For much of my adult life that was my favorite toast. It spoke to the dream of one day exiting the rat race, able to afford the kind of boat you’d want to live aboard (at least for moderate periods of time). More recently it became the siren song toward haven, the vehicle by which one might leave the COVID-ridden and politically-rabid masses far behind. Island hopping around the tropics became the fantasy route toward escaping the hordes of cell-phone zombies shambling around our sidewalks and motorways.
Anchored off exotic shores, as the fantasy went, we’d sip fancy concoctions saturated with rum or tequila while luxuriating in everchanging views filled with expanses of soft white beaches lapped gently by crystalline, aquamarine waters and drenched in the golden sunlight. “Boat drinks!” didn’t just refer to those sugary libations; it encapsulated the entire dream.
Years passed. We got older. Warm nourishing sunlight transmogrified into potentially deadly, damaging UV. Still the fantasy thrived! Boat drinks!
But sail-powered catamarans are slow, ungainly, and fit only for a narrow range of weather conditions. Conversely, anything powered by diesel engines is loud, smelly, and requires constant refueling, servicing, and other maintenance. Such hassles were at odds with our carefree Boat drinks! fantasy.
The images and lifestyle were tantalizing. I became entranced. For weeks I was awash with visions of ocean-going freedom, swishing through the Caribbean from island to island at whim, spending a week here, a week there, anchoring for lazy days off breathtaking tropical beaches or secluded island coves. Basically, living la vida boat drinks…
It sounds awesome to just say “I’m going island hopping around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean …and may even cross the Atlantic and cruise around the Mediterranean!” But while no one would say age has taught me wisdom, it’s at least nudged me enough to take a second look before leaping. What, I had to ask, would small yacht ownership actually involve from one hour to the next (assuming, of course, that I had the ducats to drop onto a pretty, white, ocean-going Tesla)?
Thus began my deep dive down the small yacht ownership rabbit hole. Like many, I started with immersion into Youtube’s yacht review channels. Of course, they’re mostly sunshine and moonbeams. That’s because “first glance” (SEO optimized!) content is mostly marketing, often produced by third parties who are rarely disinterested or unbiased in their reviews.
Now, playing the game with me, my wife and I decided if we were going to live aboard a boat, it would have to be a catamaran. We liked the idea of some stability in our “new home.” And we liked the space. It’s not for nothing that couples who’ve lived aboard their boats say, “You lose 100 sq ft of space for every week you spend aboard together.” We figured we’d better start with a LOT of space or somewhere around week three of this island hopping fantasy one of us was likely to begin typing out “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy…”
Then I graduated into investigation of what catamaran ownership and, more importantly, use, would be like on a day-in-day-out basis. This required some pointed questions, sometimes to sales people, sometimes to caretaker/captains on a boat in a marina, once or twice to strangers that I found living aboard their boats. Gradually, I teased out the reality of living some part of your year aboard a 42-60 foot catamaran.
During this period, while still getting the rose-colored lenses knocked out of my spectacles, I went even deeper. Even though the smallest boat that Silent Yachts recommends (their Silent 60) was too expensive for fit into our fantasy budget, that didn’t stop my wife and me driving from Naples, FL to Key West to check out an early-production version of a Silent 55. When the Silent Yachts ambassador/boat captain asked if we’d like to go out for a short sea trial, how could we say no?
Even though everything about the newer-generation Silent 60’s is bigger, better fitted, and more impressive in every way than that older Silent 55’s, we came away seriously wowed. That 55′ cat impressed! She slid through the water. She was smooth, quiet, and stable. Best of all, her 10-12kw solar panels rendered her pretty much independent of any need for shore-based electrical power. Not only did she produce enough electricity to run all your creature comfort appliances, she could make more fresh water per day than you’d ever be likely to need. All without any need to even run the generator that the boat comes with, just in case you want more speed/range on a cloudy day than the batteries have range.
