Shortly before taking a software analyst job with Microsoft in 2001, Brian Trautman walked into the Bellevue Public Library just east of Seattle. He discovered Three Years in a Twelve-Foot Boat, Stephen G. Ladd’s book about a 15,000-mile sailing voyage through South America.
“After that I was hooked on sailing, completely obsessed,” says Trautman, 40, who grew up in landlocked Flagstaff, Arizona.
The book gnawed at him during his time at Microsoft. The obsession followed him to his own consulting firm, where he clocked 70-hour weeks.
“I was wrapped up in things that don’t matter,” he says. “Everything I was doing was targeted towards work. I needed to start living a little more.”
He bought a daysailer and taught himself to sail around Seattle. He busied himself with Dove by Robin Lee Graham, The Long Way by Bernard Moitessier, Chasing The Rainbow: The Drama of a Singlehanded Sailing Race Around the World by Hal Roth and The Voyager’s Handbook: The Essential Guide to Blue Water Cruising by Beth Leonard. He saved and bought a bigger boat, the 53-foot Amel Super Maramu Delos built in La Rochelle, France, in 2000. Eventually he left his job, sold everything he owned and set sail for a seven-month cruise to Australia.
Eight years later, he’s still at it.
Trautman had enough money for a year or two, and at one point he contemplated selling Delos. He started consulting again. Crewmembers — which now included his girlfriend, Karin Syrén, from Stockholm, who came sailing one weekend and never left, and his brother Brady Trautman — found jobs.
Then he hit the jackpot. Trautman added video to his sailing blog and ended up garnering as many as a million fans. The accompanying revenue from advertising and crowdfunding has kept his adventure going.
So far, the adventures of Delos include more than 95 episodes, each 30 minutes. They’re just a small group of people armed with consumer cameras, a few gaming laptops, off-the-shelf software, and prepaid 3G cards but reaching millions of people, completely bypassing the bottleneck once controlled by large networks and broadcasters, and funding the entire enterprise through audience crowdfunding. And they’re doing it afloat.
Every day is different, but Trautman breaks them into two kinds: work and play. In a recent interview from Madagascar, he described a typical workday:
6 a.m.: Alarm goes off, and I hit snooze. We were diving a shipwreck last night and returned late. Pretty exhausted so decided to snooze for a few more hours.
8 a.m.: The sun is beating down, and it’s now too hot to be in bed. Get up and make some coffee.
8:15 a.m.: Open the laptop, look through some emails. Talk with Karin and Brady about what we’re going to do today. It’s kind of a busy schedule because we’re preparing to sail to South Africa tomorrow, and it will be about a two-week trip.
8:30 a.m.: Try to answer some emails and find out that we’ve burned through all our Internet. Twenty GB in two days because we’ve been uploading videos. Great … getting Internet here is not straightforward. It will take a few hours to get sorted.
8:30 to 10:30 a.m.: Answer some emails offline, work on the questions for a newspaper interview. Copy footage from yesterday’s diving mission. Show Brady a few things I learned about Lightroom. General computer stuff.
10:30 a.m.: Put the computer to sleep and enjoy a cigarette and cup of coffee on the back of Delos. Watch some of the local boats sailing by. Beautiful day.
10:50 a.m.: Brady gives me a dinghy ride to shore. It’s a 30-minute walk down a dusty, dirty village road to make it to the small town where I can get a taxi to the ATM. Along the walk I get some great shots of the local zebu pulling carts by in slow motion. Very cool shots! One of them starts peeing as I’m filming, and it actually looks pretty funny in slow motion. Also get some cool shots of people walking by doing their normal morning activities, carrying baskets and water on their heads.
Practice and good gear make the job easier The Delos crew have come a long way from struggling to produce one episode in six weeks, and scouring days of video for a few good seconds. Now, at nearly 100 episodes, Delos releases an episode every two weeks and has accumulated nearly 19 terabytes of raw, high-quality footage. Some of it was thanks to upgrading from a basic handheld video recorder to better gear. The crew now employs improved audio microphones to reduce wind noise, professional-grade cameras with underwater filming capabilities, drones and high-capacity storage for footage. The crew’s primary cameras are a Panasonic DMC-GH4 digital camera ($1,605) and a Sony FDR-AX100 video camera ($1,598). The Delos drone is an DJI Phantom 4 Quadcopter that automatically avoids obstacles and tracks moving subjects, which is both scary and practical. It can be controlled by a smartphone and has a flight time of just under 30 minutes and a range of 3 miles ($1,299). The crew also carry small cameras, such as the Wi-Fi-enabled Canon PowerShot G16 ($750) and the Olympus TG-4 waterproof digital camera ($380). For aerial shots, they use a top-line remote-controlled GoPro HERO4 with a wide-angle field of view and night vision ($370). To steady shots, they use it with a Feiyu Tech stabilizer ($180). Delos hands correct wind noise problems with a Zoom H1 portable digital recorder ($100). Outside the cache of upgraded gear, improvement came with practice. Lots and lots of practice. And not shooting directly into the sun helps, Brian Trautman advises. “We actually can film less and yet get better, more usable footage,” he says. “So by improving our filming skills we have dramatically reduced our production time. I think now what used to take us one month or six weeks to put together can be done in half the time — otherwise it just wouldn’t be possible.”
