In their mid-20s, Shaun and Kelsey Miller decided to spend the next few years of their lives at sea.
“We had been making ends meet, but not saving money,” Kelsey, now 30, says. “We wanted to be able to save enough to put a down payment on a house.”
By working on yachts together — Shaun as a captain, and Kelsey as a chef — they’d live rent-free and have virtually no expenses.
Finding a job was easy. At the time, they were based in the Caribbean, one of the major destinations for private yachts and their owners, working odd jobs.
Shaun did marine carpentry and boat deliveries, while Kelsey worked on organic farms, worked as a gardener, and trained as a chef.
“Shaun had worked on boats before, but I hadn’t, even though I grew up around them,” Kelsey explains.
“It’s easy to get into the industry without any previous experience, especially if you’ve worked in hospitality before.”
Positions for chefs, stewardesses (who serve meals and clean), and deckhands, who do basic maintenance work, generally don’t require any boating knowledge.
Ultimately, the Millers ended up on an 82-foot sailboat where they earned a combined $US115,000 per year, which is a standard starting salary for a boat of that size.
They were able to immediately start saving most of the money that they earned. “On the boat, we had basically no expenses,” Kelsey says. “Our groceries were paid for, our uniforms were paid for, our toiletries were paid for, and we had a rental car wherever the boat was docked.” The boat’s owner even provided health insurance that covered them while they were on board.
Besides supplemental insurance to make sure that they were covered in case of an accident on land, the couple’s only real expense was a phone plan to call home.
Staying in touch with friends and family was a challenge: Since the owner of the boat used it over the holidays, they weren’t able to return home to Massachusetts, where Kelsey’s family lives, or South Africa, where Shaun is from.
And their nomadic lifestyle — moving from the Caribbean in winter to Annapolis, Maryland and Newport, Rhode Island in the summer — made it hard to put down roots.
Being surrounded by luxury in expensive resort areas meant that the couple had to stay focused on their savings goals and avoid getting drawn into a high-priced lifestyle. While they didn’t have a specific target number in mind, they were engaged at the time, and knew that both buying a house and planning a wedding was in their future.
“Because we had those two goals in mind and planned to move to shore after we got married and bought a house, we didn’t treat the money as disposable income,” Kelsey explains. “For people who make working on a boat into a lifelong career, it’s easier to spend money on clothing or expensive jewellery or fancy meals.”
Allowing themselves to spend some of their savings on travel made sticking to their frugal budget seem like less of a chore. “We did a dive trip in the Maldives and also went to Mozambique and stayed in a resort there,” Kelsey says. “Those vacations were expensive, but travel was a priority of ours. You have to reward yourself a little bit.”
Sailing into Newport one day in July in 2011, the couple both felt they were returning home, and decided to look at houses in the area. At that point, they’d been working on boats for two years and had saved up $US100,000 towards a down payment.
“We weren’t really serious about it, and just started casually looking around,” Kelsey says.
But by October, they’d found their dream house and signed the papers. The turn-of-the-century farmhouse had a backyard large enough for a garden and a dog, two spare bedrooms for visiting family and friends, and was within walking distance of the beach.
Best of all, it came with an unfinished barn and garage which could be converted into a workshop and studio — Shaun is a carpenter and Kelsey is an artist and printmaker. And at $US315,000, it was within their budget.
After finalising the sale, they immediately went back to work on the boat. “We basically emptied our accounts when we bought the house, but then replenished them really quickly,” Kelsey explains. With their basic living expenses covered, they were able to rebuild their cushion of savings while also making double payments on the mortgage.
Two years later, they “retired” to land, feeling that it was time to start working towards their long-term career goals. Shaun is now doing boatbuilding and marine carpentry while Kelsey pursues a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking, in hopes of eventually getting a teaching job. From time to time, they take short-term freelance jobs on boats for extra money, and are working to adjust to the fact their income is a third of what it used to be.
The Millers emphasise that working on yachts isn’t as glamorous as it looks — like any other service industry, it involves a lot of hard work.
“When you have guests on board, you’re on your feet for 15 to 18 hours a day, often for 10 days straight,” Kelsey says. “You’re up before the first guest is up, and go to bed after the last guest has gone to bed.” The crew is expected to perform service on par with a five-star hotel — but unlike at a five-star hotel, they don’t have hundreds of people on staff to help.
Despite the challenges, she says that working on a yacht was worth it. “I feel very fortunate that we had this experience and were able to travel — and also that we’re 30 and own our own home.”