Photos by Heather Verhagen
Tired of the rat race, this family bought a trawler and set off to see the world—all while recording everything for a growing following on YouTube.
If there was a warning label attached to the Wandering Knapps YouTube channel, I imagine it would look something like, “Warning: Viewing this family’s adventures may cause spasms of envy, stupefied expressions and uncontrollable urges to sell everything you own for the liveaboard life.” When I spoke with them earlier this year, the family of five was aboard their Trade Winds 47 in the Exumas, taking shelter from a storm. If the parents were worried about the impending squall, they certainly didn’t show it.
Chris and Jolene Knapp have three young boys (ages 11, 10 and 8), two cats, and an insatiable urge to get out of their comfort zone. Less than two years ago, they traded a comfortable life in what they call the “suburban bubble” of Fort Worth, Texas, for their 1987 Marine Trader named Illuminate. But if you dig a little deeper, it sounds like they unplugged from the Matrix. In an instant, Little League baseball games, trips to the mall, public school and a fixed residence went up in smoke, eventually replaced by diesel leaks, snorkeling, rough seas, smaller spaces and—maybe the most surprising of all—an undercurrent of loneliness. Because let’s be real: Even paradise has its drawbacks. But the Knapps don’t complain, and they don’t look back, at least not for long. They leaned into their newfound freedom, posting video after video, where they answer all kinds of questions from interested viewers like myself, and would-be cruisers seeking to follow in their wake.
Chris: I’ll try and put you on speaker here and hopefully the wind isn’t too bad. Can you hear us?
Power & Motoryacht: Yup. Can you guys hear me okay?
Jolene: All clear!
Power & Motoryacht: Great! Where are you now?
Jolene: We are currently in Black Point, Exumas (Bahamas), right now. We came in here because there’s a huge blow that’s supposed to come on Thursday. This is the best protected anchorage we could find. It can’t be nice and sunny every day.
Power & Motoryacht: But hopefully not too bad of a squall or anything?
Jolene: No, maybe 25- to 35-knot winds, so where we are we’ll be fine. It’s not going to be perfectly calm waters, but we’ll just hangout on the boat for a day.
Power & Motoryacht: And get back to paradise after. In a few of your videos you explain why you decided to up and leave everything for a life at sea. A lot of our readers probably have similar dreams, but for whatever reason keep pushing it off. What pushed you guys to finally go for it?
Jolene: A few years ago we started thinking and dreaming about living on a boat and getting out of the suburban rat race. We kept saying, “Oh, we’ll do it when the kids are out of the house or when we retire.” But the real kicker for me was when Carter, our oldest, was in third grade, and he came home extremely upset after a test. And he asked, with all of his wisdom, “Mom, what’s the point of me going to school every day? Is it so I get good test grades and then I get to go to college and then I get a job where I get to make a lot of money and buy a big house like you and Dad and cars and all this stuff? Well we don’t need it! What’s the point?” And that really hit me. We’re training these kids to be stressed and overly anxious, all because of vanity and consumerism. Instead, we wanted to expose our kids to other opportunities, passions, dreams and cultures. But then came the question: Okay, so we want to do this, but how do we make it happen?
Chris: At the time, there was no way we could do it since we were tied to Fort Worth, Texas, because of work. Selling my salvage yard provided the timing to finally do something different. So we jumped at the opportunity. We took a leap of faith and sold everything. But we didn’t have the boat yet. And we wouldn’t have it for another two to three months.
Jolene: When people say, “So you sold everything to go live on a boat?” Well yeah, that’s the gist of it. But in reality, steps one through 48 still had to occur before we got to the Bahamas.
Chris: It was two to three months of homelessness, living with friends and parents for a little bit. We went from Texas to Oregon, back to Texas and down to Florida. So we got the boat, and it was a fixer upper. As everyone finds out, there’s no such thing as a good deal on a used boat. You buy it, and you either spend the money to fix it, or you’re going to buy it already fixed up and ready to roll.
Jolene: You get what you pay for.
Chris: The market dictates what the value of the boat is. So we bought the boat, and we put more than what we paid for upfront to get it going. We were out of money at that point, and had to get jobs in the Keys—and then Covid hit. That forced us to be there even longer, and then we were able to take off. We eventually got to the Bahamas in October 2020.
Power & Motoryacht: Why a Trade Winds 47? And how much did you research prior to surveying a boat?
Chris: Ideally we would’ve loved a 45- to 50-foot sailing catamaran, just because of the layout, the space, the ability to go wherever with the sail—that would be ideal. Our budget was in the $50,000 to $100,000 range, which determined a lot of it. So we get to shopping, and what was available on the market at the time that fit in our budget was monohull sailboats.
