Cruising On Less Than $15,000/Year, Including The Boat—What It Takes

hannah windy

Some 15 years ago, Bee and I decided to sell up and commit to a voyaging life. It was an easy decision, taking just 4 months from decision, to selling the house, to moving aboard.

During that time we hunted around, rejected various boats—usually because they required far too much work, and we wanted to sail, not build—until we found one that seemed to suit us. We made an offer, more than we wanted to spend but much less than any of the rebuilds would finally have cost, had it accepted, and moved aboard.

I mentioned what we had done to a guy I worked with. He was probably 20+ years younger than me, had spent a number of years in the boat industry, and he proceeded to question me closely:

“Do you have an EPIRB? Do you have a watermaker? Do you have a forward-facing echo sounder?”

“No”, I replied.

“Well”, he said dismissively, “you can’t go cruising…”

70,000 Miles Later

However, we did go cruising and, some 70,000 miles later, we still do not possess any of those items he deemed necessary. Rather than fit out a boat for a lifestyle we had no idea we would like, we simply opted to try the lifestyle and then see what we might need to make things better.

The answer is surprisingly little, despite what the magazines and pundits would tell you. In fact, little has changed on the boat since we left Southampton: the original Garmin 128 GPS and the NASA Navtex still work, but we have replaced the depthsounder. After 9 years we added a secondhand radar and an AIS receiver.

A Less-Trodden Path

Hannah off Labrador
“Hannah” off Labrador

The first couple of years were hard as we learnt to slow down from a working life and, more importantly, learned to appreciate being in each other’s company for 24 hours a day, but we got better at it. And, whilst we have not sailed around the world, we haven’t languished in the Caribbean either.

So this post is about a less-trodden path for “wannabes” that is, I think, still valid in this world of the “consumer cruising” approach to all things marine. I am at a loss to understand why folks buy a boat, then spend thousands making changes whilst using up the one thing they can’t replace: their lives. Perhaps if the boat requires so much time and money it’s the wrong boat?

Hannah

Hannah under full working sail off the coast of Labrador the day we (Phyllis and John) met Mick and Bee the first time.
“Hannah” under full working sail off the coast of Labrador the day we (Phyllis and John) met Mick and Bee the first time.

We chose an 8-year-old, 36′ ferro-cement gaff ketch. The reasons were numerous, but principally, if you’re on a small budget, ferro boats offer a lot of advantages. Yes I know that the armchair pundits will tell you not to touch them, but I doubt ANY of those naysayers have ever owned one. Sure some can be dogs to look at, but you can see that and leave that one alone…find another one.

We paid UK£34,000 (US$47,000) for Hannah and that was a high price for a ferro boat. But the quality of workmanship, the storage and space, and the amount of practical gear on board meant we had little left to do but go sailing.

We liked the owners, found them open with us (and have remained friends since). The surveyor we chose had been party to putting the hull builder out of business in a legal case. He (the surveyor) spent a long time on the boat, charged accordingly, and still managed to get things wrong. But we talked it through with the sellers, offered less than the asking price, and have never regretted the decision.

We kept everything simple:

  • Tiller steering.
  • Manual windlass.
  • Big cleats.
  • No electric this or hydraulic that.
  • No pressurized water.
  • No refrigeration.

Result: no huge list of repairs, no shopping list from the chandlers, and certainly not years spent attempting to bullet-proof a boat to deal with the vagaries of the sea. Life is too short.

Gaff Rig

Gaffers are not so common on the cruising scene but are a wonderful way of crossing oceans with a minimum amount of money. They tend to be long-keeled, so track well; lend themselves to wind-vane self-steerers; heave-to well; and are pretty comfortable in big, ugly seas.

They also have negative qualities: that deep forefoot makes tacking in any sort of sea difficult, and going to windward is a lesson in patience—”like a cow in a bog”, according to John Illingworth.

Also, in a gaffer light winds mean slow speeds and possibly long passages. Sure, sometimes we wish we could move along a little faster, but we have no timetable to adhere to, no jobs requiring our presence, and so no real reason to rush. Not for everyone of course, but if you’re involved in long distance voyaging, I guess speed is not the big issue.

Over the years I suspect our tolerance of what is an acceptable speed has become wildly different to most, given the number of Bermudian rig boats we see motoring with a fair breeze crying out to be used.

With a boat like ours comes the additional benefit that this beamy hull happily accepts a small library of books (around 700 at the last count), not to mention a cast iron wood-burning stove to read by.

No Need To Go To The Gym

Hannah certainly is a heavy boat with heavy gear, and you need to be reasonably fit to sail her. Both mizzen and main have throat and peak haly’ds and no mast winches. Both haly’ds are hauled by one person (Bee) at the same time. No furling gear.

JHHOMD1-070049
If you are fit, strong, and think ahead, you can make gear like this work, and save a fortune over more modern and automated options.

The stays’l is hanked on but the jib set flying on the end of a 3-metre bowsprit, but we don’t have to shimmy to the end of it to change the sail: the tack is attached to a traveller (a leathered iron ring) and then hauled out. Hauling on the haly’d raises the sail and the luff is tensioned via a downhaul. All pretty simple. We drop the jib by bearing away and blanketing it with the main before easing the lines away.

Gaff rig is low load with small masts; but the mains can be very big—we looked at one gaffer that had a 27′ boom—OK around the Solent perhaps but not suitable for what we had in mind.

Sail changes can be numerous—Hannah carries 13 sails and, like paper charts, they take up a lot of room—but having to go onto the foredeck to change the jib means we keep a very sharp eye on what the barometer and clouds are doing, change headsails early, and snug the boat down at night to ensure a comfortable night, not a wild one—we just keep the boat in our comfort zone.

