How to sail away without quitting your life: advice from a couple who’ve done it. Patrick and Sheila Dixon explain how to make ‘hybrid cruising’ work
Seven years ago, as a pair of empty-nesters living in London, Sheila and I embarked on an impulsive sailing adventure. I was working at a frenetic pace, flying all over the world advising global corporations on future trends. Meanwhile Sheila was running our company, working as a magistrate, and holding everything else together.
We were looking to slow down a bit, and also to develop new skills, reinvent our future and rejuvenate ourselves. But we were worried about damaging the business, neglecting family, wrecking our bank balance and risking a host of other things. Could we make it work by spending a third of each year aboard, as ‘hybrid sailors’?
Making the leap
It was a huge step to buy our own yacht after chartering a few times. “I thought Patrick was mad at first,” Sheila admits, “but in the end I was the keenest on the whole idea. My father owned yachts but by 70 was unsteady at sea and losing his nerve.”
Sheila’s mother had memory loss by 69, while my father died of cancer at the same age. My early years as a hospice doctor had also shown us both that life is far too short to waste a single day doing things you don’t believe in – or don’t actually need to do. We both believe in seizing the day: when life is uncertain, ‘eat dessert first’!
When we made the decision to buy Moxie (then berthed in Lagos, Portugal) we initially assumed we’d bring her back to the UK. But the lure of sunshine, warm seas and the fascination of the many countries along the Mediterranean coast persuaded us to sail east instead.
We flew out to Lagos several times in the three months before setting off. It was a very busy period, equipping Moxie and getting her ready, but ‘normal life’ continued: the day to day running of our company, client calls, lecture bookings, relentless answering emails and, for myself, travelling to speaking events, wherever in the world they might be.
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Our own time has a value to the business, so we found it best to focus on our clients, and let boat experts do much of the yacht preparation.
Making it affordable
We bought Moxie as a 10-year-old 47ft yacht, kitted out for offshore sailing, for the price of a large motorhome. Five million people in the UK own second homes – but you can buy a boat for a fraction of that, and there are bank loans or finance options. Depreciation is low if you go for a well-built older model and keep it in good order.
To fund day to day living costs we diverted holiday spending into our adventure, and made savings on domestic bills such as energy and petrol. Anchoring usually costs nothing, and many ports in places like Greece offer very low rates for yacht owners out of season – though hybrid sailing can rack up big marina bills if you fly home in summer.
We also moved out of London to buy a guesthouse on the sea front of Weymouth, which we now let out to large groups on AirBnB – but only when we are afloat, so AirBnB now covers most boat bills.
Moxie has ended up paying for herself several times over. Living aboard soon refreshed our thinking and led to us trying new initiatives. Despite previously having had 16 books published, I’d experienced a decade of writers’ block. But within three months of beginning our new lifestyle, I had a contract for The Future of Almost Everything, and Salt in the Blood followed on.
Along the way we’ve met all kinds of liveaboards, some with creative ways to finance their maritime adventures. We met a wonderful Australian couple in their 80s who regularly fly to Europe, buy 20-year-old boats and sail them to Australia.
They sell on arrival for up to £20,000 more than the purchase price (as good quality yachts are in such high demand there), which finances it all.
However, few liveaboards cruisers are true hybrids. Most are retired, living aboard permanently except for trips to see family. Some are much younger on career breaks. Others are taking a couple of years to go round the world, home schooling as they sail.
Few are still fully integrated into ‘normal life’ back home. In our case, we set off in a timing window which we thought could close rapidly – our adult children were just married, we were aware our parents might need us more in future, and we were used to working virtually in the business.
Our ‘rule of thirds’ model has stood us in good stead, although we don’t divide every year up equally. “When we are in the Med we often fly out for a week or two, any time of year, usually at short notice and unsure of our return dates – and we can switch rapidly between sea or land mode,” explains Sheila. “But in places like the Caribbean it makes sense to be on board for at least a month each time.”
