Owning a large sailboat, our is a Beneteau Oceanis 51, is like owning another vacation home. While a sailboat is technically a mode of transportation, from a cost perspective, the annual ownership costs are much closer to what a ski or beach house run. Given that you could describe our boat as a mobile wind driven 3 bedroom waterfront home, a floating summer beach house is a good way to look at it. Another way to think about it is like having a ski house that you can move from mountain to mountain and always be right on the hill. Like skiing, sailing is very much a lifestyle choice and one that requires commitment to get the most out of. In my experience skiing and sailing provide similar levels of thrill, beauty, sense of accomplishment, tranquility, and occasionally terror.
I still have vivid memories from my sailing experiences as a young adult. The core of experience was mostly of flailing lines, jammed main sheets, and uncooperative winches all accompanied by lots of yelling by some of my older relatives. Sailing today is completely different. Turns out a lot has changed in the last couple of decades. I can literally stand in the stern with one hand on the wheel and raise the sails with a simple push of a button on the electric winch. All the lines are now threaded back to the stern (back of boat), the winches are all electric, the main sheet is on an in mast furler, the jib is self-tacking, the helm has an autopilot, and there are both bow and stern thrusters to help with docking. All the advances in electronics and navigation have made it very easy to plot and follow courses while avoiding underwater obstacles.
We have christened our boat, Vitae Magna, and it has been a good life aboard her. In the two and a half years that we have had Vitae Magna, we have taken her out at least two dozen times each year. For us the season starts in early May and ends in late October. While most of the outings are day trips over to the islands, we have done a fair number of overnights as well. I continue to be impressed by how easy the Vitae Magna is to sail, how well it handles, and how smoothly it rides through the waves. In a four-foot sea you barely notice the rocking. In a good wind, Vitae Magna will do 10 knots (11.5 mph) and it moves quite well even in a light breeze. One person really could sail the boat, but it does help to have a second person on board to work the lines on the other side, so you don’t have to run back and forth. Also picking up a mooring solo is not something I would want to attempt although I have seen it done (it involves a lot of running back and forth). The only moderately stressful part of going out for a sail is getting back into the slip at the end of the day. Backing a 51-foot boat into a slip with only a few feet of clearance on one side is not for the faint of heart. To do it properly you have to get the transom (boat’s butt) perpendicular to the edge of the dock, then swing the bow using the thruster until the boat is parallel to the dock, and then use the motor to back in. Depending on the current and wind direction, you also need to use the stern thruster to keep it lined up with the dock as you reverse. It sounds easy until you factor in wind, tides, and currents. It’s akin to driving a race car on slicks in the rain. It’s all fine until it suddenly is not.
Vitae Magna is 50 feet long, 16 feet wide, and draws 7 feet. Vitae Magna sleeps 6 in 3 cabins, has 2 heads (bathrooms) with showers, decent size galley (kitchen) area, chart table, air-conditioning, heating, and a good size dining table. The boat does have Wi-Fi so it is millennial friendly. She has both a generator and solar panels so we can power a fair number of appliances on-board for as long as the sun, batteries, and fuel tank last. Life on board is quite comfortable with a fridge, freezer, oven, stove, microwave, Jura espresso maker, and washer/dryer. We also have a hot plate and grill which swing open off the back deck over the swimming platform.
We are very fortunate that we have a number of islands within a short sailing distance. Many of our daily sails involve sailing out to one of the islands, finding a beach, dropping the anchor, and BBQ’ing off the back of the boat. After lunch we normally would take the dingy into the beach and let the dogs go for a run and a swim. The balance of the afternoon was normally soaked up by a few dips in the ocean off the back swim platform on Vitae Magna, soaking up the sun, before heading back to port. As much as we enjoy being out on the boat together with our dogs, it’s also a great experience to share with friends. With three cabins and plenty of room both above and below deck, we can comfortably take a 8-10 friends out for a daily sail and Lobster Rolls or a smaller group out on overnights. As we only moved to the area a few years ago, sailing has helped us turn new friends into good friends and opened up a number of great new opportunities to meet people.
So far, we have only had two hairy experiences on Vitae Magna. The first involved docking and the second a massive, unexpected gust of wind. On the first, in what can only be described as a massive brain fart, our dock master decided to allow a massive 90 foot yacht to tie up alongside the dock that runs parallel to the entryway of the marina. When I radioed in that the entrance appeared to be blocked, I was told that they had measured, and I should have about 3 feet clearance on either side. While that might sound like a lot, when you are piloting a 15 ton sailboat moving at 2-3 knots in both a stiff wind coming from the starboard side and strong current running against you, the room for error is tiny. It’s like trying to pass Max Verstappen on the outside in a tight corner. It’s unlikely to end well and way or another, you are going to run out of room. While we finally made it into the marina and our slip, it took 9 attempts to get Vitae Magna lined up perfectly to shoot through the small marina entryway gap. After the first couple of aborted times, we finally got the massive yachts crew to put out fenders in case we did drift. While it ended well, two big boats scrapping would have been an expensive outcome.
The second hairy experience came via a completely unexpected gust of wind. I was at the helm and we were cruising along nicely at about 8 knots in moderate wind. Suddenly we got hit broadside by massive gust. Vita Magna heeled over suddenly to the starboard side and I my legs swung up vertical to the deck as I held on to the wheel for dear life. Mrs. SSO very helpfully yelled at me to hold on. As soon as I got my feet back underneath me, I got the boat turned up into the wind and back under control. The whole thing probably took 30 seconds, but it felt like an eternity. While it ended well, had I gone over the side, it could have turned into a major mess.
Owning a sailboat is definitely a serious financial commitment. As a reference, we spend more on Vitae Magna, every year than all our supercars combined. Using the annual ownership costs of our ski house (including lift tickets and ski equipment) as a benchmark, Vitae Magna comes in at about $20k over. The major expenses are winter storage at $8k, end of season service and winterization at $10k, spring recommissioning at $15k, summer slip rental at $15k. Cleaning, waxing, and other miscellaneous charges for things that need fixing, can easily add another $5k per season. Add it all up and you get to about $55k pretty quickly. It doesn’t help that our local marina is a key driver of inflation in the US and most of these costs have risen very substantially in the last 2 years.
So, given that sailing makes skiing look inexpensive and can end badly in so many different ways, what’s the appeal? It’s really the whole experience from mastering the wind to get from point A to point B, finding a quiet bay to drop anchor in, BBQ’ing fresh scallops for dinner on the back deck, taking our Labrador Retrievers to the beach in the dingy for a run, sleeping while the boat gently rocks as the tide moves out, waking up to the sun rise, having fresh coffee on the deck, and diving off the back for an early morning swim to wake up. It’s a basket of experiences that ranges from the decedent to the sublime.
A sailboat is more about the journey that it is about the destination. Life on board Vitae Magna is quite comfortable. Whether it’s a day trip or a multiday voyage, time on the boat is a wonderful relaxing experience. While there have been a couple of hairy moments, the ones that we have had are very few and far between. However, everything feels right in the world when you are driving a beautifully designed sailboat on a sunny summer day.
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