Tracking expenses after a year abroad

To the editor: On May 15, 2001, we celebrated our first year as full time liveaboard cruisers. Prior to our first departure, we made a firm vow to keep diligent records. We wanted to track every penny spent and for what, every mile cruised and how, every day in port. We knew the first year would be as much about learning as cruising, and good record keeping would be an important part of the learning process.

We cruised from Peaks Island, Maine, to Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, then south down the East Coast to the Florida Keys. From the Keys we crossed to the Bahamas, then back up the East Coast to Chesapeake Bay. We traveled 5,355 nautical miles in 1,090 hours for an average cruising speed of 4.8 knots. We spent $18,900 averaging $1,580 per month.

As we started digging into the numbers, we uncovered quite a few surprises. Mostly, these became evident on the non-financial side of our analysis – in other words, miles cruised and how. Of course, how and where we cruised did impact the finances. We'll share the cruising data and follow with the finances.

The first real eye opener was our time spent sailing versus motoring. We are not Luddites; if the day was getting short and the wind was dying we did not hesitate to turn the engine on. We always considered ourselves real sailors. When traveling with other boats, it seemed that we would be the first to turn the engine off and the last to turn it on again. However, our data indicates that we need to develop our light air skills and work on our patience. Overall, we spent 633 hours (58%) motoring on the water, versus 456 hours (42%) sailing.

In Canada we sailed more, 193 hours (59%) versus 136 hours (41%) motoring. Once back in New England we motored more often, 53 hours (45%) sailing versus 66 hours (55%) motoring. A 36-hour light air passage from Portland, Maine, to Hadley Harbor, Mass., via the Cape Cod Canal was a significant part of the motoring total. Once we got to the Chesapeake our percentage of sailing to motoring switched back. Sailing time was 43 hours (55%) versus 35 hours (45%) motoring.

Our south- and north-bound travels along the East Coast were dominated by the Intracoastal Waterway. We had only three outside passages. Our time motoring in the ditch totaled 303 hours. This had a huge impact on the fuel column in the expense tracker. Our annual fuel cost was $901. This total includes dollars spent on fuel for the dinghy motor. However, the gas burned by our 3-hp outboard is not very significant.

Over the year, we spent 202 nights (just over 55%) hanging on our own anchor or tied to a free dock or mooring. We paid for dockage 120 nights (33%) and mooring 24 nights (7%). The balance included seven nights on the hard and 12 nights at sea. We spent our first month aboard tied to a dock in Portland as we worked on Kotchka, finalized the sale of our home and adjusted to full time life aboard. During the holiday season we left Kotchka at the Municipal Marina in Titusville, Fla., for two months while we visited family and friends. We spent over $2,300 for dockage.

Extended stays in one port were somewhat of a surprise. We expected to be on the move constantly. In reality, when we found a place we liked, we stayed. Weather, repairs, maintenance and the like also kept us in port for extended periods. We spent three weeks in Annapolis, Md., enjoying the social scene and the boat show. Four weeks dragged by in Marathon, Fla., due to a combination of weather, maintenance and repairs. While cruising the Bahamas, we spent five awful days rocking and rolling at Allens Cay in a nasty norther. We spent a much more relaxed four days at Royal Island and another four in Hope Town due to inclement weather. Extended stays in port can become budget busters. It's easy to spend money when you find the marine supply stores, restaurants and movie theaters.

Our financial analysis held few surprises, but the data is helpful in revealing ways in which we can improve our spending habits. We allocated every expense into 12 categories. Average monthly costs and annual percentages are shown in the two graphs (Figures 1 and 2).

Communications: Our communications expenses were mostly fixed. We spend $6 per month for voicemail and $19.95 for Internet access. A pre-paid calling card met our telephone requirements. Other expenses in this category included postage, an occasional fax, Internet cafés and shipping charges. We recently modified our Internet service to an option with limited (5-hour) connection time each month. This should save us $15/month.

Dockage: Our total first year expenditure for dockage was $2,327, an average cost of $16 a night. Sounds cheap, but the low cost per night reflects the extended stay in Titusville and the low cost of dockage in Canada. Significantly reducing the time spent in marinas is a priority for our second year out. This should be easy, as we won't need the startup preparation time, and we plan to shorten our shoreside holiday visits.

Entertainment: Restaurants, movies and museums comprised the bulk of our entertainment costs. We spent as little as $28 and as much as $230 in a single month. Proximity to family, friends and cities affected this line of the budget. While we're not going to avoid these influences, we are now tuned to their financial implications.

Equipment: These expenses came about when we added to Kotchka's equipment list. Charts, cruising guides, jerry jugs and a dinghy anchor are examples of the minor equipment expenses. The replacement of our autopilot was a major expenditure. We anticipate further expenditures in this category as we improve Kotchka's ground tackle and windlass set up and make some improvements to her storage and living areas.

