July 19 2019
Baby boomers embark on a permanent voyage as long-term living on yachts becomes easier to maneuver
By Emily Nonko
July 17, 2019 10:30 am ET
Libby and Garry Hubbard aboard let it Bee in Stuart, Florida. Photo: Zak Bennett for The Wall Street Journal
Garry Hubbard didn’t envision a quiet life for himself and his wife, Libby Hubbard, on solid ground. He wanted to retire aboard a yacht.
With the help of Phil Friedman, managing director of the yacht consulting firm Port Royal Group, the Hubbards spent four years and roughly $5 million to design and build a retirement home that would take them from the Texas coast to Florida, and from the Bahamas up the eastern seaboard.
The couple recently wrapped their first full year of cruising on an 80-foot Offshore Pilot House Motor Yacht. This spring, they sold their full-time, 5,200-square-foot, five-bedroom home in Plano, Texas. (The Hubbards would not disclose the sale price, but it is estimated by Parker Wood, president of Dallas-based Josh DeShong Real Estate, to be worth between $600,000 to $1.1 million). They made their 2,000-square-foot yacht, which they named “let it Bee,” their official retirement home. (They kept a separate vacation home.)
The salon on let it Bee. Photo: Zak Bennett for The Wall Street Journal
One of the staterooms on the Hubbards’ yacht. Photo: Zak Bennett for The Wall Street Journal
“A lot of people talk about doing these types of things and never do it,” Mr. Hubbard says. “We’re actually getting it done.”
The Hubbards are part of a growing customer base in the yachting industry, according to Mike Carlson, of Florida Yacht Management and the brokerage 26 North Yachts. What was once an “old-school, small industry,” he says, now appeals to “baby boomers who have sold their businesses, or have adult kids with grandchildren.”
Typically, these customers aren’t roughing it on sailboats. And they aren’t living on so-called “mega yachts” which surpass 80 feet, cost upward of $30 million to build, and are extremely expensive to operate because they require a crew to run.
Motor yachts ranging between 60 and 80 feet can be manned by two people without a crew, depending on weather and water conditions. This allows a couple, for example, to live aboard for long periods at a more reasonable cost.
The Hubbards enjoy a glass of rosé on the deck of their yacht. Photo: Zak Bennett for The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Hubbard, an energy executive who is originally from England, has been an avid boater most of his life, including a stint as a British merchant marine. As he reached retirement, he felt that the advances in marine technology meant that he and Ms. Hubbard could crew the motorized yacht themselves, cruising the east coast and Caribbean for at least nine months out of the year while occasionally returning to their vacation home along Cedar Creek Lake, 80 miles south of Dallas. They purchased the five-bedroom, four-bathroom, 6,500-square-foot vacation home in 2008 for over $1 million, according to Mr. Hubbard
Not only do advances in technology make the yachts easier to pilot with a smaller crew, they also make them more conducive to long-term living, according to Carlson. Internet and phone connectivity on the water allows cruisers to spend more time on their vessels while keeping in touch with family or run a business.
Dan Kirsch continues to work full-time as a sales trainer and consultant from the office inside Sandana, a 61-foot Outer Reef 610 motor yacht. He met his partner Sandy Williamson 13 years ago and they both expressed a dream to sell everything, buy a big boat and cruise.
The couple spent the ensuing years cruising out of Beverly, Mass., and planning to live aboard once all of Mr. Kirsch’s children had left for college.
They dedicated 18 months to downsizing what they owned to a two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo in the Cove area of Beverly that Mr. Kirsch purchased 13 years ago. That “home base” residence is now valued around $450,000, he says. While downsizing, they built a customized vessel with Outer Reef Yachts, a Florida-based boat dealer. Work on the yacht was completed in June 2017.
“We signed the paperwork and left [to cruise] that day,” Mr. Kirsch says. Though he declined to share the cost of construction, he notes that buying or building a 61-foot motorized yacht typically costs between $1.2 and $3 million.
