When my husband and I, a couple of thirtysomethings, would describe our plans to quit our jobs and go cruising, the news was almost always met by one of two responses. The first response was pure excitement and encouragement: “Yes! Go now while you’re young! You won’t regret it.” It was an infectious enthusiasm that never failed to elicit a physical jolt of anticipation in my gut. In contrast, the second response usually rolled slowly off the listener, full of hesitation and perplexity: “But how can you afford to do that when you’re so young?” More than just a financial question, this probe dug into our choice to undertake a lifestyle most commonly associated with people at a very different stage of life. How can we afford to cast off the lines without fulfilling careers behind us, a pension supporting us, and a family successfully raised?
These disparate responses echoed our own struggle between the stable life we knew and the unknown adventure that lay ahead. Perhaps it was irresponsible to forego a full-time career in the name of adventure. On the other hand, we would likely never be as unfettered, with no house, no dependents, and few possessions complicating the decision. As we prepared for our departure, my mind was occupied by equal parts excitement and trepidation, a battle of uncertainty and confidence that influenced each project, each decision, and each moment.
Leaving isn’t easy for anyone. It is human nature to cling to what is comfortable, normal, and routine. There are so many who dream of the day they can sail away, who plan for it for years, often banking on that magical moment of retirement when freedom finally reigns. Yet only a few of those many will untie the lines. Life is complicated and each choice is draped with compromise. The choice to stay is as demanding as the choice to go, when grandkids are too precious, health is too precarious, or community ties are too strong to pull away.
Bolstered by the stories, and sometimes the laments, of those who left before us and those who chose to stay, we hid as many pennies under the bed as we could, filled every weekend moment for three years with boat work, marked a date on the calendar, quit our jobs, and then untied the lines. When we left Seattle, I was 31 and my husband was 36. It turns out we weren’t the only ones heeding the advice to “go now.”
There is a fairly prevalent construct of the “typical cruiser,” shaped, like so many stereotypes, from years of generalized anecdotal experience. The “typical” cruising boat contains a couple that is retired with a stable monthly income and a plan to cruise indefinitely, or as long as health and desire allow. There is a good reason for this stereotype: Cruising requires money, and money generally requires working. At our age, we are told, we should be working hard and saving our dollars for a down payment, for kids, for retirement. The people who have already done that, historically, get to go cruising.
We are not retired. Instead, we are taking a break from full-time jobs, from living in a single place, and from relegating exploration to weekends and vacations. We are constantly seeking ways to bolster our professional skills while traveling, though, and both of us fully intend to return to the work force. But for now, we are adventuring full-time or, as my husband likes to say, we are “pre-tired.”
While I assumed we would bring down the average age of our cruising communities significantly, that was not the case at all. From our first encounter on the northern tip of Vancouver Island with fellow Seattle sailors exploring for several years on a tight budget, our assumptions and stereotypes have been challenged by meeting so many other younger people taking the leap and making it work.
When we unexpectedly pulled into Crescent City, California, after a harrowing three-day passage, we stumbled upon what quickly became a tightly knit cruising family. From Crescent City, our four boats cruised together down the coast of California, sharing knowledge and spare parts and fresh sushi. Nobody in the group was conventionally retired. Sylvia and Barry were sailing their last leg, returning to their home and jobs in San Francisco after a predetermined two-year sabbatical. James cruises seasonally with his dog, Duke, returning to Canada in the off-season to refill the cruising coffers. Wolff pinches pennies better than anyone I’ve met so far.
On one particularly memorable afternoon in southern Mexico, eight boats happened to anchor in the same bay. The day we arrived, cruisers from all eight boats organically migrated to the one beach palapa for lunch. Among the fifteen people sipping cold beer around that table, the average age was 35—and not a single one was retired in the traditional sense. The boats ranged from a 47-foot Nordhavn to a 40-foot sailing catamaran and a 34-foot monohull sailboat.
Sitting around that table, we shared the amazement at finding ourselves together. In the beginning, each of us expected to be the minority, one of the few defying the construct of the typical cruiser. And yet there we sat, our diverse paths crossing in this unlikely moment to illustrate the fickle nature of stereotypes.
