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Everything you always wanted to know about yachting, but were too afraid to ask

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Even with boat sales and charters booming, yachting remains an enigma for most people.

CNBC spoke with several yacht owners who agreed to answer all questions — with no topics off limits — about the yachting lifestyle and perhaps more importantly, how much it costs.   

The owners

Nim and Fabiola Hirschhorn are in the U.S. Virgin Islands aboard Luna, their 45-foot, 2019 Lagoon 450S catamaran. The couple operates all-inclusive crewed charters in the Caribbean.

Sophie Darsy and Ryan Ellison are in the Azores on Polar Seal, a 2007 Beneteau Oceanis 40 outfitted for ocean sailing. Several years ago, the couple learned to sail, quit their corporate jobs and now chronicle their life at sea.

How much does a decent yacht cost?

N. Hirschhorn: It depends on a few basic parameters. Is the boat secondhand or new, what year was it built, is it a monohull or catamaran, is it an ex-charter yacht or has it always been privately owned … do you want to simply coastal cruise or do you want to cross oceans?

The Hirschhorns operate charters in the Caribbean, with four-night trips for two guests starting around $12,000.

Courtesy of Sail Luna

Luna was purchased new for $650,000; however, we know plenty of people who live on boats that were purchased for $30,000-$80,000.

On average, you can purchase a seaworthy mid-range 45-foot monohull that can sail around the world for $100,000 to $150,000 and a catamaran of the same size for around $250,000 to $500,000. Of course, there are boats at both ends of the spectrum and at every price point in between.

A rough guide to entry-level boat purchases

Cost Size Year built What to know
$5,000-$20,000 20-30 feet 1960s to 1980s Will likely need maintenance that could easily cost as much as the boat
$30,000-$60,000 30-40 feet 1970s to 1980s Unlikely boat will be ready for cruising; budget at least 25% of the boat’s value for post-purchase repairs and upgrades
$70,000-$110,000 40-50 feet 1990s to 2000s An entry-level modern boat or an older larger boat; here cost is a balance of age, size and equipment
Source: Sophie Darsy

Are there other costs to know about?

Darsy: The purchase price is only a portion of the budget you need to acquire a yacht. Once we took delivery of our boat, costs came faster than we knew! 

American Ryan Ellison and Frenchwoman Sophie Darsy, who are now both Swedish nationals, bought their boat for $90,000 in 2016.

Courtesy of Ryan and Sophie Sailing

In the first three years that we owned Polar Seal, we spent at least $40,000 to equip her for cruising and ocean sailing, including:

  • A cockpit enclosure to keep the cockpit dry: $7,000 
  • New sails: $8,000 
  • A dinghy and an electric outboard [engine for the dinghy]: $5,000
  • A water maker to make freshwater from seawater: $2,000
  • Lithium batteries and parts to power appliances: $6,000
  • A new autopilot: $2,000
  • A life raft: $2,500
  • Safety and communication equipment: $3,000

If you want to buy a boat, keep at least 30% of your budget for maintenance, repairs and upgrades.

We also have annual costs for boat insurance (between $1,000 and $4,000, depending on location) and travel and health-care insurance when we are out of Europe ($1,500) as well as plane tickets to visit our families (around $2,000 per year).

How much do you need to make — or save — to live on a yacht for a few years?

N. Hirschhorn: Think about what it costs to live on land — what kind of lifestyle do you live? Do you like to eat out at fancy restaurants and buy nice things? Chances are you will do the same when living on a boat, which means that your lifestyle will often cost the same. Will you anchor — which is free — or stay in marinas? Will you be on a sabbatical living off savings or do you work along the way? Are you a family or a couple?

Nim Hirschhorn said he pays $90-$300 per night to dock his boat in marinas in the Caribbean.

Courtesy of Sail Luna

We have friends who lived aboard a 1984 47-foot monohull for two years with three kids. The boat cost $90,000 and they lived off $50,000 a year cruising the Caribbean and anchoring the entire time.

Personally, we live on about $100,000 a year. I know couples living on $1,000 a month, and families living on $3,000-$6,000 a month. It’s not unusual in our community to hear that living on a boat and traveling the world costs less than living on land.

How much does location affect costs?  

Darsy: In 2019, we spent the winter at a marina in Spain where we could benefit from an advantageous rate ($300 a month). But food was very inexpensive ($300 a month). We took advantage of our time at the dock to undertake some major boat projects and our maintenance budget went way up — $15,000 of upgrades over six months.

But we rented a car at virtually no cost thanks to a local deal, and our “fun activities” budget went almost down to zero, as we enjoyed inexpensive restaurants and bars with friends all over southern Spain.