“It’s very unusual for us to be able to be afloat continuously for more than 6-8 weeks. When we are, it feels magical, but it can take a while to adjust back into land-based busyness.”
Boardroom to saloon
When we crossed the Atlantic in December 2019, we were completely cut off from the world for 16 life-changing days, unaware that a mutant virus was spreading from China.
As a futurist and physician I had warned many times about the possibility of new pandemics – and there may be more to come – but if you’re looking for a safe place to retreat, a tropical anchorage has to be high on the list.
We recently returned to Antigua, living on anchor for three months during a lockdown. We made our own water and power, and had a month’s food supplies as back up. I was delivering keynote speeches from our cabin, while Sheila was dispensing justice as a Magistrate, virtually chairing court hearings in Poole and Bournemouth.
We were surprised to discover that we often had faster bandwidth afloat in remote anchorages than at home in the UK.
Over the years, the costs of roaming have fallen dramatically with unlimited high-speed data packages now available across Europe. In the Caribbean our roaming contracts provided some service but not enough, so we bought a local SIM and wifi device, offering 150GB for £80.
In some ways, our liveaboard life is easier because of Covid, as long as you can navigate travel restrictions. When your colleagues or team are working virtually anyway, who cares if you are aboard or on land?
However, Covid has also made our hybrid lifestyle more difficult. Clients used to be happy with emails plus phone calls as points of contact between face-to-face meetings. But now they expect video, which massively drives up data use at anchor, and requires reliable bandwidth.
Before Covid, we used maybe 35GB a month, but now we may need 200GB. Zoom can use 1GB every hour. So if we both make three calls a day, that alone could mean 30GB a week.
Lots of people made wild predictions during lockdown that few employees would go back to physical offices. I warned that this was nonsense at the time. Face to face meetings matter even more when we are physically scattered. It’s why Apple is among the companies that recently announced that all staff were expected to be in the office at least three days a week – they’d managed during lockdown, but realised they were unable to innovate.
So for most people with busy jobs they want to retain, sailing away for years at a time will remain a fantasy. But it is often possible to live the dream aboard for a third of the year, while maintaining successful careers. It takes planning – and flexibility.
We pick our wider destinations based on airport connections. Once under way, we anchor on weekdays where we are likely to have good mobile signal. Weekends are for going more off grid.
“The great joy of a sailing adventure is to go wherever the wind blows,” recalls Sheila.
“But we’ve also had anxious moments in a rush for anchorages or harbours in time for important video calls. We’ve learned to allow plenty of time to arrive, sort ourselves out, get out of sailing gear and online.
“Sometimes Patrick has taken client calls at sea and had to announce that we’re offshore in high winds, and he’s being summoned by me on deck urgently! Clients are always rather understanding.”
What lies ahead?
People often ask me, as a futurist, what I think is the future of sailing beyond Covid. The pandemic has shaken millions of long-term career plans, and the next year or two will be ‘payback time’ – I predict big spending on memorable experiences and holidays. Huge numbers of people will make major changes in their careers to pursue dreams, under the ongoing shadow of Covid.
Some will sell up and sail, cutting their land ties, but many others will be more reluctant to do so, after realising the importance of family in lockdown. So I expect rapid growth in hybrid sailing. This will force changes in yacht design – for example more power sockets, larger batteries and better desk areas.
As for the trade offs? Time to linger at home is one. We compress terrestrial things into days or weeks. There are family and friends to see, clients to meet, events to attend, we find we are busier than ever ‘at home’.
But for us, the gains of this new lifestyle have been huge, particularly the exhilaration and sense of release we experience as we sail from place to place. We feel healthier afloat and a decade younger.
Top tips for hybrid cruising
Prevent rocking at anchor
Rolly anchorages need to be avoided if you’re going on video conference, as well as for comfort on board. Pick your position carefully, and try to tuck under cliffs away from swell. Use a second anchor line to hold the bow into a swell, and fix a staysail to keep your bow pointing into the wind. You can also try devices like ‘rocker stoppers’.