From a “hassles” perspective, unlike the 50-to-100 hour service intervals of diesel powered engines in a salty environment, the powertrain service requirement of the Silent Yachts electric drive train was — and this is crazy — a maintenance free 100,000 hours!
Dinosaur-powered yachts are completely tethered to marinas. Solar powered yachts? Not so much!
Now this, I thought as we powered soundlessly through an off-shore chop at an easy 16 knots, was a boat built for that live-aboard, island-hopping fantasy! You could anchor offshore even on a slightly overcast day and run your A/C, your refrigerator, your oven, and your washer/dryer when necessary. No marina power hook-up required. No scrimping on creature comforts that way boats requiring diesel generators for power demanded. And none of their attendant noise. Clean, quiet, endless electricity. Like the yachting equivalent of finding Shangri-la!
Still, I dug deeper.
Alas, that’s where the fantasy began to unravel.
Here, gentle dreamer, are some of the admittedly first world problems of owning a 55’+ catamaran in and around Florida.
When you have a boat of this size, you need to keep it somewhere! (Duh!)
Once you get into the 48-55′ range and up, a big catamaran’s beam — its width — begins to make finding slip space challenging if not impossible. How challenging? I pretended I was taking delivery of such a behemoth in a few months and spent a half-day calling around looking for a place to berth my new boat. Only two marinas in Florida (including the Keys) had ANY slip space available. Neither of those offered particularly open access to the ocean — you had a bit of a cruise through a canal network to get to any open water. Neither allowed you to live aboard your vessel. So much for THAT aspect of the fantasy! Now we’d have to find space for the boat AND still maintain a condo down here, somewhere. That hurt our fantasy budget!
When you can find a slip wide enough for your cat’s big-ass beam, it turns out they’re pretty fuckin’ expensive, costing upwards of several thousand dollars a month “rent.” In some marinas (i.e, those near places you’d be interested in living), you buy title to the slip. They cost upward of $100,000 to $200,000 or more, when they’re available. And they *still* have add’l monthly fees, kind of like buying a condo. Basically, in the nicer marinas boat slips are like real estate and the good ones are like waterfront property — scarce and expensive. Another ding to our fantasy budget! Ouch!
Slip scarcity impacts other aspects of the Boat drinks! fantasy, too. In my case, the dream naively included a component where once we’d bought our boat, we would move up and down the coasts of Florida, out to the Keys, and even all the way over to the eastern Caribbean (Martinique, anyone?) following our whims and the weather. The reality looked more like: You will live wherever you can find a slip for your boat, if you can, and whether you’re interested in that area or not.
Then there’s the additional nomad-crushing reality that for most people who’re no longer footloose and fancy-free twenty-somethings, if you’re going to live somewhere, we really need at least a semi-permanent anchorage (so Amazon delivery drivers can find us!). Worst case, this means an anchor buoy in a marina field somewhere, in which case one accepts having to hop in and start up the cat’s 8-12′ outboard tender into the marina or some other dock every time you want to go ashore — not something that’ll always be fun at night or during a storm. Or one rents an actual slip, which is much more convenient …and expensive.
Now, this arrive-and-find-vacancy fantasy can kind of work …for any reasonably-sized, single-hull cruiser. It even kind of works, though less reliably for catamarans under 44′ (with beams under 22′). Many marinas, if not necessarily the most choice ones, seem to frequently have slips available for transient boats that short and that narrow. But once you get over 50′ in length and especially once your beam exceeds 22-23′, slip space becomes rarer than hens teeth. The island hopping fantasy becomes a logistical goat rope. Trip planning becomes a function of trying to find future space for your boat in a here-and-now service industry not known for making promises about future availability. In most marinas very few slips, and almost no very large slips, are kept “free” for transient, short-term or seasonal rentals.
Maybe once one becomes a boat owner and learns some secret handshake, this slip-availability landscape changes, but…
That wide beam creates other challenges, too.
