Living The Dream: Becoming A Full-Time Cruiser

Story and Photos By Marty Richardson

After 15 years of planning and saving, the Richardsons finally cast off their lines and embarked on their new liveaboard life. Here, they tell how they did it.

Photo of Monarch anchored at Battle Island

When I was a child, we lived on an inland lake in northern Michigan. I spent summers wading along the shore, swimming, waterskiing, fishing, and hanging out with friends on the diving raft. My family moved "to town" when I was 16, and I sulked for months, lying in bed, still hearing the sound of the waves in my head. I decided then and there that if I couldn't get back to the water, I'd never be truly happy.

As a young adult, I couldn't afford lakefront property of my own, but when I met my husband, Jerry, we knew that boating would play a major role in our lives. As soon as we married, we sold our respective small sailboats and made a 30-foot Catalina sloop our first big purchase together. Then we bought a house as close to the water as we could afford. It was still half a mile away, but we belonged to a yacht club that gave us our waterfront location for six months of the year — the extent of the boating season on the Great Lakes. We spent virtually all our holidays, weekends, and spare time on the boat during our professional lives. Now, retirement has provided the opportunity to do all year long what we used to cram into those limited vacations. Now, here we are, living our dream on Monarch, our 52-foot raised-pilothouse trawler. We named her after the butterfly with unerring navigation that makes the same trip over multiple generations, because that's what we've been doing for the past seven years, traveling from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico.

How Much Does The Dream Cost?

We started planning the cruising life 15 years before our scheduled departure. You don't have to think that far ahead, but the earlier you can settle on what you want to do, the better prepared you're likely to be. Plus, planning is a huge part of the fun. We were lucky in that we could "quit" work when we were both 54 years old, but that also meant we were too young for any retirement accounts or Social Security, so today we're relying on investments and savings and living within a budget. We were also too young for Medicare, but we were fortunate to have healthcare from Jerry's former employer.

Obviously, budgets vary greatly. Some cruisers delight in getting by on the cheap or don't have much to begin with; others want to have every possible comfort. We landed somewhere in the middle and started with a careful spreadsheet to make a monthly "guesstimate" of what we'd spend during our first year cruising. Using historical data from our summer liveaboard experience and from numerous cruising vacations, we added information from our library full of cruising guides, from the websites and blogs of fellow cruisers, and other resources. Now, seven-plus years into our cruising life, we continue to compile annual budgets, and we're repeatedly surprised at how close we've come to those estimates. Many specific annual budget items vary wildly — such as unexpected maintenance and the replacement of our old generator. See tables below for general expenses.

While annual expenses will vary wildly depending on what sort of boat you have, where you're traveling, and what sort of spender you are, here's a general account of what you can expect to spend, from meager cruisers, to splurge splashing boaters.

Simplicity, below, is based on a 30 year old, 33-foot cutter. Moderation is a 13-year-old, 40-foot catamaran, while Highlife is an 8-year-old, 52-foot ketch.

Table 1. Summary Of Average Annual Expenses By Type

Annual ExpensesSimplicity%Moderation%Highlife%
Source: The Voyager's Handbook by Beth A. Leonard
Living Expenses$5,748  74$12,978  54$30,038  46
Provisions$3,055  53  $4,851  37  $9,776  33
Entertainment    $697  12  $2,587  20  $8,450  28
Marina/Moorings    $379    7    $996    8  $2,481    8
Fuel    $412    7    $792    6  $1,874    6
Officials/Fees    $216    4    $824    6    $736    2
Other    $570  10  $1,158    9  $2,219    7
Boat Expenses  $2,023  25  $5,972  25$21,889  34
Discretionary Expenses    $150    1  $5,052  21$12,711  20
Total Expenses  $7,921100$24,002100$64,638100
Targeted Annual Budget  8,000 $25,000 $65,000 

Finding The Right Boat

Budget, of course, will be a big factor in your choice of boat, but you also need to consider the type of cruising you plan to do before you decide what boat will best serve your needs. Power and sailboats seem equally represented in the places we've cruised, and each has its own advantages. As lifelong sailors, most recently with a Beneteau 375, we loved life at 7 knots and no engine noise. But we planned on coastal cruising and doing the Intracoastal Waterway and the Great Loop. In these areas, tacking can be difficult and masts are sometimes a hindrance, so power seemed the right choice for us. Trading our sailboat for a used Halvorsen pilothouse trawler enabled us to follow the rhumb line and achieve relative fuel efficiency. Trawler speed allows us to enjoy the voyage as well as the destination, and we love watching dolphins playing in our wake and the canal and river scenery ashore.

It wasn't a simple — or quick — decision for us. We took several years of vacations to look for and test-drive the boats on our short list. We did weeklong bareboat charters on various trawlers, taking copious notes on the features we liked — or didn't. From this, we formed lists of must haves, nice to haves, and undesirable features. We also attended many boat shows and talked to manufacturers and dealers. As when buying a house, unless you custom-build, you won't find everything on your list in one boat. Our boat is the right size and design — for us! It's easily handled by the two of us, with more than enough room for periodic visits by another couple. The trawler design (versus a sailboat, which we had previously owned) is just right for our coastal cruising and the Intracoastal Waterway's confined waters.

