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Earning AbroadWelcome to my new series: Earning AbroadI am often asked for blogging advice from readers eager to make a living overseas. Yet the percentage of truly successful bloggers is so low, promoting it as a viable income source to the masses feels a bit like peddling a course at the Barbizon School of Modeling. Plus — I’m still figuring it out myself! I thought it would be more interesting to introduce you to some inspiring and ambitious friends I’ve met on the road — friends who have found viable work away from their home countries. 

I met Nadia Pidgeon onboard a weeklong Caribbean diving liveaboard in 2010. I quickly recognized a fellow ocean lover and world wanderer. Later, I helped her make a temporary move to Thailand, where she started working on her upcoming books Aprons and Bikinis and A Year at Sea. Alex in Wanderland readers may remember Nadia as one of the merry band of backpackers I traveled through Cambodia with in 2012.

Nadia spent over a year working on a liveaboard. The 65’ boat held, at maximum, six crew and twenty-eight passengers, making it less “luxury” and more “camping at sea.” It is an all-consuming job – you live and work and play all on that one little vessel. There are no after work cocktails, unless you count watching the customers drink beers. There are no weekend yoga classes, unless you count the acrobatic positions you sleep in thanks to microscopic crew quarters. And there are no Sunday brunches with friends, unless you count a quick Skype call from the Starbucks wifi on your one day per week in port. Over to Nadia!

Working on a Liveaboard

AB: Walk us through a typical day on the job.

NP: We rarely had a “typical” day. If it did occur, it would look something like this: Getting up at 7am (or 5am if you were making breakfast), getting off the mooring and getting off to the first dive site. While the passengers were in the water, we cleaned up breakfast and the boat. When passengers return it is time to fill tanks, provide snacks, do a little sailing to the next dive site, and repeat the process. We served lunch after the second dive of the day. By lunch, we generally knew if more advanced maintenance needed to be done, had the weather report in and made adjustments to the plan, and came up with something interesting to do in the afternoon. The afternoon was typically reserved for our big location moves so there was a bit of sailing, then get the passengers off the boat for some type of shore excursion, and onto another dive. Dinner happened around sunset and then another night dive and we whipped up the rum punch for the passengers. After the passengers ate dinner, it was “family time,” when the crew sat down (usually for the first time all day) and ate their dinner together. Then off to find a good anchorage for the night, dig out some food to thaw for the next day’s meals, make sure everybody is happy and collapse in your bunk. But this is all if things were running smoothly and does not account for the approaching hurricane, passenger that broke her ankle, or the marine head that someone broke and is now sitting in the middle of the deck.

Our one day in port was busy flipping the boat, cleaning every square inch of her, gathering supplies (lots of food shopping), and repairing big problems. Supposedly, we had from 5pm that night until 9am the next morning off. This was when we did laundry, emailed family and friends, and shopped for personal items.

How did you come to work on a liveaboard in the Caribbean? What inspired you to find this job?

Caribbean Liveaboard Boat

As a little girl, I sailed with my father and my grandfather. In college, I always wanted to do a Semester at Sea but the conversation with advising went something like this:

Me: “I would like to do a Semester at Sea.”

Adviser: “You are studying architecture. There are no Semester at Sea programs for you. Go to Europe.”

Me: “Okay”

During the recession, unemployment was extremely high in my field and I was discouraged with the market, my career path, and life in general. I was fortunate to have a job, but it was just a job and I found myself spinning my wheels and living a generally uninspiring existence.

I returned from a liveaboard trip that renewed my interest in sailing. When I went back to the office, I couldn’t sit still and couldn’t focus and I knew a big change was fast approaching. I emailed the Captain and he gave me the down low: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I was not dissuaded, but I didn’t really have a useful skill set. I was surprised when the owner called me after receiving my letter of intent and asked if I could start in two weeks! She thought I would be suitable to run as chef, despite the fact that I had absolutely no experience in that area.

It took me just a matter of weeks to get everything in storage and leave my old life behind. No one believed I would really do it, but soon enough, I found myself on an old beast of a boat with a bunch of strangers and one cold shower.

How did your friends and family at home respond to your departure, and your time away from home?

