The first thing Elayna Carausu noticed about Riley Whitelum, as their eyes locked across the town square in the Greek island of Ios, was his distinctive moustache. When he told her that he had a boat, she assumed it was a pick-up line. She was wrong.
Despite having no previous sailing experience, Riley had used his savings from years working on oil rigs to buy a barely-used 43ft Beneteau craft from three bickering Italians. Luckily he had taught himself a few things in the months before meeting Elayna, who was working for a travel company in Greece, but his journey was not without the occasional mishap. He recalls one night in Dubrovnik, Croatia, when the boat – already slowly taking on water from a hidden leak – was swamped by a wake from a fishing boat. Riley awoke to a cabin awash with water and frantically Googled: “My boat is sinking, what do I do?”
Google responded, somewhat unhelpfully: “All boats are sinking. The main factor is, how fast. Don’t panic. Find the source of the leak.”
Six years on, and things are now more plain sailing. The Beneteau has been upgraded to another boat, La Vagabonde, on which Riley, who no longer has to rely on Google, has been joined by Elayna and a stowaway – their 10-month-old son Lenny. And since beginning documenting their adventures at sea in late 2014, their YouTube channel, Sailing La Vagabonde, has amassed more than one million followers.
This is perhaps unsurprising, the couple make for good TV; escapism without the queasy aftermath. They chronicle their life together aboard La Vagabonde in endearing, instructive and sometimes terrifying video, offering a view of life in authentically challenging circumstances; a contrast to the manufactured dramas that YouTube typically invites.
Audiences have followed the pair across the Atlantic twice and the Pacific once; watching them brave storms, maggoty rubbish and broken equipment. We’ve seen the difficulties of life at sea, watching them deal with injuries and the boredom of spending weeks offshore when you’ve read all your books.
Maybe what really compels is simply their competence and equanimity; there is no whinging on board La Vagabonde. Or maybe it’s the accents; both Riley and Elayna are Australian natives. Whatever it is, it’s working: a video posted at the end of May, Our Morning Routine Onboard, has had nearly three million views.
When I meet Riley and Elayna, they are at home on their catamaran, having been forced to dock in Newport, in the US state of Rhode Island, while they wait for new parts for their broken engine. Luckily they were offered a spot at Gurney’s Newport Resort & Marina, when the dockmaster, Sean Kellershon – who has been following their adventures for years – saw them heading north after months in the Bahamas. “They just seemed like really cool people,” he says.
As we chat, Lenny gnaws on an apple and plays with a USB cord. He has barely any baby gear, and even fewer toys – a Jolly Jumper; a baby seat; a stick, a triangle and a pair of tiny cymbals. “To explain the obvious,” Riley says, “boat living is enforced minimalism.”
Riley wears what looked like a Star Wars T-shirt, except that Mark Hamill’s face is replaced with his own, and Carrie Fisher’s with Elayna’s. Under Darth Vader’s helmet is Lenny. Designed by a fan, it’s La Vagabonde merchandise made by an ecologically conscious company in Los Angeles. The couple sell shirts, hoodies, totes, sailing guides and cookbooks they have written from their website, all mailed in compostable envelopes.
But most of their income comes from patrons – about 3,500 subscribers who pay between $3 and $10 (£2-£8) for early access to the videos, plus other perks, like the chance to meet the couple for dinner and a sail, perhaps, if La Vagabonde comes to their town.
Living costs aboard are moderate, with Elayna estimating that they might spend $400 (£310) on groceries every two weeks, to supplement the fish they catch themselves, and the same amount every two months or so on diesel fuel. They run their engine as little as possible and charge their batteries with solar and wind power.
Still, boat maintenance is expensive. Conventional wisdom says that, once a boat is more than two years old, it costs 15 per cent of its purchase price every year. Their elegant and airy new boat, a 48-ft Outremer, is about two-and-a-half years old, and lists at over £600,000. Having seen one in Los Roques, an archipelago off Venezuela, Riley wooed the company, and a boat was specifically designed for the couple, and a lease arranged so they could pay monthly at a slightly discounted rate.
On forums like Reddit, fans debate the couple’s good fortune. Have they sold out? Are they still relatable? Could you learn the craft of sailing from their videos if they’re in such a high-end craft? But as one poster notes, “ People think that just anyone can get a GO PRO and do a YouTube Channel, get on Patreon and make hay. It just does not work this way. It actually takes quite a bit of on-screen talent and editing skills to get viewers … I’ll admit it. I just like these people.”