Blue View – Comparing the Cost of Owning a Van vs Owning a Boat, Part 2

Now that Blue has been part of the family for a year, I thought it would be a good time to take a reckoning of what he's cost us, and compare that to the cost of owning Nine of Cups. Last week, I tallied all the fixed costs – those dollars that don't change much whether Blue is sitting in the driveway or carrying us across the country. This week, I'll total up the operating expenses. These are the costs, like fuel and maintenance, that do vary more or less directly with the amount of driving we do.

We added 18,150 miles to Blue's odometer this year, and I've used this as the basis for the calculations. We sailed Nine of Cups a total of 89,950 miles in the eighteen years we lived aboard, for an average annual distance of 4,997 nautical miles per year.

Fuel

  • Blue gets pretty good fuel economy for a boy his size. When he was still an empty van, we had no problem getting 24-25 MPG on the highway and 20-21 around town. Now that we've added the bed, fridge, toilet and cabinetry, plus all the tools, food, camping and cooking gear he carries, he's put on a few hundred pounds, and his fuel economy has dropped. I read somewhere that you can expect to lose 1% of fuel economy for every 100 pounds of weight added, and this may be a pretty good estimate, as we now get more like 22-23 MPG highway and 19-20 MPG around town. The cost of diesel has fluctuated a lot this past year, both to the overall rising costs and the states we were traveling in. The overall cost for fuel was $2,666, or 14.7 cents/mile.

  • Cups doesn't do as well in fuel efficiency. Her sweet spot is at 1600 RPM, and on a calm day with no current, she gets about 4.6 MPG. My brother's fully loaded eighteen wheeler did better than that. Fortunately, we didn't have to motor all that much, since she actually did have sails. A better number to use is the average annual fuel expense, which we have been tracking for over a decade - $1,593.

Maintenance

  • Blue has the advantage here, since he is still under warranty. We did get two oil changes, which are recommended every 10,000 miles. While going 10,000 miles between changes is great, they cost $150 each, or about five times what it would cost for a normal vehicle. A diesel engine also requires adding Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) for the emission control equipment, and a fuel additive to prevent the fuel from gelling in the winter. Add to this the cost of car washes, wiper blades and miscellaneous odds and ends, the total comes to $769.

  • Cups was an expensive lady to keep up. She had a lot of gear and systems that all took a beating on ocean passages – or just sitting around in the saltwater environment. She required an oil change every 150-200 hours of engine time, and a lot of ongoing engine preventative maintenance to keep her in tip-top working order; much of her safety equipment needed periodic inspection or replacement like flares and the liferaft; sails and the running rigging were always subject to damage and chafe; corrosion was a constant enemy of the electronics... the list could go on for pages. Our annual average for maintenance and repairs was $4067.

Accruals

This is a topic I've had many discussions about in the past with other cruisers when talking about budgets. If your sails cost $10,000 and last 20,000 miles, do you make an annual accrual for a portion of it or do you just not account for the cost until the year in which it's time to replace them? I've always been an accrual kind of guy – I think this not only gives me a much more accurate picture of the actual cost of owning a boat or camper, it also gives me an idea of how much money I should be setting aside each year for the big things that need replacing periodically.

Blue. I am accruing for the following:

  • Brakes. 35,000 miles, $800; $413/yr

  • Tires. 36,000 miles, $1000; $500/yr

  • Dealer maintenance, approx every 15,000 miles. $450/15000 miles; $543/yr

  • Batteries – starter. 5 years, 2 x $300; $120/yr

  • Batteries – house. 5 years, 3 x $300; $180/yr

  • Hoses/belts. $100/yr??

  • Wipers/misc. $100/yr??

  • Total: $1956

  • Cups. Annual accrual: $10,935

Marina, Mooring and Camping Fees.

  • Blue. When Blue is in Las Vegas, he sits in the driveway, which costs nothing. When we are on a road trip, we usually camp in a national park or forest, or a state park. Many are free, but even the most expensive ones are a bargain – especially for us old farts with our senior discounts. For our camping nights we averaged $7.80/night. Many had showers, but if not and we'd been without one for more than a few days, we rented a room. Assuming that in future years we are out six months of the year, I came up with:

    • 144 camping days at $7.80 = $1123

    • 36 lodging days at $70 = $2520

    • Total: $3643

  • Cups. When we were passagemaking, we didn't stop or anchor for the night, so that was free. When we were gunkholing or day sailing, we usually found a place to anchor for the night, which was also usually free. There were times, however, when there was little choice but to find a marina, boatyard or yacht club for Cups. Examples were: when we left Cups for awhile and needed a safe haven for her while we were gone; the parts of the world where it just wasn't safe to anchor out, like Venezuela and parts of Colombia; we needed to get some extended boat work done; or the area had no way to safely access the shore except via a marina. Over the last five years we owned Cups, the annual average for marinas and mooring fees was $3246.

The summary of all the expenses for Blue and Cups is below:

 Summary of all expenses

Summary of all expenses

So, let's put all these numbers together.

First, let's compare the upfront costs. I estimated it would cost $22,200 to upfit our hypothetical new-ish weekend sailer to an offshore cruiser. The cost to upfit Blue to a camper is budgeted to be about $20,000, of which we've already spent $11,607. Not a lot of difference between the two, and certainly within the margin of error (especially given my history of – shall we say – 'slight misses' of 200%-300% in estimating project costs).

 Summary of upfront costs

Summary of upfront costs

In comparing the ongoing costs of Blue versus Nine of Cups, however, it's easy to see there are some big cost differences between the two. It cost us $35,967 a year, on average, to keep Cups fit, safe, and sailing – more than triple the annual cost of traveling in Blue.

 Annual expenses

Annual expenses

If the annual expenses were tallied up for the 18 years we spent aboard, it amounts to a lot of money. We don't for a minute, however, regret all that money we spent.. we had some marvelous adventures, saw a gazillion wonderful things and made a host of lifelong friends. On the other hand, we won't mind in the least, spending a lot less on our new adventures in Blue.