Savings on the sea: One local couple’s seafaring retirement

The average senior would likely think of retiring on a sailboat as an impossibility.

But for Gary and Genie DiDonato, both 74, it was merely an extension of the lifestyle they had already been living and loving.

The DiDonatos moved from their hometown of Denver to Burlington, Vermont, with their two young sons. They loved the water and were soon introduced to sailing on Lake Champlain by their new friends.

“It was so fun. We read books, and then more books to learn to do it on our own,” said Gary. “It’s a whole different world than a motorized boat. You have to hear the wind, see the wind, feel the wind, then know how to make use of it.”

They sailed their boat for five years on Malletts Bay in fog, rain, light and heavy winds, and waves. They had no idea how important this training would be as they neared their retirement years.

A new lifestyle

In 1976, the DiDonatos moved to Grand Junction, where Gary worked in his father’s business. Then came Black Sunday in 1982. Their home and the business suddenly had little value.

“The freest we’ve ever felt after that trauma was pulling away from Grand Junction with minimal furniture, headed to San Diego,” said Gary. “We were 40, and our sons were grown and stayed here. We both found good jobs and lived in a condo for a year, but we had a deci- sion to make, as money was really tight and housing in San Diego was expensive.”

They sold everything they owned and bought a $50,000, 30-foot sailboat—“Latest Caper.” With a slip charge of just $300 a month, it became their home.

“It was the perfect lifestyle for us,” said Gary. “We had no responsibility with a yard or a lot of stuff, and it’s just what we wanted.”

They were immersed in a community of sailboat racers who called the couple the “house movers,” since they were the only ones who actually lived on their boat. Lifetime minimalists, the DiDonatos lived simply but never felt like they were sacrificing.

“The hardest part for me…was giving up every modern convenience,” Genie said. “No dishwasher, no washer-dryer, no garbage disposal, no shower.”

Even so, it was worth it.

“The thing I enjoyed most about being out on the boat was learning what you can do without,” she said. “There are just so many things you don’t need.”

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Retirement at sea

“Because we’re doers and not buyers, we were able to set aside money each month we didn’t need to live on,” said Gary.

When Gary was offered an early retirement package at age 50, he jumped at it. Genie decided to retire as well.

“I said, ‘Let’s go to Mexico!’” said Genie. “So we began what was to be nearly 20 years living six months a year on our boat, sailing the Sea of Cortez. The other six months a year, we helped our son with his business in Grand Junction.”

Mexico proved to be an inexpensive place to live. The DiDonatos stocked up on supplies in larger towns once a month and replenished their fresh produce in small villages. Their clothing consisted of swimsuits and T-shirts.

“We caught our own fish, clams, lobsters and scallops,” Gary said.

Grateful for friendly and gracious Mexican hospitality, the couple gave back by volunteering on several Habitat for Humanity builds.

Gary got his captain’s license and Genie became navigator and ham radio operator. As part of a small group of close-knit cruisers, they never felt isolated.

Many would feel cramped on a small boat, but not the DiDonatos— they spent most of their time outside on deck. They learned to be “alone together,” respecting each other’s time and space.

From 2003-2008, they owned a second sailboat in the Caribbean with their son Randy. They chartered the boat for the first two years, until it paid for itself, then spent the next three years enjoying it themselves.

The DiDonatos credit their faith in God for taking care of them throughout their adventures. Five years ago, they made the joint decision to sell “Latest Caper.” Gary lost confidence in his ability to sail safely, and the 25-year-old boat needed lots of work.

They bought a house in Grand Junction and a new home-away-from-home: an 18-foot camp trailer, also named “Latest Caper.”

Supplement your retirement adventures

Experts at finding creative ways to make their latest capers work, the DiDonatos have tips for those hoping to be able to afford a little excitement in their retirement years.

  • Don’t own a lot of stuff. This makes it easy to pick up and go.
  • Don’t buy new cars. Only trade in your current vehicle when it reaches high mileage.
  • Consider renting out your home. The DiDonatos rent their home using Airbnb and Craigslist.
  • Think of enjoyable ways to supplement your income. The DiDonatos paid for part of their adventures thanks to income they made flipping houses.
  • Live without debt. Pay your credit card off each month. Pay cash for large purchases.
Melanie Wiseman

Melanie Wiseman

Melanie Wiseman is passionate about writing and loves sharing the stories of family, love, volunteering and adventure of the people she interviews. Raised in Wisconsin, she has called western Colorado home for more than 30 years. She loves traveling, reading, photography, hiking, camping, biking, cross-country skiing and exploring the outdoors with her husband, Dan, and Papillon, Abby.
Melanie Wiseman

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