Why do sailing’s most successful influencers think the best boat for novice ocean cruisers is a performance multihull? Asks Toby Hodges
Over the last seven years Riley Whitelum and Elayna Carausu have advanced from novice sailors to logging more ocean miles than most of us will sail in a lifetime. And they’ve managed to translate their journey in the most engaging way, reaching more people than any other sailors on the planet via their YouTube channel, Sailing La Vagabonde.
This Australian couple are actively influencing a new generation of bluewater cruisers. Millions of viewers watch their weekly episodes of the Sailing La Vagabonde channel, which brings multihull cruising into your living room (or office).
In them they share their liveaboard lifestyle by providing 20-minute hits of endearing weekly escapism.
But their reach is now ensuring they have the ear of the industry too, with the couple starting to leak plans of a new emission-free vessel, which will be sponsored by marine manufacturers.
One of Riley’s latest videos is more opinionated and advises people what to look for – and what to avoid – when buying a new catamaran. Just how much do these influencers want to influence?
Sailing La Vagabonde: Novices to experts
For those unfamiliar with Sailing La Vagabonde, the channel has accrued over 1.5m followers thanks to the fresh, self-deprecating, and admittedly easy-on-the-eye nature of its bronzed protagonists. Riley and Elayna are supported by the crowdfunding model Patreon, through which they have accrued over 3,600 paying members, and make a healthy return from YouTube revenue.
Their journey began when Riley, now 33, bought a 43ft Beneteau Cyclades in 2013, financed from eight hard years spent working on oil rigs. He met Elayna in the Greek islands, where she was working as a musician for a travel company. Seduced by his characterful moustache and the appeal of life afloat, the 21-year-old from Geraldton soon agreed to join Riley aboard.
She began documenting their budget cruising adventures for family and friends, including the myriad trials, challenges and plain scary moments of liveaboard sailing, before sharing the videos publicly.
After three years, including crossing the Atlantic and Pacific, they struck a deal with Outremer for a new 48ft catamaran on a hire-purchase agreement. This provided a more comfortable base for shooting and editing video, which has transformed into slick TV-quality production for their Sailing La Vagabonde episodes.
It also provided a stable platform to bring a mini Vagabonde into the world in the shape of their son Lenny.
In November 2019 they made headlines by carrying climate activist Greta Thunberg eastwards across the North Atlantic (along with 11-month-old Lenny). However, it was only once Riley had completed this intense, stressful passage as skipper and topped up his estimated 80,000 sea miles that he says he felt more “comfortable handing out advice or behaving like an expert”.
Riley’s video on buying a new catamaran centres on why it makes sense, particularly in terms of safety, for anyone thinking of going long term cruising to opt for a performance multihull over a charter-style production cat. He thinks more buyers should look at the numbers, demand the polars, ask more relevant questions of brokers and not get sidetracked by sales talk.
“If more people start going into boat shows asking better questions and it all filters back through, then the second-hand market would be full of much better-performing vessels,” he reasons.
Cat among the pigeons
He describes people being attracted to a multihull that looks like a comfortable house as the ‘great safety paradox’. “You’re drawn towards, and inevitably end up buying, the exact vessel that you don’t want to be in when faced with a difficult forecast,” Riley argues. He believes that the performance potential of multihulls is one of their biggest safety factors, pointing out that during their passage with Greta they were “jumping from one safe piece of ocean to another, while surrounded by fairly inclement conditions”.
Riley lists a multitude of further benefits of a fast cat, including allowing you to: “pick your path across an ocean; keep up with weather systems; travel twice as far in a day; maintain the same boat speed with half the amount of sail up, making your passage dramatically safer”.
These are valid points, but I’m left wondering how far up the performance curve he recommends going for ocean cruising. “So that’s the question,” Riley replies enthusiastically. “If you’ve got a multihull that can really perform, you don’t need to sail it at full throttle all the time.” Therefore, excluding full race boats, he thinks performance craft from Outremer up to the more minimalist speedsters such as Marsaudon’s TSs are actually fine for beginners.
