Welcome to my new series: Earning Abroad! I 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!
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?
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.”
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?
I 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.
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?
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?
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.
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!