What if one or two years of adventure just isn’t enough? Meet the cruisers who’ve been on board for a decade or more, and find out how to make long-haul cruising work for you

“I probably wouldn’t even recognise the person that I was when I first started,” admits Brian Trautman, skipper of the Amel Super Maramu Delos (and eponymous YouTube channel). In 2009 Trautman cast off his life in corporate America, hustling to make his own tech business a success, and set off on what he thought would be an 18-month-long cruising adventure. Fourteen years later he’s still sailing the world on Delos, now with his wife and young daughter. But if you have no idea where the future will take you, how can you plan to keep your cruising options open?

We spoke to cruisers who have spent between eight and 40-plus years cruising and living aboard. Some set out with a rough deadline, others had no stopping point in mind, but the common theme is that all were able to keep their plans flexible and had made the life changes necessary to stay afloat.

“When Jill and I moved aboard our 1984 Grand Soleil 39 Yahtzee in Seattle in 2012, we had no time frame,” explains Andy Cross. “It was, and still is, open ended with the caveat that if the lifestyle isn’t working for one of us we’d reassess and make changes. We always intended for the boat to be our home, not just for cruising, and it wasn’t a ‘one, two or three years and we’re done’ plan.

“We both had jobs, but we weren’t tied down to the trappings of a house and cars, so it was relatively straightforward moving aboard, beginning to learn the boat, and starting a family. Our goal was to take it slow, not sail to a schedule too often, and hopefully share the dream with our children. I’m happy to say, we’re still doing that over 10 years later.”

Brian Trautman’s 14-year sailing adventure aboard SV Delos has grown to include a family and a livelihood

Trautman initially thought his cruising adventure would be for less than two years, having sold all his possessions and taken out a mortgage to pay for the boat.

“When I left, the time frame was 18 months. The reason is when I ran my budget and my monthly expenditures, I only had enough money for 18 months. So my plan was to just go, get somewhere cool – my intention was to try and make it to New Zealand – and then figure something else out.

“I didn’t know if I was going to stop and work when I got there, or if I was going to leave the boat and fly home. Or if I was going to sell the boat and go back to work. All I knew was that I was going to go now and figure out the rest at some later point.

“I ended up stretching that 18-month budget to about two and a half years getting from Seattle to Australia. When I stopped in Australia, we hauled Delos out of the water for about a year. I actually did remote consulting while living in Melbourne to make money for the next cruising season because after having had that taste, I knew there was no way I could stop then.”

Like Trautman, Ginger and Peter Niemann dipped back into ‘real life’ after their first major adventure – a four-year, 50,000-mile circumnavigation west-about from Seattle aboard their 47ft sloop Marcy, including rounding both the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn.

The SV Devos family onboard

“When we moved aboard we had the idea to live aboard ‘as long as it was fun’, to quote Lin and Larry Pardey,” explains Peter. “It was certainly fun for a circumnavigation, but when we returned to home port four years after departure we were out of cruising funds. We rejoined the working world while living aboard.

“I assumed that was the end of our life afloat, and asked Ginger if we should put the boat up for sale upon our autumn return or wait until spring when the market might be better? ‘Heck no, we are just getting good at this!’ she answered, ‘But maybe we should get a boat you can stand up in!’ And so we lived aboard, swapped boats and worked until the cruising budget was restored a couple of years later, and set off again.”

Ages and stages

Long-term cruising looks different at different life stages. The Cross family always planned to sail through their boys’ childhoods, but are flexible as to how long they spend afloat at any one time.

“Every year is different. Some years, we’ve been on Yahtzee almost exclusively, other years we’ve taken off a few months at a time. This has worked well for us because we’ve planned the time away around northern winters or hurricane seasons in the south – times when we might not be cruising much anyway.

“We want our boys to know and be a part of their grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends’ lives, which has meant taking breaks off the boat to spend time with everyone. Then, we return to Yahtzee excited, rejuvenated and ready to continue the adventure. Our ability to balance life ashore and cruising is one of the main reasons I think we’re still happy with the lifestyle of living on a boat.”

In the 14 years since he first sailed away with Delos, Trautman’s life has gone through huge changes. “I’ve found the love of my life, gotten married, sailed with my family, sailed with tons of friends, we’ve had a child on board,” he reflects.

SV Devos under sail

“When I first started cruising, I was absolutely in the frame of mind that I would spend 100% of my time on the boat. And as time has gone on, I’ve actually seen the value in taking time off the boat, because you don’t really understand how good something is until you take yourself away from it. So when we start to get a little edgy or a little like, ‘Oh man it’s another beach, but I don’t want to go to the beach today!’ then we know that it’s time to take a break.

