Long Distance Motorboat Cruising – Is it Possible on a Small Budget?

It is September 2006, end of the rainy season in Southeast Asia. M.V. Lifeline, our 35 year old converted fishing boat, is moored in Ao Chalong, the main anchorage in Phuket, Thailand. Every now and then we pinch ourselves just to make sure this exotic cruising lifestyle we live is real. Six years ago we were wage slaves like most everyone else.

Lifeline is a 49 ft timber boat that used to fish for lobster in the southern part of Australia, an area notorious for its gales and rough seas. We had her converted to a cruising boat capable of long distance passage making in a one year project between 2000 and 2001.

We have lived aboard since the boat was finished and cruised 10,000 nautical miles on the Australian east coast. Last year, over 8 months, we cruised Lifeline 5,000 nautical miles from our home port of Brisbane in Australia through Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia to Thailand. And next year we plan to visit east Malaysia, Borneo, Brunei and the Philippines.

Here in Chalong Bay we are the only cruising motorboat among many sailboats. Our boat may look different - yet most of the time all of us boaties are engaged in the same kind of chores and pleasures as cruisers the world over. Most of us live on a smaller budget than is possible on land, one of the essential elements that makes the freedom and independence of cruising possible.

In the years we’ve been cruising motorboats, we’ve detected among sailors our age (fifties) some interest in possibly switching from sail to power, “…when we get older”. Motorboats are usually a bit more roomy, foot for foot, than sailboats and don’t require the same skills or energy to manage. In fact we’ve experienced a little curiosity from all age groups who appreciate the comfort of not having to brave the elements when travelling, being able to go from point A to point B at a constant, known speed or watching the world go by from a cabin at deck level.

You can imagine the sorts of discussions we’ve had about the pros and cons of our boats. But one of the questions people are too polite to ask is, “How can ordinary people like you afford to cruise the world by power boat?” (“....especially in a year when world oil prices skyrocketed out of control?”). The assumption is that diesel must be a huge expense. And, further, that there are no offsetting cost advantages in a powerboat.

This is how we do it.

First of all, to live on a small budget on a power cruiser, it is particularly important to choose the right boat....

Some boats could never be economical cruisers no matter how thrifty their owners. For instance, a planing boat is designed to go fast but uses lots of fuel to do it – think multiple gallons per nautical mile depending on speed! When not going fast, although they use less fuel, the lightness and flat bottom of the hull causes the boat to ride on top of the water like a cork, not a sea kindly choice for a long distance cruiser.

For economical yet comfortable cruising you need a displacement (or possibly semi displacement for coastal cruising) hull combined with a simple, slow revving diesel. A hull that is skinnier rather than beamier like some of the older fishing boats is likely to be easier to drive through the water. The aim is fuel economy (think less than half a gallon per nautical mile) and ease of maintenance and repairs so you can do as much as possible yourself. Lifeline’s engine is a Gardner 6LX diesel. 

The boat’s range is also important. Stated simply, your boat’s range is the distance it can travel at a given speed on the fuel it carries (with a decent margin for error). Lifeline, for example, at our cruising speed has a range of well over 2,000 nautical miles with 20% of our fuel left.

Range is important in budgeting because diesel varies in price from place to place and you want to be able to buy up big where it is cheap and bypass places it is expensive. For example, when we left Australia in August 2005 diesel was 80c a litre ($US2.20 per gallon) duty free. In Indonesia it was 38c a litre ($US 1.10 per gallon) but had doubled by the time we got there. Fuel was least expensive in Malaysia at 53c a litre ($US2.00 per gallon).

Even in Australia, we found enormous variation between suppliers along the coast and could save hundreds of dollars by buying in one port rather than others.

Naturally, just like with a sailboat, size makes a difference to yearly expenditure. Two big contributors to costs,  haulout, (including paint and labour costs) and mooring fees, both increase with boat length and volume.

Initial Cost of the Boat

When choosing a boat for cruising, whether power or sail - there is always the dilemma of how much to spend. Every extra dollar spent on the boat is a dollar you no longer have for cruising.

Designed-in cruising capability is inevitably more expensive than a boat built for the bay. For instance, you need more and larger fuel tanks, water tanks, sewage holding tanks. You need heavy ground tackle and certain electronic equipment. And so on.

On the other hand, the standard of finish, for instance, is entirely up to you. In our case we wanted a boat we could be proud of but didn’t want to use up all our cruising funds buying her. The answer for us was to have a 35 year old fishing boat converted to our own specifications.

