“We live on a yacht that is designed, equipped, and capable of going pretty much anywhere we would want to go on earth,” says Charles Buelher. “Existing almost completely ‘off the grid’ in a region of the world that is much safer, more relaxed, healthier, and friendlier than what we were used to has brought us such a good feeling of relaxed freedom and comfort.”
After 40 years of working in the cold latitudes of Canada, Charles and his wife Susannah yearned for a free-spirited retirement in warmer climes and so they took to the seas on a sailboat.
There’s a common misconception that a sailing retirement is both prohibitively expensive and difficult to do. But it turns out, neither big bucks nor vast experience is required to retire on a boat—though a sense of adventure, a love of travel, and a willingness to learn a few new skills will serve you well.
“It’s more affordable than you imagine,” says Charles, “there is a good sized group of people coming up to retirement that don’t understand how easy, comfort-able, safe, and affordable it is today to do what we are doing. Living on a sailboat is not the same today as it was 20 years ago. Technology advances like catamarans, watermakers, solar panels, electric winches, electronics, even new anchoring technology have made life afloat much easier all around.”
Charles and Susannah bought their boat in the Mediterranean for a not-insinificant $700,000. (But you needn’t spend anywhere near that much—many couples live a lifestyle like theirs in a $100,000 boat.) Still, Charles and Susannah opted for a high-quality 52-foot catamaran that they knew would see them safely through the cross-ocean sailing they have planned.
Charles describes their entire sailing journey so far as one enriching experience. After the Mediterranean, they plan to continue on to the Caribbean and the South Pacific.
“Our favorite places were Croatia, the Greek Islands, and the Turquoise Coast of Turkey,” says Charles. “Croatia for the crystal-clear water and predictable, easy-going sailing, the Southern Greek Islands for more exhilarating winds, wonderful anchorages, island beauty and cultures. And Turkey for the people, history, diversity of their cultures, and inland travel opportunities.”
When they hauled their boat up at Aktio Marina off western Greece for maintenance, the couple rented an apartment for around $25 a night, and took advantage of Greece’s great-value produce to stock up their supplies. With a kilo of locally-grown oranges coming in at less than a dollar and fresh seafood at around $9 for the same amount, it’s easy to live cheaply in the region. Onboard the vessel, costs can be even less.
“Living expenses depend completely on what lifestyle choices you make,” says Charles. “My guess for us, spending at least half the year at anchor and half in a marina, the total cost of living, including boat maintenance, will be 15% to 25% less than living the same lifestyle we were accustomed to (same number and quality of meals out, entertainment, vacations etc.) in a comparably priced house in Toronto.
“But you can do this a lot cheaper. We have friends who own a monohull boat valued at under $125,000, and their total annual budget is under $25,000 total.”
The Caribbean is even more affordable than the Mediterranean and it’s a great place to start, close to home with excellent facilities for yachties.
Retiree Shannon Beattey estimates her monthly costs sailing around the Caribbean at $2,000 to $3,000. Included in that budget is money for any unexpected expenses. “Because I’m not ‘super experienced,’ I feel I need to have that much available for unforeseen problems.”
When it comes to her cost of living, her expenses are minimal: “Local fruits and vegetables are very reasonable throughout the Caribbean islands. When you see some-thing cheap, buy it. Alcohol varies, but usually local rum and beer are reasonable.
Local establishments selling local food are a great experience and they’re the cheap-est way to eat, and bars with ‘happy hour’ prices can be very affordable.
“I grew up in mostly cold weather,” she says. “I want to spend as much time as I can, the rest of my life, with an end-less summer. Living on a boat gives me an opportunity to do so while taking my house with me. My dream is to visit at least 30 Caribbean islands”
Every year, people like Shannon take to the seas for an adventurous full-time retirement on board their own floating home. Many of them are new to it, but with some training (see sidebar), they’re soon heading out to a new life flitting between the tropical beaches of the Caribbean, the history-soaked shores of the Mediterranean, and the coral-fringed islands in Southeast Asia. They gather in havens across the globe from Rio Dulce in Guatemala to Langkawi, Malaysia, sharing cocktails on deck and tall tales at sundown.
“If you want an active, exciting, retirement, we highly recommend sailing,” says Kent Bradford of his time spent under sail in the Caribbean and Mediterranean with his wife, Carol Witt. “And it’s not as difficult as you’d think. We met people who were sailing around the world who hadn’t sailed before they retired, and who basically took off and learned along the way.
“When we went off we rented our condo, sold our cars, and had no ‘home’ but the boat. Living on a sailboat is no more expensive than living in a U.S. coastal suburban location. You trade the cost of two cars for diesel fuel and boat maintenance. Food and clothing is the same, and the capital cost of the boat is typically less than the cost of a house.”
Island Hop Around the Caribbean
Many veteran sailors say they got their start and honed their skills among the islands of the Caribbean. It’s an ideal region to test out a sailing retirement. The closeness of the islands makes it easy to hop from one to the other, often in a day’s sail or even less.
“The thing that makes it worthwhile is the traveling and the adventure,” Kent says.
“Like living on land, you can match your cruising lifestyle to your budget. We met people living on 26-foot weekend cruisers, and 50-foot yachts. They both experienced the same beautiful deserted white beaches, and the same spectacular sunsets.”
Shannon Beattey also rates the Caribbean highly. “Even though as a child, I spent every summer on Lake Erie with my dad,” she says, “in my own retirement, the Caribbean seems a more comfortable option.”
Shannon’s plan is to sail around the Caribbean and find the retirement haven that speaks to her most, then to move there full-time after her sojourn on the seas. Right now, she is temporarily moored in Placencia, in southern Belize.
Shannon says there are plenty of ways to make sailing affordable. “You can find ways to make travel less expensive, because you are not paying for airfare and hotels every night, and you have a kitchen to make your own food.”
Anchoring offshore, or in the sheltered waters of lagoons and estuaries, can also help control your costs. A small ‘tender’ allows you to head ashore and enjoy the beaches, bars, and landside attractions of shorelines that are often exclusive or remote from land.
“You get to avail of the amenities that other people spend hundreds of dollars a night to experience,” says Shannon, who can’t wait for the next stage of her trip. “I am most excited about the area around Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands—which I hear is the closest thing to experiencing the Caribbean hundreds of years ago.”
And then there’s the social aspect of a sailing retirement, which is also a big favorite of Shannon’s: “Most of my closest friends are people I met while sailing,” she says. “You are never at a loss for great stories, and I will randomly run into the same people at different marinas all over the place. I love to catch up and hear about their adventures.”
One important piece of advice that Shannon offers to new boaters is to do research about the upkeep of your boat, as this is usually more extensive than most realize. “If you want to try a Caribbean sail, you do want to get acquainted with the amount of maintenance required. It is an everyday job, and if you don’t know how to do a lot of the basic maintenance or small handyman jobs, it may become cost prohibitive.
“I actually enjoy the sense of accomplishment and completion that comes with my checklists,” says Shannon, “you do get enjoyment out of caring for your boat.”