Jolene: We kind of settled on the sailboat idea after we couldn’t afford a catamaran, and we didn’t want to go for a huge boat loan because to us, that’s going right back into the rat race, so we might as well keep our house loan.
Chris: The other thing was we didn’t have a house, and if you’re going to get a boat loan, you have to have a permanent place of residence, and they want proof because lending has gotten tight. So we couldn’t finance it; we had to go with a cash offer. So we started over. We widened our search to just about everything, put a limit at $60,000 or $70,000 because we wanted to see if we could talk somebody down. And the boat that we’re in now popped up in Key Largo.
Power & Motoryacht: It sounds like a very uncertain time. Would you change anything knowing what you do now?
Chris: Yes and no. I didn’t want a big loan, so our financial situation forced our hand, which was fine with us. We’re in a good spot now, especially with Covid. I couldn’t imagine having a business with 24 employees, having to make payroll—all that kind of stuff. All the debt we had with the house. We would never have made it.
Jolene: It’s truly a blessing that we’re here. But to answer your question, I think with what I know now, I would’ve given myself the grace and the patience to understand that yes, you want a big catamaran one day, but it’s okay to start in a less-expensive trawler and work your way up to what you want. Now that we’re in our trawler, I love the size, especially with kids. You don’t get that in most sailboats. Honestly, I don’t know if I’d want to make the change anymore. If we ever upgrade, I think I’d want to upgrade to another trawler or yacht, something that offers more space.
Chris: If we could find a four-stateroom, two-head trawler, that would be ideal, because we’re social people, and we’d love to have family and friends come with us. And with three staterooms and two heads, it’s tough. The other family would have two or three kids plus Mom and Dad, so where do you sleep everybody? But that would be ideal. We don’t need massive, but if we could get one more stateroom…
Jolene: But if somebody wanted to give us massive, we’d find a way to make that work.
Power & Motoryacht: Sure, sure—me too by the way.
Chris: The other thing was Jolene wanted new, and I was okay with used, but she didn’t want a project, because we’ve lived in project houses before. And some of your newer readers need to understand, and we’ve learned this cruising and meeting people: It does not matter whether you buy a brand spankin’ new boat or a 30-year-old boat—it’s a project. We’ve met people who bought new catamarans, and they have the same issues with generators and batteries and everything else that we have. I met a guy who bought a brand-new catamaran from a boat show, and he spent a year and a half fixing it under warranty. He got it delivered and boom—diesel leak.
Jolene: Boats are boats, it’s as simple as that.
Chris: It’s not about the year so much as it’s about the previous owner and how they maintained it. They’ve all got their own issues—which one do you want to deal with? We have a Marine Trader, and they’re known for having leaks. So we’ve had to redo some of the woodwork on the interior and reseal some hatches and whatnot, but in general it’s been fine. We love the fact that it has twin 185-hp Lehman engines. They’ve run really well for us. We cruise at 8 knots and burn 4 gallons an hour. You look at what we paid for the trawler versus what you would pay for a monohull sailboat, or even a catamaran—we can buy a lot of fuel and go to a lot of places before I equal what I was going to spend on these catamaran sailboats. We’ve owned this boat for a year and a half, and I’ve filled it three times now. We’ve put 1,200 gallons of fuel in it.
Jolene: It’s affordable to live on this trawler.
Chris: People are always concerned: It’s got two engines and a generator. Your fuel bill must be massive! No, not really. When you stretch it out over time, it’s not bad at all.
Power & Motoryacht: How much of your automotive experience from working in yards helped with the mechanicals?
Chris: It’s amazing what you can learn from YouTube. You just figure it out. I think that was the biggest thing that I brought into this experience is understanding how to troubleshoot.
Jolene: I’m going to brag about Chris. Once we started cruising and something inevitably breaks, he’s always great at researching and looking at the manuals or looking it up on YouTube or forums. He just starts from the beginning and works his way down the line. Solve one problem and move onto the next.
Chris: You’ve seen the movie The Martian starring Matt Damon? He says “you just solve one problem, and then you solve the next one, and the next one, and eventually you get to go home.” It’s the same thing. You get to work, and you solve one problem, and then the next, and the next, until you get to go cruising. And then when you’re out cruising, you continue to solve problems until eventually you get to go home. Every day is something new.
Jolene: You don’t really know what tomorrow brings, but man, with boat life, it’s really in your face every day. I have no idea—tomorrow we may spring a leak, or the bimini may fall off, or the washer may overflow our bedroom, or the toilet may overflow—you just never know. But every day, if you’re prepared for it, you figure it out.
Power & Motoryacht: How is boat schooling going?
