Find Your Sea Legs with an Affordable Boating Retirement

You’ve just weighed anchor on another night of bliss, lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of your sailboat in the calm sea. Before you is a small cove lined by craggy cliffs. Clear blue waters end at a white-sand beach. You’ve had it all to yourself for the last week. It was supposed to be just an overnight stop. But it was so beautiful, you decided to stick around. After a quick dip, you’re enjoying a cup of coffee and a light breakfast on deck as you contemplate which island paradise you’ll go to next.

This life could be yours. Plenty of everyday people are choosing to live on the water full-time—in their retirement, no less. After a bit of training and hands-on experience at home, they’re tying up beside mega-yachts in the Mediterranean…finding large floating communities of like-minded expat sailors in the Caribbean…and island hopping in the Gulf of Thailand, heading wherever their fancy takes them.

This lifestyle is more affordable than you might think, often costing folks less than staying at home. For less than $100,000 you can buy a well-equipped used sail boat around 40 feet in length, plenty of room for two people. And you can live on as little as $1,000 to $1,500 a month, including marina fees. Those are usually based on the length of your boat and generally run from $150 to $600 per month, depending on location—Asia and Latin America tend to be on low end, with marinas in Europe charging more. Wherever you are, that fee usually gets you a full-service facility with water, power, WiFi, other amenities.

Of course, anchoring offshore is free—even in the most beautiful shores in the world. Carol and Kent Witt anchored throughout the Med during their sailing retirement. “We once anchored off Capo Palinuro, south of Italy’s Amalfi Coast,” says Carol. “The water there is perfect for swimming and snorkeling, two of our favorite pastimes. On the cliff overlooking our anchorage was a hotel that charges $342 a night. Guests have to walk down a rickety network of several hundred steps to reach the cove that serves as the resort’s beach. At night we went ashore and enjoyed the fancy hotel’s sunset views and ambience for the price of a cocktail.”

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And a sailing life is easier and safer than ever before thanks to modern technology for navigation and communication. With GPS for navigation you always know exactly where you are, a safe route to get where you’re going and how long it’ll take to get there. You program in the destination just like with a land GPS. You have radar for monitoring weather. And there are even monitoring systems that help you avoid large commercial ships.

Age isn’t much of a barrier either. Many current cruisers only got started when they retired. And if you want to be part-time rather than full-time on the water, that’s okay, too. There is no one way to cruise. There are lots, it just comes down to what you want. The important thing is to get started. Wait until everything is perfect and you could literally miss the boat.

Most folks start with basic sailing classes. Gary Pierce knew nothing about sailing. “But that wasn’t going to stop me,” he says. “Over the next four years my wife Julie and I prepared, taking the baby-steps approach to sailboat life. I read everything I could get my hands on about sailing and cruising. We started taking sailing lessons in Kemah, Texas, 90 miles from our home.”

And once you buy your own boat—for as little as $89,000 for a seaworthy liveaboard—the world is your oyster…

Close to Home—The Caribbean

If you are looking to start in the Caribbean, then you’ll find a well-established boating infrastructure, as well as plenty of deserted islands to explore. And its proximity to the eastern U.S. makes it a great place to try out life at sea. “Right now, I’m looking at turquoise, clear waters in all directions. The sky is always blue, and the weather is warm year-round. And we catch dinner off the back of the boat,” says expat Tina Dreffin, 58, who along with her husband Peter, 63, lives aboard the couple’s catamaran, Freebird, in the Central Exumas of the Bahamas.

Tina says life on a boat means there’s always maintenance to be done, though it’s rewarding and satisfying. And there is still plenty of time for reading, sunbathing, learning new languages, and other fun.

Besides the Bahamas, other top spots in the region include Placencia in Belize, Roatan, the Bocas del Toro archipelago of Panama, the British Virgin Islands, the island of Antigua…

Thanks to its inland location on a river and lake, Guatemala’s Rio Dulce is a safe haven during Atlantic hurricane season from June to November. And it’s also become quite a community of folks passing through or taking a permanent vacation living aboard their boats. It’s a place of natural beauty where steep tree-covered cliffs line the river before you arrive at a large lake where more than a dozen marinas and related services cater to boaters.

