Cruising the Med, living onboard ... Is it all it's cracked up to be ? Is it for you ?
For those of us who live and sail in colder climates the thought of sailing to, and then cruising the Mediterranean has long held appeal. Miserable winter weather in the UK and cheap package holidays abroad start focusing the mind on the possibilities of new cruising grounds. Add to this the fact that the baby boomer generation is now approaching some kind of retirement... with equity built up in the house, and a long career of hard work winding down.
For those who have long been involved with sailing, the pressures of work and family will most likely have meant keeping a smallish boat somewhere within easy reach of home. Long weekends afloat and two or three weeks annual leave is the most that many people get to enjoy their sport. Naturally these snatched weekends and sailing holidays are enjoyed to the max, and it is assumed that if a two-week cross-channel sailing cruise was thoroughly savoured, a five-year cruise of the Mediterranean would be enjoyed even more..
Other people approaching some kind of early retirement who have not really had much to do with sailing at all, get it in their heads that selling up and sailing off into the sunset would be just rewards for all their years of hard work and bring up families.
These assumptions are easy enough to acquire. When holidaying in the Mediterranean beautiful yachts will have been observed at anchor in all the beauty spots. Bronzed hunks and lithe yachting babes will be seen cavorting on decks, zooming around in fancy little RIBs, and generally making others green with envy.
Picturesque Mediterranean harbours, with rows of gleaming yachts and powerboats moored stern to the quay and bustling colourful restaurants complete the picture. Here the denizens of this world enjoy their evening meal admiring their yachts while congratulating themselves on their successful day's foray round to a nearby bay or inlet.
It is all too easy to come to the conclusion that THIS would be an enjoyable and worthwhile way to spend a few years, taking it easy and living the life of Riley. Even experienced yachtsmen (who should know better), can be seduced into forgetting all the irritating but necessary details involved with living on a boat long-term.
A combination of rose tinted glasses, wrong assumptions, and lack of experience, can lead to big problems manifesting themselves after significant amounts of capital have been deployed. Any venture that involves living on a boat (especially if it involves buying a boat for this purpose) really needs to be thought through thoroughly in the first instance.
Living on board a boat in the Mediterranean is NOT the same as a chartering holiday or a good coastal cruise. Holiday cruises and charters come to an end, and the happy event can be mulled over in the comfort of your own home later.
Living on board your boat is a tough option (even in the Mediterranean climate), in practice far removed from the image most people have of it. It truly can be a very satisfying and healthy way of life, but requires commitment and dedication.... and not a little money.
The purpose of this article is not to dash your dreams, but gently take you, dear reader, and explain to you how it really is. Once the false assumptions have been brushed aside you can make your decisions based on reality rather than expectation. If you do decide to try living on your boat and cruising the Mediterranean you'll have a much better chance of enjoying it rather regretting it (and often losing large sums of money in the process).
We have definitely been noticing more and more people who have had absolutely no experience of sailing buying themselves blue water style cruising yachts after having completed a few RYA courses. They then get down to the Mediterranean and set about trying to live the idyllic life they have visualised. With all due respect to these people, they find the reality is somewhat different and are forced on a very steep learning curve.
Even experienced yachtsmen who have spent many years cruising in UK waters find the adjustment to living on board in the Mediterranean climate takes some getting used to. At least if they've sailed down in their own boats it hasn't involved a massive cash outlay.
In either case if the reality once tried out does not suit, it involves either getting the boat back to the UK or selling it in the Mediterranean. Neither option is appealing.
In any kind of venture like this money and income need to be balanced with the likely outgoings. The first misconception that many have, is that living in the Mediterranean is much cheaper than living in the UK. Maybe 10 years ago it was quite a bit cheaper, but certainly not now.
Based on real experience, you will likely find your shopping budget is the same if not more than in the UK. Spain is relatively cheap, but even here the weekly food budget is around £80 for a couple. This is assuming you can get to a decent supermarket. In the smaller places you are likely to frequent you may well be asked over £3 for a simple loaf of bread.
Marina fees are pretty much the same as in the UK, and in the summer, casual Marina moorings can be stunningly expensive. For example in the Balearic islands a summer night spent in the Marina could easily set you back €60.
Between the months of June and September it is generally considered too hot to want to spend your time in the Marina, and anchoring is the norm. Although this saves some money and is a bit cooler, you will then face the problems of provisioning, watering up, and the dreaded gas bottles. Inevitably you'll be further from the cheap supermarkets and relying on the smaller corner shops who wack up their prices in an eye watering manner to cater for " tourists".
Finding somewhere to fill your water tanks becomes a big problem if not in the Marina. A friend of ours went to a small pontoon in Sardinia where he noticed a water tap. He asked if he could fill his tank, and the owner demanded €70...
From long experience, even if you are living on a small 10m boat, you will need a minimum of £10,000 a year to simply get by.
Yes of course there are cheaper places you can go, for instance Tunisia. Here you can arrange a whole years' berthing with water and electricity for under £500 if you look around. Food is cheap here too, but there are disadvantages that would make it unsuitable for many liveaboards.