Agree offline time
… and keep to it. It’s important to be disciplined about both going offline at the same time, or you will miss the very reason for being aboard. That is why remote anchorages with no signal are some of our favourite places at weekends.
Keep plans flexible to cut costs
Hybrid sailing means packing vital face to face work meetings into short, intense periods to reduce flight frequency. At the same time, give yourself plenty of margin on what flights to take and where from – you will find huge differences in prices with budget airlines.
Data, data, and more data
Get local wifi SIM cards in addition to roaming smartphone contracts. Networks vary – even 100m apart in the same anchorage, so experiment. We always have three contracts running: one each for each mobile, and one for a wifi dongle. Internet in cafes is often unreliable, too noisy for video calls – and may be closed when needed most. You may get an intermittent signal 25 miles offshore, but beyond that enjoy the silence. Forget satellite comms: these systems can cost thousands of pounds a month for heavy use and can’t handle video streaming.
Cut down maintenance
Do what you can to reduce annual maintenance when you have limited time afloat. For example, Coppercoat means an end to annual lift-outs for antifouling. A mini-scuba kit allows 15 minutes under water to change anodes and clean propellers. Our most useful contacts are friendly taxi drivers who take us to places to get things fixed, and do helpful errands.
Cabin lighting is usually feeble compared to a conventional home or office, to save power. This is a false economy when you’re working. We upgraded all cabin lights with the largest LEDs that fitted and added more. We also created mood lighting with LED strips behind covings.
Make your own green screen
Some colleagues or clients might be intrigued to see you on a yacht, but others may be distracted or even resentful. We bought a green sheet as a background to enable us to easily switch to an alternative image – an office, bookcase, or Court logo can appear behind us during calls. This is more effective than relying on app or software functions to mask your cabin.
Off-grid living depends on lots of power without running noisy generators when on calls. That means huge batteries, and plenty of charging options. We upgraded to 800Ah of battery storage, plus a fast smart charger. We recharge using shore power; engine; generator, wind; propeller in water when sailing, and are thinking of installing solar.
Two rectifiers + 12v chargers
We are totally dependent on mains for charging computers. We have two rectifiers (always backups for everything), which I re-rigged so mains power comes out of all power sockets.
Insulate your freezer
Our boat was fitted already with a huge fridge and freezer but both rapidly drained our batteries – so I insulated by spraying over 200lt of closed-cell foam into cavities all around them with dramatic results. Closed-cell foam means no condensation, but needs mixing onsite and is messy to apply.
Watermaker trumps air con
Few things feel more luxurious than hot showers when living aboard. That means large water tanks, and ideally a watermaker. Two people can easily use 70lt a day (25% of our usual consumption back home), so we are grateful for 600lt tanks. Our watermaker runs when we are motoring in clear water, and makes 105lt an hour, which means full tanks can last for weeks.
We have (noisy) air conditioning but that requires the generator running. Far more effective is to throw a tent over the boat. We made one ourselves from a large sheet of canvas, cut to shape. Pull it over the boom, around the mast and secure to guard rails and bow – it provides instant shade, a wind tunnel to drive air below, and reduces cabin temperature by around 10°.
Backups for all tech
Things can and do go wrong afloat – salt corrosion, phones dropped into the sea, coffee spilt over a keyboard. Even replacing a mobile phone can take a very long time in an unfamiliar country.So we have backups for all the important things – enough to allow both of us to work at the same time, even if two devices are broken. Don’t forget a printer, as well as paper. You will need it in for official documents, and other reasons in far-away places. Many times we still need a printout, or a physically signed contract.
Using a boat for business as well as leisure, for serious offshore sailing as well as living at anchor, requires a lot of stowage. When there are no guests aboard, both our spare cabins are used for spare sails, folding bikes etc etc.
Keep your body clock on office time
The Caribbean has a four-hour time difference to the UK, so we usually aim to be working by 0600, and finish by 1600 latest, enjoying a late swim before dinner.
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