Maintaining a Home Base while Cruising
Aboard Distant Shores II in the Tobago Cays, St Vincent and the Grenadines
Right now we're counting the days to getting back to the boat in the Caribbean since we’re facing a major snow storm in Southern Ontario. But in 3 more days we'll be back on board our sailboat, Distant Shores II, in Grenada preparing for another season of sailing in the Caribbean.
Paul and I have been home in Canada for the last few weeks completing post production on the final episodes of Distant Shores season 9 which document the experiences of our recent cruise through the Leeward and Windward Islands of the Caribbean starting with the British Virgin Islands for the BVI Spring Regatta, St. Maarten for Carnival, diving and hiking in Dominica, riding out Tropical Storm Chantal in Martinique, and a special episode featuring top canal voyages that you can do with your own boat or by chartering. (The shows will soon be airing on television but if you can't wait, you can get them on DVD as well as HD digital download.)
Being home has got me thinking about the pros and cons of maintaining a home base while cruising, so today I thought I'd share our experiences. Paul and I have now been cruising for 24 years. We initially opted for the “sell up and sail” style of cruising (1989 to 1998) but for the last 15 years we have maintained a home base - a condo town house in Ontario's “cottage country” north of Toronto - so we have lots of experience with both options.
Sell Up and Sail
When Paul and I were married in 1985 we had only been out of school for a couple of years but were committed to our dream of building a boat and going cruising before settling down. The dream had been burning since high school and we knew that if we didn't do it we would live with the regret forever. So it didn't make sense for us to put down roots and immediately start saving for a house like the rest of our 20s-something friends were doing. We were paying off our student loans and investing in our dream, which was building our own sailboat from a bare hull and deck and taking a 1-2 year sabbatical to sail it down south - a delayed “gap year” of sorts.
We got a lovely, yet surprisingly affordable, waterfront apartment overlooking the Port Credit Harbour Marina and Port Credit Yacht Club, our home club on Lake Ontario west of Toronto, where we could build our Classic 37 sailboat in the boat yard right at our doorstep. It was a convenient, supportive, inspiring environment for our dream. When we launched the boat after 2 years of building, had sailed her for a couple of seasons, and were ready to set sail, it was easy to just let the apartment go, store a few things with friends and family, sell our student furniture (we were so focused on our boat project we weren't tempted to buy new stuff for the apartment), car, etc., and say goodbye to financial commitments ashore . We no longer had to budget for things like car and home insurance, utilities, rent, cable TV, and all that goes with life on land.
It was quite freeing. Life afloat is is simple life and so is managing the basic expenses of the cruising life when you don't have financial commitments back home. Building our boat didn't save us any money. Home builders don't benefit from the volume discounts on materials that commercial manufacturers pass on to their customers but building our Classic 37 sailboat, Two-Step, allowed us to put our money into our project gradually, kept us involved and committed to our dream, and most importantly gave us knowledge and skills which saved us money once we were “out there”. When we sold up and went sailing we owned the boat free and clear which is also liberating.
That first cruise stretched into a 3-year voyage from 1989-1992 around the Atlantic Ocean via the USA, Bahamas, Bermuda, Azores, Spain, Portugal, Gibraltar, Balearics, Canary Islands, Brazil, Caribbean Islands and then back to Canada. We found our savings stretched out since we anchored a lot, shopped in local markets mostly cooking on board, and did all our own repairs and maintenance. It was an amazing life-altering experience but by the end we were travel weary and looking forward to getting home. The travel documentary we'd filmed, Call of the Ocean, was picked up by Discovery Channel and we got requests for a full TV series that would follow upcoming voyages.
By then we'd been home for a year, living with my (Sheryl's) mother who is a widow. It was a good arrangement because Mom wanted to stay in the family home and us being there helped all of us financially, plus we felt good about being able to help out with chores and projects for the house. Paul's parents lived just down the street (Paul and I went to school together and have been friends since we were 7 years old) and our brothers nearby in neighbouring towns. It was the perfect arrangement since we were longing to be back with our families after being away for 3 years. They had all come to visit us on the boat during our time away of course and we'd had amazing times together, but a week here and there is pretty different from the real family involvement we find so enriching.
It was great to be home but after a year ashore Paul and I were itching to get back to sea. We missed living in the outdoors, working as a team running the boat, the stimulation of no two days ever being the same, the new sights, sounds and friendships which are the real treasures of the cruising life. Our brief time back home had re-charged our batteries. We were enthusiastic once again and a contract for our first full TV series, Exploring Under Sail, (co-produced with Canadian director, Peter Rowe) required us to sail and film for 6 months of the year with time at home doing post-production for the rest of the year.
