Ten years ago we moved permanently and full time aboard Kalunamoo when we gave up our shoreside apartment. “You’ll regret it”, said one of our friends but here we are, ten years later, still living on our boat with no shore-based abode. No regrets, but what follows are some observations, facts, data and opinions that may be of interest to those contemplating a similar move aboard and specifically to the Caribbean.
First, some background to fill in how we got here. Maureen and I bought our first sailboat in 1982, a 22’ Catalina, that carried us and our three daughters around the waters of New York City. It was docked not far from our single-family home in Brooklyn, NY. At the time we both had jobs (Careers – Maureen an RN in a hospital; Bill former Merchant Marine officer in cargo ship management). Two sailboats and 23 years later we bought our fourth boat, Kalunamoo, a 47’ Vagabond ketch. By then our kids were married and we had had grandkids. In July 2011 we were both retired and started sailing the East Coast, Bermuda, Bahamas, and the Eastern Caribbean, avoiding the cold winter months of New York.
Those previous 23 years were filled with day sails, weekend getaways, overnight sails, two-week vacation cruises and eventually full time liveaboard and cruising. Yes, sailing is a gateway activity! I kept a log of all the places we sailed to. Since 2011, when we sailed to Bermuda, I kept a detailed “voyage log” of each voyage we undertook, wrote over 250 blog posts, took tons of photographs and consumed unknown gallons of rum. The metrics herein cover that time period.
From June 2011 to April 2021 we have traveled over 24,600 nautical miles on 11 “voyages” as follows: NY/Bermuda/NY; NY/Bahamas/NY; NY/Bahamas/NY; NY/BVI/NY; NY/Trinidad; Trinidad/Lesser Antilles/Trinidad; Trinidad/Lesser Antilles/NY; NY/Lesser Antilles/Trinidad; Trinidad/Lesser Antilles/Trinidad; Trinidad/St Lucia. Currently on voyage 11: St. Lucia/Antigua/? Between voyages, mostly July-September, we were still living aboard in New York or Trinidad but mostly stationary while visiting family, friends, dealing with medical issues, boat repairs, maintenance and land touring.
By the numbers
Excluding the time between voyages the following expenses were incurred:
Fuel: total diesel (main engine and generator) and gasoline (dinghy) the fuel used in ten years: 4322 gallons which cost $15,400 which averages $3.56/gallon or $1,540/year. Fuel in Trinidad was the least expensive, Bermuda the most expensive. We tend to use more fuel than others as we do a fair amount of motor sailing and we run the generator to charge batteries and run refrigeration about 3 hours/day at anchor. Overall, we used 0.18 gallons per total miles traveled. Certainly, fuel costs could be less if we strictly sailed all the time. We are not Sailing Purests! Obviously, it also depends on where your traveling (ICW is 100% motor and ocean passages could be close to 0%). In any case, you need to know the boats fuel consumption/hour and estimate the potential use.
Water: total freshwater water used on board since 2014: 8264 gallons, cost est. $1600 or $160/year. Clean freshwater is available in all our cruising areas and is in the range of $0.10-$0.35 per gallon. We do not have a water maker and use shore side laundry services which is about $500/year. We hold 230 gallons of FW and capture rainwater for external showers and rinse off. We average about 5 gallons a day with two people aboard. This is just the opposite of our fuel use as you can easily get accustomed to infinite freshwater supply from water makers. No doubt we are very fresh water frugal which many would not care to duplicate (Maureen is not so sanguine on this point).
Boat Maintenance and Repair: “Cruising is doing boat repairs in exotic places”. Very true. All things break eventually! We separate maintenance and repair as written below. In general, both take more time and resources than maintaining a house! This is mainly due to the higher cost of marine equipment (which is due mostly to a limited retail market), the restricted availability of local suppliers, and finding people with the specialized knowledge and skill of boat systems. In most situations, you can’t run out to Home Depot to get parts and Amazon doesn’t deliver easilc.