Keep The Home Fires Burning, Or Not?

You need to determine how much shore-side commitment you want to maintain. We decided we didn't want to worry about the upkeep, maintenance, and security of our home while we were away — or about renting it — so we sold the house and the bulk of our worldly possessions. This gave us more money to invest in the dream and fewer headaches while away. Others prefer to keep their land connection and make plans to take care of business remotely, having friends or relatives monitor things on a regular basis while periodically checking up in person. We also know many couples who keep the house, use it six months of every year, and cruise the other six months. We've seen many cruisers tackle the Great Loop in periodic jumps, stitching together the entire Loop over several years.

If your pre-cruising life revolved around a tightly packed itinerary executed with precision, forget about it now! Cruising is greatly enhanced by not having to be somewhere at some specific time. If the weather is lousy, we don't go. That's a real luxury when compared with some bad-weather trips we took when we felt we had to get back to work. Friends coming to visit need to be flexible, too. We recommend committing to only the date, or the location, but not both, when setting up guest arrivals. We only make an exception to this rule when we have our boat in one location for an extended period of time.

Practice Makes (Nearly) Perfect

After you've bought it, get to know your boat on short cruises, so you become familiar with it's operation and with piloting the boat. If you can, try living aboard for a season at your home dock. We lived aboard Monarch for five summers in Detroit — and one winter in the water in heated storage. This allowed us to become fully familiar with her mechanical systems and helped us decide what we needed for equipment and provisions prior to our big sendoff. We also got to know our local master diesel mechanic, who provided us with a captain's engine orientation.

We assembled a box of essential spare parts. If you're cruising in the United States, parts are usually readily available via overnight delivery, but farther afield, they aren't. You can save money and time in either case by having what you need with you.

Even the most experienced can benefit from courses in navigation or seamanship. I took the on-the-water Sea Sense Women's Coastal Cruising Captain School, for a hands-on week of intensive time at the helm of a twin-engine trawler similar to Monarch. This made me confident in my piloting.

Know Before You Go

Make sure you discuss what makes each of you happy, then plan accordingly. If one of you takes great pleasure in visits with children and grandchildren, build in time for land trips to their locations and invite them to visit you aboard. Everyone needs a break from cruising, too, so plan vacations away from the boat. Choosing the cruising life isn't an irrevocable decision; when either of you — or both of you — becomes tired of it, change course.

Photo of spending good times with friends aboardTraveling and spending good times with friends aboard.

Make sure your cruising life includes some of your very favorite land-based things. If you can't live without "Dancing With The Stars," you might want to invest in satellite or tracking television. If you love golf, make sure there's a place to stow clubs aboard. Love to exercise? Take a yoga mat, resistance bands, and a small stand to turn your regular bicycle into a stationary exercise bike.

Join Up

We joined cruisers' groups, including the America's Great Loop Cruisers' Association, and through its newsletters, website and forums, spent years prior to our departure enjoying other cruisers' experiences, soaking up nautical tips, enhancing our planning, and building our own anticipation. Other groups to consider include the DeFever Association and the Marine Trawlers Association. Don't let your membership to BoatUS lapse; upgrade your BoatUS Towing to unlimited.

Stay Connected

Your peace of mind will be enhanced if you stay connected to family and friends, so make sure you have what you need in the way of Internet and cellphone service. Wi-Fi is readily available at most marinas throughout the United States, and Verizon's service provides us with onboard Internet while we're under way and at anchor virtually anywhere in the United States. Friends have had equally good success with AT&T. Be aware that U.S. cellular and Internet services can be limited and expensive if used in Canada or the Bahamas — so check with your provider before you go. As a cruiser, you won't be able to get snailmail regularly. Put all your bills online so you can pay them in your absence, and have a friend or relative keep an eye out for important mail. We also use a mail-forwarding service: how else would we get our hands on a copy of BoatUS Magazine? When we know we'll be in port for a few days, we email the service to forward our mail.

You'll make numerous new friends during your cruising life, so make or get boat calling cards. Boaters trade these at anchor, on the dock, or at boaters' meet and greets. These cards include our boat information, cell phone number, and blog, Internet, and mailing addresses on one side, with our summer-cottage information on the flip side. On cards we receive, we note where and when we met each boater, stow the cards in a three-ring binder, and refresh happy memories by referring to them when we encounter a boat's owners again, sometimes years later. The cards represent a living history of one of the best decisions we've ever made in our lives. 

In five years, Marty and Jeff have logged more than 25,000 miles, completed the Great Loop, cruising the Great Lakes, Georgian Bay, ICW, and Gulf, wintering in the Bahamas, Keys, and Florida.

— Published: December 2015

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