Emy, 68, and King, 66, of Anti Destination League are long-time residents of Rio Dulce. They first visited on a vacation but soon after became so entranced with the area that they had left their everyday jobs in the U.S. for new roles as marina managers. They did other boat-related work in Rio Dulce as well, though they recently retired from that, too. In Rio Dulce, they’ve found not just community and a beautiful location but also affordability (see sidebar).

Theresa, 60, and Curtis Collins, 53, split their time between a home in Guatemala, time spent sailing around Central America and the Caribbean in Cattleya, and traveling by land throughout the region. When I last spoke to them they were in Panama’s Bocas del Toro archipelago on the Caribbean but were prepping for a trip to the San Blas Islands. “There are no schedules. We hang out in a place until it’s not fun anymore,” says Theresa.

“Cruising is about having freedom to go where you want. You sail to beautiful places and…work on your boat,” says Curtis.

They count Panama as their all-time favorite, but they’re also partial to the Bay Islands in Honduras and Belize.

For Mary and Carl Heckrotte, 69 and 84, respectively, a huge benefit of their 16 years of criss-crossing the Caribbean was learning about the diverse cultures of the region. During their time in Rio Dulce, Mary volunteered as a translator for a medical group. In Venezuela, they traveled into the Orinoco Delta (a trip made by only seven boats a year) and met with indigenous groups who extended hospitality in the form of a caiman for dinner. Docking in Cartagena, Colombia allowed them to experience that historical colonial city. A highlight was being in Trinidad for Carnival twice.

The couple currently live off the grid in a home in Bocas del Toro—reachable only by water, of course. And they’re limiting their future journeys to short trips in the region on their boat Camryka. But they’ll always have their time at sea.

Old-World Cruising—The Mediterranean

The Mediterranean has been plied by pleasure craft since the days of the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. Sure, you’ll find natural beauty—outstanding beaches, jagged mountain ranges clad in pine forests, soaring cliffs—but this is called the cradle of civilization for a reason…

Just about wherever you land is a great starting point for shore excursions. You could take in a classical music performance in an ancient Roman amphitheater in a cobblestoned Italian town. Explore ancient Greek ruins without being surrounded by cameratoting tourists. Enjoy a night of tapas and bar hopping in Spain, or shop for souvenirs in a North African souk (marketplace) almost unchanged since medieval times.

And, by the way, although plenty of people do it, there’s no need to cross the Atlantic on your own. You can have your craft shipped over and meet your boat on the other side.

It makes sense to think of the Mediterranean as two parts, the eastern and the western. The western sphere includes the French Riviera, Italy’s Amalfi Coast, Malta, Spain’s Costa del Sol and Costa Brava, and even more exotic North African ports.

Cruise the other side of Italy and you are in the eastern Med, where you can explore the Adriatic Sea, Venice, the dramatic Croatian coast, the myriad islands of Greece with their white-washed hill towns and monasteries, the hidden havens of Turkey’s western coast, and even farther east, Cyprus and onto Israel.

“We’ve hopscotched our way along the northern Turkish coast and sailed between Greek islands where everything is blue and white—the sea, the sand, the sky, and the houses. In fact, we’ve sailed all over the Mediterranean. Anyone can retire like this. I did it at 60 and I wasn’t a sailor,” says Carol Witt.

The Dreffins sailed the Med twice, most recently spending the summer of 2013 there after they bought their boat in Sicily. The eastern side was their favorite, in particular the waters off the Greek islands and Turkey, though France and Italy were fun, too. They even stopped in Israel. During their time in the Med, they took the opportunity to take trains and buses to explore small villages, ancient ruins, and Rome as well. “We loved sailing there. The history was stunning. The food was exquisite,” says Tina.

