Phil Johnson talks about working from your boat looking at the best tech and skills needed to make a living while at sea
In late 2018 my wife, Roxy, and I took a few suitcases of belongings and moved aboard our 47ft Cheoy Lee monohull to start the cruise of a lifetime. So far, a familiar start to a familiar sounding story. Except unlike most liveaboard cruisers, we took something else with us onto Sonder: our careers.
We are not sailing vloggers, or working in the marine industry, but 30-something entrepreneurs running a consumer retail business who stumbled onto the realisation that we can do what we do (running a company making pop-up 3D greetings cards), from literally anywhere.
There have been digital nomads working from beach bars and converted vans for years, but the combination of improved digital infrastructure and huge swathes of the previously office-based workforce now working remotely has created a unique opportunity for sailors to take their jobs with them on the water.
Over the last couple years of cruising, we’ve talked with similar ‘workaboards’ with careers as varied as real estate, engineering, tech start-ups, and even airline pilots who have taken to the seas when off rotation. This is some of the advice we gleaned on combining cruising with a career.
Picture the scene: you’re walking down a narrow, sandy path, lined with overgrown Bahamian shrubs, heading towards the sound of reggae music. You come upon a beach with a legendary rum bar, dotted with a few dozen sun-drenched partygoers dancing around a jumble of tables and hammocks strung up between palm trees.
It all sounds lovely, except it’s Monday and you’re just there to grab the wifi password and try to concentrate on getting some work done.
“We learned some valuable lessons,” said Victoria and Mike Stenhouse about their first season blending work and cruising life.
The Stenhouses run a real-estate development firm based in the UK and produce a podcast on property investment (Inside Property Investing) while cruising in the Mediterranean aboard their 40ft Fountaine Pajot catamaran, Havanesey Day.
They moved aboard in 2019 to be able to work from any location of their choosing, but quickly realised that the pace they’d set for themselves in that first year – some 5,000 miles from La Rochelle, circling the Med – simply wasn’t sustainable combined with the day job.
“Trying to move too quickly or see too many places will lead to far more stress than is necessary,” Victoria explained. There’s real value in travelling slower and at a pace more in-step with your work life. It might mean not circumnavigating in a year, but instead you have the flexibility of time to explore the places and cultures you’re sailing to more deeply.
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A work-from-anywhere mindset allows for this flexibility, expressly because you’re not taking limited time-off from jobs on land and trying to cram it all in before the money runs out.
“When we moved aboard, we didn’t see it as a time-limited project, but as a way of living,” says Greta Höller, an Italian industrial engineer and researcher who works full-time while sailing in the Caribbean on a Beneteau 393, ForTuna. Her partner, Michael Hofer, also does consulting for startups. “We chose this life because it allows us to travel the world in an eco-sustainable way, on our own terms,” says Greta.
So how can anyone manage to fit sailing in around a job that requires them to be logged on from 9-5? Roxy dealt with this in her previous job when we cruised part-time in the Bahamas. “It was difficult sitting inside a hot, stuffy cabin on Zoom calls all day, missing out on the best hours of the day for swimming and exploring,” she recalls.
Her strict schedule led to some ill-advised sunset swims – during, what locals like to call ‘shark feedin’ time’.
One solution is to pick a cruising ground in a time zone that allows you to work afternoons and evenings. We know of 9-5 cruisers who plan well ahead to find the best connected and sheltered anchorages, and do all their passages during weekends.
Aboard Sonder we plan around just the most immovable variables – weather predictions and scheduled calls. Even for guests looking to come visit us, we can offer a time or a location, but generally not both.
We fit our working time into when it works for us. Sometimes that means working late at night, during rainy days at anchor, or early mornings over breakfast in the cockpit.
For the crew of ForTuna, setting milestones between passages instead of traditional work schedules helps with time management and productivity. “We’ve definitely learned that work gets done much more easily when you’re in the right mood for it, instead of working in a time frame established by someone else,” says Greta.
The pair has managed to combine their work with sailing from Israel to Martinique last year, and are now bound for Mexico and Cuba.
Divide and conquer
“The boat itself can be a full-time job,” was something all of the cruisers we spoke to for this feature said. Dividing tasks between each other to be done independently can help with time management.
On Sonder, I tend to manage the yacht maintenance schedules, while Roxy manages more of the day-to-day operations of our business. This works well for us because it gives full autonomy in our own domains, but we still come together for big work projects.
The Stenhouses enjoy the opportunity that passages create to disconnect from work. “It’s an amazing time to think, plan and just enjoy each other’s company without the usual distractions of modern life,” Victoria said.
While offshore, most sailors are limited to satellite-based plain text emails and texts for business communications, so having a friend, relative or office manager filter email and messages can be extremely helpful.
We employ a virtual assistant who manages all our emails and customer inquiries, forwarding along only the most urgent messages through our IrdiumGo sat phone which we monitor 24 hours a day.
