Cruising on a working-class budget

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Our Mariner 40 ketch, Sea Trek, has been our home for 15 years. In that time we have lived aboard and cruised her whenever the kitty reached the magic number we had set for our next voyage.

Since leaving our previous home base in the Florida Keys for this most recent trip we have put a bit more than 3,000 miles under her keel. We visited four countries and transited the coastline of five states — two with the largest coasts in the United States and two with the shortest. We have put 750 hours on our engine and that means eight oil and filter changes and five changes of our three fuel filters.

Our unscientific estimate of anchoring is that we have dropped and raised the anchor more than 190 times (and with a manual windlass). We were very fortunate in only having three pieces of equipment break down and we believe this is a result of good preparation and a good maintenance schedule along the way.

We only spent 127 days at a dock out of 20 months. We anchored behind a reef with nothing but ocean on the other side for thousands of miles. We visited remote Mayan villages and dispensed medicine to a people that once ruled the land in a grand civilization. We visited thousand-year-old ruins of that civilization. It has been a grand adventure.

We also spent a few hard-earned dollars. Walk any dock or visit any cruisers’ hang-out or surf the Internet and stop in at any boater’s discussion board and the “How much does it cost?” question always pops up.

Our expenditures presented here are for one year only and do not include preparation, gear, provisioning purchased prior to leaving or money needed to get by once you return to reality, but before the paychecks start coming in again. It includes actual money spent from the time we left the dock until the end of the 12th month. Our cruise began April 1, 2005 and the figures are through March 31, 2006.

We enjoy eating out occasionally, and love to travel and explore the countries we visit. Boat maintenance and repairs are a fact of life and how much you need to budget for repairs is going to be mostly guesswork based on the condition of the boat and the age of your equipment.

Assuming that you have fully outfitted your boat with all the gear — watermaker, life raft, wind generator, solar panels, dinghy and outboard — that you feel you must have to enjoy cruising and to be comfortable and safe, you will then have to provision the boat with foodstuffs and other non-food items. Again, I am not counting this in our expenses, but mention it because there are some items we generally stock up on prior to leaving U.S. waters because they are often difficult or cumbersome to get in remote places. We buy toilet paper and paper towels in large quantities and store them in our largest hanging locker. (The clothes that resided there are packed away for the duration, off the boat and in storage in a friend’s garage.)

We also buy as much soda and beer as we can stow on the boat because it is much cheaper in the United States and it is easier than bringing it by dinghy back to the boat. A year’s supply of vitamins, herbal remedies, prescription meds, over-the-counter remedies, etc., are also placed on board. The over-the-counter medications are generally cheaper in the United States and you might have favorite throat lozenges and if, by chance, you can find them in Belize, they will cost two to three times the amount.

Regarding paying the bills: If you have a boat payment to make each month, have those payments automatically deducted from your account. We only use our debit card from that same account when traveling so we don’t have to worry about monthly credit card bills.

We decided to keep our car instead of selling it this time around so we had the insurance automatically deducted from said account every six months. The car was left with friends, who drove it instead of just letting it sit and rot. Any other bills that may be floating around get sent to us periodically through our mail forwarding service. They are great and will even open the mail and tell us how much the bill is if we can’t access it online, or if we don’t want to pay exorbitant postage to have it sent to us outside of the United States.

We also have made the decision not to carry health insurance while cruising outside the United States. If we need healthcare, we have found it to be affordable everywhere we traveled (except the States) and there are competent physicians in most places. Knock on wood — we have not had any serious health problems in all of our years aboard. This is a personal decision that someone with specific health issues may not be able to make. We don’t own a home or any property anywhere that has to be maintained and the kids are grown so when we are ready to go, all of the strings and umbilical cords have been severed.

Breaking it down

Now, after spending $1,000 or so putting canned foods, paper products, snacks, cookies, juices, shelf milk, rice and so forth into every possible nook and cranny aboard Sea Trek, we are ready to go. The budget consists of about nine months spent in the Western Caribbean and three months in the United States.

The category for boat fuel consists of both diesel for the boat and gas for the dinghy. Boat repair consists of what we paid others, and parts and materials for repairs and replacements that we did ourselves. We have found this figure to be pretty steady throughout recent years. Remember, the wear and tear you put on your boat while under way is much more than it would be just sitting at the dock, so these repairs are inevitable even for a relatively new boat.

The amount we spent on dining out was a big shock to us, but we have included all trips to the local ice cream shop and stops for sodas and beer as well as lunches and dinners in restaurants. If it didn’t get consumed on the boat, it was considered dining out.

Dockage was a fairly large figure for us, but it seemed we spent more time in marinas for various reasons than we usually do. In some places, anchorages just aren’t available due to shoaling or the anchorages have been replaced by mooring fields. In other areas, like Belize City, services can only be accessed by going into a marina. Entertainment included Internet cafes, CDs, museums, concerts, visiting ruins, satellite TV and the like. Travel is taxis, buses, rental cars, etc. Housing was our boat payment. Miscellaneous was haircuts, insect repellent and strange things that didn’t fall into other categories or cash that was spent that we could not account for. Maintenance included any item that was purchased to maintain the boat in her present condition. Most of the other categories are self explanatory and should not require any further explanation.

So here is how it breaks down per year:

Auto insurance (recreational use only) – $378.20

Gas for borrowed cars and rentals – $130.21

Bank charges – $270

Boat fuel (diesel and gas) – $1,440.06

Boat insurance (covering Caribbean) – $2,631.92

Charity – $13

Clothing – $63.02

Dining – $1,792.05

Dockage – $1,833.07

Entertainment – $654.46

Gifts – $229.02

Groceries/provisions – $3,828.54

Housing (boat payments) – $4,479.36

Laundry – $165.10

Maintenance – $888.97

Medical/doctors – $242.50

Medicine – $233.09

Miscellaneous – $730.39

Port fees – $608.83

Postage – $17.28

Subscriptions – $52.86

Taxes and registration – $45.60

Utilities/electric – $161.99

Phone – $304.40

Hotels – $395.07

Travel – $369.66

Our total expenditures for the year were $25,805.10. If your boat is paid off, you’re down to about $21,500 and the amount can be even less if you only anchor out, don’t eat out, etc. Again, we feel this amount is fairly accurate as other friends of ours whose boat is paid off figure they spend about $20,000 for a year off in the wild blue yonder. Surprisingly enough, as I look at our budget for previous years, the costs have not changed dramatically except in the areas of insurance and fuel.

Behind the numbers

To give you an idea of what boat repairs we encountered, the depth sounder transducer needed to be replaced and it had to be a special length so it cost more than your standard transducer. We hauled the boat and had the bottom painted, which should probably be in the maintenance category, but we had the depth sounder installed at that time so we considered it a repair. We also had our outboard completely rebuilt when it was becoming sluggish. We decided that our anchor rode was a little tired and should be replaced. Also, we had to buy a new microwave oven in Guatemala when the old one gave up the ghost. If it was on the boat and had to be repaired or replaced, it was counted in the boat repair category.

The last thing you have to take into consideration over and beyond the above-mentioned expenditures is the amount you will need when you return to keep you going until you are gainfully employed once again. We generally like to set aside about $3,000 for this.

Let your needs and considerations be the determining factors to help you compute your costs, but by all means go and have fun.