Cruising Costs

Lifeline has been our home since June 2001, when we retired. We no longer keep a land base or car and have pared down our furniture and household goods so they fit into a 10ft x 10ft garden shed. So we have very little “non-cruising” expenditure once money has come into our bank account. We live off income of under $25,000 ($US21,000) per year.

That budget bought us a comfortable lifestyle cruising in Australia, where we would spend around 6 months a year island hopping approximately 2,000 nautical miles along the Great Barrier Reef and east coast of Australia. When in “away” ports we would mostly use public transport and our bikes but occasionally hire cars, eat out a few times a month, buy gifts for our family, have lots of photos developed, cut our own hair and sometimes stay in marinas. When in our “home port” we might be in a marina for up to two months a year.

In Southeast Asia that same budget buys a luxurious lifestyle where we eat out every night, hire cars regularly, travel to other countries often, have our washing done, buy orchids for the table every week, hire professionals to make our awnings and do some of our boat work and have our teeth capped .

Here are our Six Secrets:

  1. The first secret is that fuel is not necessarily your biggest cost. In 2002, I kept track of every penny we spent. I was surprised to find that the biggest proportion of our expenditure was taken up not by fuel but by “Spares, equipment, haulout, materials etc”, 18% of our expenditure. The next biggest, at 17%, was food/groceries. Fuel was 13%.


  1. Travel distance less – stay in places more. On a motorboat, the more distance you travel, the more fuel you use. The more fuel you use, the more money you spend.  Set your travel horizons to meet your budget.

We always take our time cruising an area, often spending weeks at a time exploring. We do this because we like to travel slowly (but it also helps the budget). Last year was an exception. We journeyed 5,000 miles in 8 months. But this year we have cruised less than 1,200. We are still on last year’s diesel.

  1. Don’t stay in marinas often. I found that marina costs made up a large proportion (8%) of our average weekly costs, even though we only stayed in them very occasionally. Even in Asia where costs are generally lower, a marina berth for a 49 ft boat costs a minimum of $150 ($US115) per week. And when you are there you live a different lifestyle, eating out more and shopping, for instance. I can’t overstate the potential to inflate your expenditure that this (variable) cost has.

In our previous boat we discovered that what drove us into a marina most was needing water, being uncomfortable at anchor or getting wet in our dinghy every time we went ashore. Consequently, we designed Lifeline so we are self sufficient: able to anchor out comfortably, catch our own water and store lots of it; have a good efficient electrical supply; and we have a large, fast, robust dinghy.

  1. Have the simplest systems you can live with: where possible, that you can fix yourself. These days all boats, power and sail, are full of sophisticated equipment. But particularly motor cruisers. Once you start looking, you’ll be amazed at the gadgets that are considered essential. Remember, the more equipment you have and the more complicated it is, the more likely it is that something will break. Then, if you can’t fix it you have to pay for someone else to do it.

The double whammy is that if you can find someone to fix it, you’ll have to wait around, paying extra living costs at somewhere you don’t want to be. So if you can lessen the things that can go wrong, the better for your budget.

Lifeline, for instance has no generator (we have solar panels instead), no watermaker, no chain counter, no washing machine, no air conditioner, no electric davit, one (household) toilet above the water line, no ice machine and flopper stoppers instead of stabilisers. 

  1. Slow down to your most economical speed. Even if you have selected an easily driven displacement hull matched with an economical engine, you can still drive it at a range of revs. It is possible to draw graphs to work out the most efficient speed for your boat. Or you can do it through trial and error. If you go above your most economical speed, your fuel usage goes up exponentially. On a displacement boat of 40 – 50 ft your best fuel economy will most likely be a bit under hull speed, or about 6 - 8 knots. On Lifeline we travel at 7 knots at 1150RPM, which gives us fuel economy of 8 litres (2 US gallons) per hour or about 3 tenths of a gallon to go 1 nautical mile.
  1. Hang out with other cruisers on a budget, who enjoy beach barbecues, sundowners on the aft deck and eating local food rather than finding the trendiest restaurant in each new port.

So, all things being equal, would it cost more for a couple to cruise under power rather than sail? Probably - but not by as much as you might think.

Relative Costs of Powerboat vs Sailboat Cruising

For a start, most long distance cruising sailboats are motorboats some of the time and motorsailors a lot of the time. You want to make the anchorage before sunset or catch the tide, so you don’t want to drift at 2 knots when the wind drops down, so you motor. You need to charge your batteries and run your fridges, GPS, autopilots, laptop, radar and navigation lights, so you motor. It’s just sensible.

