Riley and Elayna from Sailing La Vagabonde make a living cruising the world and capturing it on film for their 1.43 million subscribers
Riley Whitelum and Elayna Carausu from Sailing La Vagabonde have achieved the dream of many liveaboard cruisers twice their age – their yacht of choice and a reliable income stream to keep sailing.
The couple run one of the most popular YouTube cruising channels Sailing La Vagabonde, and now command millions of views with each new post.
‘Riley had bought a new camera, which he wasn’t using much, so I picked it up and started filming short bits of video. After a while, I edited the footage into a story. It was a few minutes long and nothing complicated; just us, and a snapshot of the life we were living afloat. That’s how Sailing La Vagabonde started,’ explained Elayna when asked how their global phenomenon first started.
That first venture into video blogging, or ‘vlogging’, out of focus in places, can still be seen on their channel.
Video number one features a tour of their first yacht – a far cry from their Outremer 45 catamaran they now sail.
‘She was a tired Beneteau Cyclades that I bought off three arguing Italians,’ explains Riley wistfully.
The footage is an insight into what budget cruising has to offer when you’re happy to learn as you go along.
They lose their tender, run La Vagabonde aground, then celebrate floating free again with a bottle of local wine and sunset at anchor.
The growth of Sailing La Vagabonde
Watch a few more episodes and a distinctive style to the filmmaking emerges.
Each demonstrates the mechanism a yacht provides to see the world from an alternative perspective.
10 to 20 minutes of high-definition escapism that compels viewers to click subscribe, whether they sail or not.
Whilst the latest incarnations are slick productions, sporting drone footage and filmed on more expensive camera equipment, a theme of raw discovery under sail runs through the channel.
Establishing the impact of Sailing La Vagabonde outside the internet is easier than you might think.
Not long ago, I received an email from a charter guest on yacht I used to skipper.
A non-sailor, he is in his early 40s and working in finance.
He got straight to the point. ‘I’ve watched too many of these SLV [Sailing La Vagabonde] YouTube videos and decided I want to buy a boat, learn to sail and take a few years out.’
He is, rather brilliantly, quite serious.
YouTube channels have stimulated this life-changing call to action and the decision not to defer the adventure until retirement.
Posing the question, how many others have taken action on their escapist sailing dreams after watching something on YouTube?
I meet Riley and Elayna from Sailing La Vagabonde at the home of Outremer, La Grande Motte, on the south coast of France in towards the end of 2017.
They were preparing to head across the Atlantic via the Canaries, following a shakedown cruise that’s taken in much of the Western Mediterranean.
It’s the start of a 10,000nm circuit that will take them to Cuba and the east coast of America, then back across the Atlantic to Svalbard in the Arctic Circle, a relentless timetable that their extremely fast boat helps them achieve.
‘We wanted a serious challenge, and high-latitude sailing is just that. It would be all too easy to get back on the tradewind circuit and stay warm,’ explains Elayna.
Fitting a heating system is next on the couple’s works list, whilst Riley is reading up on expeditions that have gone before them.
Touching on the subject of ambitious plans is revealing.
Both undeniably good looking, with youth on their side, the sundrenched view from La Vagabonde they publish online is tonic for time-poor landlubbers whether they sail or not.
Behind the scenes, though, are the challenges of sailing and maintaining a yacht, a relationship (and in March 2019 their first son, Lennon), and what is undoubtedly a growing business.
Both are candid about the realities of sharing their lives with a global audience.
‘It can be hard to balance what we should and shouldn’t include,’ explains Riley.
‘In fact, we made an episode about it. Naturally, we focus on the positive experiences, but the various injuries and mishaps are very much part of the story too.’
Criticism from viewers is something the couple have got used to.
A scroll through popular sailing forums reveals multiple theories on ‘the bank of mum and dad’ that’s paying for their adventure.
Humble beginnings and running the project on the most meagre of budgets to begin with has fostered a resourceful approach that most cruisers would identify with.
Perhaps what differentiates the couple from the average liveaboard though, is how they have capitalised on the power of the internet and their audience to imbibe as much sailing wisdom as possible.
‘Some viewers are very experienced sailors and, as with the cruising community afloat, they are really generous with their knowledge. It’s just incredibly positive, and we’ve found that being younger than most people cruising long term is largely an irrelevance,’ explains Riley.
By far the biggest question surrounding the La Vagabonde project is, just how did they get that boat?
Approaching the dock, they are an unusually youthful sight. Elayna takes the helm.