Caribbean Liveaboard BoatI am lucky to have an incredibly supportive family that came down a few times to see me onboard. My father and brother love that I take risks and live my life by my own design. My friends though, struggled with my absence from their lives. Some friendships were lost; strong friendships that I thought would last forever. And I was judged by colleagues for leaving the corporate world and abandoning the monotonous corporate march to the “top”.

How long did you have the position?

I crewed for a year and a week. We worked six weeks on and two weeks off, though that was only a rough model. I worked the last three months straight because I knew if I left, I would never go back. The average crew member lasted about three weeks. A few ran off the boat as soon as we hit the dock without even collecting pay. A few were fired for breaking one of the three rules. Yep, there were only three rules: (1) Don’t do drugs, (2) Don’t hook up with anyone if their spouse is on the trip (yes, the spouse had to be in attendance, and yes, this rule was broken), and (3) Do not get in a passenger’s bunk for any reason.

How much money did you make? Was it enough to live on?
There were four positions for those without a Captains license: deckhand, engineer, chef, and dive instructor. All of these positions paid $250/week + tips, and the crew split the tips equally. On bad weeks — when we worked on the boat in port and there were no customers to tip — we made $250 for a whole week of work. On great weeks we could make between $700-$800 each in tips. However, that only happened with a steady, stable crew that worked well together as a team, which was extremely rare based on the typical length of employment (see above!)

The work was 17+ hour days, 7 days a week…. I never thought about pay in terms of dollars per hour because that was just heart breaking! Food and board were included and due to the nature of the job there was nowhere to spend earnings – so savings did pile up, but they were quickly drained by time off as it normally involved international travel.

In short, for having few required skills and qualifications, the money was good; for the hours worked and the risks associated, the money was devastatingly insufficient.

Bahamas Underwater Jeep

What kind of legal hoops did you have to jump through?

Crew on an internationally chartered vessel do not need work permits. Our boat was registered to a certain island nation in the Caribbean, and we never went anywhere close to that country so the issue of work permits was avoided entirely. Additionally, crew on internationally chartered vessels do not have to pay income taxes to their home country in most instances. The down side to this arrangement was the boat was not registered in a country with strict regulations so we did not have a few common safety devices you might expect (a little thing know as life rafts, anyone!?)

Traveling via boat does create other issues in terms of airline policies and immigration. Most countries and airlines require international travelers to provide proof of an exit flight. Captains can frequently avoid these regulations by providing proof their vessel is in a local port but crew are unable to produce similar documentation. We were all issued “fake” airline tickets so we could gain admittance at immigration for our upcoming charters. Towards the end of my year, I was questioned about my frequent arrivals and I told a very romantic, but very fabricated, story about my boyfriend and his boat. Embarrassing American girls sharing too many details about their love life are quickly ushered through…

What skills did you need?

I found that I needed not sailing or cooking skills but rather stubbornness and a willingness to adapt. I ran trips as the deckhand and, on occasion, the engineer, but usually as the chef. I am not a chef and have never worked in a restaurant in any capacity. I did know how to cook but not with giant cans of nonperishable vegetables and hunks of meat I had never before seen.

Stubbornness was a key factor in surviving the tough days, but the ability to form connections with the other crew and rely on one another is what made the experience good and liveable. It was, in all ways, a life of extremes with no neutral: some days you swam with dolphins, saw the green flash at sunset, and fell in love, while on others, the engine caught fire, the mooring broke, you drifted out to sea, and had to order emergency rescue for a passenger that did something careless. It takes a certain willingness to cope in those extremes.

What were the best and worst things about this job?

Working on a Liveaboard

The best thing about this job/life is the people. And the worst thing about this sort of job/life is the people. You either love the people you are with and will know them for the rest of your life, or, were you ever to happen upon them in a dark alley, you might just attack. There is no neutral when you sleep, eat, and shower with someone and are unable to get more than a few feet from them at any time.

 

The most difficult aspects of working on a liveaboard was the hours and the inability to escape work. Yet, there is something to be said for actively living life. Getting out of the cubicle. Seeing the world. Meeting people with similar interests. In many ways, this is enough to make the rest worth it.

What would your advice be to someone seeking to do this job?

This life is great for people who can stand the noise in their own head. There is no pop culture, distractions, or entertainment at sea and many people are not comfortable enough with who they are to stomach the isolation. Make no mistake, this is not a job. This is a life. You commit twenty four hours a day for weeks or months at a time, and it consumes all of you.

