True cost of living on board

Brett Campbell has interviewed over 20 live-aboards after he and his wife moved onboard their yacht. These and their own experiences form the basis for a series of articles on living on board which Brett wrote for Cruising Helmsman. In this article from September 2016, Brett looks at the right time to turn the dreaming into cruising.

One of the most common questions asked about living on board is how much does it cost?

But that is such an open-ended question.

There is so much variation that it is impossible to give a definitive answer. Everyone has their own financial arrangements, everyone has a different boat and everyone wants to cruise in a slightly different way.

This article will give you an idea of budgeting, costs for various types of cruising and the costs and budget over the last three years cruising around the Mediterranean onboard Amble, our 2010 Beneteau Oceanis 43.

No matter what you are planning to do you must set a budget. Do this before you sail so you have an idea of what you will be spending. There will be differences between the budget and the actual costs, of course, but the most important result is that you’ll be setting your own financial expectations.

After a year or so you will understand the variations and you can refine your budget. When you start you might be planning on eating out a certain number of times per week, or perhaps staying in marinas for 50 percent of the time so you can enjoy touring around the area you are cruising in. This will change, and once you’re happy with the balance between costs and lifestyle you can stop worrying about money – to a certain extent.

One of the best attributes of the live-aboard lifestyle is that no one is impressed with money. If a beautiful new boat arrives at an anchorage, live-aboards are much more likely to comment on the way the crew set the anchor rather than the shiny new topsides.

Space to entertain and plenty of beer fridges are always seen as assets, but the size of someone’s bank balance is irrelevant. If you are in a bar with other cruisers and you cannot afford, or just would prefer not, to get into a shout, nobody cares. People will respect your decisions. So decide how you want to live, then spend accordingly.

If you can afford to buy a boat (any sort which is comfortable for you) and you own your own home, you can live on board reasonably well with the rent from your bricks and mortar. But there are many live-aboards who have sold their home and moved onto their boat knowing they have a set income from a pension or super.

Mark and Angelina onboard Cygnus III have a great life living on Mark’s UK police pension. They sold their house and all worldly possessions to buy their Oyster 45. Mark runs a very funny and informative blog at www.cygnus3.com. Although they do not have a permanent base anymore, they have a lifestyle which they only dreamed about before selling all their land-based possessions.

Costs vary greatly depending on whether you are a coastal day-hopper who likes to stay in marinas and eat out all the time, or you’re sailing around the world with the occasional stop overs for re-provisioning and a little rest and recreation. Or anything in between.

The lifestyle we have chosen is towards the day hopper end of the scale. But others who have moved onto a boat have decided to spend three or four years sailing around the world.

No matter what sort of sailing you are doing, the elements of your spending will break down into common categories. Over the last three years of cruising around the Mediterranean we have refined our budget as we’ve modified our lifestyle.

We have been sailing from west to east. Some of the changes show the greater costs in Gibraltar and Spain compared to last year’s sailing in Greece. Sailing around Spain we probably berthed in a marina three nights a week, but last year we only stayed in marinas for seven nights in the whole season. And that was only to pick up or drop off friends.

Our actual cruising costs (in Australian dollars) for 2013, 2014 and 2015 are detailed in the table.

Table of Brett Campbell's cruising costs.
Brett Campbell’s cruising costs.

These are what we consider our running costs for the five-month Mediterranean sailing season. The actual numbers are not important, it is the fact that we have a target and try to stick to that. If you want to look at an example of actual costs for a trans-Atlantic cruise, in 2014 Matt and Jessica travelled from Florida across the Atlantic in a Sabre 34 for a total cost of about $18,000. They have precise details at: mjsailing.com/cos/cost-of-cruising-2014.

Last season we were travelling very well until we had one bad night and ended up on the rocks. It meant we had to haul out to repair the rudder.

So that added quite a few ‘repairs and maintenance’ dollars which we would have preferred not to spend. But stuff like that happens. You have to have enough contingency to manage these unexpected costs or you will worry yourself to death.

Amble on the slipway.
Brett Campbell and his wife had to pay for the damage done to their rudder. Pic – Brett Campbell
A damaged rudder on dry land.
Unforeseen circumstances need to be budgeted for and insured against. Pic – Brett Campbell

We also have separate categories of $4000 for improvements like the water maker and solar panels and $8000 for family expenses. When we left Australia we promised our two daughters we would fly them to wherever we were in the world for the Christmas holidays.

So far we have had great times in Spain, Malta, Sicily and the south of France. We do not consider that a boating expense, but it is a lifestyle expense which we budget for and one which we are happy to pay. This category also includes flights back to Australia each year.