In Greece mooring stern to the town quay is often free, and you can often go for a month or more without paying any mooring fees. However the shop prices are even higher, here particularly in the small places you will be frequenting. Furthermore the " free" mooring is often free for a good reason.. once the wind pipes up onto the Quay it can become untenable and dangerous.
Water will always have to be paid for, by the litre, either delivered by a truck or obtained from the fuel station at the same time you fill your tank.
Italy is ridiculously expensive in most cases, which then leaves Turkey. Here prices are not unreasonable, but provisioning can be a problem. Furthermore as it's not part of the EU (just like Tunisia) all kinds of irritating paperwork has to be dealt with, and regular trips out of the country made.
So moneywise the cost of living in the Mediterranean for yourselves and the boat is roughly the same as in the UK. In real life, it is a bad misconception to think you are going to lead the life of Riley on a miniscule budget in the Mediterranean.
If you have a boat already in the UK try living on it for a whole summer, cruising round a bit with a few longer passages thrown in. Spend some time at anchor, sometime in harbours, and sometime in marinas. After a few months tot up the costs.... you won't find it that much different in the Mediterranean.
Much of it is of course swings and roundabouts, as of course there are some places and things that are cheaper in the Mediterranean, but there are many other things that are much, much more expensive. In particular chandlery and spares and repairs for the boat tend to cost quite a bit more, while in many places, like Tunisia, they are virtually unobtainable at any price.
Forget the prices you'll see from the discount Chandlers in the UK yachting magazines.... you left these prices at home when you sailed to the Med.
the first misconception that needs to be dealt with is that somehow in the Mediterranean you can do things on the cheap. Some places yes, some places no, but on average about the same as the UK.
The next thing that needs to be dealt with has been touched on above, but will now be described in all its' gory details. Provisioning, gas bottles and laundry.
Imagine if you lived in a house about the size of your kitchen, that was located about 1 mile away from the nearest shops, banks and launderette. Imagine if you didn't trust the water supply (except for cooking and washing), and had to carry your drinking water. Imagine you had no mains electricity or gas.
You will no doubt have been used to getting your weekly shopping in the car, or having it delivered. Your electricity and gas would have been on tap, as would a decent drinking water supply.
Strip these things out of the equation, and what you end up with is a load of backbreaking lugging. In summer the boat is at anchor, numerous dinghy missions have to be made ashore, provisions, drinking water and gas bottles obtained and then lugged back to the boat.
The first problem is finding somewhere safe to park the dinghy where you won't be shooed away, or come back to find small kids jumping in and out of it, often with the sharp fishing hooks just waiting to puncture it.
Then you set out to find the local shops... inevitably the first ones you come to will be tourist traps and so a further expedition deeper into the town will be needed. Then you come back laden down with bags, absolutely sweating and drooping in temperatures approaching 40°C.
Ditto for getting that huge bag of washing you will have built up ashore, and into the nearest launderette. That's if there is one ! Ditto for the gas bottle.
Okay so you say, why not go into a Marina perhaps once a week in the summer, and do all your provisioning, washing, gas bottles in one big hit. Great idea but in practice not so good. First you have to locate all the places where this can be accomplished, washing will take a minimum of 24 hours, and unless you get a taxi numerous return trips will have to be made to get that weeks shopping back to the boat. The cost is now start mounting up, you will probably need two nights in the Marina or a rip-off taxi ride (how about €20 charged by a sweating Italian to get your weeks shopping and washing less than a mile back to your boat). Whichever way you look at it this weekly chore will not be a joyous experience, and neither will it be cheap.
Living on board your own boat, and spending lots of time at anchor (either because of the heat or to save money), involves lots of dinghy work and much heavy lugging.
If you want to have a little taster of this, go and get all your shopping by hand from a shop about a mile away, double the weight by carrying a minimum of 8 L of drinking water a day too. Do this on a very hot summer's day, and when you get back with all that go and do the same again for a gas bottle or laundry bag. Repeat daily for a few months. You'll get the idea....
The next problem you will encounter as you live on your boat cruising the Mediterranean, is that of spares, repairs and maintenance. As mentioned before you will not find discount Chandlers if indeed you can find a chandler at all. For any kind of repairs, unless you can handle them yourselves, you will be at the mercy of locals, who will be viewing you as rich tourists just waiting to be ripped off...
The net result of all this is that you will probably be responsible for absolutely all the repairs and maintenance around your boat. A punctured dinghy, a broken outboard, or a failed alternator will be big problems that need immediate attention. The implications moneywise of the above problems need considering. Without a dinghy, or a means to motor it the repeated long trips to the shore, the only option is an immediate replacement or going into the dreaded Marina... who will be happy to relieve you of €60 a night. A broken alternator will mean no battery charging on board, no fridge which you will most certainly need in the high temperatures, and once again will need immediate action.