With any international work, it is important to realize you will miss everything back home. One of my closest friends lost her mother unexpectedly my third week at sea. I was not able to attend the funeral or even make a phone call.  You miss birthdays and births, celebrations and funerals. You give up important relationships and, even if you make great effort to stay in contact, people often disregard your efforts in light of their own feelings of abandonment. No one remembers that you spent $1800 to fly home for their special event; they remember that you left in the first place.

What do you know about The Caribbean that you wouldn’t have learned as a tourist? How did working in The Caribbean change your experience there?

Living and working in a place reveals a truth that is unobtainable while on a vacation. Those working with tourists and vacationers work very hard to ensure their customers have an AMAZING time. That is not reality. I saw poverty and heard real stories from real people that I would not have known as a tourist. But I also saw amazing desolate places that few people have the opportunity to see. My favorite bar is only accessible by private boat or plane. I have seen the ocean so calm that you can see hundreds of feet to the bottom from the surface. I have dove with manta rays and swam with pilot whales. Generally, these experiences are only possible when you wake up every day in a place and call it “home.”

Was it difficult to transition home and re-enter the mainstream work force?

Spear Fishing Lobsters

It took time to find work and establish the appropriate network to succeed professionally. I feared that the two years away would be hard to explain to potential employers but it has generally been an asset as I have been viewed as a person with determination, ambition, and persistence.

I am back in the US now and gave up my vagabond ways about a year ago. I would say I have still not successfully transitioned home. The wanderlust does not go away. Transitioning back to office life and the general mediocrity that is associated with the masses on auto-pilot has been exceedingly more difficult than the transition away. Ask me in another year. Maybe then, I can share a success story.

Have you had other experience working abroad?

I studied abroad in school. Later, I conducted a two-week design consult in Berlin. Recently, I lived in Thailand for a short time while writing and doing remote research.

What are you doing now? What are your plans for the future?

I am the Program Coordinator of an Interior Design department at a small college where I teach architectural history and interior design courses. After building my teaching portfolio, I hope to work for a university that allows me to teach abroad (similarly to how I studied) and conduct research or teach at a university in another country.

What question should I have asked instead?

Are you glad you did it?” When people learn that I crewed a boat, they commonly ask about the experience as if I was sailing about with a sun hat and a glass of Prosecco in hand. It is the hardest thing I have ever done. Harder than graduate school. I would never do it again but I am exceedingly grateful for my experiences and all of the ways those experiences changed me. I am a different person now. A better person. A more thoughtful, caring, balanced person. But one who misses the water terribly.

Working on a Liveaboard

Many thanks to Nadia for sharing her story with us! Leave her some love in the comments, and let me know what you think of the new series. I’d love to hear who you’d like me to interview next!

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42 Comments...
  • Caty
    October 17 2013

    Oh I love this new series!I’m always curious on how other people make money while traveling!hope you are doing one on au pairs as well! =) and Nadia wow what an amazing story!it is impressive that you were able to work like this for a whole year!you rock!and I can totally relate to the part about going back to your old life…it’s hard especially if home is nowhere near an ocean

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      Au pairs would be a great one! I actually don’t know anyone who has done it in real life, believe it or not. And yes, Nadia is a rockstar!

  • Chris Shaw
    October 17 2013

    Wow! There’s a show in this for the Travel Channel. Do you know anyone at Zero Point Zero Productions? Bravo!

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      What show is that? I don’t check in to the Travel Channel much anymore… so much of their programming is food-based, which just doesn’t really do it for me!

  • Liz H
    October 17 2013

    Alex – AMAZING new series! This is a fascinating story of a lifestyle I don’t think I really knew existed. Excited to see what other work experiences and friends you highlight. And Nadia, what a courageous leap into an unknown world! Cheers!

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      Thank you Liz! The list I wrote right off the top of my head will keep this series going for over a year. I’ve been so lucky to meet so many cool people!

  • Chelsea
    October 17 2013

    Great new series! You should try to get someone who has done a New Zealand working holiday on here. Thanks!

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      I do have one coming up about a friend who did fruit picking in Australia on the Working Holiday Visa there!

