As Much As You've Got -January 10, 2002
A question we often get asked by people who are planning to go cruising, or who have just started, is, "How much does it cost?" We still haven't worked out a simple answer. We usually hum and haw and mumble a bunch of qualifications and then blatantly contradict each other (David is naively optimistic; Eileen is the one who keeps the books).
Most cruisers will agree that maintaining the boat is a constant and often underestimated expense. People who are out for a relatively short period of time (and who are lucky) sometimes get the false impression that living on a boat is cheap. No rent to pay (as long as you're at anchor), some minor fuel costs, and a few miscellaneous expenses like a an oil change every once and a while. Hey, what's the big deal?
In the longer term, however, it all catches up with you. The marine environment, particularly in the tropics, is incredibly harsh. In the nearly eight years we've been cruising, virtually every piece of electronic equipment on "Little Gidding" has been replaced or has undergone major repairs: the HF, VHF and handheld radios, the GPS, depth sounder, knotmeter, stereo speakers - you name it. We go through laptop computers at a rate of one every two or three years. The only electronic device that still works (we think) is our old Loran receiver because we haven't turned it on since leaving North America! Add to the costs of electronics a new inflatable dinghy, new outboard engine, replacement standing rigging, new fridge, new head, replacement batteries, and the odd diesel engine repair and we sometimes have the sense that we'll never stop haemorrhaging money on the boat. And we haven't even touched on "routine" maintenance costs: varnish, bottom paint, engine filters and so on.
To some extent, you can minimize your boat expenses by simplifying your systems: row your dinghy, give up refrigeration, even dispense with your toilet and auxiliary engine. There are some well known cruisers out there (a minority, we should add) who have sold a lot of books preaching just this minimalist philosophy.
Most people, however, don't care to relieve themselves in a bucket, and every once and a while feel the need for mechanical propulsion. Despite these concessions, it's still possible to exercise a fair bit of budget discretion. It really comes down to your personal expectations and acceptable comfort levels. Beyond basic boat maintenance costs, you can spend a lot or you can spend relatively little on daily living - not unlike people residing on land who have different budgets commensurate with varying lifestyles. Interestingly enough, we've found that location isn't a big factor. In places where the cost of living is high we tend to retrench, but then squander it all when we reach a relatively cheap spot. In the French islands of the eastern Caribbean, for example, we rarely go out to restaurants. The food is great, but pricey. In Trinidad, the cuisine is also good, and much more affordable. We'll go out two or three times a week and end up spending the same or more in total meal expenses as up island.
We're currently in the Virgin Islands, which contain about as broad a cross-section of cruisers as you're likely to encounter. Over the past few days, we've seen the extremes of cruiser lifestyles and budgets. We met one boater who had arrived in the Virgins a couple of months ago with the Caribbean 1500 rally out of Norfolk, Virginia. He lamented that his projected costs for the year (based on only two months of expenses, mind you) were going to top $75,000. We were speechless. He hurried to explain some of his expenses, like $7,000 on satellite phone charges. His wife felt she had to talk to the kids back home every day. Eileen suggested he might accidentally knock the satellite phone overboard and buy phone cards to use in the local pay phones instead. Later, we bumped into him at the Crown Bay Marina in St. Thomas. We were anchored out and using the marina's courtesy dinghy dock to come ashore and shop at the supermarket a block away. He was renting a slip for $1.20 per foot per night and shopping at the "Gourmet Gallery" in the marina complex.
At the other end of the spectrum is the single-hander who is anchored (for free) next to us. He's been out cruising for nine years and never eats or drinks ashore. He periodically sails to St. Croix, 35 miles away, to buy diesel for a few pennies per gallon cheaper. He broke one of his chain plates on a recent passage and has his port cap shroud attached to the toe rail with a block and tackle. He figures he'll do a proper repair when he gets back to the States next summer where he has some friends who own a budget boatyard.
best response to, "How much does it cost to go cruising?" is
another question: "How much do you have to spend?"
David & Eileen