“You end up with a lot better sailors because those people will learn to sail on a boat that performs. You get that feedback, it talks to you more.”
That said, Riley and Elayna think that selling a performance machine to the less experienced sailor should come with responsibility.
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“I think that they [the buyers] need to be trained by the company that’s selling the vessel. So it’s sort of like, ‘yeah, you can have this, but you need a license’.”
I point out that a high proportion of multihull buyers are coastal holiday sailors, while many new performance cats are too costly. But Riley confirms that his video is aimed at people who want to do some miles. “And I also said be aware that if you start doing this you’ll probably catch the bug and end up doing a lot more than you think.”
The ‘truth about buying video’ is more focussed on getting people to ask the right questions in the first place. Elayna thinks the larger companies selling production catamarans “need to give a truthful option of what is best for coastal sailing and what is best for crossing oceans.”
Despite their opinions on production catamarans, Riley and Elayna make it very clear they don’t want to put anyone off sailing. “People are very emotional and I need to be really careful,” accepts Riley. “The last thing I want to do is upset Ma and Pa Kettle, who just spent their life savings on a Lagoon 45 – I really don’t. But all things considered, I just felt obligated to point out a few things… and because people do want to know our thoughts and ideas and opinions on stuff.”
Life in a slower lane
They emphasise that cruising is not all about sailing far or fast. “You don’t have to sail around the world to have fun, in fact the slower you go the more fun you have.” They refer to another channel, Catamaran Impi, inviting a response from South African couple Brent and Ana who’ve lived and cruised extensively aboard a heavier-style catamaran for 11 years.
Brent and Ana had to modify their Lagoon over 18 months to make it bluewater ready, but maintain they are comfortable on a heavier cat, especially during storms, when they’ll actually slow the boat down to avoid weather systems. In particular they highlight the ability for one person to be able to reef on any point of sail.
So, two different vloggers, two different views. It all shows how easily we can now gain rich information based on first-hand experience.
In their opinion, Riley and Elayna have the ideal boat for their adventures in their relatively new 48ft performance cat. Yet over the last couple of years they have been working away on a new zero emissions project, and have attracted sponsors, including Oceanvolt and Doyle Sails.
“The whole idea is to have a very good performing vessel… that can sail right up to the anchorage, before motoring in that last part,” Riley explains. He admits they don’t expect the new technology to be faultless and that with a young family they’ll err on the side of caution.
They already live relatively frugally, with minimal waste and use their reach to promote an awareness of ocean health. But do they feel the pressure to influence others with their new project too?
“With the emissions thing, it’s just so politically charged that we’re just generally going to lead by example,” Riley answers thoughtfully. “We’re going to do our own thing and just show you that either the technology works or it doesn’t.”
The bigger picture
Sailing La Vagabonde’s lifestyle may seem enviable, but when you consider the exhaustive hours of editing work, the endless search for wifi, and issues such as trolling which flourish when you make your personal life public, it’s heartening to find that Riley and Elayna still genuinely seem to love what they do.
It seems viewers are increasingly turning to them for guidance too (they now produce digital sailing tutorials). “The journey itself is going to be harder than people think and probably more rewarding as well,” is Riley’s advice to those considering long-term cruising.
“So it’s not easy and you just have to love it. And once you do really love that time on the water, which is a massive reset, everything just disappears. Your worries, your concerns, all of the things that seemed important, just evaporate.”
He says his enjoyment of sailing has enriched his experience of becoming a capable skipper. “If you love the lifestyle and everything around it, then the learning side of things – and upping your level as a sailor – just becomes easy… it just happens.”
“But you do have to love the hard times too,” Elayna cautions. She is heartened that their typical viewers have evolved with them and moved on from older men to younger dreamers and doers.
When Nikki Henderson wrote her ‘Across the Atlantic with Greta’ account for Yachting World last year, she put Sailing La Vagabonde’s success down to the relatability of Riley and Elayna. I’d add to that their genuine desire to communicate the positives of sailing.
“One of the main things is getting people interested in sailing that aren’t already sailors. That’s really cool,” thinks Riley. Somewhat influenced, I couldn’t agree more.
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