Cheap To Maintain

Solid wood masts, lanyards, and deadeyes, etc., make for a boat that is easy and cheap to maintain. Ironwork is mild steel, rusts, but in the 22 years it has been on the boat little if any has been replaced. Stainless may look nice but it is not, I believe, as strong as galvanised steel and is more expensive to boot.

  • We recently replaced the inner forestay…US$38.
  • A bail broke when we were in Spain many years ago. I removed it and took it to a garage to be welded…€4.

Interior

Mick and Bee at home.
Mick and Bee at home.

We have maintained the simple approach inside too. For years we used a Taylor cooker, but the escalating cost of spares pushed us to a cheaper, simpler solution: a gimballed “Primus”. Paraffin has always been easy for us to find, and we top up whenever the chance occurs. K1 kero is ok but the best has always been Jet Fuel A, which we can get from small airfields. We carry about 130 litres in jugs. Paraffin in Greenland is good too. We bake bread using a Dutch oven.

Our lights are LED but we frequently use an Aladdin oil lamp as it is bright enough to read by. Whilst on night watch we keep it turned down low, as it allows visibility below without ruining night vision, and adds warmth to the cabin too.

Equipment

We do have and use an engine and, whilst the cruising areas we like have either too much or, more often, too little wind, we rarely bother motoring on passage. If the wind fails we drift. If we’re several hundred miles or more offshore we really can’t be bothered to stand at the tiller for hours on end steering (we have no auto-pilot but do have a wind-vane). Monotonous doesn’t come into it, so we drop everything, sometimes leaving a staysail up, and let the currents take us where they will.

Many times we end up a few miles closer to the destination, sometimes we lose a few miles, but it gives us a great chance to catch up on sleep, saves on diesel and, on a journey of several weeks, another day or so doesn’t really make that much difference. The wind will return eventually.

Mick points to Hannah's Jordan Series Drogue. The boat my be old fashioned to some eyes but her crew have applied modern thinking in areas where it makes sense like storm survival.
Mick points to Hannah’s Jordan Series Drogue. The boat may be old-fashioned to some eyes, but her crew have applied modern thinking in areas where it makes sense—like storm survival.

We’re not Luddites and we’d be idiots going to sea without a GPS. They work, they’re accurate, and they offer a huge safety margin over sextants.

We use a mixture of paper charts and free electronic charts on a laptop with a $35 GPS dongle. We do not have paper charts for every area we cruise and they, like the electronic ones, are not up to date or anywhere near it. But the charts are better than folks had years ago and we’re relatively cautious in our approach and our sailing.

The radar, a Furuno 1613, we added after many years spent negotiating Maine/Nova Scotia/Newfoundland without one, but if we hadn’t spent so much time in foggy areas we probably would not have bothered.

The AIS receiver has been a boon, but we’re pretty useless at bothering with the weather, so the SSB receiver doesn’t get that much use. For ocean crossings I mean—there we tend to get a single station forecast and deal with whatever we get on passage.

Safety

We take an old-fashioned view about this sort of thing, mostly because, as a soldier at Kiel in the sixties, I taught other soldiers to sail, and safety obsession, EPIRBs and the rest of it, were all in the future. The boats were engineless (and most other things -less) but we did learn the importance of staying on board—one hand for the boat, etc.—acknowledging and accepting that sailing small boats has a risk element. It still does.

Whilst we do have life-jackets, we have never yet worn them, but have sometimes used a harness. It doesn’t make us better. Or worse. It is simply our choice of how we do it.

A Go-Anywhere Boat

We were recently on Morgan’s Cloud and marvelled at the complexity, the massive winches, the beautiful sail material, and how well thought-out the boat was, and came away with ideas we could adapt to make life simpler aboard Hannah (I know it sounds a contradiction).

MC is a go-anywhere boat—strong, practical—and we dreamt of how comfortable our life aboard would be compared to Hannah…however, all way beyond our price range.

But Hannah too is a go-anywhere boat and, whilst our approach to what we do differs dramatically from how John and Phyllis deal with life aboard, our voyages have shared many similarities.

The Bottom Line x 2

Finally…Despite having had our share of rough weather, Bee and I would still say that the single most difficult thing to deal with is not the storms, but saying goodbye to friends you have made knowing that, because of the lifestyle, you may never see them again—tough times.

Finally, finally…In the 15 years we have been doing this, we have spent somewhere between US$200,000 and US$240,000: that’s boat, sails, engines, living expenses, visas, booze, the lot.

It is a lot of money when looked at like that. Friends have done it on less. You’ll spend what you have. But don’t be persuaded that living and voyaging has to be horrendously expensive. Many, many unknown sailors are happily crossing oceans on a fraction of what is deemed necessary.

Think outside the box.

Further Reading

  • You can learn more about Mick, Bee, Hannah, Toots, and their voyages over at their blog, but put some time aside, it’s addictive.
  • Getting Out There Cruising Online Book (Members*)

*Non-members can read the Online Book Introductions and Tables of Contents, to assess their value before joining, at the above links.

Thank You

A huge thank you to Russ Nichols, SV Walkabout, for granting the rights to use his great photos of Hannah in Labrador.

Like what you just read? Get lots more:

Learn About Membership

Mick has been a soldier—although being Mick, he did precious little soldiering and a lot of sailing—and ran a bike shop before setting off 15 years ago with his wife and partner Bee as full-time cruisers. The two of them on their ferro-cement gaffer "Hannah" have made multiple Atlantic crossings and cruised challenging high latitude destinations like Greenland and Labrador. Their low-key cruising style is best summed up by "Not all who wander....are lost" (J. R. R. Tolkien).

34 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments