The Youtube stars of sailing channel Sailing La Vagabonde have published the SLV Essential Sail Guide to encourage others to follow in their footsteps

Riley Whitelum and Elayna Carausu are two very photogenic young Australians who have taken to the high seas and now fund their cruising lifestyle via their Sailing La Vagabonde Youtube channel and donations made via the Patreon platform. They have a huge following that at the time of writing amounts to 447,000 subscribers on Youtube, and it is easy to see why. They are living a life that looks like a dream to many and they are engaging, laidback and likeable on camera.

Recently, the La Vagabonde crew released the PDF-formatted SLV Essential Sail Guide. The idea ostensibly being to share the sailing and cruising knowledge they had gained and also some top tips on how others might follow in their footsteps. Given that there are now reportedly some 1000 sailing channels on Youtube, there is obviously demand for this kind of advice.

Unfortunately, the SLV Essential Sail Guide has some serious shortcomings, not least its vastly inflated price. Despite it being a brief 110 pages long, the La Vagabonde crew believe it to be worth a princely $49 US dollars. They will, however, sell it to you for $20 for a limited time. I don’t begrudge them this marketing 101 sleight of hand, and I believe you can safely assume it will never sell for $49, but even at $20 it is an ocean-going rip-off. Given that the current sweet spot for a self-published digital book from a first-time author on Amazon is $2.99, the SLV crew are demanding way over the odds for their offering. In addition, at 110 pages this thing barely qualifies as a book at all and should more likely be pitched at novella-level pricing which is about $0.99. To my mind, then, this Sail Guide costs 20 times what it should.

Still, once you have swallowed the price, there is reason to think you will get your money’s worth. Sailing the globe on a private yacht is an expensive and serious business and $20 is a comparative drop in the ocean.

Errors, errors, every where

When you do crack the pages, however, you quickly run into your second major disappointment. This guide is jam-packed full of spelling, typographical, grammatical and formatting errors and is written at a level that could best be described as mediocre even for a high-school essay. Editing and proofreading was sorely needed by someone who knew what they were doing to straighten out and improve the text,  and the formatting mistakes could easily have been eliminated with some care and attention.

Errors of this kind will be more important to some than others, but on the value front there is another reckoning to be had. This guide is very generous with its imagery, and a great many of the photos are excellent, but they are predominantly nothing more than decoration. The images don’t illustrate any points that are being made in the text but despite this, they often take up half of the page. The end result is that your initial 110 pages of possible useful advice is down to about 55 before you’ve even started.

The SLV guide is very generous with its imagery but the images don’t tend to illustrate any points that are being made in the text and they often take up half of the page. The end result is that your initial 110 pages of possible useful advice is down to about 55 before you’ve even started.

Formatting cock-ups litter the SLV guide and while these two pages are probably the worst examples, there are many others.

Don’t sweat the big stuff

Getting into the meat of the book, the first section is entitled “Life on a Sailboat” where we are treated to some brief entries on cooking and eating, sourcing and storing food, showering, laundry and the importance of music on board. Interestingly, the most comprehensive and practical advice you get in this first section is 3 whole pages from Elayna on seasickness.

From there we move on to Riley’s sailing lessons. Now to me, actually sailing a yacht and knowing how to do it correctly seems crucial to safety and enjoyment at sea but Riley tells us that anyone can learn to sail in an afternoon and, amazingly, yachts can sail into the wind. Job done in two paragraphs. It should be remembered that this advice comes from a man who knew nothing at all about sailing when he began and admitted in one of his videos that he sailed with one of his foresails upside down until someone pointed it out to him.

What about the boat that you decide to take to sea in? That must be important. Riley tells us that cheap production boats are good because, I guess, that’s what he first bought. He does admit that they don’t have very high safety margins and aren’t built for challenging seas but, you know, whatever. What he really wants you to get is a catamaran like the $1 million plus one he now sails courtesy of a sweet deal he swung with the French builder Outremer courtesy of his ability to give the brand exposure on his Youtube channel. You could be forgiven for thinking that’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario.

On the other hand, if you’re not convinced by either of those suggestions, Riley has pilfered a list of yachts approved to sail in the 2018 Golden Globe Race because their design is acknowledged to be suitable for open ocean sailing.