Maintenance: Things that must be maintained – engines, sails, rigging, bottom paint, ground tackle, safety equipment, batteries, electronics, paints and cleaners – are only discretionary in the sense of how well you want to maintain a boat. That could be from “museum” quality to barely seaworthy! I would say we are in the middle of the road. Materials for most of these items are usually available somewhere but always more expensive than in the states (Engine oil 15-40W, could be $25/gal). Bottom paint: expect to pay near list price down here. I do all the routine maintenance myself, avoiding labor costs (except bottom paint – I’m getting too old for that!). We averaged a little under $5,000 per year (ranged from $2,000-$7,000 in any particular year) in boat maintenance. This includes boat hauling but not yard storage which we account for under marinas.
Boat Repair: We account for all non-discretionary repair, including repair from damages, refit and upgrades, as boat repair. This may be looked at as capital improvements vs. operating expenses (boat maintenance). Good repair yards and services exist in: St Martin, Antigua, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St Lucia, Grenada and Trinidad. Prices/quality varies (Trinidad, historically has the best and least expensive workers). Always ask for prices and ask other cruisers for recommendations. There is no BBB here!
Kalunamoo was built in Taiwan in 1988 and was in very good condition when we purchased it in 2004. Since then we have had some major work done, (complete removal of the teak deck and recoring the deck) in Trinidad at about 20% of the cost in the States. Other major items included a new generator, electronics, main engine parts, outboard motors, dinghy, and grounding damage repair. Boat maintenance and repair must be on anyone’s cruising budget, but the actual amount depends on boat type, condition, age, use, etc. No “average” guide is useful. We have spent between $5,000 and $34,000 in boat repairs in any particular year.
Getting things shipped down to the Caribbean: anything is possible. So is the cost. Besides shipping costs some islands charge import duty or you need a broker to arrange customs. Generally speaking, St. Martin is the cheapest place for this as it is (like Trinidad) a hub for distribution. You need to check each islands procedure. Flying in with boats parts for “yachts in transit” may or may not be free, depending on the island (St. Martin, Antigua, Trinidad are free). Of course, you may not have the option of sailing to another island for repairs so you may not have a choice.
Marinas: We spent $41,296 for marinas and mooring fees while on all voyages (about 20% of the voyage time) and another $44,131 for marinas and boatyards for haul outs between voyages (100% of the time). We liveaboard in the boatyard if hauled. Combined, this averages to $8,500/year. On the other end of the scale, anchoring is free! Moorings, which are not, are sometimes used in places where the water is too deep to anchor (St Lucia, excluding Rodney Bay). Generally speaking, in the eastern Caribbean rely on anchoring in 15- 30 feet with varying holding conditions. Bahamas, 10-15 feet in less-than ideal holding. Anchorages can be tight at time as these are popular places, but room can always be found! (BVI’s are another story). Marinas are on all major islands and daily transient cost is around $1.00/ft/night, except USVI which are much more expensive. Discounts apply for longer stays. We spend all our time on the hook except when we fly off island. I don’t like to keep the boat on a mooring when off island, although others do. The bottom line: expenses can be anywhere from $0 to 365 x length of boat for a year depending on where you prefer to sleep at night. If you like air-conditioning and be plugged in, you will have to pay! Electricity is expensive in all islands. A/C when hauled in Trinidad is a must!
General living experiences aboard
Time tables: Do not cruise with a time table! Time here in the Caribbean is Atlantic Standard Time and locals and longtime cruisers operate on Island Time. An hour of Island Time on your watch may be anywhere between 60 minutes to 2 days. It depends on many unknown and unknowable factors yet to be discovered. Also remember that the weather does not have a time schedule and your movements, for safety or comfort, are highly influenced by weather conditions.
Food: all foods are available and edible in the Caribbean but cost slightly higher than in the states. Large supermarkets carry all staples but other items (candy, cookies, snacks, beer, soda) are higher priced. Local market for fresh local vegetables, fish etc. are usually the best deals. You can economize on food depending on your budget but expect your normal weekly food bill to be slightly above what you would spend in the States. (Ice cream is very expensive!). Cruisers learn to buy local, eat local!