How does moving aboard affect the employer-employee relationship? “When you work remotely, flexibility is needed on both sides” says Greta. The occasional dropped video call or a rescheduled meeting is inevitable, but with careful prioritising more problems can be pre-empted. “When we know we have an important call, we’ll move to find the right spot with good cell reception,” she adds.
For longer passages, such as a transatlantic: “We go on holiday – even remote workers can take time off,” explains Greta.
Success as a ‘workaboard’ all comes down to connectivity. There is always the option of going ashore to a cafe or marina for land-based wifi, but for full-time work that’s usually not a practical long-term solution.
Hot-spotting a wifi network to your laptop from a phone using local or regional SIM cards is usually the fastest, cheapest, and most reliable data you can get aboard.
If your work requires video conferencing or large data transfers, unlimited data plans are a necessity. However, purchasing and signing up for a contract can be difficult when moving frequently between different countries so it’s good to supplement that with an international data plan.
There are lots of international plans to choose from. Google Fi (for US customers), is the one that we currently use. It has one SIM card that works with partner networks in over 160 countries. It’s not a truly ‘unlimited’ data plan, but we can reliably get connected upon entering inshore waters of our destination well before we can research and find a local solution. SkyRoam (for European and US customers) is another international hotspot solution.
To boost weak mobile signal or marina wifi bandwidth down into the cabin, there are a myriad of signal extenders on the market. Wifi extenders will work anywhere there is a 5GHz or 2.5GHz network, pulling weak signals from far out in a harbour anchorage while using a negligible amount of power.
“For cellular, there are two categories of long range extenders,” says Richard Anderson, owner of SeaTech Systems based out of Seattle, which specialises in communications solutions for sailors. Boosters operate on select frequencies that are region specific, which is why the unit I installed on Sonder stopped working when we left the US.
“The other way you can do it is with a dedicated cellular modem and router,” he says. This is basically a fancy hotspot with a multiband antennae on the mast and wifi router in the cabin that can work globally. This setup switches seamlessly between compatible cell networks giving you a more a ‘home office’ experience, even as far out as 20 miles offshore.
All of the workaboards we talked with found that 4G data plans cover most of their connection needs, but for data offshore, and in more remote areas like those in the South Pacific, a satellite internet system will be needed.
On the market right now are essentially two categories. First, polar-orbiting Iridium satellites operate on a global network, reachable with a passive antennae, but provide extremely slow download speeds (2.4kbps) that limit you to things like plain text emails, or weather-grib files. While Iridium recently launched Certus, its latest generation satellites with 700kbps download speeds, it also carries much higher contract fees and equipment costs.
The other option is high-frequency, geosynchronous satellite networks such as Vsat or Inmarsat. Traditionally used by the commercial industry, these products can deliver true broadband speeds, but the hardware costs alone are $25,000-$35,000.
Richard Anderson said the reason for this is the active, tracking antennas that use a gyro-stabilized satellite dish to get signal from a moving deck. While you can lease the equipment for around $400 a month, contract fees can run to $1,000 a month or more. These units are also heavy, power hungry and the service options still have dead zones around the globe, so for most workaboards on a budget, this isn’t a practical option, yet.
Mike Stenhouse is holding out for Starlink, the pioneering new satellite internet service from Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Many of the workaboards I met with are hoping that this is a panacea for internet at sea.
The promise? True broadband, low-cost, satellite internet, delivered to even the most far flung regions of the globe. A solution like this could allow working while tucked into tight, remote anchorages, which are typically signal dead zones, or take video conferencing offshore. The ultimate liveaboard goal is to simply have consistent internet across all cabins.
However, Starlink may take longer than we think, Richard Anderson cautioned. “You have to have a ground station that’s within the view of the satellite AND your boat.” That means no internet connection once you’re several hundred miles out to sea. Even if you’re closer to shore, it will be affected by the weather, and will still probably need expensive, gyro-stabilized antennae hardware.
So Starlink comes with its own unique set of challenges, but then again, that’s what workaboards are adept at dealing with.
Seize the moment
Combining cruising while continuing a career or running a business can mean you don’t have to wait until retirement to head off on a grand adventure. “People often seem to think the only way to afford cruising full-time while you’re younger is to become a YouTube phenomenon or live off of savings, but that’s not the only way, and we have the receipts now to prove it,” says Roxy. We are on track to meet ambitious business goals this year while continuing to sail from the UK to the Mediterranean.
There may still be plenty of logistical hurdles to taking your job or business aboard, but the potential freedom you gain, and the opportunity to sail and explore places you’ve only dreamt of, is well worth the effort.
“If you have the opportunity to do something you love now rather than waiting for retirement, jump in with both feet,” says Victoria Stenhouse. “Figuring out how to make it work for your own circumstances is all part of the adventure.”
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