Features October 1, 2002 Issue

Offshore Log: The Real Cost of Cruising

There are extremes, but most people can probably cruise for what it costs to live ashore. Here's a list of expense categories to consider.

Calypso went around the world at
moderately high levels of comfort, con-
venience, and attention to maintenance.
It can be done for less - or for more.

We are frequently asked how much it costs to go cruising. The answer is that it costs whatever you're willing to spend. We know a couple who cruise in a small, 35-year-old boat with lots of 35-year-old equipment, never stay in marinas, rarely eat out, rarely drink or entertain, and have a limited diet. They are still out there cruising, and they're happy as can be. They probably spend less than $10,000 a year. We have another friend with a 72' boat who raced and cruised his way around the world with a full-time crew of four. The boat is impeccably maintained, and has a container of parts and racing sails that catches up with it at various venues around the world. It looks as perfect after 40,000 miles as it did the day it left, thanks to a fastidious captain and hard-working crew. A circumnavigation in this boat provided a lifetime of memories for the owner's four young children, and probably cost him well over $500,000 a year. He's happy as a clam as well. Most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

It's fair to say that if you eat out five times a week ashore in the US, or bring home pizza or Chinese daily, you're not going to become a self-sufficient and imaginative chef the minute you go cruising. Likewise, if your home ashore looks like it was just struck by a hurricane, your boat is likely to take on the same aspect. For the average middle-class, middle-aged couple used to a moderate level of comfort, the cost of cruising will be not that much different from the cost of life ashore.

Some aspects of long-range cruising are cheaper than life ashore, some are more costly. Boat insurance for doublehanded offshore cruising costs about 50% more than similar coverage for coastal sailing. Hauling out might at first seem cheaper in a foreign port, but flying a new set of fuel injectors and an injection pump into Panama may set you back the full difference and then some.

Marina space is almost always cheaper once you leave US waters. Our self-indulgent two nights in an expensive but so-so Ft. Lauderdale marina on our return to the US cost more than a week in Singapore's upscale Raffles Marina. Raffles featured air-conditioned marble bathrooms and fitness center, a nice swimming pool, and a free fancy Chinese dinner weekly for cruisers.

You didn't really think we were roughing it all the time, did you?

Generally speaking, food, including eating out, is slightly cheaper once you leave home, as long as you're willing to go native on cuisine in some parts of the world where more familiar foods are prohibitively expensive. But you won't find everything you're used to eating - bacon is hard to come by in the Middle East, and broccoli is a mystery to much of the world.

(Pringles potato chips, thank God, are virtually universal, though never as cheap as in the US - except perhaps on the Dutch island of Bonaire, which may be the junk food capital of the world. Unfortunately, addiction to Pringles also contributed to a 10-pound spare tire that miraculously appeared around my middle somewhere between 1997 and 2002. We have not bought a single can of Pringles since returning to the US, having had enough of junk food.)

The exceptions to the lower food costs are the Caribbean, where you usually pay more for mediocre food, and Tahiti, where you drool over fresh meat, cheeses, and produce flown in daily from all over the world. A nice dinner out in Tahiti costs about the same as filling your fuel tank before an ocean crossing.

Almost without exception, supplies and equipment for your boat begin to cost much, much more - and are harder to come by - when the last West Marine or BoatU.S. has been left astern. The exception would be parts of the Caribbean where Budget Marine has established beachheads, bringing US-style product variety and pricing to a part of the world that had previously perfected the art of emptying the pockets of cruising sailors.

A simple Hella cabin fan that costs $60 in any US chandlery was three times that in the largest marine store in Papeete. Racor fuel filter elements were $15 a pop in Thailand. Fortunately, we carried a massive stock of spares when we left the US, so we made relatively few big purchases at inflated prices.

One exception to the rule of expensive marine supplies is bottom paint. In most parts of the world, bottom paint is cheaper than in the US, often much cheaper. In New Zealand, we paid about half the US price for the same Micron CSC that is on the shelves of every American chandlery.

You're going to spend a lot more time and money maintaining your boat when you're off cruising, because you'll be using it a lot harder. This extra maintenance catches a lot of cruisers off guard. For the average seasonal cruising sailor in the northeastern US, a summer that includes 1,000 miles of sailing means you've used your boat a fair amount. In our last two years of world cruising, we traveled 20,000 miles. That included eight passages of over 1,000 miles that averaged almost 1,500 miles each.

Long passages - even relatively easy ones - can take a lot out of a boat. The sails are up 24 hours a day, the constant motion of the boat wears running and standing rigging, and a single spell of heavy weather can wreak havoc on sails and poorly-maintained hardware. The boat arrives in port coated with salt from stem to stern, requiring days of cleaning and polishing just to put things back in shape - assuming, of course, that you have an adequate supply of fresh water to wash everything down.