Find Your Sea Legs with an Affordable Boating Retirement
Tina and Peter Dreffin live aboard their catamaran, Freebird, in the Bahamas. © Tina and Peter Dreffin

Carol and Kent also visited Tunisia. “We went for the low costs of boat maintenance but we found world-class beaches, ancient sites and old walled cities. French tourists have been visiting since the mid-1960’s to avoid the expense and crowds of their own Riviera. You can sunbathe here on powdery white sand, play in the surf, snorkel, dive or parasail.”

A Sailor’s Paradise—Southeast Asia

Home to some of the most beautiful islands in the world, which you can weave through at your leisure, Asia is a must-visit for most sailors for the vistas and friendly people. Plus, with low prices for food, boat repairs, supplies, and more, the cost of the living is one of the lowest in the maritime world. Dockage fees in one of the top end marinas is about $400 a month.

The passage across the Pacific is a preferred route, allowing you to visit far-flung and isolated islands in Micronesia, Fiji, and French Polynesia, where French-accented culture and cuisine mix with island charms in Tahiti and Bora Bora. People pay thousands to fly to and stay on those tropical paradises. But you’ll do it for a fraction of the cost. And if you want to take even more of a detour you could hit up the Galapagos Islands, New Zealand, Australia…

Among cruisers’ prized destinations in Asia are Palawan Island and the Calamian island group to north in the Philippines. There’s Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site dotted with thousands of islands, including distinctive pillar-like limestone islets that rise dramatically from the water. Bali, Indonesia’s Hindu majority island, is the setting for relaxation amid lush forests, looming mountains, and well-kept rice paddies. Palau, to the east of the Philippines, is an island chain with close ties to the U.S. and a reputation for some of the best scuba diving in the world.

But the top destinations in the region are the islands of Phuket and Langkawi, located in Thailand and Malaysia, respectively. Both islands are in the Andaman Sea and have an extensive sailing infrastructure with plenty of marinas and associated services.

From Phuket—one of the Dreffins favorite stops—you can explore hundreds of islands, many uninhabited. The ocean thrives with marine life and the soaring limestone cliffs of the Surin Islands, Similan Islands, and Phang Nga Bay are well worth the trip. One of the best spots to check out from Phuket are the nearby Phi Phi islands, which include large inhabited isles, as well as smaller islands with offshore reefs perfect for snorkeling and secluded coves with crystal clear water. Cliff faces are riddled with caves, including some where the ingredients for the famous birds nest soup are collected.

Langkawi—about two hours sail south of Phuket—is a popular resort destination for tourists and has a long history with the cruising community as well. It’s a duty-free island where food, fuel, and repairs are easy on the wallet…and the white-sand beaches and azure waters are easy on the eyes. Langkawi is quiet, but not too quiet. Resorts dot the coastline. The interior is jungle, mountains, and rice paddies. Try an ayurvedic spa treatment—starting at $20—to wash away the sea.

Sailing between Phuket and Langkawi, it’s a good idea to stop in the Butang island group, which is part of Thailand. It’s a large marine national park, so the 51-island chain is mostly undeveloped. It’s great for scuba diving and snorkeling, fishing for tuna and snapper, kayaking, strolling empty beaches, or just lazing away the day onboard.

On the other coast of Thailand, in the gulf of the same name, you’ll find Ko Samui (a resort island with everything from world-class golf to all-night dance parties on the beach), Ko Samet (largely a national park so development is restricted), and Ko Chang (plenty of boat services but deserted beaches a quick sail away). Cambodia’s coastline is on the Gulf of Thailand, too, and the country’s most popular beach town, Sihanoukville, is becoming increasingly popular with foreign visitors, including cruisers. It’s decidedly bohemian. A haven for off-beat travelers looking for a good—and cheap—time by the beach. Cruisers fit in well with this crowd. And “Snookyville” is a good starting point to travel the four hours inland to the capital Phnom Penh, or take a flight to Siem Reap, jumping-off point for Angkor Wat.

Whatever stage of life you’re at…a life at sea is easier and more affordable than you might think. And the rewards are as vast as the oceans you’ll explore.

Editor’s Note: For more on boating, see these articles from International Living’s June 2014 issue:

How to Buy a Yacht for Retirement

Homes by the Ocean for Weekend Sailors

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