cruisers" like our friends Dave and Jan Irons on  Winterlude. They live on the boat for 6 or 7 months out of the year and live in their home the rest of the year. This group also includes folks like our friends Paul and Deb on Kelly Nichole who cruise eight or nine months of the year and spend the other months in rented apartments near their girls and grandkids. Some others like our friends Bonnie and Craig on Odin the Wanderer cruise six or seven months a year and tour the country in their RV the rest. A variation of this are our friends Robert and Rhonda of Life on the Hook who cruise during the fall/winter/spring and then take their boat back to Pensacola to a marina for the hurricane season. 
  3. Those that sell everything and move permanently onto the boat, traveling to different lattitudes throughout the year in order to dodge hurricanes and to find a comfortable temperature in which to live. That would be us.
So here's the kicker: the determining factor as to which group you may fall into is almost always decided by one thing: money.

It's an ugly fact of life (one we like to ignore) that money does in fact buy happiness to some extent, at least when it comes to full time cruising on a sailboat. Living on a severely restricted budget adds a level of stress to what can already be a stressful lifestyle change. There are many out there who say they can live comfortably on less than  $1,000 per month while cruising on a sailboat, but we are just not them. We have a very modest boat, we rarely eat out, and we rarely visit tourist attractions that cost money. We're not independently wealthy, having been forced out of our jobs in the aviation industry about two years before we had adequate funds to sustain our cruising indefinitely. As a result, we've had to stop to work along the way to replenish the cruising kitty.

Before we left in 2013 we knew that we would have to stop to work, but hoped that it would be short stints at something we really enjoyed. We had a goal to make it through to Social Security age, at which point those benefits would fund the majority of our budget and our investments would fund the balance. After a few years of cruising along with a couple unexpected medical bills and boat maintenance issues, it became painfully clear that our budget was much higher than we had estimated and that the benefits we would receive through Social Security at age 62 would not fund our life aboard. We were, in fact, going to have to wait until nearing 67 before claiming benefits. As a result, seventeen months of the five years have been spent on the dock working full time in a boat yard in Florida in the summer heat. Not exactly what we envisioned when thinking about Living the Dream.

In order to try to curb the work time, we began to look at trying to curb expenses to fit the available funds. Spending is a very personal matter, and only you can determine what you are able and willing to live with. In a sidebar of the blog we have listed links to a group of cruisers who are willing to share their cruising expenses (including ours although I'm behind on updating them) but they are merely guidelines to help you plan.

Behind our budget is the base issue that we have lived in poverty and have absolutely no desire to do so again willingly. When we first got married we were living on $1.74 an hour that I made working at a mall pet store. Our early years of marriage were a string of shared housing with friends (because none of us had enough money to afford rent by ourselves,) shared vehicles (because none of us had enough money to keep more than one of them running at any time,) and our entertainment was sitting around the one floor heater drinking hot chocolate and telling stories. Sound romantic to you? Not so much. Laying on frozen ground under a VW bus trying to get it running for work the next morning, all the while peeling tools from your frozen fingers is not something any soul on earth would volunteer for willingly. We have had an intimate relationship with poverty and simply do not wish to spend our remaining years reliving that experience. Trying to cruise on $1,000 per month feels way too close to that life.