Restaurants: Cheap to expensive, and all very good! It depends on how you want to spend your money. Just like ashore! “Street food” and local cafes offer the best value. But remember, cruising is a social activity, you will have much more opportunities to socialize at restaurants than you can imagine! Happy Hour and rum drinks may or may not be in your budget but this is all discretionary. Is rum cheap? Yes and no. Rum for mixed drinks can be had for $4-5/bottle. Good sipping rum can cost hundreds! Beer is around $1.25-3 per bottle, the same price in a bar as in a supermarket. Trinidad has the least expensive food, Antigua, St Lucia, BVI’s probably the most expensive.
Air Travel: we fly back and forth to NYC a few times a year (excluding the covid years!). NYC is a hub for us and flights are frequent. You can check your airlines for flights and connections to see what the costs are. They do vary by season!
Communications: Every year it has become easier to maintain communications with anyone in the world. Cell phones and the internet are ubiquitous and combined with data plans, video messages etc. there is no excuse to be uncontactable! Off-shore (over 10 miles off the coast) we don’t have a satellite phone (or the soon to be SpaceX system) but use VHF radio and signal sideband radio (that can send and receive email via Sailmail). Your unlocked cell phone can use local SIM cards or international plans from the States. We use T-Mobil and local cards. Note the U.S. plans (T-Mobil, Google Fi etc.) all have time limits of how long you can be out of the U.S. (3-6 months). Local data only plans are the least expensive and we use Whatsapp, Facebook messenger, and Zoom for voice and video. These plans and rates change and evolve monthly but are the main means to communicate (even with your spouse!). We have a WiFi booster antenna but there is less and less “free” WiFi signals around anchorages. An internal router and a cell phone as a hot spot works very well. Our yearly cost for communications averages about under $2,000 per year.
Caribbean Weather: Living on a boat brings you closer to being one with the weather. Air temperatures are never below 75 at night nor higher than 85 in the day (we love warm weather). Except in the sun and out of a breeze when it can feel really hot. Expect daily rain showers at any time, usually for 6-7 minutes each unless the they are on Island Time (see above), then they can roll in all day and night. Opening and closing hatches keeps everyone fit. We have learned to enjoy the humidity, lack of snow and constant winds of the Caribbean. Storms at sea should be avoided (Duh!). But that is a topic for itself, but it doesn’t figure into the metrics of cruising. Weather forecasts and information is easily obtainable (local radio, internet, and paid services).
It is all Social
It was all about sailing. It was all about adventure. It was all about challenges. It was all about traveling, It was all about new experiences and people. It was all about living with nature.
It was all the above and the initial impetus to live the live-aboard cruising lifestyle. For the most part, we did experience and enjoy all of that. We certainly can’t say there is no more to do. The world is a big place that can be reached by boat. The Caribbean is a good place to start. But we have come to realize, for us, a good part of the life style is social.
It is impossible to count how many other cruisers we met nor how many “locals” we came to know. Cruising, especially how we cruise, is a very social experience. One number I do have is how many “boat cards” we accumulated. Almost all cruisers have “boat cards” which are a great way to easily exchange contact information.
Remember, everyone is mobile. The neighborhood is constantly changing, and you remember boat names easier than people’s names. Carrying a pen and paper around in your bathing suite is not easily done. We accumulated over 230 boat cards (listing at least 460 individuals) from cruisers we became friendly enough to have sundowners with if we cross paths again. Others we have kept in touch with for years. Double or triple that for those we met briefly, and you realize that this is a very social endeavor.
Books can, and have been, written about the many cruisers and locals you will meet. The cohort of cruisers encompasses all ages and from many walks of life each with their own story of why they do what they do. But this blog entry only covers the metrics of our experience. The richness of the lifestyle aboard is the intent of all the blog entries that are written here. They will continue.
Finally, on a personal level, this lifestyle is not for everyone. Nor is there any “right way” to live it. Relationships with your spouse, partner, family, and friends will be altered and only you can decide if those alterations are acceptable. Difficulties and problems don’t evaporate in Paradise! There are no metrics to determine happiness, nor should there be (read the last blog Easy Peasy!). As Bob Bitchen proclaimed: the difference between ordeal and adventure is attitude. Let life be your adventure, whether you sail or not.