Sandy Williamson and Dan Kirsch on the foredeck of Sandana. Photo: Bob O'Connor for The Wall Street Journal
The couple travels extensively along the east coast and the Bahamas and Sandana was recently anchored off the Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas. They will travel to Nova Scotia this summer, with future plans to explore British Columbia, Alaska and the Panama Canal.
Their vessel includes three staterooms, a stand-up engine room and storage for paddle boards, scuba equipment, fishing gear and fold-up bicycles. Ms. Williamson likens their live-aboard lifestyle to “a perpetual vacation.”
But cruising demands extensive planning, knowledge and research, both Mr. Kirsch and Mr. Hubbard say. Aside from the expertise required and cost inherent in running and maintaining a vehicle as complex as a yacht, motor yachts need frequent docking at marinas to replenish fuel, water, food and other necessities, and for waste disposal, cleaning and maintenance.
The aft deck lounge on Sandana. Photo: Bob O\'Connor for The Wall Street Journal
Sandana’s exterior pilot house. Photo: Bob O'Connor for The Wall Street Journal
There’s also a matter of budgeting for live-aboard expenses, like fuel, insurance, maintenance and spare parts, as well as preparing for on-site repairs. “I have a spare for everything conceivable,” Mr. Kirsch says. He sets aside $10,000 a year for unexpected mechanical issues, which he hasn’t yet tapped into over their 1,300 hours of cruising.
Mr. Kirsch and Ms. Williamson budgeted for dockage and related expenses ahead of time. Marina costs can range between $150 and $300 per night, depending on location, length of stay and size of a vessel.
There are smaller concerns, like getting a haircut or manicure, Ms. Williamson notes. Then there are the bigger concerns: hitting bad weather or facing major mechanical issues on the open seas.
To prepare, Mr. and Ms. Hubbard attended navigation school, boat-handling school, and Mr. Hubbard updated his captain’s license. He stays up-to-date with ActiveCaptain, an online boating community offering tips on navigation, marinas and other services for living on the water.
“We have a very advanced electronics system, weather radars, all sorts of tools to make sure [an emergency] doesn’t happen,” Mr. Hubbard says. In their 18 months of travel, Mr. Hubbard counts three days of inclement weather he did not see coming on his yacht’s weather radars. “But we didn’t feel we were in danger,” he says.
Long-distance cruising is accessible to many more people thanks to advances in navigational, operational and communication technology. Photo: Bob O'Connor for The Wall Street Journal
Solar panels on Sandana help power its batteries for long-distance cruises. Photo: Bob O’Connor for The Wall Street Journal
Neither couple plans to cruise the open seas permanently. The Hubbards expect to live mainly on their yacht for the next three to five years, while Mr. Kirsh and Ms. Williamson have a longer seven-to-ten-year plan.
Bruce Johnson is a Hawaii-based retiree now making preparations for life on the high seas with his wife Myong Johnson. They have listed their 4,951-square-foot home with two bedrooms and three bathrooms in Lanai City, Hawaii, for $10.5 million and plan to move onto a yacht after the property sells.
They are considering the 2018 Nordhavn Sea Yah, a 76-foot motor yacht with four state rooms, to travel between the Hawaiian islands and Canada. They plan to spend roughly $5 million on the vessel, then reserve $100,000 a year for mooring fees, upkeep and travel costs. “It’s really just about an equal cost for a luxury condo leased in Honolulu,” Mr. Johnson says.
Mr. Johnson has spent much of his life on boats. He started his own commercial fishing business, the Fresh Island Fish Co., in 1977, then opened two seafood restaurants on Hawaii. Ms. Johnson “never stepped on a boat until she met me,” he says. “She’s now a tiger. She’s my crew.”
For him, spending at least some of retirement aboard felt inevitable. “The mentality has always been there,” he says. “That’s probably the hardest move for somebody coming from the land to committing to be part of the ocean—they have to learn the ocean. That single thing right there could be the make or break.”
The let it Bee leaves Stuart, Florida. PHOTO: ZAK BENNETT FOR THE WALL STREET