A day's foray ashore, car hire, searching all over the place, dealing in a foreign-language... you may just be lucky enough to come back with a replacement that can be made to fit (with a bit of ingenuity).
When it comes time to lift the boat for anti fouling, you may well find you can get it lifted a bit cheaper than in the UK.... often the rub is that you're not allowed to do your own antifouling, and have to pay the boatyard to do it.
If you have little or no electrical or mechanical experience, you will very quickly have to get some... this can be a very big learning curve for people that were perhaps merchant bankers beforehand. The more well off may think that they can solve these problems by throwing money at them... sorry it doesn't work like this. Sometimes there just isn't the experience locally to solve your problem however much you are willing to pay.
The next problem you will encounter trying to live on your boat in the Mediterranean involves the weather. Put in a nutshell it is this: In the summer it is just far too hot. I mean temperatures pushing 40°C. Unless you go out first thing in the morning, or late in the evening it's too hot to do anything. Even moving around at sea where you would think it would be cooler can be almost unbearable with the glare and the heat. Add to that there is very little sailing breeze during a typical Mediterranean summer... the engine will be thumping away burning fuel and generating more heat.
Typically the Mediterranean season runs from June to the end of September, and during this period you are unlikely to have any very strong winds (except the regular well-known ones that are perfectly predictable like the meltemi). Passage making involves much use of the engine. The kind of cracking sailing you can get around the UK coasts doesn't happen in the Mediterranean. Making skilful use of the sea breeze can help you while coasting, but won't be much use at all while passage making.
Outside of the summer season things get dramatically more unpredictable. The Romans sensibly banned all navigation in the Mediterranean during the winter months.. with good reason. The spring and autumn temperatures are very pleasant, even the winter is not too bad... but moving your boat around during these periods needs much care. Extremely strong winds can spring up with very little warning, and the short sharp seas of the Mediterranean will prevent your sailing boat from making much if any headway windwards.
Most Mediterranean cruisers tend to want to be wintered up by October at the latest, and often only commence sailing again towards the end of May. Locals tend to have an even shorter season.
In general it is not too difficult to find a reasonable winter only deal for parking your boat (same as in the UK). It is possible certainly in Greece, to spend the whole winter lying to your own gear, at little or no cost. Finding somewhere really sheltered to do this is more of a challenge, and then you've got all the summer problems, watering, provisioning, gas bottles, laundry to contend with. The only time I have experienced this was in the Ionian, where it rains non-stop from December through to the end of February.... the experience was not joyous. If you're going to try something like this you will need a very, very, good anchoring equipment, while keeping the boat in tiptop condition ready to move at a moments notice should things get dangerous.
So this leads to the next thing to be considered... what on earth you do with yourself from October through till May the following year ? If you don't have some kind of useful winter project that gives you a sense of achievement, the boredom will slowly drive you mad.
Okay enough of all this negativity, the intention is not to put you off completely, but to take off the rose tinted specs and see things as they really are. As usual most things boil down to money, or lack of..
Probably the best scenario would be to keep your dwelling wherever that may be, join your boat in April, sail all summer and get the boat out of the water safely each winter around October. You can then abandon your boat and return the following spring. We know more than a few who do things this way and it works out well for them. The actual costs involved are probably about the same as keeping your boat in the UK and cheap flights can be had at the beginning and end of the season.
By the time you arrive and spend a few weeks getting the boat sorted for the season, you have a good few clear months to cruise or maybe move to new areas, always being mindful of keeping one eye out for a good wintering spot with cheap air connections.
Just about the time things are beginning to wear a bit thin, with the heat and the lugging, it's time to go back home and reminisce on a good summer spent.
Another advantage of doing things this way is that you do not need perhaps such a large boat, and your own current boat may well fit the job. Furthermore spares and replacement parts can be sourced near your home and brought out with you oftentimes.
Obviously this works out a bit more expensive than living on board, as you have to keep your accommodation running in the UK or at home. One couple we know had pretty well the ideal arrangement, with a cottage in a popular tourist area in the UK. This was rented out (an agency took care of this), for holiday lets all summer. In the winter of course the cottage was vacant for them to return to. The income from the summer lettings covered the running costs of this arrangement.
Another way of getting your sailing in is to buy a boat through a reputable charter company. They rent your boat out which covers all the running expenses plus you get a couple of months or so use of your own boat yearly. We've seen this arrangement work for some.
This lengthy article is drawing to a close now, but if it saves just one person from making a very expensive mistake it will have been worthwhile. Living on board your own boat can be a great experience but generally it means making a very big decision, and cutting your ties. If a mistake has been made, re-establishing yourselves ashore again is very costly. The best advice we can probably give is to give it a medium term try with the boat you already possess, while keeping your home going one way or another. You will then be in a position to decide whether you want to buy a larger boat and live on board, based on real experience. You will also have a much better idea of the kind of boat that is suitable for the cruising you have in mind.
Many people dream of semi-retirement cruising the Mediterranean, we hope this article will be of help in choosing the best method to go about this.