Taking off on trips like these without maintaining your boat properly would be analogous to driving your car across the country without looking under the hood or checking the tires. Do you feel lucky?

Cruising has been called the art of working on your boat in exotic places, and that's no joke. The single biggest time and money consumer on a world cruise is maintenance.

Not all sailors are equally vigilant in this regard. We know cruising sailors that haven't been to the masthead in years because their winches are too crudded up for the 100-pound wife to haul the 200-pound "captain" to the masthead. (You can be sure that he wouldn't be caught dead cranking her up there to have a look, although many of the female cruisers we know would be just as competent at the job. It doesn't take testicles to go up the rig.)

We spent more on our circumnavigation than a lot of cruisers in part because of the way we maintained our boat. About half our $20,000 refit in New Zealand was really discretionary spending. We could have spent $1,000 repairing our sails instead of $5,000 replacing them, but the repaired old sails might not have made it around the world, and they certainly would have been ready for the dumpster by the time we got back to the US. Instead, we arrived back in the US with a still-decent two-year-old suit of sails which required only a $300 leech re-fairing on the genoa.

We could have elected a relatively simple seal replacement and top-end overhaul for our Perkins diesel, but we chose to go for a total remanufacture, which ended up costing about $6,000. But that $6,000 also included reconfiguring the exhaust system and modifying the fuel system, which improved the overall engine installation.

You will accumulate a lot of hours on your engine unless you're as pure as the Pardeys and go without engine, electrical system, and refrigeration - and the conveniences and pleasures those things provide, when in working order.

We've put about 4,000 hours on our engine since leaving the US in 1997, and covered about 30,000 miles under sail, power, and a combination of both. At an average cost of $1.50 per gallon and an average fuel consumption of .7 gallons per hour of engine operation, that's about $4,200 for fuel.

The most expensive fuel was a tie between Bermuda and the Marquesas, at about $3.75 per gallon. The cheapest fuel was in Venezuela, where a gallon set you back about 35 cents. The fuel varied in visual character from murky brown in many parts of the world to water-clear in Australia, but our faithful Perkins ran perfectly on all of it, thanks in part to pre-filtering with a Baja filter and two stages of filtration between the tank and the engine. The low point for the engine was an injection pump that bit the dust after we returned to the US, thanks to a load of fuel apparently contaminated with gasoline.

Insurance is not cheap. Our annual bill was $3,200, and the policy was so constraining and incomprehensible that it looked like the only thing we were covered for was loss of the boat due to my own stupidity. Although we made several attempts to test this premise, the boat survived unscathed, and the $12,000 we spent for insurance over four years was just a high price for peace of mind.

You may choose to go uninsured, but be aware that we were required to show proof of insurance in many places overseas.

Health Care
We spent relatively little on health care, which in any case is a lot cheaper practically everywhere overseas than it is in the US. Whether it's as good or not is another issue, and depends on the complexity of care you may need, and where you need it.

Routine health care overseas is probably every bit as good as similar care at home. By the time we got back to the US, however, we were both due for tune-ups. The sedentary cruising lifestyle and unavoidable overexposure to sun are not conducive to good long-term health.

The Grape
We tested the theory that drinking wine is good for your health by strongly supporting the winemaking industry around the world. We didn't keep an accurate count - perhaps we were too cross-eyed to do so - but a reasonable estimate is that the two of us drank 180 bottles of wine per year during our circumnavigation, or about 720 bottles over a four-year period.

By stocking up in inexpensive places such as Panama and Australia, we kept our cost per bottle to about $6.50, for a total wine expenditure of $4,700. Just about the only hard liquor we consumed was in the Caribbean, where a drinkable bottle of wine was over $10, but a bottle of very good rum was half that.

We actually returned home with some of the same bottles of booze, still unopened, that were aboard when we left in 1997. Somehow, a glass of single-malt whiskey doesn't seem quite the thing on the hook in the South Pacific, but a nicely chilled New Zealand chardonnay goes really well with Australian prawns.

Incidentally, we don't touch a drop of alcohol when the boat is underway, even on day trips. Alcohol simply does not mix with sailing in our book. We're befuddled enough when stone cold sober.

We spent a fair amount of money on marinas, partly because marinas outside the US are so cheap, except in Sicily and some other parts of the Med, which make Newport in July look like a bargain. A month in a marina in Israel or Australia costs less than $300, and as little as $150 in parts of Asia.