Yacht owners have budgets too, said Sophie Darsy who along with Ryan Ellison, spend about $3,500 a month for boat maintenance, data plans, groceries, the occasional marina stay and activities such as diving, windsurfing and car rentals.

Courtesy of Ryan and Sophie Sailing

In comparison, when we made a three-week detour to Bermuda, groceries and restaurants were very expensive. But, we spent those weeks on anchor and did not have to pay for a marina. We spent nothing on maintenance or repair. We spent the remaining weeks of that month at sea, and since we spent no money during those two weeks, we made our budget.

How has the pandemic affected yachting?  

N. Hirschhorn: It is more complicated … some countries have their seaports closed for visiting yachts, and some ask for entry protocol that might include preapproval and quarantine for up to two weeks on board.

Some countries do not accept all nationalities and travelers from specific origins, which makes it difficult when we may have three to four nationalities on board. Other countries are welcoming only vaccinated travelers.

Covid test requirements mean “we can no longer island hop,” said Nim, adding that frequent rule changes and test result delays have made yachting logistically complicated.

Courtesy of Sail Luna

Darsy: The pandemic has made sailing between countries a little more difficult, but while our options were extremely limited in 2020, we have had much better luck in 2021.

Like the housing market, the boat market exploded in 2020 and 2021. It seems like everyone and their neighbor wants to buy a yacht … the prices have also increased in a way never seen before. Our boat has increased in value to the point that if we sold it today, we would not lose any of the capital we put in it.

Is having young children compatible with living full time on a yacht? 

F. Hirschhorn: There is no reason why children of all ages can’t live on a yacht. There are many families living on boats on the water and they are usually very confident, intelligent and worldly kids who thrive in this lifestyle. In the Caribbean especially, there are hundreds of “kid boats” [boats with families living on them].

Is there Wi-Fi out at sea? 

N. Hirschhorn: Yes, we have a few layers of service. We have cellular data service that can pick up a signal up to 20 nautical miles offshore. Since we usually sail between the Caribbean islands, we are usually always connected. We also have two other satellite-based systems with limited Wi-Fi, but coverage all over the globe.

Darsy: Nope! We only have Wi-Fi at port or on anchor, when we have a data plan for the country that we are currently sailing in. Out on the open sea, we have satellite internet that enables us to download weather forecasts and basic emails, but definitely not watch Netflix or listen to Spotify! 

Is seasickness common?

Darsy: A lot of sailors suffer from seasickness, and I am particularly prone to it. The trick is to prevent it. Once the nausea settles, you can’t get rid of it. 

We know many boat owners who are not wealthy at all. It’s just a different lifestyle…

Nim Hirschhorn

Captain of Sail Luna

My top tips are:

  • Take medication the night before departure and get a good night of sleep.
  • Drink a lot of water and eat a lot more than you normally would; low blood sugar accelerates seasickness.
  • Keep yourself warm; invest in sailing clothes and gear that will protect you from the elements, as being cold will send you to a nauseous hell in no time.

Is skinny-dipping allowed?  

N. Hirschhorn: No, we need to abide by local laws and customs; however, in the Mediterranean nudity is far more common.

Darsy: It isn’t rare for us to be alone on anchor, off a desert island. No one is watching, so … 

What is the most common question you’re asked?

N. Hirschhorn: Many ask us if we have a home on land. We love seeing the surprise on their faces when we explain that Luna is our home.

European countries are “easy” to travel between, but the Caribbean can have “archaic” and costly processes for yachts, said Darsy.

Courtesy of Ryan and Sophie Sailing

Darsy: All my friends have asked me if I am ever scared of encountering a storm or big seas that would capsize our boat, and honestly before we left, I was! 

But now I know we always leave port when we have a good weather window. In three years, 13,000 nautical miles and two ocean crossings, we’ve only sailed through gale-force winds once, and we did perfectly well.

What is the biggest misconception people have about the yachting lifestyle? 

N. Hirschhorn: Some people think that a yacht owner is a millionaire. We know many boat owners who are not wealthy at all. It’s just a different lifestyle that comes with many bonuses, but also many sacrifices.

Darsy: People believe that we are very rich, that we come from wealthy families or that we make a lot of money. None of this is true. We saved a lot of money, made some sacrifices, and continue to do so … and we stay on budget. 

When we were employed full-time, Ryan and I brought home comfortable salaries, and we lived the “two income, no kids” dream. We now make less than half of what we earned then and live with half our old budget … but our lives are a lot richer.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.




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