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How to quit your job and go sailing without going completely broke

by Diane Selkirk / The Week on 14 May 2017
How to quit your job and go sailing Stuart Black / Alamy Stock Photo
Buying a boat, quitting your job, and sailing off into the sunset may sound like a fantasy for everyone but the rich and retired. But after developing the requisite sailing skills, our family discovered that a seagoing sabbatical came down to purchasing a boat (which will be sold for close to the amount we paid for it), and a modest monthly budget. Our time on the ocean may delay retirement by a couple of years, but encounters with whales, visits to remote villages, and adventures at sea have provided our family with a lifetime of memories.

My husband Evan and I first traveled by boat when we were in our 20s. During that time we fell in love with the voyaging life. We also met a wide range of parents with kids who were taking time out from land life to bond as a family and teach their kids a different set of values. The idea intrigued us — and as soon, as we had a child of our own, we knew we wanted to take her sailing.

Getting from the dream to the reality took a commitment, though. Here are some lessons we learned during our process:

1. Make a plan

We started preparing for our sabbatical not long after our daughter was born. How far in advance you need to start planning depends on a few factors: how long you want to travel for, how expensive a boat you want to buy, where you want to travel, and how much you can save. We lived in an expensive city with moderate incomes, so we knew that to have enough money to sail, we'd need to save aggressively to afford even a budget boat.

2. Start saving

Before the specifics were even in place, we began cutting costs by living as simply as possible. A quick search showed us that older used boats that are suitable for coastal exploring could be bought for as little as $15,000, while new voyaging catamarans were more than $400,000. We also knew that some families make do on $500-$800 a month by avoiding marinas, eating on board, and limiting tourist excursions while others spend $3,000-$4,000. We aimed to be somewhere in the low-to-middle range and worked to get there by saving my entire income.

3. Focus on your goal

We used our spare time to develop the skills we'd need. We took sailing courses, joined cruising organizations, read, learned, and researched. One good technique is to befriend other families that have taken time off and ask lots of questions: Where do they think the best places to spend a sabbatical are? What unexpected expenses came up? What do they wish they'd done during the planning stages? We also focused our gift-giving in ways that supported our plan. The Christmas before we left, our daughter found snorkel gear and animal identification guides under the tree.

4. Organize your finances

Paying off our debts and looking at our options was the next step. Some families count on income from their home rental while they travel. But what happens to your finances should you lose your tenant? Develop a clear idea of how much you have to work with and what the worst-case scenario might be, before you jump into buying a boat. In our case we discovered we couldn't rent our condo without breaking our building's rules — so we opted to sell it and used half the money to finance our trip and put the other half in real estate.

5. Live simply on sabbatical

Part of our goal was to teach our daughter that there's a whole world beyond the consumer culture and that experiences are often more valuable than things. In many places our only expenses were food and fuel for the boat. This meant that our budget could accommodate special splurges like hiring a guide to see orangutans in Borneo or taking surfing lessons in Australia.

6. Add income when you can

Even small paychecks can make a huge difference when you're on a tight budget. My husband kept in touch with his employer and took on occasional remote work while I developed my freelance writing business. Other people we know have pursued paying hobbies: playing music in local bars, making jewelry to sell at markets, or baking for holidays.

Use the break to evaluate how your family is doing: Many of the families we met loved their newly simplified sailing life but when they returned home, they realized they'd gone right back to the status quo. Use your travels as a reset: Commit to living more simply, spending less, or taking more time together while you have the opportunity and energy to make a plan.

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