Jolene: We use a home-school curriculum. And as far as chores, it’s the same as a regular household. They do the dishes, clean the litter box, vacuum the floors, clean their rooms, make their beds, do their laundry. But it all looks a little different, and I think it gives them a better perspective of what we as humans waste. It’s also just an overall slower pace of life. We do laundry by hand, same with the dishes, and I think that teaches them a little bit more. In addition to the traditional home schooling and chores, we have all been pushed past our point of fear, and I notice it the most with our oldest son, Carter. At first, he was afraid to get in the salt water. He didn’t want to do it—even the thought of putting a snorkel in his mouth terrified him. When we went to Thunderball Grotto in Staniel Key, Exumas, we had to push him under a rock into the unknown—he had no idea what was going to be on the other side. And his whole body tensed up and panicked.
Chris: He had to hold on to my neck and I swam him in.
Jolene: And he popped up in the Thunderball Grotto, and instantly he loved it. He said, “This is amazing, this is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.” When we’ve gone past our fear, it’s become the most amazing thing that we’re able to grow and say “I did that.” I think with the boys especially, they’re gaining a sense of confidence that they would not have had back home.
Power & Motoryacht: Maybe this is a corny question, but what are some of the challenges you face on a daily basis?
Jolene: I can think of two: terrible seas and loneliness.
Chris: We didn’t have a lot of open ocean experience. Before, we never really went more than 2 or 3 miles offshore to the reef, and we would cancel trips if there was bad weather. We left Staniel Key and were heading towards Georgetown for a marina down there, and the weather predictions were off by about 12 to 18 hours. We went out and headlong into 10-foot seas. You talk about fear—we were scared. Jolene was terrified. I didn’t know what to do other than to just keep going because the boat can handle head-on seas—not comfortably, but it handled it. I didn’t want to turn around for fear of capsizing. And our boat does not handle following or quartering-following seas well at all. Especially that big—and they were steep. So we had three and a half hours of hell. Now that we’ve done that, we look back at all the other stuff we thought was bad and we’re like, “oh that’s nothing!”
Power & Motoryacht: You mentioned being lonely?
Jolene: We’re very social people, and the downtime is unreal, especially because we’re not working full-time online and we don’t have any jobs in this country, so we literally have 24 hours in a day to fill. You can only snorkel, dive or sit on a beach so long. You can only sleep for so long. And if there are no other cruisers around, it’s a very different cruising world than what we’ve seen in the past or heard about.
Chris: We were here for six weeks before we found another cruising boat.
Jolene: It’s just weird. Last night we had another boat over and hung out, and it just fills all of us up: Our kids have someone to play with, we had someone to play dominoes with, and it just makes this whole lifestyle so enjoyable. You’re meeting people—some people may not like that but we really thrive on it. When we’re lonely for days on end, I actually live for calling my friends in Texas, and if I can’t do that I kind of have a bad day.
Power & Motoryacht: Although, ironically, I would imagine on a 47-foot boat you’re all up in each other’s grill. How do you deal with that?
Chris: It is smaller, compared to our almost 3,000-square-foot house. But we realized when we sold it that there were rooms we hadn’t been in for months. We each have our own space here. The two littlest ones, they have their own bedroom. Carter has his own bedroom and we have our own bedroom. But then one of the things we love about the trawler layout is right now we’re sitting on our aft deck talking to you. The boys are downstairs playing. I think Carter is in his own room because he’s doing his pre-teen thing—he wants to be by himself. We still have a flybridge that no one is using, and we have the bow of the boat as well. So we have the ability to spread out and do our own thing.
Jolene: Yeah, the space hasn’t really been the issue for us.
Chris: The toughest part with space is when we’re cooking or eating, everyone wants to be in the kitchen at the same time, and that doesn’t work.
Jolene: We call it the boat dance. If we’re all wanting to be in one space, it’s like, “I move, you move, you move, I move.”
Power & Motoryacht: To some degree, everyone has been going through something similar this past year or so. The only difference is you are enjoying an amazing experience at the same time.
Jolene: Exactly. I would just add that a lot of people think you need a lot of money to do this, and we are by no means rich. We’re just willing to take the risk. People think it’s going to be paradise every day, and it’s not. It’s actually raining as we speak. Reality and expectations don’t always line up, especially if people are only watching YouTube. Most channels will only share the highlights of what’s fun.
Chris: Our most common comment is people thanking us for being real. We just share everything: the bad, the good, the boring—it is what it is. Here’s our story. For whatever reason, that’s connected us to our audience. We’re not just posting highlights.
Power & Motoryacht: Exactly. You seem like a real family, and it feels like anyone can follow in your footsteps.
Jolene: If we can do it, truly! Chris has a lot of mechanical know-how, and I will say that’s a huge advantage for us, but even without that, if we can do it, someone else can figure out how to do it. I think the main thing is you have to get out of your head and stop thinking it’s such a big risk. Give it a shot. If you can’t handle it after a month or two, go back. America, the rat race—it’ll welcome you back any time.