If there was a good anchorage, we anchored. If there was a bad anchorage or no anchorage and a good marina, we went into the marina. All in all, we spent about the same amount of time in marinas that we spent on the hook. Part of that was because my extensive work-related travel meant leaving Maryann alone on the boat more than either one of us liked. After a big, unattended metal dive boat dragged down on her at anchor in Tahiti, Maryann rightly decided that it was time to leave the boat in a secure marina if I was away for more than a couple of days. Leaving the boat in marinas also gave us the freedom for extensive off-the-boat travel that would otherwise have been difficult.

We hauled the boat three times outside the US: Trinidad, New Zealand, and Turkey. Our Trinidad and Turkish haulouts were both Monday to Friday jobs, and cost less than $2,000 each for hauling, bottom wash, bottom sanding, and painting, plus topsides polish and wax. These costs are pretty comparable to US prices for the same services, despite the nominally lower labor costs in most countries. Most boatyards overseas seem to have an uncanny knowledge of the cost of services in the US, and somehow manage to end up charging similar amounts.

Just as at home, I do not sand my own bottom anymore unless absolutely necessary. I did that for too many years when I was younger - without proper protection - and have finally learned better.

I always serviced the MaxProp, shaft, cutless bearing, and underwater fittings myself, as well as doing small bottom repairs that were easier to do than to explain. Our New Zealand haulout for refit obviously cost a lot more, and is buried in the rest of the cost of that episode.

Other Repairs
We spent $2,500 on electronics repair over four years, equally divided between our B&G Hydra instrument system and Furuno 1831 radar. We got poor electronics service in Antigua, so-so service in New Zealand, and brilliant work - at a price - in Singapore.

We went through four engine raw water pumps at about $350 each. We went through four alternators at slightly higher cost. Gearboax overhaul in Thailand was $400. We used 40 engine oil filters at $10 each. We went through 225 quarts of engine oil at an average cost of $2 per quart.

Our total cost for engine repairs, maintenance, parts, fuel, oil, and consumables - excluding alternators, which are really an electrical expense - approached $14,000. That's about $3 for every hour of engine operation, or almost $.50 per mile traveled, under sail or power, during our circumnavigation. Other than our engine overhaul in New Zealand and our fuel system rebuild in Florida after returning, I did all my own engine maintenance.

The Bottom Line
Below is a breakdown of our average annual expenses after leaving the US in late November, 1997. Inflation has been insignificant since this time, so the numbers can pretty much be taken at face value in 2002. We should point out that when we left, the boat was almost new, and was fully (and lavishly) equipped for world cruising.

We carried thousands of dollars of spare parts for every system in the boat, so we rarely had to purchase expensive replacements overseas. I also made at least one business trip per year back to the US, and always managed to bring a bag full of spares back from those trips. We had few significant capital expenditures after leaving home - unlike most cruisers - except for a new dinghy and some metalwork (about $2,500) in Venezuela. We'll also ignore the $1,000 or so we spent on diving equipment in Bonaire, which was more of a personal indulgence than a cruising necessity.

That's about $26,000 per year, or about $104,000 for our four-year circumnavigation. Note that these expenses do not include my business travel and some purely business-related capital expenditures such as a satellite telephone and a new computer, which would give an unfairly inflated picture of expenses compared to the average cruiser who is not working while cruising.

If you make a trip back to the US every year to see family, don't forget to add in that cost. We sometimes managed to see friends and family during business trips, and were able to keep personal travel home to a minimum.

Note also that our direct boat expenses - maintenance, operating costs (exclusive of marinas), and insurance - were about half our total cruising costs. Those direct costs also represent about 5% of the boat's value per year. Direct cost of boat ownership (which would include dockage and storage fees) is normally calculated at between 5% and 10% of the value of the boat per year, so that annual boat expenses for world cruising are not necessarily that much higher than for "normal" operation.

When you look at all the numbers, the cost of world cruising can be pretty intimidating. Can you do it for less? Absolutely. Are these numbers representative of costs for a couple cruising on a well-maintained 40-footer, who don't deprive themselves but who are also not over-indulgent? Probably.

Remember, these expenses don't include the preliminary costs of equipping a boat for offshore sailing. Safety equipment alone - liferaft, flares, harnesses, overboard gear, abandon-ship bag, EPIRB, offshore foul-weather gear - can run $10,000 or more. Then set up the rig for offshore sailing, add a watermaker, electronics upgrades, a dinghy - the list can go on and on. Can you do without some of this stuff? Sure. Even so, it's probably going to cost more than you think it will.

Was it worth it for us? You bet. Will we do it again? As soon as possible.

Also With This Article
Click here to view the "Average Annual Expenses."

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