When you have a boat with that wide a beam, there are only two marinas in FL that even have the capability to pull your boat out of the water. As one might imagine, that can be a problem anytime anything more than a cat 3 hurricane heads your way. But guess what? That’s not the only time you need to pull your boat out of the water!
What an education this turned out to be.
With warming water temps and other environmental changes, a boat left in Florida waters these days has to have its hull scraped free of barnacles and mussels by a diver EVERY week during the warm months and every couple weeks during cooler winter months! That’s about $500-$700 per scraping for a large catamaran. But wait, there’s more!
Because the hull must be scraped so often, the boat must be pulled completely out of the water annually to get the bottom of the boat refinished. That service typically runs $7000 – $10,000. Or more. Not counting the time, expense, and hassle of moving your big-ass cat to the one of two places where it can be serviced, and then back again whenever it’s done. Oh, and were you living aboard? Find somewhere else to live while this is being done, my friend.
Oh, and it’s not just the bottom of the boat that requires frequent maintenance, of course. Salt sea air is corrosive. And the dew fall (and near-daily rain, during some seasons in the tropics) on and around shore is coming through air pollution, of course. That leaves black water spot rings on your shiny white boat. It’s also a roosting place (or bombing target) for waterfowl now and then. So it needs to be washed down pretty much every other day. Stem to stern. And the metal work should be wiped down, often with some protectant to prevent corrosion (even with anodized or “stainless” steel fittings, because down here, stainless steel …isn’t). Teak needs to be oiled. Rubber fittings need to be treated. There’s more, but you get the picture.
Naïve me never figured Jim Croce’s “Working At The Car Wash Blues” would factor so prominently in my Boat drinks! fantasy!
Then there’s the whole “sewage” thing…
One question we had was, what the heck do we do with all our fecal goodness (aka “fish food” 😁) on a day-to-day basis or while island hopping?
One of the yacht “veterans” I spoke to told us there’s no dumping of “black water” (sewage from the toilet) or “gray water” (waste water down the boat’s various drains) within 100 miles of shore. That turned out to be erroneous, so it must have been an eco-religious thing with him. Regardless, you only have about 130 gallons of waste storage tank volume even on a large cat. So that means having your sewage pumped, constantly, if you’re living aboard your boat in a marina. Especially if you’re entertaining guests and have 4-6 people aboard instead of just two. And it’s worse if you serve a lot of Mexican food… So that regulation seemed constraining. But reality vs. fantasy? All those days and nights we dreamed about, laying at anchor off tropical beaches or in secluded coves have to be broken up with constant shuttles into the nearest marina to get your shit pumped. Yay.
Further research indicated that the law around the US only limits waste water dumping within 3 miles (not 100 miles!) of shore and coastal waterways or NDZ’s (Non-dumping zones). I also found that many boats come with onboard sewage treatment facilities. So this may or may not be a major hassle, depending on the boat’s outfitting and how much time is planned out at sea. Whether you even have the ability to dump sewage at sea or must instead have it pumped out of a holding tank depends on the kind of MSD (Marine Sanitation Device) the boat has installed. It’s an important consideration!
Okay, so in our fantasy, we actually have the money for the boat and all the attendant expenses and, seemingly unlike almost EVERYONE ELSE who owns a boat in every marina we visited, we’re actually going to use ours. A lot. What does that really mean? Because the distances between islands can often take 2-5 days to traverse in this area. The answer?
Days at sea filled with beautiful …glaring boredom (occasionally interrupted by drudgery)!
