This couple is seeing the world without breaking the bank — here’s how they do it
We made the decision almost 20 years ago to buy a boat and go cruising while we were still young and healthy enough to enjoy the lifestyle.
Watching friends plan and work for years and then have their dreams smashed on the rocks because of health or family issues was a driving factor in this decision.
The one major stumbling block in our plan was the financial aspect. We are neither wealthy, retired with a pension, nor in line to inherit a lot of cash from a family member. So how in the world would we accomplish this with no income once the dock lines were untied and we left our home waters? Those are tough and scary decisions, but they needed to be made if our plan was to work.
The solution was to buy the boat with the sale of our property and business, outfit it for extended cruising, put enough money in the bank to carry us through our cruise, and then get to a place where we could settle in and find jobs to build the cruising kitty before starting again. For the plan to work, we needed to keep expenses to a minimum without making our lifestyle just a bit more than a survival existence. It was important to us that we enjoy the ride and have a great time, or it wouldn’t make sense to do it at all.
After 17 years aboard Sea Trek, our Mariner 40 ketch, and with tens of thousands of miles under the keel, we switched gears recently and purchased a Marine Trader 34 trawler so we might enjoy new cruising grounds that are not practical with a deep-draft sailboat. But even that decision had to be part of the overall plan. The “new to us” trawler has a single diesel that is very economical, burning around 1.2 gallons of fuel per hour. Fuel is a major expense for us while cruising, even on a sailboat, since quite often the wind is coming from the wrong direction or there is no wind at all.
We are currently doing a complete refit and renovation to make the new boat both comfortable and self-sufficient for cruising. Even the choice of equipment and method of installation helps us save money, even though the initial outlay may not make it seem so. For example, installing a $3,000 watermaker might seem like an extravagance. But if it keeps us at anchor rather than paying for dockage and not having to pay for water to fill our tanks, then it doesn’t take long to pay for itself. Once that threshold is reached, the unit begins to save us money every time we use it.
It works the same for the expense of building a good charging system. Using wind generators and solar panels to keep up with our power demands keeps us out of expensive marinas and limits the number of hours we need to run the engine and burn fuel.
One of the best-kept secrets in the cruising community is the amount of free dockage along the East Coast. Once you have made some solid friendships along the way, these secrets will be revealed to you, but they are not publicized, for obvious reasons. We thoroughly enjoy being at anchor for the peace and privacy as well as the savings.
Finding a free dinghy dock in U.S. waters is getting harder as waterfront access becomes more expensive and areas are developed. But we always seem to find them, be it at a friendly restaurant that will let us tie up if we buy lunch, dinner or have a drink or two, or a shopping center that has a dinghy dock for boaters who come in and shop. We do enjoy the occasional dinner or lunch ashore and find that the eateries frequented by locals usually have the best food, lowest prices and special offers. The big, expensive places are targeted more toward tourists.
When we are outside of the United States, we love to explore the countryside, meet the local population, and experience the culture. This can be accomplished for much less than one might expect. Quite often, we gather a group of cruisers and all chip in to hire a van and driver for a day or two, and dividing the cost over two, three or even four couples makes this very affordable. Since the van is ours for the time hired, we can get to the larger supermarkets, wholesale houses or shopping malls for reprovisioning or finding needed parts.
While out shopping we can include stops along the way to visit local museums and historic sites. All give us a good dose of history and flavor, and many are free. We often see parts of the countryside most boaters will never see sitting in the harbor and hanging out at marinas.
There are also many occasions when we take the local transit to get from place to place. Many find this disconcerting, but we find it part of the experience. We have ridden the “chicken bus” — so-named because many of the riders carry their chickens in their laps — across Belize to visit Mayan ruins and back again for only a couple dollars. This is probably not for everyone, since the buses can be hot and crowded with no air conditioning, but what a way to meet the locals. Air-conditioned buses with movies are available for a bit more money, but they’re still not all that expensive.
We try to stay away from well-publicized tourist areas and find places off the beaten path, which are sometimes even more interesting. We also cover a lot of miles walking. It is a healthy, enjoyable form of transportation, and in many countries what starts out as a good walk finishes with a pleasant ride with one of the local folks who will pick you up along the way.
This brings up a subject that many ask about our lifestyle: How do we cover ourselves for health problems? We have opted to not carry health insurance while cruising, since most coverage is unavailable outside of the United States — where we travel most — and if it were it would be prohibitively expensive and wipe out our cruising budget.
The cruising lifestyle in itself seems to keep us much more healthy than when we are sitting somewhere working toward the next cruise. We have also found that excellent health care at a fraction of the cost in the United States is available almost everywhere we travel. Each person has to make their own decisions with this and consider existing needs and conditions, but this has not be a problem for us in all these years of cruising.
The cruising kitty
Our cruising budget usually averages around $1,500 per month. We have met cruisers with budgets of $500 per month, while others could spend $5,000 a month. Each decision we make is based on how it impacts the cruising kitty. For example, careful preparation of the boat means less chance of breakdowns and expensive repairs. And being able to make most repairs without hiring help goes a long way toward keeping funds in the bank.
Even shopping becomes a cost-cutting adventure, finding local markets where vegetables, fruits and fresh meats can be bought at a fraction of what the supermarket charges. While in the United States, we clip coupons from the local Sunday paper to help save $10 or more on a weekly basis for groceries. We look for the fuel docks that offer the best prices, even if it means buying fuel before we need it. With the new trawler holding 300 gallons, we can seek out fuel docks that offer a discount for volume, something we could not do with the sailboat and its much smaller fuel tank.
A trip to the nearest beach or an excellent snorkeling spot is often only a dinghy ride away, and other than the fuel for the dink, it’s totally free. The dinghy becomes the family car and can get you to the beach or down a beautiful river or stream that probably looks like it did a thousand years ago. Our outboard is kept in top condition to get us there and back using as little fuel as possible.
Potlucks on shore thrown by cruisers will bring you a banquet for no more than the cost of a single dish you make on board and bring to share. Local cruiser hangouts can bring impromptu concerts and entertainment you’ll never find at Madison Square Garden. These social interactions and the lifelong friends you make can never have a price put on them. And better yet, every cruiser you meet will have another tip to help you enjoy this wonderful lifestyle while maintaining the bank account for a long as possible.
Don’t let the present state of the economy keep you from pursuing your dreams. Remember the old days, when we all lived within our means and tried to have fun in more simple ways. That is the essence of our cruising philosophy.
Chuck Baier and Susan Landry spent the last 17 years living and cruising aboard their Mariner 40 ketch, Sea Trek in Florida, the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Central America. They now are refitting a 1980 Marine Trader 34 trawler for cruising inland lakes and waterways and sections of the Great Loop.
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This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue.