Everyone who reads Cruising Helmsman has an interest in boats. There is probably a voice in the deep recesses of your mind saying “one day I’ll just sail away.....”.
So how do people actually do it? In this article I intend to give a quick overview of why people choose to move onto a boat, the timing for the move, the emotional drama of physically moving, how to build your knowledge and experience. Plus, the one absolute essential for finally sailing away.
Living on a boat in the Mediterranean had been my semi-conscious dream for the last 45 years or so. Five years ago my wife and I made the dream a reality.
Even though I think I can sail a bit, I have spent the last five years learning to cruise. That is one of the beauties of live-aboard sailing, there are so many different levels of experience that everyone keeps learning.
We have spent the last three years cruising the western Mediterranean, wintering each year in Marina di Ragusa on the south coast of Sicily. There are around 300 boats berthed in winter, with about 40 couples from all over the world who stay onboard full time.I interviewed more than twenty of these. One of the questions I asked was when did they start thinking about moving permanently onboard. Their answers were surprising.
I thought most would have been hopeless dreamers like me who somehow found themselves doing what they had always dreamed about. Wrong!
The majority were closet adventurers who satisfied their wanderlust by moving onto a boat. Canadian friends of ours, Maggie and Branko onboard Water H2obo, had no real sailing experience when they bought their Corban 39 in Toronto in 2002. Maggie was a marketing executive who had backpacked around the world when she was younger, Branko had a good career in finance when they realised they just wanted something different.
So Branko quit work and started refitting their boat and both he and Maggie started taking every sailing, navigation, and maintenance course they could. Finally, in 2010 they finished their rebuild, moved onboard and shipped out for their maiden voyage: a simple trip down the east coast of the USA and across the Atlantic to Gibraltar. Very gutsy!
Not everyone jumps into quite such a deep end. Debbie and Campbell are from Perth and both had good careers in the health industry. They had spent a few summers crewing on yachts racing on the Swan River and decided they wanted to sail full-time. So they bought a new 41 foot Lipari catamaran built in La Rochelle, France. The commissioning included a French sailing instructor, who delivered five days of lessons on how to sail and stay alive. Although they had a bit more experience on boats than Maggie and Branko, they too jumped in. Their first cruise was from La Rochelle across the Bay of Biscay and down into the Mediterranean.
Many of the live-aboards have waited until their kids have finished high school and are “off their hands”. Wishful thinking in most cases, but it seems to be a significant decision point once the youngest has finished secondary education.
Some made the decision to move onboard after a health scare and they realised, for them, they were wasting time working and accumulating when they really wanted a different life.
Some people think finances are a huge component of the decision. We have met many people living a great life on a budget which we would consider impossible. It works for them.
Most cruisers probably have less cash than they have ever had, but we have more time and more fun.
Packing up the home to sell or rent is a huge emotional investment. Stuffing memories into a box or going through important family items deciding what to keep and what to throw out is really, really hard. But it has to be done, it is too difficult to focus on your future when you are surrounded by the material things you have spent a life accumulating.
Like many others we hired a storage room “just in case”. Now, whenever we are home and start rummaging through the boxes, we invariably throw a lot of things away. Although this year I found my long lost sextant. Another critical piece of kit to take back to Amble.
All live-aboards move onboard with absolutely indispensible things only to throw them out after a year when they need to clear space for much more indispensible sailing things.
Even though live-aboards have their own ways of getting started, they all built their knowledge by completing theory classes. Yachting Australia oversees navigation, safety at sea, first aid, radar and diesel engine maintenance courses based on those developed by the Royal Yachting Association. The RYA/YA Yachtmaster Coastal, Offshore and Ocean Certificates of Competence are internationally recognised qualifications, along with the Day Skipper and Competent Crew courses.
You will need to show your boat insurer that you are qualified, but if you do not want to take the Yachtmaster exams there is an alternative called the ICC, the international certificate of competence.
Another RYA/YA course which you should take is the radio operators’ course. It is very obvious, plus very annoying, when someone starts using VHF with CB radio terminology.
If you want to go boating on the European canal systems you will also need another endorsement commonly known as CEVNI (www.yachting.org.au/education-training/icc-2). This is a theory test to ensure you understand the inland waterway rules and signage.
No matter the level of your sailing skill, you will always learn something useful whenever you take one of these courses.
The above is fine for the theory, but how do you build your boat handling confidence? You might decide to crew on a friend’s boat for a number of seasons, or teach yourself as you sail. Or you could use any number of charter options.
Joining your local sailing club is a great start. Sailors are generous people and are always willing to share information and tips no matter what sort of sailing you intend to do.
A good site to look at is ‘Discover sailing’ (http://discoversailing.org.au). Here you can find local clubs, courses and crewing opportunities around Australia.
The couples I spoke to had a variety of paths where they developed their practical experience. One of the most common ways to start helming was a flotilla holiday. I am not aware of flotillas being available in Australia, but they are very popular overseas. This might be because there are more areas of large, sheltered waters in places like the Mediterranean.
The flotillas have a lead boat with a flotilla skipper, an engineer and a hostess. This crew stay on their own boat all summer, helping clients on their one or two week holidays with provisioning, planning and coaching the day’s sailing; organising anchoring as these guys can anchor their fleets in all sorts of situations! Plus of course, social activities each evening.
People who sail on these flotillas rave about them. They are friendly, safe and a great way to sail in a part of the world where your sailing confidence is not at great.
The leaders are usually very friendly and helpful. We have even used their engineers when we’ve had a problem, which is outside my limited technical expertise. Amazing what you can learn for the price of a six-pack.
One of the flotilla companies in the Ionian is Sailing Holidays which has been run by an ex-pat Kiwi since 1983. But there are many others which can be found with a little internet research.
A step up from the flotillas is a bareboat charter. Here you can hire a yacht and you are responsible for the boat and crew for the duration of your hire period. Bareboat charters are available throughout the world, with one of the most popular spots being the Whitsundays.
The care and safety standards are different in different countries. For example, in the Whitsundays most charter companies require a radio schedule twice a day and have people ready to help if boats get into trouble.
So there is a good safety net in Australia.
On the other hand, we chartered in Turkey and Croatia before we moved onboard. Their attitude could not have been more different; they pretty much handed over the keys and said see you back in two weeks.
Of course a point could be made that all the certifications in the world can not help against the most dangerous thing that you will ever meet in the Mediterranean: those same bareboaters and flotillas who are sailing around without any qualifications at all.
At one stage we were reaching on starboard tack when a yacht under motor and autopilot was closing off the port bow. The two crew were having a lovely time watching the view on their port side, so we bore away and sailed under their stern. They did not have a clue we were there. Sometimes it is easiest just to give way and enjoy the day.
So now you have a bit of knowledge, you have gained some experience and, let us assume you have your boat; the choice of boat will be covered in next month’s Cruising Helmsman. What is stopping you moving onboard? It is a daunting decision and can be quite gut-wrenching.
There are always excuses why you can not move onboard: career progression, health issues for you or your family, uncertainty about your financial future, welfare of the kids. There will always be an excuse to delay if you try hard enough.
But if you try a little bit harder you will find ways to overcome any excuse you might think of.
The main point is that it does not matter what previous experience you have had, the only must-have to move onboard a yacht is the right attitude. Your own reasons, timing and circumstances will be unique, but the sooner you make the decision the better.
Once made, set a realistic timeframe which works for you and stick to your deadline. This could be the last deadline you will ever make!
You will never be 100 per cent ready to move onboard but once you are there you will make it work.
Your only regret will be if you do not give it a go.