Last winter, Trevor Hill sailed into Pirate’s Lair on his Oyster 725, Intrepid. There were no other yachts to be seen. “We were completely alone,” he remembers.
With Intrepid calmly moored, Hill joined an important conference call. In another part of the boat, his daughter continued coursework for her Master’s programme in London. When they finished, they went for a swim. “It was amazing to get off that call and plunge into the crystal-clear turquoise water and swim to the beach,” Hill says.
After a winter among the Caribbean islands, Trevor and Judy Hill crossed the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and then retraced their steps back to Antigua to join the Oyster World Rally 2022-23. The Canadian businessman officially retired in 2018 but became an investor and joined several boards. Since then, the Hills have lived mainly aboard and continued to work while sailing over 25,000 miles.
The technology that enables working from onboard a yacht has existed for many years, but it was not until 2020 that virtual meetings and remote working became widely accepted. “That is one of the few things that has been a bright, shining highlight of Covid, people are comfortable using Zoom and Teams and not seeing others in person,” says Hill.
“At the moment, I’m right in the middle of issuing a bond in the US and I will never have met any of the 25 people on that particular financing transaction.”
THE PANDEMIC CHANGED WORKING HABITS FOREVER. MEET OUR OWNERS WHO HAVE MADE THE SWITCH FROM LAND TO SEA AND MADE THEIR OYSTER THE HOME-FROM-HOME OFFICE WHILE SAILING THE WORLD'S OCEANS.
Mark Johnson says he always planned on taking his young family sailing around the world and the pandemic presented him with an opportunity to bring forward this dream while still working full-time.
The American consultant bought his Oyster 82, Jagiya, in October 2020 and he and his wife and two daughters, aged 10 and 8, rented out their house and moved aboard in February 2021. Since then, they have cruised from Newport and Boston and as far north as Maine, before making their way south towards the Caribbean.
Johnson has worked for the same tech company for 20 years but the shift away from business travel and face-to-face meetings has made it possible to go sailing while working as normal. “It is a different way of doing things and I think better than a traditional work or home office. The more you can surround yourself with enjoyment the better it is,” he observes.
Some might worry about mixing a demanding job with the distractions of sailing, but Johnson has not found it a problem. “It’s all intermingled from a work perspective, and there is no impact at all. I think the home life is much better even though I am working because there is this great mesh of my personal life.”
The only issue, he says, is around connectivity. “Infrastructure is different in different countries, and you have to plan carefully if you want to make a video call. If you have a delay on a call with 10 people, it is hard to get others to pause while you have your go!”
In fact, the technology that allows fast-speed internet access from anywhere in the world is well developed but can be expensive. You need to anticipate what kind of work you will do when sailing along the coast, offshore or in remote locations and how much data is needed, then choose both the right equipment and service plan.
Gavin Painter runs tech company IT at C and has worked with Oyster owners for over 20 years. It’s his job to find out how each owner wants to work and deliver the best and most cost-effective connectivity. He readily admits that the choices can be “a bit of a can of worms”.
Coastwise, most owners will use the 4G/5G networks, using an antenna high up in the spreaders to get a signal as far as 55 miles offshore to get services such as email, weather forecasts, WhatsApp, and streaming video. A modem can be fitted with SIMs that give network priority and will not be throttled at peak times.
For offshore and ocean passages, owners can use VSAT, Inmarsat Fleet One or Iridium Certus satellite services. VSAT has regional coverage with some gaps – for example, between the Galapagos and French Polynesia. Fleet One coverage is global but has speeds up to only 150kbps, whereas Iridium Certus has a much faster speed (700kbps) but is much more costly. Choosing between these also means navigating a myriad of pricing plans, minimum contract periods, bundle options and flat fees, with data charged from a price per MB right up to unlimited options.
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“Part of my job is to manage the contract side of the airtime and the spec of the equipment to suit an owner’s needs,” explains Painter. “Most of the time owners are on 4G, but if an owner is working while the boat is at sea they might go on a satellite data bundle which reduces the cost per MB.”
In these cases, Painter will set up a split network onboard, with one for the 4G/5G system and another for the satellite system, so that crews can switch easily between the two as they leave or approach the coast. It can work so seamlessly that people on shore have no idea they are communicating with a yacht at sea. “Sat phones can even be set up with a landline number,” says Painter.
Trevor Hill uses 4G/5G most of the time but when offshore uses Inmarsat Fleet One, which allows weather, email and WhatsApp. He uses WhatsApp messages to exchange documents, PDFs and Excel files, which he transfers to his laptop to review. He also has a sat phone with a hands-free kit so that he can "pace around the boat in the middle of the ocean on a conference call.”
“It is a bit more expensive, but not when compared with the journey of having to fly to a board meeting in New York!” he says.
Finding the right place to work onboard is surprisingly easy, says Mark Johnson. Like many businesspeople today, he was well used to working while travelling. “All I need is a laptop and connectivity,” he says. He has private space in the owner’s cabin but often chooses to work in the saloon or the cockpit.
Some yachts, such as Oyster 885 Firebird, are specially set up for working on board. Firebird has a double cabin that can be converted to a sofa and a large desk with two monitors built into a bulkhead so two people can work side by side. But, like Mark Johnson, Trevor Hill finds he doesn’t need any special arrangements.
“We’ve had many different kinds of homes over the years, and some have had beautiful offices built-in, and I’ve never used them,” he says. “I like to have my laptop and my phone and a cup of coffee on the saloon table. Sometimes I go back to the cabin to get away if we have people on board. So yes, I see people put offices in their cabins and that would be fine. But ours doesn’t have that and I don’t need it.”
“It’s a little bit hard to get away from work fully,” Hill comments. “The concept of retirement and taking the gloves off doesn’t exist for me. There will always be 10-20% of your life and mind [taken up] managing your own affairs, at least in our world, so you have to put in place all the processes to manage things by exception.
“However, I don’t see any of it as a negative,” he continues. “This is a nice way of doing it. It’s a luxury to be connected to businesses doing what I love to do, and it is a nice way to segue from busier work life.”
Asked for advice on planning a move aboard, Hill says: “If you are thinking about it, my advice would be: do it. It’s easy. The tech is there and it’s very good.
“If you are going to work from home you might as well work from your yacht, and it’s certainly more fun. When you are off Nantucket or Block Island or somewhere in the Exumas, cracking open your laptop for a couple of hours is a small price to pay.”
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