Large, luxury boats these days come with autopilots that make course plotting easy peasy. There’s only one problem with using them in and around Florida and many Caribbean islands. There are shoals everywhere, including many surprisingly far offshore. Some shoals are only problems during low tide. Course plotters and auto-pilots don’t know to route you around waters that may be too shallow for your boat at times. It’s stunning to neophytes how much water around Florida and the Keys, especially around marinas, is only 3-5′ deep …or less. Most of these small yachts draw almost 4′. There’s little margin for error. Straying from a channel means a scraped or splintered hull, a fouled or bent prop, a long wait for a towing service, and an expensive repair (which can be a real problem if there’s nowhere nearby that can pull your big-ass beam out of the water. So the wary, “watch the charts and stick religiously to channel markers anywhere near shore.” Gotcha. Seems like a blinding flash of the obvious. If all the hazards were actually marked. Some aren’t.
Crab traps and traffic, for starters!
That shallow water, even tens of miles from shore, also means that crab and lobster pots (and their marker buoys) are EVERYWHERE down here. Steering clear of them requires constant attention so you don’t snag someone’s trap and foul a prop. Also, boat traffic is heavy in this part of the world, especially in winter. So while the boat is underway, someone has to be watching for other traffic and steering the right-of-way adjustments ALL the time. If one’s fantasy went no deeper than pointing the boat in the general direction of, say, the Virgin Islands and kicking back with drinks or a good book for the next day or three while motoring along, think again. The reality is more like driving an RV down the highway…except your scenery is less diverse. Those 2-3 day crossings between islands at a meager 6-7 knots for most powered sailboats or a Silent Yacht, or even the 16-19 knots if you run the Silent Yacht’s generator, (which of course makes it a lot less silent!), mean spending most of your long days diligently scanning the expanses of water ahead of you. Because they will look empty right up until they’re suddenly not. The novelty of “being at sea” wears off fast for many people, leaving the helmsperson with hour after hour of squinting into the glare off the water, trying to spot and avoid hazards before it’s too late.
There are more caveats for boat buyers. It’s only fair that I leave some research thrills for others to discover. Besides, by now I’ve divided readers into two camps. One is thinking, “Whew! There but for the grace of God go I; now what should I put my fantasy money toward?” The other group is thinking smh, “A few little inconveniences were enough to put him off buying a yacht! What a whiny little bitch! Puh-lease!“
But Dreams Die Hard.
Is the Boat drinks! fantasy as dead as my childhood dreams of being an astronaut? Fuck no! But I’d have to make shitload more money before the dream could be well and properly sated. Having one full-time crew member would change the entire picture, as long as one also abandoned the whole “live aboard full time” silliness.
But there’re other options. We grow up and realize the key is to evolve one’s dreams as we and they age. We change. Priorities change. Needs change. Dreams change, too.
Surprisingly, one can charter one of these beautiful boats in or around almost any island group one might care to visit. No, you won’t be chartering a Silent Yacht, but both sail and powered catamarans can be chartered with or without a crew for any length of time from a few days to a few weeks — plenty of time to live la vida boat drinks until your appetite is sated …and when you’re done? Hand that fiberglass maintenance headache back to to the charter company while you traipse your carefree ass back to whence you came. All the joy; none of the pain.
And you can charter a hell of a lot of boat time for fractions of the costs you’d be soaking up in depreciation and maintenance expenses, all without having a literal boatload of cash sunk <cough> in a depreciating asset.
In most places, there isn’t even any course work or certification required for you take rent one of these large catamarans. They’ll give you the instruction you need, (probably) give you some pointers about areas or shoals you should watch out for, and send you on your soon to be inebriated way (but don’t drink and drive, ofc!). Don’t even want that bit of responsibility? Charter the boat with a crew member. The advantage to that is that they’ll know the waters, the best spots to anchor, and as a matter of thumb, boat people are delightful company.
So, boat drinks?
Hell yeah. Let’s go rent a 50′ catamaran. Sure, it’ll have loud, obnoxious, smelly, diesel engines pounding away while our captain (and new island friend!) motors us from sunlit beach to secluded cove. But once the engines are shut down (and all those terrorized birds of paradise recover from the shell shock from their shattered quietude), the sights and sounds of tropical havens will surround us like a gentle onshore breeze. And then?
Boat drinks, baby! <clink>