Working From Home: When the Boat Is Your Office

The pandemic taught many people that cruising without quitting work is a real possibility.

Amy Alton
Amy Alton takes a break from Starry Horizons’ onboard workstation with a swim off Conception Island, Bahamas. David Alton

How long are you staying here?” I asked my new cruising friend. 

We were anchored with a few other boats off Water Cay, part of the Jumentos Cays, Bahamas, 35 miles south of the nearest town, George Town. A group had gathered on the beach, watching the sunset and drinking sundowners.

“We leave tomorrow for Hog Cay,” my friend said. “I have a conference call Monday at 8 a.m.”

It isn’t often that I ask a fellow cruiser, “What do you do for work?” but this ­situation called for it.

“I’m legal counsel for an environmental nonprofit,” was the answer.

A common belief about cruising is that to get to exotic destinations and beautiful beaches, you have to quit your job. But what if you want to keep working? What if you can find a different work-life balance, one that allows you to fit work—hopefully fulfilling, satisfying work—into the cruising life?

More and more cruisers these days (especially ones I encountered in the Bahamas this season) are doing the latter.

When we set out to go cruising on our Helia 44 Starry Horizons, I planned to take a sabbatical. Our circumnavigation would span five years, and I was 30 years old at the start. Surely, I thought, I could find a new job when I came back to land life. 

But the choice caused me no small amount of worry. I had been running my own business, making decisions, and utilizing my expertise every day. Upon selling my business, I would go to a life where we lazily bobbed on the hook and had nothing on the agenda but sundowner cocktails with our neighbors. How would I stay satisfied and happy?

I like to learn. I like to hustle. I like to stay busy and active. It didn’t seem like those two ideas could work together.

And then I found while cruising that my drive ­morphed into hobbies. I picked up a camera and learned how to take great ­pictures. I wrote articles for my own blog and for ­magazines. I consulted on projects that piqued my interest. Sometimes I even got paid for these things. But doing them also meant I was spending more time at my laptop instead of on the beach.

The end of our circumnavigation coincided with a few things that, for better or worse, changed the world—and cruising along with it. With months of COVID-19 lockdown looming, I asked myself: What do I want to do with my time?

I wanted to write fiction. So, while in Jolly Harbour, Antigua, under lockdown, I wrote my first novel.

Many people on land also embraced work-from-home culture during the pandemic. After all, Zoom meetings are the same whether you are sitting in a Manhattan office or on a sailboat in the Caribbean. Now, in the Bahamas, I’ve seen an influx of cruisers who are still employed or self-­employed. The work-from-home idea has transitioned to a life of working from the boat. Yes, we all still talk about bottom paint and the best place to shop for produce, but we also talk about power consumption, ergonomics, and internet service. 

Catamarans in the Caribbean are outfitted with thousands of watts of solar panels, and up to a 1,000 usable amp-hours of lithium batteries. While we have a lot of reasons to add more solar panels on our boat, using a laptop 40 hours a week is an important one. We installed a new plug to power my laptop in a more convenient location, and made space for a second monitor for my husband’s desk.

Internet is changing too. Technology is extending the range of cellphone service. Signal boosters and Wi-Fi routers give us a stronger ­signal, even miles away from the nearest cellphone tower. At Conception Island, a ­national park in the Bahamas, we can get cellphone service from a tower more than 15 miles away if we send our router up the mast.

Still, boats aren’t built with an office in mind. Our ­catamaran, a Fountaine Pajot Helia 44, came with two “desks”—one in the owner’s stateroom and one in the ­salon. Those desks are too small for dual monitors, too tall for my elbows and ­shoulders, and too thick for my knees.

And then, there’s my seat. The foam cushions ubiquitous in sailboats put my butt to sleep. There are no backrests, so my neck and shoulders tend to slouch. A reminder on my phone or watch has me standing up and walking laps around the deck every hour to prevent my shoulders from rebelling.

Of course, in the Bahamas, it’s hot. To keep cool while I write, I sit in front of a forward-facing hatch. Sunlight blasts into the salon, either directly or reflecting off the water, making a sunshade a ­necessity so I can see the screen.

I’ve met cruisers this season who fully converted one of their staterooms into an office. Some people might wonder if this defeats the purpose of cruising, but the true reality of cruising is compromise. My husband and I both quit our jobs to go cruising, but in doing so, we gave ourselves the flexibility to pursue whatever we wanted. Now he works downstairs in our owner’s stateroom while I work upstairs in the salon. Our work doesn’t have to be a 40-hour week, and it doesn’t require internet all the time. We make our own schedules. If I decide that it’s more important to join a group of cruisers on a hike or celebrate the sunset with sundowners, I can.

I do have nightmares about sending the wrong file to my editor before sailing off to a remote island. Once, a cell tower in Hog Cay went out for 10 hours, leaving some of us wondering if we needed to move to the nearest town, 85 miles away, to keep up with our work. I can forward my emails to my satellite phone, but it has limitations. 

In the coming years, we might have the broadband global internet access that’s been promised to us. For now, though, with careful planning, my husband and I can both run passion projects from our floating home, bobbing gently in paradise, where the sun is shining and the water is fine.

I’ll try not to get sand and sunscreen on my keyboard.

Five Questions for Amy

What’s your battery power source? 

We recently upgraded to lithium batteries, and we have 1,000 amp-hours in our house bank. 

How do you stay connected off-grid? 

This year, in the Bahamas, we are using My Island Wi-Fi for unlimited data. It comes with a Wi-Fi router to connect to all of our devices. In most countries, we buy a local SIM card and use it in our unlocked router. There are also devices out there that boost cellphone signals, which we are looking into adding this year.

How do you address ­ergonomics on board?

I have a stand to raise up my laptop to eye level, and I also have an ergonomic ­keyboard and mouse. However, back ­support can be a ­problem, which we are looking to ­address through renovations this summer.

What type of laptop do you use?

I write on a 5-year-old Asus laptop, and my husband, David, works on his new MacBook. I’m looking to upgrade this year.

What type of setup would you recommend for communication, e.g., Zoom and Google Chat meetings?

For my older laptop, I have a Logitech USB webcam. Hopefully, when I upgrade this year, my laptop will have a better built-in camera. Because the boat is constantly moving, and with the sun playing hide-and-seek behind clouds, lighting can be challenging. We try to schedule important video calls for the evening and use professional LED lights to provide better lighting at night.

Circumnavigators Amy and David Alton are enjoying a cruising season in the Bahamas, with plans to sail to Rhode Island later in the year.

More People