“So at least once a year now, we’ll put the boat in a marina or yard, and we go back and visit our family for a few months. It’s even more important now that we have Sierra, because she’s three and a half, and I want her to know her Swedish heritage.

“But obviously, we fund our lifestyle through sailing and making YouTube videos. So if we’re not sailing and making videos, then we’re not making money.”

Some cruisers report that as they get older they find themselves spending more time ashore. After a second demanding circumnavigation, the Niemanns are shifting their sailing style. “We are just now entering a new phase of cruising plans,” says Peter, “We aren’t getting any younger, and recognise that at some point in time the stresses of voyaging will be more than we can easily handle. So for now we plan to enjoy exploring a smaller area in more detail.”

“The major life change was: cruising,” says Janneke Kuysters, who has been cruising with her husband Wietze on their steel-hulled Bruce Roberts design Anna Caroline for eight years. “After that, we haven’t had any major changes in our lives, apart from growing older and the repercussions of that re. strength and agility. In our minds we’re still 25, but the bones say different!”

Andy and Jill Cross try not to sail to a schedule but still spend a lot of time aboard Yahtzee 12 years after first setting out on their adventure

Both the Niemanns and Janneke and Wietze admit, however, that they don’t necessarily find being ashore more restful. “We have always needed to get back to the boat to regroup. Afloat is our comfort zone,” says Peter Niemann.

“We would typically fly to the Netherlands every two years for about three weeks, but the boat is our home, so that is where we feel happy and comfortable,” says Janneke.

For Janneke and Wietze, time ashore is instead spent exploring new countries. “For instance: we left the boat in Valdivia, Chile, for five months to go backpacking all over South America. In Australia, New Zealand and South Africa we have rented or bought a campervan to travel inland for weeks or months on end.”

Power of knowledge

‘To cruise is to learn,’ wrote Lin Pardey in The Self Sufficient Sailor, and with experience comes confidence. Many cruisers who have sustained their adventures for decades began their adventures relatively cautiously, building the skills that would then enable them to take on longer passages or explore more remote areas.

“When we were in our mid-30s, we sailed the Atlantic circuit with our 31-footer. This was a test year, meant to find out what it was all about and to gather information,” recalls Janneke. They then bought Anna Caroline “with all the knowledge we had gathered in mind”, and began an eight year circumnavigation – first sailing around Scotland, Ireland, Portugal and Spain before completing a transatlantic, then heading south to Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Antarctica and Patagonian Chile. They rounded Cape Horn, visited remote areas of the Pacific including Robinson Crusoe Island, Easter Island and French Polynesia, then headed north to Alaska and British Columbia.

The Cross family moored up

Cruisers often report that ocean crossings become progressively easier, and both faster and with less damage sustained, over the years. Much of that is down to the added knowledge they’ve gained, which feeds into making better decisions when it comes to sail selection, interpreting weather forecasts and predicting sea state, and knowing how their boat – and each other – fares in different conditions.

Also key is confidence in your own ability to handle any problems or fix any breakages when cruising more remote areas or for extended periods. Lin and Larry Pardey famously inspired many cruisers to cast off the lines with their advice to ‘Go small, go simple, go now’.

“I honestly feel that setting off cruising was a lot easier when we went because there was much less equipment that you added to your boat. So they were simpler machines, easier to take care of,” Lin Pardey says.

“I think that more people are put off cruising by the sheer hassle of fixing and having other people fix your boat, feeling like the budget is just being blown by mechanics and electricians.

“But it isn’t just keeping your boat simpler that matters, it’s being able to say, ‘Okay, I really don’t need that, so we’re not going to worry about fixing it right now’. It’s the ability to just do without it, if you can’t fix it. That’s a really important aspect of enjoying what you’re doing. I’ve seen people dream of sailing to the Tuamotus, but they get to the Marquesas with something broken and realise the only place they can fix it is Tahiti, so they just skip right through and miss the whole Tuamotus.

Ginger and Peter Niemann’s first circumnavigation was a four year trip aboard their 47ft sloop Marcy

“For example, the watermaker: if you make sure you have enough water tankage and learn to be quite happy with just limited water for a period, you can fix it later.”

Over years of living aboard, most cruisers we spoke to have made substantial upgrades or modifications to their boats to enable them to take on more adventurous cruising. “We try not to anthropomorphise, but we really have the feeling that ‘we take care of her, and she takes care of us,” says Peter Niemann.