With an analytical mind and plenty of time for pondering, I often contemplate this discovery. What has changed to allow this shift in cruising demographics? Is it an anomaly or the new normal? Is it worldwide or specific to the Pacific side of North America? Among our generation, there seems to be a transformation in life philosophy that encourages more people to choose an alternative lifestyle like cruising. This generational shift, coupled with the prevalence of technology and communication, could be smoothing the seas for more young cruisers to cut the lines.
My husband and I, along with the other young cruisers we have met, are part of the “participation medal” generation. Growing up, we were told we could be anything, do anything, and accomplish anything we set our minds to. Chase your dreams, we heard, and weave a life that inspires passion and brings fulfillment. This advice is in contrast to the previous generation’s devotion to a single company and drive to work hard before retiring so they could play hard. The “you can be anything” philosophy leads us to dream big and take the leap. Cruising is a dream for so many, young and old. Perhaps our lifestyle and support network today just set us up to fulfill that dream now instead of waiting for more maturity or stability.
There are a few young cruisers that led the wave with viral jealousy-inducing videos. Each week new videos spread on the web, depicting a lifestyle full of comfortable sailing, beautiful young people, long sunsets, and a bit of boat work. These videos brought an otherwise elusive and unprecedented lifestyle into living rooms around the world, planting seeds of plans to hatch. If they can do it, why can’t we? We may not be retired or wealthy, but we can make it work—because they made it work.
It takes inspiration and guts to make the leap, but it requires more than that to bring those big dreams to reality. Without the security of a fixed monthly income, “pre-tired” cruisers either shape their experience around a tight budget and a shrinking savings account or find creative ways along the way to make a few dollars. There seems to be no end to this creativity, ideas hatched in sun-soaked cockpits over sweating Pacificos, pursued by motivated thirtysomethings with more time than pesos.
Most of these ideas were far from feasible for budgeted cruisers 20 years ago. But the pervasive spread of technology and increased digital connection around the world facilitates new opportunities. I am continually amazed when my phone buzzes with alerts, announcing the presence of cell towers as we position our anchor off the coast of a remote fishing village. The affordability of tiny waterproof cameras and user-friendly drones allows cruisers to document and share their voyages. Beachside palapas have internet, resourceful sailors rig up simple Wi-Fi boosters, and instantly a quiet floating home transforms into an office that allows its occupants to extend the kitty and therefore the adventure.
From an idealist’s perspective, perhaps this connectivity cheapens the experience. The first thing we ask for in a restaurant is not what the special is, but what the Wi-Fi password is. We spend time looking down at our screens instead of out at the sea. While many may roll their eyes at our “dependence” on being plugged in, it is the only way many of us are able to cruise at all. This connectivity, coupled with cruisers’ resourcefulness, enables us to build websites, make videos, post on social media, collect advertising dollars, sell products, accept donations, build an audience, make an app, and do a thousand other things.
In response to the surge of young people following their dreams, choosing alternative lifestyles over full-time employment, new resources have emerged to ease the process. YouTube offers advertising revenue with a click of a button; Upwork connects businesses with remote contractors; PayPal offers an easy solution for donation buttons (or “buy me a taco” buttons).
Just about every young cruiser we have met so far has been working toward some form of latent income using the digital tools at their fingertips. Many use Patreon, a site that funds art of all kinds through sponsorship, to post videos and blog posts. Anyone who appreciates the posted content can pledge money toward the artist’s future work. One 32-year-old with a classic 40-foot sailboat is planning to cruise indefinitely by utilizing the skills and expertise he honed in his previous employment as a copywriter. Whenever he settles into port for a few days, he picks up contract work through online marketplaces like Upwork, often completing the job and collecting a paycheck before setting sail for the next port.