So how does one define their personal level of comfort when preparing a budget for full-time cruising? While everyone's comfort level is different, at some point comfort greatly effects the fun to suck ratio. Too little comfort and the ratio tilts heavily to the suck side. Here are some things to think about in trying to define your comfort level. The list is in no order and is not inclusive.
  1. Food: Do you cook? Are you willing to prepare most meals onboard? Do the areas you want to cruise in  have inexpensive food that you like? If you eat out a lot, how much do you typically spend? Do the areas you want to cruise in have restaurant prices that will fit your budget?
  2. Alcohol: Do you like to drink socially? If so, you can expect your alcohol bill to increase exponentially. Cruisers are known for drinking socially and unless you either plan to curb your intake or budget for it, this area can sink you (pun intended.) Drinks in bars in a lot of cruising destinations are much more expensive than those in the US and definitely more than buying ingredients in a store and preparing them yourself. I once read a budget post on a blog where they stated that certain things weren't included in the list. Alcohol was one of them and I immediately disregarded their budget because alcohol can easily become a significant part of your budget if you drink even moderately.
  3. Communications: Phones, internet, satellite communicators...Can you do with one phone between you or do you plan on having two so you can communicate when one person goes ashore and the other remains on the boat? How much access to internet to you want? Access to free wifi, even with a booster, is a myth in many cruising locations. Passwords are often changed daily in restaurants and bars, requiring you to purchase something to get a new password (see #2.) Do you want a DeLorme InReach satellite communicator or even a sat phone so you can reach help when offshore? Do you want to be able to Skype with your grandkids on a weekly basis?
  4. Health Insurance: Ours has almost tripled since we left and has less coverage and a bigger deductible. Can you afford out-of-network medical costs? Will you want an emergency evacuation insurance policy like DAN?
  5. Boat Maintenance: Do you do all of your own work or do you hire it done? Will parts be easily available where you intend to cruise? An aside here - we do all of our own maintenance and I used to be an aviation parts manager so I know how to source parts at the best price. Still, the boat maintenance bill has been much higher than we expected. As an example, one thing we neglected to include in our estimate were bottom cleaning by a diver when we're in places that we can't do it ourselves, an average bill of $87 per month.
  6. Dockage: If you choose to spend time on the dock, plan on it being more than 50% of your monthly budget. The average along the East Coast is $2.00 per foot per night but dockage can be found in the Bahamas for $.75 per foot per night and in Miami for $4.75 per foot per night so it varies wildly. Mooring balls are anywhere between $18 a night and $250 per month on the low end, to $45 per night and $600 per month on the high side. Agreed, this is one place where going small is an advantage.
  7. Ice: If you're going to cruise in warmer climes, and you're not going to run your air conditioner on a dock, and you don't have an ice maker on board, you can either drink warm beverages or you buy ice. A lot of people don't need ice, but ice is one of the comfort items I choose not to live without. While living on a mooring ball this summer in Beaufort, SC, our ice bill is averaging $60 per month. Cold drinks are the only thing that are making it possible to endure the 105° temps.
  8. Laundry: When we're in the Bahamas I have the luxury of time to do laundry by hand. I have a really wonderful hand-crank wringer and the sun and wind dry the clothes for free. In the States, I'm going to a laundromat for the most part, and even in the Bahamas I don't do sheets by hand so I'm using a laundromat there. On the low end it's $1.75 per wash and $1.75 per dry. On the high end, it's $5.00 each in the Bahamas.
  9. Water: In the US it's usually free everywhere except for the Keys where it averages $.20 per gallon. In the Bahamas we have paid as much as a dollar a gallon. You can have a water maker for anywhere between $1500 and $5000 but fuel and maintenance (filters, pickling when not using, etc.) are not inexpensive.
  10. Fuel: How much do you want to travel? Right now the fuel is still reasonable at an average of $3.25 a gallon for diesel but we've paid almost $5.00 per gallon in the five years we've traveled. Are you comfortable rowing a dinghy to and from an anchored boat or do you plan on having an outboard that requires gasoline?
  11. Miscellaneous Supplies: One of our biggest categories. It includes the myriad of things that don't really fall into any other category: postage, shipping, printing, paper products, ziplocs, cleaners, toiletries, odd boat bits like tie wraps, tape, glues, flashlights and batteries, phone chargers, bungees, and on and on. It adds up incredibly fast. How much of it are you willing to do without?
  12. Clothes/shoes: Can you live in the same shirt and shorts for five days or do you plan on changing every day? Can you make a pair of Keens last for a year (with multiple repairs) or do you need five pairs of shoes? Do you have good foul weather gear?
  13. Safety: Will you have an EPIRB, PLB, a satellite communicator, an SSB radio, will you keep a liferaft and have it serviced every two years at $1,000-2000? Will you replace your lifejackets and activators as recommended? Will you be able to replace your flares and fire extinguishers as needed?
  14. Power: Will you need to add solar or a portable generator? How much power will you need for refrigeration and charging on your chosen comfort level?
  15. Sea sickness: Can you tolerate the additional motion of a smaller boat? Can you tolerate the slower cruising speed?
  16. And lastly, Space: Are you willing and able to live 24/7 with your cruising partner in 250 sq ft? Will you need a place to go to be by yourself?
Determining your comfort level and trying to get the best estimate of its cost is the single most important thing you will do to determine the viability of your cruising plans. While some are content to row a mile each way to shore to buy groceries or walk their dog, it's not for me. The exercise would be great, but there would be many days that a trip to shore would be prohibited by the current or waves and my ability to counter them. And reliable internet access? It's the only means I have of maintaining communications with my grandkids. Without that access, our cruising lifestyle would be very short-lived.

Does size matter? We made the decision to look at boats in the 40-44 foot range because we wanted the stability and sea-kindly ride that a boat that size offers, but we see cruisers out there in 28 foot boats that are perfectly happy. Each end of the spectrum has its advantages, but whether you're on a 42 foot or a 28 foot, where size matters is very definitely in the savings account. While successful cruising is not guaranteed by a hefty savings account, it's our experience that it eases the way. "Go small, go now" might work for some, but if we had heeded that advice, we wouldn't still be cruising today.

5 comments:

drew sayer said...

Go small go now works if you are a couple of midgets that are credited for that quote. The rest of us need 6 feet of head space and like to have privacy when going to the toilet.
Cheers

RedDog said...

Good take! Travel light and leave your fears behind! Cheers.
You could have had a scooner, but them employees!

s/v Odin the Wanderer said...

Thanks for mentioning Odin, Kintala! We have a hard time explaining we’re full-time, part-time cruisers/Rvers. We’ve been amazed by the number of cruisers we meet who are also RVers during hurricane season. Also, quite a few cruisers become RVers after their cruising days are over. There seems to be a new trend of RVers becoming cruisers which would surely have made downsizing a lot easier! Now we just tell people we are full-time nomads. It’s just easier ⛵️🚍

Robert Goad said...

Dave Zeiger operates his plywood sailing barge liveaboard for about 500 or less a month and works about every other year for a winter as caretaker of various Alaskan properties. But mostly free time for sailing and poking about the alaskan southeast archipelago. He has no engine and runs the very inexpensive junk rig. While not a burner to windward he has the latitude to wait out weather until a favorable wind sets in. Some of the ships food is foraged from wild beach stocks plus local fish. I'd add a wildcard sentiment to rent a cheap flat in mexico in a small coastal community off the gringo trail (cheaper) and have a small beach cruiser for about the most carefree and low cost cruising imaginable. Our little house down here costs us $130 a month and is just fine. It's all good though if you want it enough.

Kathy Mellembakken said...

Great read to understand more. Hugs from us in AR.