A changing live-aboard world

New Zealanders Anna Willison and her husband voyage aboard their 42-foot sloop Innocenti.
New Zealanders Anna Willison and her husband voyage aboard their 42-foot sloop Innocenti.
New Zealanders Anna Willison and her husband voyage aboard their 42-foot sloop Innocenti.

I’ve come to the conclusion that living a shipboard or cruising lifestyle has changed dramatically in the last five years. Some of the changes can be attributed to that small issue of a pandemic that you might remember from a couple of years ago. I believe that the other major change has come with lightning fast internet available anywhere in the world or in the middle of the ocean, thanks to Starlink!

During the weirdness of the pandemic, we became resourceful in order to work from home, we realized that the internet was a great tool that allowed us to work remotely almost anywhere in the world. Many businesses failed, but for some people, new businesses were created, and thrived. The pandemic also changed the way we had taken travel for granted. Oh how we longed to travel even more than five kilometers from our homes during those years of lockdowns. Some people were stuck overseas and unable to go home, stuck on boats in foreign ports, curfews were enforced, people spent thousands of dollars to get home, spent weeks in managed isolation (at huge cost) and we suddenly realized how we had taken the ability to travel anywhere for granted.

People’s spending habits changed. In addition to the panic-buying of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, folks had time on their hands and were buying dreams! Boats and holiday houses were purchased from the comfort of the living room… sight unseen! In New Zealand the average price of coastal property skyrocketed, and the yacht brokers were doing a roaring trade. Pre-purchase inspections were conducted via Zoom. People vowed that they were going to follow their dreams and spend less time at work. We were not going to take things like the freedom to travel or holiday for granted again.

Fast forward two years, and the pandemic life is but a bad dream. What has happened to those boats that were purchased and the plans that were made during that extraordinary time? Hello out there….Where are you all? 

My husband and I have embarked on a circumnavigation on our 42-foot, Bruce Clark-designed sloop Innocenti. We departed Aotearoa, also known as New Zealand, in May this year. The first stop was New Caledonia, then onto the Australian Coast. We cruised through the Whitsundays where we felt like the only people in the world. There were a few coastal cruisers in their enormous catamarans all set up with Starlink. Those folk seem to be working eight hours a day from their cockpits, and then streaming Netflix after work. There was nobody with whom to have sundowners, or go snorkelling or exploring with. There were so many abandoned resorts. I’m guessing that COVID, combined with the odd cyclone, spelled disaster for the tourist industry. It actually felt a bit apocalyptic, especially since there was very little cell phone coverage in some of the spectacular places that we were anchored in glorious isolation.

Now we’re in Darwin and still we have very few people to cruise in company with. Compare this to 13 years ago when we were in the Pacific with our three children on board. We sailed to Tahiti, Northern Cook Islands, Tonga, Fiji, New Caledonia and the Australian Coast down to Tasmania. We made some life-long friends from that voyage, and from other extended trips that we’ve done over the years. Maybe we’re on a less traveled path than the rest of the cruising fleet, at this time? Maybe when we get to Asia we’ll have other boats with which to travel in company. 

The unlimited internet that Starlink allows falls outside our budget. We’ve opted for a local SIM card which works for us. But, we’re not trying to run a business while cruising. We’re also a bit old-fashioned in the way that we have a HF radio on board. The radio allows us to send and receive emails using the Sail Mail service while we’re passage-making and to get weather reports. I take my hat off to all those cruisers who are able to make a living whilst cruising. If we were socializing with them, I’m sure the hot topic of how to have an income while cruising the world would be discussed endlessly.

A cruising, live-aboard lifestyle is not always easy. Sacrifices are made in order to travel the world in a sailing boat. Sometimes you feel homesick and question the choices that you’ve made. Sometimes you have rough seas or frightening experiences. Until now, I have never felt loneliness. The cruising community has always been tight and full of camaraderie. 

I guess I’m posing the question: has cruising/live-aboard life changed due to post-pandemic expectations and the advent of so much of our life connected to a virtual world? I hope there is still room for face-to-face social interactions and to be able to sit with other sailors and enjoy the actual world.

Anna Willison and her husband Angus are circumnavigating aboard their 42-foot, triple-skinned New Zealand Kauri yacht Innocenti, built in 1982 by Kiwi boat builder Brin Wilson.