Entrepreneurship is another avenue that is prevalent in our cruising community. A couple in their early forties, cruising Mexico on their catamaran, owns and manages an established telecom business that keeps them close to the Internet and busy in port but provides enough revenue to cover their monthly budget. Brian, a 34-year-old new to sailing and newer to cruising, used to be a developer in Southern California until his wife encouraged him to cut the lines and head to Mexico. The slow pace of cruising found him with idle hands and grand ideas. A few months later, he released the prototype of a new app he hopes to refine and then sell.
By necessity, our cruising looks different from that of the traditional cruiser. Most of us do not have the ability, or perhaps the desire, to cruise full-time and indefinitely. Our timeline is predicated on our budget, or a yearning to start a family, or a predetermined return to full-time employment. These timeline restrictions impact our pace. If your cruising kitty depends on an Internet connection, you will likely spend more time in port than in secluded anchorages (though it is increasingly difficult to find an anchorage secluded enough to drop cellphone service entirely). If you have an end date, you will likely move faster from port to port than those who have open-ended cruising plans.
It is easy to fixate on money when discussing how people cruise. In fact, it arises within moments of explaining our lifestyle to almost everyone. While it is a crucial piece of the puzzle, and it does impact how we achieve our cruising goals, it does not consume our experience. The conversations we have in cozy saloons over freshly caught fish and no-bake cookies encompass topics as broad as our backgrounds.
In addition to the common cruisers’ discussions of boat projects, incoming weather, and favored routes, many discussions among pre-tired cruisers eventually meander through future career prospects, what happens after cruising, and if or how to introduce kids without sacrificing this incredible lifestyle. We admit to each other our uncertainty about what the future holds, both excited and nervous at the prospect of one day figuring out what we want to be when we grow up.
Cruising is not a perpetual vacation. First, maintaining a boat at sea occasionally (or maybe often) elevates stress levels. Second, you must look after the budget and extend it when possible: the videos that need editing, the app that needs modifying. Last, many cruisers take on a purpose of some kind to bring structure and intention to their adventure. They find ways to give back to the communities that host them through direct donations, scientific research, or volunteering their time.
On our month-long passage along the west coast of the Baja Peninsula, we partnered with Adventurer Scientists to collect water samples and test them for the presence of microplastics. This project was part of an international study to map the extent of contamination by plastics in waterways across the world. We also participated in a National Geographic Education session to share our lifestyle and our microplastics project with classrooms around North America.
Several boats we met in Mexico have teamed up with Lions Club and other non-profits to host vision clinics and donate glasses in the villages they visit. People of all ages can have their eyesight measured and pick out a pair of glasses. It is an unforgettable experience to watch a child read the board from across the room for the first time, to see a grandmother cry at the sight of her grandson, finally more than a blur, or to watch a man who has been fishing from an uncovered panga for 30 years try on his first pair of sunglasses. These cruisers carry around thousands of pairs of glasses, dedicating coveted stowage space to a good cause.
Each time Rachel and Josh, a thirtysomething couple from California, arrive in a new town, they seek out any orphanages in the area. They spend entire days at these facilities, offering love and attention to the kids. With money raised from friends and online followers, their project includes fulfilling the facilities’ immediate needs when feasible. Often, the lists are heartbreakingly simple: beans and rice, pens and pencils, new underwear, toothpaste.
While these missions are often inspired by the drive to give back to the communities visited along the way, they also add intention and focus to the journey. We have not unplugged from reality or simply set off on a long vacation. Instead, we have embedded our skills, our energy, and our creativity into an alternative lifestyle that challenges us daily, forces us to learn and grow, and brings us joy and fulfillment.
Those enthusiastic supporters were right: I have no regrets about our decision to cut the lines and embark on this adventure now. The hesitant listeners who pondered how we could afford such a lifestyle offered valid concerns rooted in cultural expectations. I couldn’t fully answer them before we left, but I understand now. We can afford to do this because we have the resources, technology, and creativity to supplement our savings; we have opportunities that enable us to give back and find purpose; and we have a cruising community built like a family that is blind to age and wealth and background, full of love and support and eccentricity. Now when anyone shares their plans of a life’s adventure with me, I’m full of excitement and encouragement. “Go now! Untie the lines; you won’t regret it.” n