On the morning I meet them, a dumbfounded audience of French fisherman sit on the harbour wall as she deftly manoeuvres the 45ft catamaran between two pile moorings.
Riley handles the fenders and lines, jumping from hull to hull across the catamaran’s trampoline.
‘It’s a system Outremer suggests couples use when mooring double handed and plays to our respective strengths. We are certainly still learning, but we have mooring figured out pretty well. Having two engines takes a bit of getting used to.’
Joining us on board on an almost windless Sunday morning is Matthieu Rougevin-Baville, commercial director for Outremer and the man behind the deal between the unconventional French boatbuilder and La Vagabonde.
He arrives at speed on his motorised unicycle.
The friendship formed between the couple and this fount of multihull wisdom quickly becomes clear.
Matthieu is an enthusiast for all things La Vagabonde, and the power of video to sell the possibility of the lightweight Outremer concept to an unlikely audience.
‘Initially, I had the idea that we could perhaps lend an Outremer to someone for a year as part of a big competition. This was quite a few years ago. On its own, there wasn’t really a business case for it, so I struggled to convince anyone that it would have longevity,’ explains Matthieu.
‘However, as sailing vlogs got bigger, a new possibility emerged quicker than anyone else was reacting to. Riley got in touch at just the right time, and I’m really glad he did!’ he adds.
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Riley vividly recounts first setting eyes on an Outremer in Venezuela.
‘Everything we’d learned about sailing we’d picked up on the Beneteau. But we’d also been invited aboard lots of yachts, big and small, in different parts of the world.
‘We’d learned what we liked and what we didn’t. The possibility of speed a multi-hull offered combined with the space and liveability appealed a lot. It just looked right the first time I saw one,’ explains Riley.
‘I went by her very slow in the dinghy and hung around, quietly hoping I’d be invited aboard!’ he adds.
He was, and announced to Elayna that he was going to email Outremer ‘just to find out more.’
It was the message that Matthieu had been waiting for.
‘Their following online was growing, along with their fan base, but making that as a case for a business decision was still difficult. How could we justify it? With an open mind, I invited them both to the Outremer Cup, our annual owners’ regatta, where the reality of just what they were doing became much clearer.
‘Perhaps naïvely, I’d thought they were just two kids that had done remarkably well on YouTube and were getting by financially in the background. We offered them the use of the Outremer for a year and, much to my surprise, they immediately said no. They wanted a deal that would last much longer. When it became clear they could afford a lease, we worked on a deal that worked for all of us.’
What emerged from that weekend at the Outremer Cup was a platform to continue the La Vagabonde project for the following 10 years, with the option to purchase the yacht at the end – all less than three years after their first video was posted online.
Making the videos for Sailing La Vagabonde
Stepping on board the new La Vagabonde, it is immediately clear how the yacht serves not only as their home and transport, but also as a film production tool.
Around the cockpit, additional rails are mounted for GoPro cameras, along with 12V outlets to power them.
In the saloon, Elayna has recording equipment set up to add voiceovers to footage, whilst on the wall an award from YouTube for achieving over 100,000 subscribers takes pride of place.
Elayna, who does the majority of the editing, is clearly serious about producing great videos.
‘When I’m working, I’m working; it takes total focus to do this thing well. I’d say the average video is four days’ solid work in front of the laptop and more when we’re trying something new or introducing a new way of filming.
‘Being on a catamaran comes into its own there as well – we are more productive on passage than we were on the old boat, mainly because we don’t heel over!’
The project’s continued success is helped by ‘patrons’, fans of the channel that sponsor each video they publish.
They do this via the website Patreon, a platform to support independent content producers.
It is linked to Sailing La Vagabonde’s YouTube channel and patrons pledge a certain amount per video, in a few cases donating in excess of £200 per episode.
In total, they currently earn over $9,000 US per video.
In exchange, the patrons get exclusive access; extra video content and invites to supporters’ meet-ups on board La Vagabonde.
One hull of the boat is dedicated to guest accommodation and frequent draws are held for patrons to go sailing for a week.
‘The support we have never ceases to amaze me,’ explains Riley. ‘It’s quite varied, from those that think it’s just brilliant entertainment, to older couples that love to sail with us vicariously.
‘The meet-ups are the best bit. Always just a great bunch of positive people from all walks of life.’
Heading out to sea, it’s easy to see why they are both so smitten with the Outremer.
The downwind sails are brought up on to the trampoline and within five minutes, we are cruising very comfortably downwind, achieving 5 knots over the ground in just over 5 knots of true wind.
