Written by Penelope Green
They met in Ios, Greece: locking eyes across the town square, both in their 20s then. (She had noticed his distinctive mustache.) Elayna Carausu was playing guitar and singing for a travel company; Riley Whitelum was living on the sailboat he had bought with money saved from working for years on oil rigs.
When he told her had a boat, she thought it was a pickup line.
Luckily he had learned a few things in the months before that encounter. Despite having grown up, like Carausu, mostly in coastal Australia, Whitelum had no sailing experience before he bought a barely used 43-foot Beneteau from three bickering Italians.
Carausu was, thank heavens, not on board the night it nearly sank. It was moored off Dubrovnik, Croatia, slowly taking on water from a hidden leak, when it was swamped by the wake from a fishing boat.
Whitelum had kept the bilge pumps off to save electricity, a rookie mistake, and he awoke to a cabin awash in water. After pumping it out, he turned to Google: “My boat is sinking, what do I do?”
Google responded, koanlike. “‘All boats are sinking,’” he recalled reading. “‘The main factor is how fast. Don’t panic. Find the source of the leak.’”
Six years later, Whitelum, now 32, not only no longer has to ask Google for help, but he and Carausu, 26, have also become YouTube stars for their adventures at sea.
More than 1 million people subscribe to their channel, Sailing La Vagabonde (the name of their boat), which has chronicled their life aboard in endearing, instructive and sometimes terrifying videos: two Atlantic and one Pacific crossings; maggoty trash; broken equipment; storms and becalmings; scaldings and other injuries; the boredom of weeks offshore when you’ve read all your books; would-be pirates; and this year, a stowaway, their 10-month-old son, Lenny.
There are many, many sailing YouTubers, including Brian Trautman, a former Microsoft analyst, and his brother, Brady. Their channel, named for their boat, SV Delos, has almost 356,000 subscribers, and patrons can apply to be crew online.
And there are many attractive people exploring beautiful locations clad only in their bathing suits, as Carausu and Whitelum often are.
But in this sprawling universe that also covers the shred guitarists, the dadaist livestreamers, the haul girls, the van dwellers and the extreme eaters, the couple stand out because they are good television; escapism without the queasy aftermath. Joshua Slocums for the digital age, they offer a view of life in authentically challenging circumstances, in contrast to the manufactured dramas the medium typically invites.
Since they began posting in late 2014, Carausu and Whitelum’s videos have become more polished, thanks to a drone, multiple cameras and editing help. “Our Morning Routine Onboard,” posted at the end of May, has nearly 3 million views.
Maybe what compels is simply their competence and equanimity. There is no whinging on board La Vagabonde.
Or maybe it’s the accent, shown off when Whitelum, for example, reads David Foster Wallace, his favorite author. It is doubtful that any member of the badly behaving crews on “Below Deck,” the Bravo reality show about life on megayachts now in its seventh season, is passing around copies of “The Pale King.”
On a recent Saturday, Carausu and Whitelum were at home on their catamaran, which was docked at Gurney’s Newport Resort & Marina. Lenny was gnawing an apple and playing with a USB cord. He has barely any baby gear, and fewer toys: a Jolly Jumper; a baby seat; a stick, a triangle and a pair of tiny cymbals.
“To explain the obvious,” Whitelum said, “boat living is enforced minimalism.”
The boat’s engine was broken, and they had been in town waiting for parts for over a week, guests of Sean Kellershon, the dock master at Gurney’s.
Kellershon has been following their adventures for years; when he saw that they were heading north after months in the Bahamas, he offered them a spot at the marina. “They just seemed like really cool people,” he said.
Whitelum was wearing what looked like a “Star Wars” T-shirt, except that Mark Hamill’s face had been replaced with his own; Carrie Fisher’s with Carausu’s; and under Darth Vader’s helmet was Lenny. Designed by a fan, it’s La Vagabonde merchandise, $29, 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, mailed in compostable envelopes.
But they make most of their living from patrons: about 3,500 subscribers who pay $3 to $10 for early access to the videos and other perks, like the chance to meet the couple for dinner and a sail, perhaps, if La Vagabonde comes to their town.
Carausu and Whitelum’s living costs are moderate. Carausu estimated they might spend $400 every two weeks on groceries in places they can catch their own fish, and $400 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% of its purchase price every year. Their elegant and airy new boat, a 48-foot Outremer, is about 2 1/2 years old, and lists for about $780,000.