We pay around $3000 per annum for comprehensive boat insurance. This covers our sailing in the Med, excluding the coast of Africa and the Middle East. It also covers any injuries we have on the boat.

During winter we berth Amble in the village of Marina de Ragusa, Sicily for seven months for around $2800. There are basically three types of boat insurance: comprehensive, liability only, or none. Most marinas require at least liability insurance. If you can cover the cost of losing your boat you might want to go with liability only. But we do not know any live aboards who have gone for that option.

We think the peace of mind which comes with insuring Amble is worth the cost. All of the live-aboards I spoke to agree with this.

Attitudes to health insurance are much more varied. When we were sailing up the east coast of Australia we maintained our family’s private health insurance. This was around $2500pa.

However, now that we are living overseas we have stopped the payments and put a pause on our health cover. When we looked at the health cover costs for overseas cruising we were horrified. The cheapest quote we could get for the two of us was over $6000pa. We decided to accept the risk of not being covered, but our Australian policy stays dormant in case we go back and want to reinstate it.

This is also useful when checking in to some countries. Many now want evidence that you have health insurance and they accept the deferred policy. We have only had one instance where we needed medical help in Europe. At one stage Jane’s knee became terribly swollen due to her arthritis. We visited the local Greek doctor who referred us to the specialist at the district hospital. Despite our lack of Greek and the specialist’s lack of English, Jane’s knee was drained very professionally.

When we asked for the invoice the hospital staff waved us away with a very cheery “antio”. Unlike our arrival, we were both able to walk away with big smiles. We had a renewed respect for the Greek medical system. Overall costs are certainly less in Greece than Spain.

Having plenty of safe anchorages and great value meals and drinks in tavernas tucked away in quiet bays is a beautiful way to cruise. One thing which can be annoying is the loud-mouthed tourist who proclaims how “cheap” it is to live in these areas. It is incredibly disrespectful to the locals. We are privileged to be able to sail around their islands.

We try to find a different city to house-sit or pay minimal rent during December, January and February. This gives us a break from the boat and a chance for us to travel to inland areas which we do not see during the summer cruising.

Our seven-month non-sailing budget is $100 per day. So far we have been able to enjoy our lifestyle and still stay within our $55,000 annual budget. Although we currently enjoy coastal cruising in the Med, many people want to know how much it takes to sail around the world. Again – it depends!

We know people who are sailing around the world on $2,000 per month and others who are spending $6,000. Good friends of ours are motoring around the world in a 48’ trawler-style motor yacht and their budget is around $10,000 per month.

The variables are the same no matter if you are coastal cruising or blue water sailing. How much time you spend berthed in a marina; how much you sail versus motor; how many drinks and meals you have ashore vs onboard; how much maintenance you do yourself and how often you pay for flights home are the major impacts on your spending. Most live-aboards end up doing many maintenance tasks themselves. This can save a lot of money.

When we set out I had very little technical knowledge, but now I am happy to do all the engine servicing, antifouling, and minor electrical repairs. I also do plumbing repairs, but that does not mean I’m happy doing those! I can install simple systems and equipment, but I would rate myself on the lower end of the DIY scale. If you do have technical ability not only will you save a lot of money, you will also be able to generate an income in most of the marinas you stay at.

The type of boat you sail will also have a large influence on your costs. From what we have seen catamarans are 40% to 50% more expensive to run than monos, costs increase seemingly exponentially as size increases.

Newer boats are generally more reliable than older, however the increased complexity means that if something serious does go wrong they will be more expensive to repair.

We have seen some boats with a huge inventory of equipment, including infrared scanners, forward looking sonars, etc. Very impressive kit, but you have to ask yourself if you would spend money replacing systems like these if they broke down.

If the answer is yes (and you can afford it) then go ahead and buy them. If the answer is no, or even maybe, it is probably worth deferring the decision to buy for a year or so to see if you really want it.

One thing which is true for sailing new and old boats of any level of complexity: go to sea debt free. If you have had to borrow to buy your boat you will be adding another element of concern to a lifestyle which should be stress free.

You may have the financial arrangements to support the repayments, but living within your means without paying extra to the banks means you do not have to worry about interest rate rises. It might mean buying a slightly older boat, but as long as her hull’s sound and her engine and systems are in good order you will be able to sail without the millstone of debt hanging around your neck.

There is the old adage about work expanding to fill the time available. Very similar with budgets for live-aboards: the costs will expand to fill the spend allowed!

The budget and spending profile has to be yours. You should start with what you want to do, decide how much money you have, then work out the best compromise which works for you. Then you will know your true costs to live onboard.

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