11:30 a.m.: Use my crappy French to describe to a taxi driver where I need to go. Seems to work OK, and we head off with three other passengers toward the town of Hellville. Cost for 30-minute shared taxi: 3,000 ariary (about $1).
Noon: After getting stopped by two police checkpoints and asked for my passport, we get by with a smile and more crappy French. I have left my passport on the boat. We get waved on with a small bribe to the police of about $0.60. During the drive into town, get some very cool shots of people on the street from the taxi window. People manning their roadside stands, walking and just hanging out and smoking cigarettes. Very cool.
12:20 p.m.: Finally make it to the ATM and get out 300,000 ariary, about $100. The largest bill here is the equivalent of $3, so it’s a fat stack. The locals make about $400 to $500 per year so I basically just got out three months of someone’s salary to go blow on Internet.
12:30 p.m.: Make it to Telma Madagascar and trade my fat wad of cash for 20 GB of Internet. We are back online!
1 p.m.: Arrive back where I started and visit the local artists to pick up some custom paintings of Delos we had them do. They are extremely skilled and paint just about anything custom on demand for about $15. They turned out great, and I celebrate with a cheeseburger.
2 p.m.: Finally get back to Delos and now can send the emails I answered this morning. Download some project files and start working on scheduling videos and social media for the next two weeks. We will be without Internet, so trying to get all our content sorted until we get to South Africa.
3 to 4 p.m.: It’s now the hot afternoon and feeling very drowsy, time for a nap.
4 p.m.: It’s starting to cool off and can now do a few things. Need to change the oil in the generator. It’s now a few hours overdue and must change before we leave for South Africa. Start filling dive tanks, as tomorrow we are diving first thing in the morning at a small island off the coast. I’ll probably spend the rest of the night lounging and enjoying the night. I might work a little bit on editing some videos if I feel inspired.
Working in paradise is still work. “Living and working in the same place is definitely a challenge,” Syrén says, adding that it’s easy to spend 12 hours a day editing or producing videos. “It takes a lot of self-discipline to be able to separate when I do work and when it’s time to not think about work things and take time off for other things, like painting, yoga, watch a movie or just go for a walk.”
The blog’s fans and viewers — affectionately called “Delos Tribe” — help, too. “It’s nice to get reassurance from people that what you’re creating is good,” Syrén says. “For me, social media is a very interesting world, and it’s so easy to get sucked into likes and subscriptions. It’s fun to learn and to have that connection with followers, but rather than focusing too much on the numbers, I find it important to create and put up content that’s personal to us and that we like.”
Working as a team helps. “When I sometimes feel really stressed out, Brian and Brady help me to take it down a notch,” Syrén says. “All of us have at some point gone through periods where we’ve worked too much. But then we back each other up and talk about balance and what’s important and not. Sometimes you just have to decide not to work on your computer for a few days.”
Brady Trautman, 30, has a realistic take on alternating YouTube connections with living in remote locations, where they often go weeks or months without cellphone service, Internet access and sometimes even without seeing other people. For him, escapism is tightly tethered to being connected.
“The Delos project has organically grown into something truly amazing, but it all relies on us being active with social media and Internet,” he says. “We have to upload videos and stay active on Facebook and Instagram. To keep it going we have to be connected to the rest of the world. There is no choice for us.”
If it seems like being enslaved in paradise, why do it? “?My favorite [thing] is being in a position to inspire people,” Brady Trautman says, “to let people know there is always an alternate way of life, especially if you are not happy. To show them to follow their heart and their passion and trust it will work out just as it’s supposed to.”
He adds, “To inspire them to go and follow their passion, to change their life or to find a new passion is an incredible thing that outweighs all the money in the world. Whether it’s sailing, cycling, sewing or just going for more walks, the point is the same: Follow and listen to your heart.”
Sometimes, the Delos crew just cuts away. “When we start to feel off-balance, we have a quick discussion, provision Delos and head out for a few days or a week off the grid,” Brian Trautman says. “You have no idea how much peace and solace comes from the fact that you are not connected. When we’re in Internet land, there is always that lingering feeling you could answer some comments, prepare a post for Facebook or Instagram, or reply to emails from followers. But when the last bars of the cellphone fade away and you find yourself at a calm, peaceful anchorage, that feeling, for me, fades away.”
Brian Trautman would like to see the Delos project evolve. There’s talk about upgrading to Delos 2.0 — a larger boat, perhaps a trimaran or rugged 70-foot monohull — that can accommodate more people and is capable of expedition voyages to the southern reaches of South America or the Northwest Passage.
Then again, he and his girlfriend talk about having children and maybe finding a home in the southern Rocky Mountains, so each year they could spend six months there and the other six months at sea.
For now, the mountains can wait. The Delos crew has to edit another episode to keep the boat afloat. As the sign below deck reads: Do what you love. The rest will follow.
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue.