Everything you always wanted to know about sailing, but were too afraid to ask

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Even with boat and charter sales on the rise, sailing remains a mystery to most people.

CNBC spoke to several yacht owners who agreed to answer any questions — without off-limits topics — about the hunting lifestyle and perhaps more importantly, how much it costs.

The owners

Nim and Fabiola Hirschhorn are in the US Virgin Islands aboard Luna, their 45-foot, 2019 Lagoon 450S catamaran. The couple operates all-inclusive crewed charters in the Caribbean.

Sophie Darsy and Ryan Ellison are located in the Azores on Polar Seal, a 2007 Beneteau Oceanis 40 equipped for ocean sailing. Several years ago, the couple learned to sail, quit their jobs and now write down their lives at sea.

What does a decent yacht cost?

N. Hirschhorn: It depends on a few basic parameters. Is the boat used or new, what year was it built, is it a monohull or catamaran, is it an ex-charter yacht or has it always been privately owned… do you just want to take a coastal cruise or cross oceans?

Luna was bought new for $650,000; however, we know many people who live on boats bought for $30,000-$80,000.

On average, you can buy a seaworthy mid-range 45-foot monohull that can sail around the world for $100,000 to $150,000 and a similarly sized catamaran for about $250,000 to $500,000. Of course, there are boats at both ends of the spectrum and at every price point in between.

A rough guide to entry-level boat purchases

Cost Mate Construction year What to know
$5,000-$20,000 20-30 feet 1960s to 1980s Will probably need maintenance which could easily cost as much as the boat
$30,000-$60,000 30-40 feet 70s to 80s The unlikely boat will be ready to cruise; budget at least 25% of the boat’s value for repairs and upgrades after purchase
$70,000-$110,000 40-50 feet 1990s to 2000s An entry-level modern boat or an older larger boat; here the cost is a balance between age, size and equipment
Source: Sophie Darsy

Are there other costs to know about?

Lesson: The purchase price is only part of the budget you need to purchase a yacht. When we took delivery of our boat, the charges came faster than we knew!

In the first three years we owned Polar Seal, we spent at least $40,000 equipping her for cruising and ocean sailing, including:

  • A cockpit enclosure to keep the cockpit dry: $7,000
  • New Sails: $8,000
  • A dinghy and an electric outboard motor [engine for the dinghy]: $5,000
  • A water maker to make fresh water from sea water: $2,000
  • Lithium batteries and parts to power devices: $6,000
  • A new autopilot: $2,000
  • A life raft: $2,500
  • Security and Communications Equipment: $3,000

If you want to buy a boat, keep at least 30% of your budget for maintenance, repairs and upgrades.

We also have annual fees for boat insurance (between $1,000 and $4,000 depending on location) and travel and health insurance when we are outside of Europe ($1,500), as well as airfare to visit our families (about $2,000 per year).

How much do you need to earn – or save – to live on a yacht for a few years?

N. Hirschhorn: Think about what it costs to live on land – what kind of lifestyle do you live? Do you like to eat out in chic restaurants and do you like to buy nice things? Chances are you’ll be doing the same if you live on a boat, often costing your lifestyle the same. Do you drop anchor – which is free – or do you stay in marinas? Are you taking a sabbatical to live off your savings or work on the go? Are you a family or a couple?

We have friends who lived for two years with three children aboard a 1984 47-foot monohull. The boat cost $90,000 and they lived on $50,000 a year cruising the Caribbean and anchoring the whole time.

Personally, we live on about $100,000 a year. I know couples living on $1,000 a month, and families living on $3,000-$6,000 a month. It is not uncommon in our community to hear that living on a boat and traveling the world costs less than living on land.

How much does location affect costs?

Lesson: In 2019 we wintered in a marina in Spain where we could take advantage of an advantageous rate ($300 per month). But food was very cheap ($300 a month). We took advantage of our time in the dock to do some big boat projects and our maintenance budget went up a lot: $15,000 worth of upgrades in six months.

But thanks to a local deal, we rented a car for virtually free, and our budget for “fun activities” dropped almost to zero, as we enjoyed cheap restaurants and bars with friends all over southern Spain.

By comparison, when we took a three-week detour to Bermuda, groceries and restaurants were very expensive. But we anchored those weeks and didn’t have to pay for a marina. We have not spent anything on maintenance or repair. We spent the remaining weeks of that month at sea, and since we didn’t spend any money for those two weeks, we made our budget.

How has the pandemic affected hunting?

N. Hirschhorn: It’s more complicated… some countries have closed their seaports to visiting yachts, and some are asking for an access protocol that can include pre-approval and quarantine on board for up to two weeks.

Some countries do not accept all nationalities and travelers from specific origin, which makes it difficult when we have three to four nationalities on board. Other countries only welcome vaccinated travelers.

Lesson: The pandemic has made sailing between countries a little more difficult, but while our options were extremely limited in 2020, we have been much luckier in 2021.

Like the housing market, the boat market exploded in 2020 and 2021. It seems like everyone and their neighbor want to buy a yacht… prices have also risen in a way that has never been seen before. Our boat has increased in value so much that if we sold it today, we wouldn’t lose any of the capital we put into it.

Is having young children compatible with living full-time on a yacht?

F. Hirschhorn: There’s no reason kids of all ages can’t live on a yacht. Many families live on boats on the water and it is usually very confident, intelligent and worldly children who thrive in this lifestyle. Especially in the Caribbean there are hundreds of “children’s boats” [boats with families living on them].

Is there WiFi at sea?

N. Hirschhorn: Yes, we have a number of service tiers. We have a mobile data service that can pick up a signal up to 20 nautical miles offshore. Since we usually sail between the Caribbean islands, we are usually always connected. We also have two other satellite based systems with limited WiFi but worldwide coverage.

Lesson: New! We only have WiFi in port or at anchor if we have a data plan for the country we are currently sailing in. On the open sea we have satellite internet with which we can download weather forecasts and standard emails, but certainly not watch Netflix or listen to Spotify!

Read more about sailing

  • Meet a family traveling the world full-time on a yacht for $2,500 a month
  • You might be surprised at how much it costs to charter a yacht now

Is seasickness common?

Lesson: Many sailors suffer from seasickness, and I am particularly prone to it. The trick is to prevent it. Once the nausea is gone, you can’t get rid of it.

We know many boat owners who are not rich at all. It’s just a different lifestyle…
Nim Hirschhorn
Captain of Sail Luna

My top tips are:

  • Take medicine the night before departure and sleep well.
  • Drink lots of water and eat a lot more than you normally would; low blood sugar accelerates seasickness.
  • Keep yourself warm; invest in sailing gear and gear that will protect you from the elements, because if you get cold you’ll be sent to a sickening hell in no time.

Is skinny dipping allowed?

N. Hirschhorn: No, we must abide by local laws and customs; in the Mediterranean, however, nudity is much more common.

Lesson: It is not rare that we are alone at anchor, in front of a desert island. No one is watching, so…

What is the most common question you are asked?

N. Hirschhorn: Many ask us if we have a house on the land. We love to see the surprise on their faces when we explain that Luna is our home.

Lesson: All my friends have asked me if I’m ever afraid of running into a storm or big seas that would capsize our boat, and honestly I was before we left!

But now I know that we always leave the harbor when the weather is good. In three years, 13,000 nautical miles and two ocean crossings, we’ve only sailed through gale-force winds once, and we’ve done it perfectly.

What is the biggest misconception people have about the hunting lifestyle?

N. Hirschhorn: Some people think that a yacht owner is a millionaire. We know many boat owners who are not rich at all. It’s just a different lifestyle that comes with a lot of bonuses, but also a lot of sacrifices.

Lesson: People believe that we are very rich, that we come from rich families or that we make a lot of money. None of this is true. We’ve saved a lot of money, made sacrifices and continue to do so… and we’re staying within budget.

When we worked full-time, Ryan and I brought home a comfortable salary and lived the “two income, no kids” dream. We now earn less than half of what we made then and live on half our old budget… but our lives are a lot richer.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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