After having seen one in Los Roques, an archipelago off Venezuela, Whitelum wooed the company, which built a boat designed specially for the couple, and arranged a lease they could pay monthly at a slightly discounted rate.
On forums like Reddit, fans have debated the couple’s good fortune. Had they sold out? Were they still relatable? Could you learn from their videos if they were sailing such a high-end craft? Was their video making work anyway?
But as one poster noted: “ … 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 onscreen talent and editing skills to get viewers … I’ll admit it. I just like these people.”
Whitelum and Carausu did not set out to be YouTube personalities. Whitelum skipped university and started a business digging trenches for Australia’s phone company before going to work on oil rigs for eight years. Between three-week shifts, he backpacked around the world, intent on saving his money.
At the start of a trip through South America, he broke his neck in the surf at Copacabana beach in Rio.
The surgery temporarily paralyzed his vocal cords, and he couldn’t speak or work for six months. Although he had sailed only once, a miserable three days beating into the wind off Southern Australia, he said, it was his dream to buy a boat and learn how to handle it.
“‘OK, so you’re going to be alone forever then,’” a friend predicted darkly.
‘What About the Sharks?’
Carausu had been a tomboy with two older brothers who learned to ride a motorcycle before she ever got on a bike; she learned to drive a motorboat before graduating from high school, where her curriculum included marine studies and aquaculture.
Afterward, she worked as a dive master in Queensland, Australia, living in a Kia van she painted and fixed up until the fateful trip to Ios. A travel company had hired her after seeing her in videos she posted on Facebook, and she quit two weeks early to go sailing with Whitelum.
They had known each other barely more than a month when he said, “It would be great if you’d sail the world with me.” Carausu decided to sell all her belongs and go for it.
“I had always hung around guys who didn’t have any goals, and here was this sailor guy who just got stuff done,” she said. “I knew he was going to go far, and I wanted to be a part of that.”
“‘What about the waves? What about the sharks?’” Carausu remembered her mother saying. “Deep-ocean sailing for her was a combination of ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Perfect Storm,’” which was one reason Carausu began posting reassuring footage of their trip, using a Canon PowerShot.
The first videos are very much like home movies, charting progress south from the Mediterranean to Cape Verde, and then across the Atlantic. “I saw something good in what we were doing,” Carausu said, “and I thought people would be interested. I wanted to put them up on YouTube, but Riley wouldn’t let me.”
But by Malta, a month in, he had relented. Within a few weeks of its posting, their first video had over 70,000 views. “She was flipping out, and I was like, ‘Cool, but what does it mean?’ For five months, it was still a hobby,” Whitelum said.
After their first Atlantic crossing, funds were low. By Grenada, they were broke. As they prepared to fly home to work, having hauled the boat out of the water there, they announced their plans in a video to let their community know that would be the last for a while.
Subscribers turned into paying patrons by the hundreds. It took some time, however, for Whitelum to wrap his head around the idea of being crowdfunded. “That was really hard for me,” he said, “taking money from strangers.”
The filming process typically takes three days; after Lenny’s birth, Carausu hired an editor to make the initial cuts, although she puts the finishing touches on before posting. They hope to keep sailing, boat-school Lenny and continue to make videos, Kardashians-like, but wholesome and afloat.
Carausu has designed a line of swimwear she calls Vaga Bella Swim, made from recycled, ocean-harvested plastic trash, and plans to donate the proceeds to a charity.
“I’ve always been dreaming of the perfect bikini,” she said. “Something that looks a little bit sexy, but that you can spearfish and dive in without having a body part fall out.” The couple are also hoping to turn the boat into a vessel with zero or low emissions.
Once their engine was fixed, they rode a nor’easter to the Annapolis Boat Show in Maryland, surfing 30 knots of wind for three nights and four days, to meet up with hundreds of patrons there.
Currently they are sailing to Charleston, South Carolina, where they will leave the boat with friends for two months so they can return home for the Christmas holidays. Then they’ll take the boat through the Panama Canal, and across the Pacific to Australia, a first for them, and circumnavigate their home country, with all the challenges that will bring.
“One year on a boat is like 10 on land,” Whitelum said. “Now it’s as if we’ve been married for 50 years. If you’re not sure about a partner, take them sailing.”