We do get an acknowledgement at this point that you should probably get some professional advice before actually buying a boat, and also, once you have your boat that you find somewhere nice like the Mediterranean or the Bahamas to learn to operate it because, you know, confidence.

Riley and Elayna began their travels on a secondhand Beneteau Cyclades production boat because it was affordable within Riley’s initial budget but have now swung a deal using their Youtube influence to acquire a brand new Outremer 45 catamaran.

Depths not sounded

The guide then moves quickly through boat maintenance where it is suggested you buy some tools and some books that do actually offer comprehensive instruction or just pay others to do it.

Then we learn a couple of knots, hoist a sail, and discover that you should rely heavily on the online service PredictWind for your weather and route planning. I’d suggest that you put a bit more effort into understanding weather at sea but Riley does have a point. The accuracy of services like PredictWind have made ocean cruising a lot safer and more comfortable than it used to be.

We then get a quick chat about reefing and anchors before we get the bombshell dropped on us that although Riley bought his boat and set off having never sailed before and knowing exactly nothing about sailing, looking back he DOES NOT recommend that others do it. Perhaps, he suggests, try sailing on other people’s boats first. Maybe join a crew to do some races and learn a bit more. This, to me, is the single small nugget of advice that the reader should grab hold of in this guide. Going sailing with other experienced sailors will teach you a shed-load more than reading a once-over-lightly guide like this one.

Having said that, at about page 40 the guide starts to revisit some topics that garnered little more than a paragraph earlier.  Provisioning gets almost an entire page and health, safety and insurance get a look in, too. Specific aspects of sailing also get addressed with a paragraph of their own like night sailing and solo sailing. And there is some stuff about fishing along with a heartfelt plea to give freediving a go because it is awesome.

Videos add value

I should note here that this section references six accompanying instructional videos covering topics like anchoring and entering and leaving marinas. These videos are short but they are to the point and the visual illustration of the topic being discussed is great. Perhaps these guys should have made an all-videos sailing guide.

There’s also an interesting page here about giving customs and immigration a miss in places or countries where it might eat into your “fun” time but that is advice that it is definitely up to the individual to take or ignore.

Then, because you are going to want to start a Youtube channel to fund your adventure, there are a number of pages about Youtube and vlogging.

Finally, various external resources are recommended like other books and online cruising forums.

The income from Youtube vlogging goes a long way to keeping Riley and Elayna at sea and they devote several pages to instructing readers how to follow in their footsteps.

Brief encounters

By page 84 our authors have lost the will or ability to add anything more and resort to naming countries they have visited. This section is littered with formatting cock-ups that mean Page 84 contains a single paragraph at the top and the rest of the page is blank space. Page 85 is even worse in that it contains just two words, “The Mediterranean” floating in a sea of white space. Page 86 then gives you one paragraph on Greece accompanied by two large photographs. Here we get deathless advice like, “There are many Greek islands that the ferries don’t visit (which means no tourists!)”. Our guides do not, however, tell us which islands these might be, only that they have nice food, wine and sea views if you manage to figure out for yourself where they might be. Our introduction to other of the SLV crew’s favourite countries continues in a “just feel the vibe” style probably best suited to an Instagram post, not a supposed sailing guide. Cape Verde gets a single paragraph describing it as being really different to other places and then a full three pages of pictures. New Zealand gets a whinge about it being cold, and Australia is a particular standout in that this vast continent earns the single sentence that it is, “the best place in the world”.

Over all, this final section of more than 20 pages consists of a lot of short, superficial and clichéd observations about destinations that are probably meant to inspire in some way but offer nothing in the way of practical advice.

The final section of the SLV guide is devoted to places that the La Vagabonde crew have particularly enjoyed but the information supplied about these destinations is thin at best.

Riley admits that this will probably not be the only sailing guide you will ever buy but he hopes it will be your first. My advice, unless you are a superfan, is to skip it altogether and seek out the huge range of excellent cruising guides that their authors have put real time and effort into packing with hard won knowledge and practical and actionable advice. Better just to watch the Sailing La Vagabonde videos and let them fuel your dreams while you seek understanding elsewhere.

By Ted Gibbons