“Our boats evolve continuously: equipment is upgraded, worn items replaced, dodgers added. Specialised Arctic (ice poles, redundant heaters) or tropical/desert (awnings, fans) items are acquired, stowed and put into service as needed. The essential major change we made to both our boats was the addition of cockpit shelter.”

“Pretty much every system has been upgraded over time. We have new instruments, a new chartplotter, a lot of solar and wind. One of the huge improvements was the lithium batteries because that allowed us to get rid of propane. And so we can really extend our range because it’s a lot easier to get diesel fuel in any part of the world,” explains Brian Trautman.

“We’ve also really upped our game with the dinghy. Our dinghy now is aluminium, it’s a little bit heavier, but we love it. It has a big engine, so it’s our SUV, our family car, and we need that.”

The Niemanns heading ashore

Pace yourself

When you have no fixed deadline, how do you plan? Most cruisers we spoke to sketch out ‘big picture’ plans determined by the seasons, but leave themselves the freedom to vary their route along the way.

“We typically plan about one season in advance, but we don’t plan in detail,” explains Trautman. “So right now, we’re planning our South Pacific season. And all we know is that we’re going to try and get to French Polynesia or the Marquesas from Mexico. We’re going to arrive sometime during April and then we have the next six or seven months to figure out what we’re going to do.

If it means we’re going to stay in French Polynesia for the cyclone season, or end up sailing west towards New Zealand for the cyclone season, we just don’t know.

“We just know we’re travelling generally westward best we can, and that’s often worked out for us. We pay attention to the big picture things: the hurricane season, cyclone season, when the good weather is, and we kind of make broad strokes to travel in that general direction.”

“Seasonally, we’ve set our plans to cruise more miles during summers in northern climates and then stopping or slowing down during the colder months of winter. It’s the exact opposite now in the tropics,” explains Andy Cross.

“Here we have hurricane seasons to contend with in the summer and fall, and insurance parameters dictate where the boat can be to continue coverage during named storms.”

The Cross family making great cruising memories

Maintaining momentum is a tricky balance, and will be different for everyone. “What made it work for us is we went without serious plans and kept ourselves highly flexible, we went cruising to just really enjoy sailing,” explains Lin Pardey. “But the thing that really kept us from getting tired of it or frustrated by it was taking advantage whenever we met somebody who said ‘Our family is on this little island, you should go visit them.’ So instead of heading south with other cruisers, we’d turn and head to some island or other, and ended up with wonderful friends who introduced us to other friends. So it was that real unscheduled-ness that kept letting us have new adventures and go in different directions.”

Lin and Larry Pardey broke up their cruising routine, which saw them voyaging for some 47 years, with periods spent working and also treating themselves to short ‘holidays’ on land.

“What people don’t quite expect is that if you set off on a voyage around the world, the seasons push you on and it can leave you feeling tired,” says Lin.

“I’ve watched people sail from England to New Zealand over a year and a half period, because that works nicely with the seasons. But when they get here, they’re just tired of moving on. The fact that we had to work meant we didn’t feel we always had to keep moving on. Every year we’d stop for at least three or four months, to let us catch up with ourselves.”

Equally, long-distance cruising can be exhausting, and without a broad-brush plan it can be tempting to linger, cautions Janneke. “It takes (a lot of) effort to keep yourself and your boat going. You are in a strange environment all the time, change is a constant in this lifestyle. It’s easy to arrive somewhere and make it your home. Especially when you have an open-ended plan, it can be attractive to stay somewhere a little longer.

“But that has an impact on everything that follows: you can manoeuvre yourself in a situation where you have to stay somewhere much longer than expected, because of the weather. Beaten paths are there for a reason, and often this reason is the weather. If you decide to leave the beaten path, you need to be independent in making your own plans and time schedule.”

And, sometimes, it’s about knowing when to stop. “When it came to planning our voyage, we sat with a lot of people that had returned from a long trip. We found that there is a tipping point after about 8-10 years. When people stay out for more than that, it becomes less of a voyage and more of a way of life. We are project-minded people, so we needed the voyage to have a beginning and an end. So we left with a plan to stay out somewhere between six and nine years. It worked out to eight years.”

Go slow, stay loose

So how do you know which pace is right for you? “My advice would be go slow and keep it loose,” says Trautman. “Write your plans in the sand at low tide, and be okay with changing them.

“And just take time. You’re not out there to check items off of a list, in my opinion. There are some places where you’ll be okay with leaving after a couple of days, and there are some places you’ll really want a few more weeks just to enjoy. That could be a factor of the place, or it could also be a factor of your frame of mind after moving for so long. That’s all part of the lifestyle.”

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