  • Mark K
    October 17 2013

    thanks for this write up!
    love your everyday posts, but really enjoyed a different perspective, not just about earning abroad, but a quick living experience in another person’s shoes.
    btw i never thanked you for all the awesome information i found on your site. I stumbled upon your site, initially researching Koh Tao for muay thai and scuba. We had a great time there, thanks to your write-ups, so thanks!

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      I am so happy to hear that, Mark! Actually I’m hoping I’ll have another interview coming up soon with a friend who works on Koh Tao 🙂 Thanks for reading!

  • Loved reading this, can’t even imagine how hard it’d be but wow, kudos for sticking it out! Sounds like you had some amazing experiences. I’d love to see one on au pairing/nannying, as of course that’s what I do myself 🙂 x
    Jacquie @ Must for Wanderlust recently posted..The County in Fall… (Photo Edition)

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      I think that is one of the very few working abroad jobs for which I don’t have a friend in real life who has done! Pretty strange as it is such a common one amongst travelers.

  • tyrhone
    October 17 2013

    Wow, that sounds hard, probably a lot harder than I would be willing to do. Congrats on sticking in there, it sounds like one of those things where the memories and lessons learned are sooo much better than the experience itself.
    tyrhone recently posted..Trees in funny places, the photo series begins…

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      I don’t think I could tough it out either, Tyrhone. I’m very impressed with the staff who work these demanding, 24/7 tourism industry jobs.

  • Amanda
    October 17 2013

    Ooo, I’m excited for this series! You should interview someone in the Peace Corps. I just visited my best friend from college who is doing it in Senegal and it was amazing to see how culturally integrated they are… she speaks fluent Mandinka which is only spoke by 1 million people (compare to 60 million who speak Thai!)
    Amanda recently posted..Welcome to Africa

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      That’s an awesome suggestion! My sister is doing Teach for America which is a similar program, though it’s a domestic position (she’s teaching in New Orleans for two years.)

  • Tony Pidgeon
    October 17 2013

    I am Nadia’s father and never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that she would spend a year crewing on a liveaboard! I find myself partly to blame, as I gave Nadia and her brother scuba lessons as a Christmas gift. They would do the classroom and pool segments in their respective home towns, then finish the open water portion on the liveaboard.

    I was out of the water and anxiously waiting for Nadia, her brother, and one of Nadia’s friends to finish their open water checkout dive. I was a YMCA Scuba Instructor for a number of years, and knew that things can go wrong. Soon after they surfaced, I heard a shout, “DAD!” It was Nadia, and I feared for the worst. Then, “Why didn’t you tell me this scuba diving stuff was so EASY!”. Well, the crew had a good laugh at my expense and I knew I had picked a winner with the scuba certification course.

    Nadia took to the hard work with grit and determination that I had seen in her when she was little. There are times when the sea can be a difficult and demanding taskmaster, but I knew that she would come to understand it and embrace it, as I did when I was her age.

    BRAVO! to my little one and her crew of pirates!

    Dad

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      Hi Tony — Thank you for chiming in! Your comment reminds me of my own father’s comments on this blog 🙂 Loved your checkout dive story, and that you passed your love of diving onto your kids!

  • Graham
    October 17 2013

    Soooooo, basically, she’s a badass. Nice.

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      Ha! I have to agree! Thanks Graham.

  • Jade
    October 17 2013

    Love this new series! As someone who just begun a job abroad, I can relate to so much of what Nadia said. Although, a year on a boat is a whole lot different to that on dry land with your own apartment!

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      And a 64′ boat at that! Hats off to those who work at sea. It takes a special set of skills.

  • TammyOnTheMove
    October 17 2013

    Love the new series Alex. I find it fascinating how other people make their living abroad. This sounds like hard work, and I am not sure I could do it for a whole year. I have been sailing before, so I could do it for a month maybe, but I don’t think I could cope with the fact that you have to work for 7 days a week straight. Perfect way to save up some money though!
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Me vs. the leeches – Mountain biking in the Chi Phat jungle

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      Yes, my ex boyfriend worked a similar job and saved up great money doing so. For those who might normally have issues with spending, living on a boat with no stores/online shopping is a pretty good enforced savings plan! Though as Nadia pointed out, time off can be quite pricey when you don’t have a “home” to return to.