To even the most hardened monohull sailor, the Outremer presents a wonderful prospect in conditions that would usually mean motoring.
We have lunch in the saloon, which makes clear how they sail, edit video and live on board all year round.
It’s comfortable and the Outremer can be genuinely docile or extreme depending on your mood.
Riley and Matthieu launch a drone as another Outremer joins us for an informal race while the autopilot holds us on course.
But what about the long term? Do they plan to keep on doing this forever?
I’m not surprised by their answer. ‘We’re always talking about what’s next. There is so much more sailing to do, but we’ve learned that there is nothing wrong with thinking big in terms of planning future projects. Keep watching and you’ll find out!’
Film your own adventure
Digby Fox has been a live producer of the Volvo Ocean Race, films and edits for CNN, has made documentaries for the BBC and has years of experience filming on the water.
‘Think cooking: the video clips you film are your ingredients, then the magic happens in the kitchen, which is the timeline of the video editing software you choose to use.
‘Your third key element is audio, which could be the presentation of your dish, the textural feel of the dining ware, cutlery, ambiance of the room, mood music etc. Half of TV is sound.
‘When you start filming, think of each shot as an ingredient, to be used however you wish on the timeline. You might want an establisher, a wide shot placing where you are, a sign, your whole boat, a big wide of somewhere you’re visiting.
‘Film half a dozen establishers, or GVs as we call them in the trade – general views. These are like postcards, and their composition and framing are purely photographic.
‘One of the best tips given to me, was to frame your shot, hit record, then let whatever happens in that frame happen for 10-20 seconds or more. Then reframe, and repeat. Then in your edit, you have clean solid shots to link together in a pleasing sequence. This is “truthful” cinéma vérité filming, and a superb platform to start working on.
‘While gathering your “ingredients,” mix it up. Do some close-ups: hands, faces, signage. Do some long shots – zoom into something a bit further away.
‘Get people talking. Interview. Find somewhere a bit quieter, out of the wind (which blows your audio), and frame your subject so they’re not blinded or backlit to smithereens, and take a little while doing this. People are patient. A bit of chat in the process helps. And however much we protest, most people are flattered to be interviewed… So they’ll work with you.
‘Now we’re cooking, right? But what’s the concept of the dish? How long do we want our edit to be? And fundamentally, what’s the story we’re trying to tell? The better the idea you have of this before even picking up your camera, the smoother and more efficiently your whole process will go.
‘For example, if you’re just shooting three-minute Facebook highlights of your cross-Channel trip, there’s no need to film hours of it. You’ll drive everyone mad! Shoot a little bit of the key stages – packing, your whole boat on the dock with your buddies lined up, letting slip, a bit of the chart showing your route, a few chats with crewmates, key landmarks, turning marks, having a brew, getting there, three cheers, everyone down the pub.
‘You now have your story in the can. You’ve gathered your ingredients. Next step? Well, truth be told, this is where your inner video chef gets stirring. I’d pick an edit suite like Adobe Premiere Elements 2018. It’s £86 online. A scaled-down, user-friendly version of their Pro software, which we are using on the Volvo Ocean Race. If you’re on Mac, you can use iMovie for free, and it’s good, although personally I find it maddening and imprecise.
‘Editing in a nutshell: put your clips into a logical and pleasing order, trim them to suit, adjust your audio levels so you can hear your interviews clearly, then maybe put a light music track underneath from a free online library. Then export, upload, bask in your friends and family’s appreciation, just as if you’d gone to the trouble of shopping for ingredients, cooked up a storm and delivered your creation in a marvellous and delightful ambiance. It’s great fun.’
This article was originally published in Yachting Monthly, February 2018
YouTube Sailing Channels – Ones To Watch
Boat: Beason 40 LS
Swedish couple Malin and Johan sail a one-off aluminium sloop.
A former carpenter and social worker, their videos feature both destinations and yacht maintenance.
Boat: Amel Super Marimu
The Delos crew have been on the water for a decade and have been sharing their adventures on their popular You Tube channel.
Originally from Seattle, they take their Super Marimu to some of the world’s most remote anchorages.
Boat: Oyster 435
British couple Jamie and Liz sail their Oyster full time, their channel tackles many practical problems faced afloat.
Boat: Morna, a Dickies of Tarbert Gaff Ketch built in 1920
Matt and Paige originally began their sailing adventures aboard a Contest 41 in May 2017.
They have now returned to the UK and are restoring Morna to her former glory