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A Sailor's Life: Inspiring Others From The Sea

YouTube creator Sam Holmes refused to let a medical condition hold back his dream of cruising. His inspiring story and warm personality now help fund his passion.

Photo of a young adult male holding a paint brush in front of a blue and white boat

Sam Holmes is good company. Incredibly accomplished yet unassuming, friendly and kind, handy and helpful, self-depreciating with good sense of humor – the type of person who makes instant friends. By any measure, he’s a good hang. That innate likability may be the secret behind this social media star’s rise to online prominence, with more than 19,000 followers on Instagram, and 214,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel @samholmessailing.

Among the more than 270 entertaining videos he’s posted are sails to the Hawaiian Islands; the Florida Everglades; along the Eastern Seaboard; and across the Atlantic to Ireland, Sweden, and the Netherlands. The slogan on his YouTube page reads, “Crossing oceans in questionable sailing vessels” because his boats are modest, to say the least – a 23-foot Ranger, then a Cape Dory 28, both bought used and cheap.

Beyond the sailing videos, Holmes may not be a certified mechanic, but he’s incredibly decisive and resourceful in his boat projects and engine maintenance videos. “Nobody is less afraid to drill a hole in their boat than Sam,” writes one of his followers.

That connection with tens of thousands of strangers was not why the quiet Holmes became a YouTube creator. Initially, the videos were meant to let family and friends know what he was up to and that he was well. He’d embraced YouTube soon after its 2005 launch, posting fun videos of himself and his friends mostly goofing around, and he posted a series of exciting POV kiteboarding and paragliding videos that drew 25,000 views. What started out as video postcards for family and friends gained a small but loyal following. Then he got a boat.

Middle-aged man with a beard holding a little blue bird while on a boat out at sea

Long way around

The 35-year-old native North Carolinian learned to sail as a teen at sailing camp but drifted away from boating for the better part of a decade. A designer by training, Holmes worked at Walt Disney Imagineering in California, specializing in the look of theme park attractions.

Despite the resume, he wasn’t living the life he wanted. As a freshman in college, he was diagnosed with ulcerates colitis, a chronic, painful disease that causes inflammation and ulcers in the large intestine. The drug Remicade helped Holmes manage the condition. Treatment required infusions every six to eight weeks and worked for about 10 years. Then his body developed antibodies against the medication, and the life-threatening condition came roaring back.

“Eventually my quality of life was so bad, I could hardly leave the house,” Holmes explained in a change-of-pace video he posted in 2020, in which he was unflinchingly honest about the debilitating symptoms he’d had to endure. He was becoming desperate. “I finally decided to have my large intestine removed.” In the video, he discussed the procedure and even how he manages his ostomy bag.

“Enough people have asked, and if it’s gonna help anyone, I’m happy to do this kind of video. I’ve never been embarrassed about my bag, and there’s no need to be.”

It was an awkward topic for a YouTube channel about sailing, but it quickly went viral, racking up a quick 131,000 views and a flood of encouraging and gracious responses, including from patients and health care professionals who said his reassuring message would help others facing the same condition. Not a self-promoter, just someone who wanted to help others, that’s the video that put him on the social-media map.

“I’m speechless, Sam,” wrote one follower. “What a path you have had to walk. And always smiling. You are a gift to the planet, brother. And a waterman to boot! Fair winds, amigo.”

Middle-aged bearded man wearing a green jacket sailing in the open waters

Going viral

That video, titled “The major health condition I sail with,” was posted in 2020, before his third and final surgery that reconnected his digestive system and did away with the need for an ostomy bag. The reason why so many followers were paying such close attention to Holmes is because, the year before, he’d solo sailed his Ranger 23 from Los Angeles to Hawaii!

Over the nearly 40 minutes of that intimate video, Holmes chronicled his 27-day crossing on board, showing himself troubleshooting a leaky hatch, sipping scotch whisky while gazing out a porthole at nothing but ocean, going for a swim, boiling scrambled eggs in a jury-rigged swivel-mounted container, fiddling with his sails, battling seasickness and sleep deprivation – all while addressing the camera (you) like a friendly, trusted crew mate. As of press time, “Solo sailing Los Angeles to Hawaii on 23ft boat” has been viewed a staggering 4.8 million times since it was posted July 17, 2019.

“This is incredible. I had no idea somebody could accomplish this in such a small boat,” wrote one follower. Another called it “truly epic,” while others thanked him “for posting your adventures and making us feel like we’re are part of that.”

If your impression of social media is a loud, painful assault on your serenity by look-at-me wannabe celebrities, Holmes is the opposite. There’s no music or fancy graphics to his videos – just Sam doing his thing while calmly narrating. He’s mostly solo, so he shoots selfie style, holding his iPhone out to show the viewer his point of view, or turns to address the viewer directly. He tries to post twice weekly when sailing. He does everything – shoot, edit, post-production – on his iPhone. “I try to keep my videos kind of simple and not too flashy,” he says.

Middle-aged male wearing a striped shirt holding two lobsters on a boat out at sea

The creator economy

Holmes is considered a creator. Social media creators can earn money by creating and posting content on various platforms. The amount varies greatly, depending on several factors, none more so than the number of views. While Holmes may not be in the same revenue-generating stratum as the Kardashians, he’s paid through Patreon membership subscriptions, donations from followers, and revenue generated from clicks and views. Some manufacturers send him products (solar wireless anemometer, portable electric cooler), which he thanks them for on camera. It’s become common for subscribers to write in and offer to put him up in their homes or meet him at the dock of whichever port he’s headed.

“I didn’t go into this looking to make a YouTube channel big. I just got lucky,” Holmes explained on the podcast, The Unconventional Path with Bela and Mike. “I’m just doing something I’m passionate about and trying to share it.” He feels fortunate that, after so many medical challenges, his health has gotten better, and he wants to help empower others to overcome what might be holding them back, too.

Young adult male standing on red and white sails while out on at sea

Wind at his back

Holmes says any “YouTube money” that comes in goes back into his boat in the form of safety gear, repairs, and maintenance. He’s sailing through Europe to the Mediterranean Sea, where he’ll kick around for a while. From there, he hopes to sail to Asia and eventually Australia.

Holmes says he still enjoys chronicling his adventures on YouTube and has no end game in sight, which is just fine with his growing team of followers.

“Love your adventures,” writes one of his online admirers. “I love sailing away with you in dreamland,” writes one subscriber. “Watching your amazing abilities and constant positive attitude,” writes another. “Proud of you Sam! Thanks for inspiring people!”

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Rich Armstrong

Senior Editor, BoatUS Magazine

A journalist by training, BoatUS Magazine Senior Editor Rich Armstrong has worked in TV news, and at several newspapers, then spent 18 years as a top editor at other boating publications. He’s built a stellar reputation in the marine industry as one of the most thorough reporters in our business. At BoatUS Magazine, Rich handles everything from boat and product innovation and late-breaking news, to compelling feature stories, boat reviews, and features on people and places. The New Jersey shore and lakes of lower New York defined Rich's childhood. But when he bought a 21-foot Four Winns deck boat and introduced his young family to the Connecticut River, his love for the world of boats flourished from there.