  • Nadia
    October 17 2013

    Thanks for reading everyone! It was a very intense existence in that it was all consuming but that also yielded very intense experiences, especially in terms of relationships. We use to call it “the vortex”- the place where the real world ceased to exist and the world we created began. Certainly many fantastic memories, though not the life for the faint of heart!

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      Thank YOU so much for sharing Nadia! Looks like this series is a hit… can’t wait to start sharing more stories.

  • Diane
    October 18 2013

    Cool series! I enjoyed this interview and am looking forward to getting a glimpse into others’ lives in upcoming posts. Always fun to see what people are up to!
    Diane recently posted..Why moving abroad will disappoint you

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      Thanks Diane! Glad people are feeling this new series! I already have the next one all lined up.

  • Divelicious Chris
    October 18 2013

    This is an amazing series! It was so interesting to read and I can’t wait for the next interview.
    I’ll give you an easy idea: interview Anders – given that I remember correctly and he used to work as a dive instructor? Even though I do know quite a few instructors by now I’ve never really found it appropriate to ask all those questions..
    Divelicious Chris recently posted..The Final Challenge

    • Alex
      October 18 2013

      I’m actually planning to interview him about his work as a ski guide, though I’ll have other dive instructor interviews coming up as well! The only tough decision will be deciding which of my many instructor friends to ask!

  • Nadia
    October 18 2013

    Oh goodness! A badass in my father’s eyes only. My father likes to romanticize that I spent every day diving and blowing bubbles… The first week the captain asked me if I wanted to jump in for a dive. My response: “Can I take a nap instead?” So, if I am a badass, it is one napping badass! Thanks again everyone for reading!

  • Dad
    October 19 2013

    This is great idea for a series. Very good first interview too. This can be a lesson for those of your generation who are college educated and frustrated by the sluggish job growth in the US economy. Nadia and you are examples of thinking outside the box and looking to build your own version of a job and make a living. As Nadia pointed out her two years on the road or abroad can viewed very positively by an employer. A prospective employer that would turn their nose up at this kind of experience is not someone you want to work for anyway.

    • Alex
      October 19 2013

      That’s a great point about future employers, never thought of it that way. As mom once told me — “You have to remember that your employers are renting your time.”

  • The Guy
    October 19 2013

    What an interesting interview with Nadia. Quite a work experience.

    I am surprised about the lack of safety issues and the general approach about the employer. I wonder how they managed to chart the tours from a port. Did they get a licence?

    Alex, you are also correct in that blogging is certainly not a fast track to making money. Working whilst abroad is a way to make things affordable.
    The Guy recently posted..Beautiful Views From Dorgali Sardinia And Trying To Find The Best One

    • Alex
      October 19 2013

      Sadly though, many people seem to have that impression about blogging and I am often left scratching my head, unsure how to answer the many questions I field on the topic.

  • Nadia
    October 21 2013

    Good question from The Guy. The boat was licensed and registered but to a country with very lenient safety standards. There were safety devices but they certainly lacked when compared to US standards. All was legal and in compliance but the emphasis, as with most businesses, was making money. All captains held US Coast Guard licenses and they contributed (or negatively affected) the safety of each trip. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of an excellent captain…

  • Heather
    October 23 2013

    I’ve considered working on a boat, this interview really laid everything out! I love Nadia’s honesty. What a tough job, and what wonderful rewards. I’m not sure if it’s something I’d consider for a *year*, but it’s something I’d consider for a few months for sure!
    Heather recently posted..Zambezi Inflatables and why you shouldn’t Raft the Zambezi River

    • Alex
      October 25 2013

      I feel the same way! I think I could do anything… for a few months 🙂 A year shows some serious dedication and tenacity!

  • coffeeandpassport
    October 27 2013

    excellent idea for a series! i could’ve used this a decade ago! i’ll still be checking in though, you never know one of these might inspire me to pack my bags once again 🙂

    • Alex
      November 1 2013

      There should be another one coming up very soon! I’m glad you like the series!

  • Cat
    November 20 2013

    LOVE this! Especially the details and honesty, fits right into your blogging style too. Glad you’re doing this series and excited to read more. Thank you Alex! Thank you Nadia! 🙂
    Cat recently posted..Fall – #FriFotos Theme

    • Alex
      November 20 2013

      There should be another interview coming up super soon, Cat!

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