We discovered this part-time style of cruising worked well for us since it provided a nice balance of long-term cruising and life ashore, meaning we never got tired of either. In fact, it made us savour and appreciate all the benefits of both more full. Sharing a house with my mother meant that while we were away we didn't have to worry about leaving an empty house and we were anxious to get caught up with one another when we got home. We kept up this arrangement living with Mom and cruising for part of the year for 6 years.
At the time, Mom was working as a full-time pharmacist. Then Mom retired and one of the things she was looking forward to in retirement was doing lots of entertaining. Paul and I had been working at home and this started to make it difficult to work sometimes. Also, us being there meant she didn't have the space for extended family and friends to stay while visiting when we were home. At about the same time Paul and I were at a point where we were missing having our own nest to feather. Our own furniture, dishes, artwork, and many other personal possessions that we treasured, including beautiful wedding gifts we'd never had the chance to use, were still in storage and had been for years. We'd also collected lovely things during our travels that we didn't have the space to display, use and enjoy either on the boat or in the rooms we stayed in at my mother's. We realized it was time to get a place of our own even though we'd only be there for part of the year. We both have a great relationship with my mother and we didn't want to strain it by this change in circumstances. The time was right.
Maintaining a Home Base
So we found a small but lovely condo townhouse north of the city in Ontario's cottage country on Lake Simcoe where Paul and I had both got our start in boating as kids.
It gave us the space for family and friends to visit on weekends. That it's a condo means that maintenance is handled by the condo association. We can just lock the door and leave when it's time to go cruising again. We have 2 neighbours, Dawn and Nancy, who run our office while we're away. They coordinate production details, fulfill DVD orders, and manage the administrative tasks involved with running a television production business. So our place isn't empty and is paying for itself through the business.
Many of our cruising friends who maintain a home base to come back to, rent out their condo or home, or sublet their apartment. This helps to cover costs and in many cases provides income as well depending on the type of property.
Several friends of ours own waterfront condos in popular tourist areas. During the high season they're out cruising, a property management agency handles renting out and handling maintenance on their furnished condos on a weekly and/or monthly basis. Our friends store their personal items during the time tourists are renting it. In low season when sailing isn't good in the areas they're cruising in, they come home and move back into the condo for several months to take a break and re-connect with family and friends.
Other cruising friends rent out their homes on a longer term basis, say for a year or two, while they're taking a sailing sabbatical or on a voyage of a particular length. They will organize a friend to act as superintendent or hire a professional service. This works well if you have good tenants and a reliable person or property management service looking after things. There is less stress and strain on your home as compared to the high turnover of vacationing tenants like our friends in the first example have to deal with. And our friends who are renting out their condos weekly are often anxious if weeks aren't filled since they're counting on the income.
Although long-term rentals of your home base seem like less hassle, the down side is that if your own circumstances change, say perhaps one of you becomes seriously ill and you need to return home sooner than planned, your home is not available to you. Laws protecting tenants are strong and making changes to rental agreement can be tricky so it's necessary to have legal advice when setting up any rental arrangement.
One of the most important things is to do everything possible to ensure that you are getting good reliable non-destructive tenants. If the people you end up renting turn out to be the tenants from hell it can really ruin your cruise. Getting good references, doing interviews, being clear about your expectations, having a good legal agreement, and having a good property manager that checks up on the tenants and property regularly does help. Since most people that go cruising are pretty tuned in to other people, most of our friends have had really great experiences with good tenants.
Another option is to have a family member or friend house-sit for you. Friends of our whose home is in a university town have a young niece attending the university who house-sits for him during school terms. In the summertime when the niece heads back to her home town for a summer job our friends return to the house after a winter of cruising in the tropics. It is an excellent arrangement for everyone since our friends feel secure knowing the house isn't empty and their niece, a quiet responsible person, has affordable student housing. Also, if our friends need to make a quick unplanned visit home for a doctor's appointment or short-term work contract, it's not a problem to come back since they all get along well together under one roof.
The goal of most cruises is to live a more relaxed enjoyable life so make sure that you take steps to ensure that maintaining the security and investment that a home offers you, is hassle-free. There are definitely pros and cons to both “selling up and sailing” as well as maintaining a home base while cruising. When making up your mind about which option you're going to choose, it's important to consider which will bring you and your mate, the greatest sense of pleasure, security and peace of mind.
See you out there!
Sheryl and Paul Shard
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