Fuel: As we mentioned, we spent way too much time motoring. While 5% of the overall budget wasn't excessive, this is a spending category that we feel we can improve on. Interestingly, the lower our expenditures on fuel, the better the cruising experience.

Insurance: This category covered boat and health insurance. We carried comprehensive insurance for Kotchka and will continue to do so. Some cruisers opt to put insurance dollars in good ground tackle. We also opted to carry health insurance. Since we are in good health and reasonably young, we opted to self-insure, via a very high deductible. Essentially, this is catastrophic coverage.

Also in this category is $95 for towing insurance. Many marinas on the East Coast offer fuel and dockage discounts for Sea Tow or BoatU.S. members. For a full time cruiser, the annual fee can be recouped easily via discounts. For us, spending 13% of the budget on insurance was a choice we were comfortable with.

Medical: This category included minor expenses for updating supplies to our medical kit or minor pharmacy purchases as well as prescription drugs.

Maintenance/Supplies: Kotchka is 32 years old. Therefore, her maintenance will be a bit higher than most new boats. Kotchka, like most Hinckleys, has a lot of bright work. Varnish work alone adds significantly to the maintenance chores. We were pleasantly surprised by the low dollar total for this category. If we tracked time spent on maintenance however, the results would be different. Regular oil changes, new zincs, cleaners and polishing compounds are recurring items in this category.

Repairs: As with MaintenanceSupplies, the Repair category is influenced by Kotchka's age. There were six months in which we incurred no repair expenses, a very pleasant surprise. Minor expenditures included a sail repair, a broken latch, minor diesel engine work and fixing our old ship's clock. The single largest expense was a $900 haulout and repair bill in the month of April. When we purchased Kotchka seven years ago, we applied a barrier coat below the waterline. In two small areas the paint failed this year so we hauled her and fixed her before things got worse. Another large expense came from replacing a faulty injector in May.

Provisions: We like to cook. We like a glass of wine with dinner. We won't change our spending habits unless we change our eating habits. Neither of us wants to do that. Instead, we're becoming better shoppers. We accumulated preferred customer cards from several supermarket chains so we began to take advantage of the discounts that these programs provide. One cruiser we met had at least 30 of these cards on a key ring. The savings can amount to 8-10%, well worth the effort.

Other: Laundry and showers were the most common recurring expenditures that we captured in this category. These are not terribly expensive items. What elevated this category to $58 a month were one-time expenses: Bahamas customs, a regatta entry fee and an unfortunate ticket for using our dinghy without PFDs onboard. We deserved that one.

Gifts: Birthdays, Christmas, Chanukkah, Anniversaries. Life does go on outside the world of voyaging.

Beyond the numbers, a reflection on our first year of cruising also hints at other realities that differed from our expectations. We found that some of our equipment exceeded our expectations while some failed to meet them. In the category of those that exceeded expectations were our two solar panels, Sail-o-mat windvane and Single Sideband radio. Not that the SSB performance was superlative, but we discovered many uses for it and came to rely on it for weather, boat to boat communications and news. In the Bahamas, weather nets and National Public Radio via the SSB were godsends.

What failed to meet our expectations were our anchoring system and our new electric autopilot. The anchoring system is the original from Kotchka's racer/cruiser days, not near robust enough for use on a fulltime cruising boat. Our autopilot has been back three times for warranty work, a real frustration.

Other surprises: We feared Kotchka's six-foot draft would keep us out of many anchorages in the Bahamas and cause lots of aggravation in the ICW. Yes, we bumped the bottom, but we always were able to get her off. We also were told Kotchka's blue/green hull would be unbearably hot in the tropics. Not so. Good ventilation and fans kept us comfortable.

??Finally, communication: mail, email and phone, was a lot harder than we expected. Email and phone calls from the Bahamas were much harder and more costly than anticipated. Many cruisers use Pocketmail in the Bahamas. Since we need Web access for bill payment and website updates, Pocketmail would have meant an additional access fee for us. For next season we may bite the bullet and add Pocketmail to our equipment list or upgrade the SSB to enable us to send and receive text only email.

Additionally, the logistics of postal mail were a real learning curve. Sending and receiving mail from Canada and the Bahamas took much longer than anticipated. Mail sent from Eleuthera in February still has not arrived as we write this in May.

As we start our second year of cruising, we are a little bit smarter and more experienced, due in large part to the advice and assistance from the veterans of the cruising circuit. Of all our surprises, this was by far the most pleasant. Virtually every cruiser we met was very generous in offering advice, assistance, suggestions and support.

J and Marci Kolb are presently cruising the Maine coast; they plan to head for the Caribbean this fall for a second year aboard Kotchka.

By Ocean Navigator