Including the fuel we bought on leaving Australia twelve months ago, we have put 6,970 litres (1,859 US gallons) of diesel in our tanks at a total cost of $5,431.50 ($US4073.63). Unfortunately we have not yet found a sailboater who can tell us exactly how much fuel they used. So let's say this is twice as much as the sailing boats who also had to motor through a lot of this largely windless area of the world. This puts our yearly costs at just over $US2,000 more than our theoretical sailboat.

The cost of fuel sounds expensive. But remember, we didn’t have to buy and instal sails and rigging, nor do we have the ongoing expense of maintenance and replacement (every 10 years for long distance cruisers, according to some experts). One of our friends had a quote of $70,000 ($US50,000) for sails and rig on a sail boat of equivalent size to Lifeline and with an engine not much smaller. You can buy a lot of diesel for that.

Motorboats also have a few features that potentially save money if used wisely. One is the large flat roof area usually available. This allows:
•            effective water catchment - an ability that obviates the need for a watermaker and can keep you out of marinas;
•           an extensive solar panel array unaffected by the shade of rigging so there is no need for a generator or for running the main engine at anchor to keep batteries charged or to run the refrigeration system. Again this allows you to stay out of marinas.

Another is the ease of access to machinery and systems. In a sail boat, engines tend to be lower horsepower and work harder. They are not supposed to be the main means of propulsion after all. They are often located where maintenance is difficult and major jobs can require extensive disassembly of surrounding structures. Sometimes they are all but ignored until they go wrong. In our experience sailboats have more problems with engines than cruising motorboats.

On the other hand, a cruising motorboat usually has a large engine which doesn’t work as hard located in an engine room. Access to engine, filters, couplings, fuel tanks, batteries, v belts, gearbox, wiring etc is usually easier. Because it is heart of the boat, the machinery and fuel systems get lots of attention. Clearly this is another characteristic of motor cruisers with the potential to save you money.

The final feature I call the “bathroom factor”, often of more interest to that influential person on your boat, the Admiral, than to the skipper. It is a standing joke among yachties that the shower never gets used, except for storage. Or that “having a shower on a boat is like standing in a closet with a wet dog.” It is more common than not to make other bathing arrangements.

Along with needing water and electricity, I think this, more than anything else, causes yachts to spend lots of time in marinas. Having a house sized shower you can use every day makes living at anchor more like home than constantly camping. Such a design is more possible in a power boat because of the large, square, above deck spaces that are usually available.

If I knew how to factor in those distinctly motorboat features I think I would see cost savings in the cruising budget, but I'm not going to try. In the end, whether you can cruise on a small budget comes down to choices and whether the “payoff” (eg being in control of your life, visiting interesting places), is worth the “sacrifices” (eg having to dinghy ashore, having to walk places, never getting a long shower). The trick to doing it under power is to set up your boat to minimise the sacrifices and manage your fuel usage.


If You’d Like to Read More on the Subject….
Beebe, R. (Revised by Leishman, J) Voyaging Under Power. International Marine Press. 1994.

Buehler, G. The Troller Yacht Book – A Powerboater’s Guide to Crossing Oceans Without Getting Wet or Going Broke. W. W. Norton and Company. 1999.


About Sue and Philip Goodrick
Sue and Philip Goodrick first went cruising in 1982 when they packed up their two kids and 7 cartons of possessions and set off to sail their 33 ft, home built, steel, ketch rigged “family truckster” 2,000 miles along the Australian coast the wrong way against the trade winds. What they learned in that three years on a sail boat changed their lives.

They have now cruised and lived aboard motorboats for a total of 7 years, having bought their first power boat in 1991 as a “party boat” in Sydney, Australia. Later, they found she made a comfortable cruiser when they took her north for a couple of years.

The combined experience of voyaging under power and sail clarified for them what features are necessary on a boat to actually enjoy cruising on a budget.

Note About Dollar and Gallon Conversions
Just in case you are a pedant, an explanation about the volume and currency conversions in this article. These have been used to illustrate relative cruising costs. No guarantees of accuracy to any decimal places. My resident expert (ie the skipper) used a factor of 3.78 Australian litres to the American gallon and 75 US cents to $Aus1. In some cases our dollar costs had already been converted from other currencies to Aussie dollars.


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