The sailing digital nomad – How I finance my on-board life

In the summer of 2019 I threw off the lines in Hamburg and have been living on my sailboat since then. In the last few months I have sailed along the European coast and I am currently anchored in the Algarve. Even though my running costs on board are significantly lower than in my “old” life in Germany, I still need money to live. I calculate with about 1000 € per month.

Most of the sailors I met on my trip so far have either taken a break from their jobs and are living off their savings or are retirees. Both options were out of the question for me: For the former I would have had to save for a while and then i would have had a limited time window. And for the latter I would have had to wait for at least another 35 years…

So I decided for a different path: make money on the go. And as a sailing digital nomad.

Working from anywhere…

I am lucky enough to be part of the first generation, for which there are many jobs in which it is possible to work location indepentent. Especially in office jobs, a physical presence at the workplace is rarely necessary thanks to fast internet and sophisticated software solutions.

As recently as 10 years ago, the Internet on board would not have been nearly fast enough, and even in cafes it would have been hard to be truly productive. Today, on the other hand, I have perfect 4G coverage in every Spanish rìa and in every anchorage bay in the Algarve. (While in Germany, even in the local train from Leverkusen to Cologne, I lost the phone connection to a customer twice. Unfortunately, back home we are way behind in these matters…)

My boat office…

There have always been a few sailors who have made their money on the road. But the few who really did this were either authors of sailing books or travel guides or craftsmen, who then stayed in one place for a long time, to work e.g. as a boat builder.

Today, on the other hand, “digital nomadism” is becoming more and more a trend, even among sailors. I have already met several people who work as freelancer, doing consulting jobs in engineering or biotechnology. Many of their customers do not even know that their contractor is moored in an anchorage somewhere in Europe, instead of sitting in the office in Boston, as suspected.

Employed or self-employed?

When it became clear to me that I wanted to realize my childhood dream of a big sailing trip, I was faced with the question of how I could finance my life on the boat. At first I had thought about getting a well-paid IT job (e.g. in Switzerland). As a computer scientist with a doctorate degree, such a job would probably not have been too difficult to find. With a few years of work, I could probably have financed a life on board for quite a while. Alternatively, I could certainly have worked as an IT freelancer on the go. But honestly, I didn’t want to do a job which maybe I don’t enjoy at all, just for the money.

… and my beach office

Thus, I decided to build my own “business” instead. Last but not least, I got encouraged and inspired by some friends and acquaintances who were already successfully running a location-independent online business. However, it took me a while (and a few attempts) to find my “niche”.

Making money with my passion

After I bought ahora and started the refit for my upcoming trip, I realized that working on boats is a lot of fun. To share my experiences (and get people to restore old boats instead of buying new ones), I founded the German online magazine KlabauterKiste.

At first it was more of a hobby, and it was not easy to write articles for the KlabauterKiste in addition to my full-time job at university and restoring the boat. Nevertheless, it was fun to get deeper and deeper into the topics of boat building and technology on board. And the positive feedback from my readers also motivated me.

In the first two years, however, I had hardly any income. A little money came in through affiliate links and the Klabauter-Shirts, but that was far from enough to be able to live on it. Even with the relatively low cost of living on board compared to a normal life.

Online magazine in combination with online shop

When the idea for the Klabauter-Shop was born through a contact with a Hamburg wholesaler, I finally started to make some money. Right now, I earn enough with the shop in order to cover my monthly expenses as a liveabord. So my trip no longer has a budget-related end date!

Even though I had never planned to run a shop, the business proved to be an ideal way to make money with the technical information I provide at KlabauterKiste.

In calm weather, I can even work on the “road”

Now I can directly link from my articles about the topic of boat electrics to products in the shop. So I can cross-finance the work I invest in the operation of the site and the writing of the technical articles by the proceedings from the shop. And thanks to the direct shipping from the wholesale company, I can still work from anywhere.

In the meantime, as a supplement to the online magazine KlabauterKiste, I have launched the platform BootsBastler.org, which is intended to enable an exchange of boat owners. Let’s see where the journey is going. In any case, there is no lack of ideas…

How do I tell it to my customers?

In the beginning, I tried to make the shop look as “professional” as possible, so that my customers would not even notice that I am not sitting in the office in Germany, but run the shop on board or from a beach café.

But why should I make a secret out of it? As long as the service is good and the orders arrive at the customer in time, it shouldn’t really matter where I am. So in the meantime, started to be a little more open about my sailing life: Since the beginning of this year, every order is shipped with a flyer in which I briefly present myself and tell my story. So far, I have received nothing but positive feedback on this.

This way, the customers know that I don’t just sell any kind of stuff – just to make money – but that I am actually interested in the products and as a sailor I know (at least to a certain extent) their advantages and disadvantages first-hand. In addition, this get’s me in touch with my customers and I regularly exchange sailing tips and experiences with products by email.

In this way, I have already been able to get some regular customers who prefer to order in the Klabauter-Shop (and thus support my projects), instead of leaving their money at Amazon or other large mail order companies for boat accessories. (By the way, the Klabauter-Shop is in most cases the cheaper choice anyway…)

Even though it took me a while to cover my living expenses on board, I have no regrets about starting my own business. Even if, as an IT consultant in Zurich, I could earn ten times as much. But now I am my own boss. I can decide for myself when and where I work and how much.

Challenging Work-Life-Balance

When working on board or in the café, the boundaries between “work” and “life” are naturally blurred. It is not uncommon for me to work, for example, in the evening or on weekends. But I also have the freedom to take off on any day of the week and enjoy the sun or sail to the next anchorage. However, I still have to learn how to separate the work and leisure time more clearly.

For example, if I take a walk on the beach, I unfortunately quite often get tempted to check the mails on my mobile phone. Then I get into working mode and start worrying, because e.g. a supplier does not comply with the announced delivery time and I therefore have a complaint e-mail because a customer does not receive his charger in time before the planned trip.

Focus on work is not always easy with the view…
… rainy days however are much more productive.

In most cases, such requests can wait until the evening or the next day. After all, at least in the case of e-mail communication, a certain response time should still be acceptable.

It gets more difficult with phone calls. Until recently, I used my private mobile number for customer service in the shop. Unfortunately, this has not contributed to the separation of working time and leisure time. So, for example, I was once called by a customer at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, asking for tips about positioning an antenna.

But there are also solutions for such challenges: For example, I have now registered a “virtual” landline number that is directed to my phone when I’m working on my laptop and otherwise is redirected to a virtual answering machine. I will then receive the message by e-mail. And in the shop, I point out next to my phone number that I am not always reachable by phone and prefer to be contacted by e-mail.

What lies ahead?

My current goal is to grow the shop to such an extent that, in addition to covering my monthly costs, I can also increase my emergency fund for repairs on the boat and, if possible, also set aside some money for retirement.

And in case I want to feed a family one day, I will need a higher income. But then a bigger boat would probably be due…

In addition to the financial goals, I would like to try to further optimize the processes in the shop, so that I have more time for writing the articles and I need to waste less time with accounting and administrative work

The Atlantic challenge

A big challenge for my business (and me) is likely to come up next winter: The current plan is to make the crossing to the Caribbean. This means, among other things, 3-4 weeks without internet. I have not figured out yet how I can do this while still operating the shop. But I’m sure I’ll find a solution to that too… I’ll keep you posted!

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