Sophie Darsy and Ryan Ellison were only dating for three months before the idea to ditch life on land for one on the sea first came about.
Sophie Darsy and Ryan Ellison told Insider they met on Tinder in 2015 and had only been dating for three months when he stumbled upon an article about a similarly-aged couple who sold everything to live full-time on a sailboat. The couple now run Ryan & Sophie Sailing, an Instagram account documenting their travels that has over 21,600 followers.
“Both of us were like ‘huh, it looks interesting,'” Darsy, 36, said of the concept of swapping life on land for one on the sea. From there, as she puts it, “the idea grew and grew.”
At the time, the pair — who share a passion for endurance sports — were working and living separately in Copenhagen, Sweden.
Right about the time they decided to buy a sailboat, Ellison said he was recovering from a shoulder injury that made him keen to try something new.
“I got attacked by a Canadian goose,” Ellison, who’s originally from the US and was visiting his parents there at the time of the incident, said. “So I had to fly back to Sweden and they essentially had to rebuild my shoulder.”
Plans he had to ski to the South Pole and run a triathlon with Darsy were consequently out the window, which made the idea of having an adventure on the sea much intriguing, Ellison, 40, said. Though he added that he was slightly idealistic about it all.
“I was like, ‘Sophie, this is so great,'” he said. “‘We can just buy a boat. It’s free. We just buy the boat and like the wind will just take us and we don’t have to buy fuel and we can just be on the anchor and life will be so cheap.'”
Within nine months of reading that article, Ellison and Darsy bought a boat, which was also the first time they’d owned a home together.
Both Ellison and Darsy led normal lives with relatively normal jobs prior to 2016, they said. Darsy had a background in marketing but worked as a pre-sales consultant while Ellison, who was a pilot in the military, said he was in Sweden consulting in the aviation industry.
And while the idea to drop everything to try out a life on the sea together was tempting, Darsy said they first wanted to make sure they were still together six months after the idea sparked because they were in a relatively new relationship.
“We weren’t actually even living together,” Ellison added. “We literally had just met.”
Before splurging on a boat, they also did a two-week sailing course that cost roughly $2,000, including accommodation and food.
Neither of them had much prior experience sailing, they said, which is why they both opted to spend two weeks at a sailing programme in Gibraltar.
Per person, the course was around $200-$300 but there was also the cost of accommodation, food, and travel to consider, they said. “So for the two of us, it was about $2,000,” Darsy said.
Combined with the books and online resources, both said they were making an investment in their vision of living full-time on the sea. “We went into nerd mode,” Ellison said. “Just trying to learn everything about the life and what we needed to know.”
In February 2016 they bought their boat for £78,000, or around $95,000, which they did by borrowing money on a pre-existing owned property.
“We get super lucky,” Darsy said. “Both Ryan and I owned apartments in Stockholm and the real-estate market allowed us to borrow enough money on Ryan’s apartment that had increased in value so that we could buy the boat cash.”
But they said the cost of the 36-foot boat, which was docked in Southampton in the UK at the time, was just one thing. Other factors included flying from Sweden to the UK and having it inspected by an expert, known in the boating world as a surveyor, they said.
“At that point, we knew nothing about boats,” Darsy said.
An added cost included repairing parts of the boat that needed a new upgrade.
According to Darsy, whenever you get a boat inspection, there’s a high chance there are going to be parts that need refurbishment and repairing.
“We estimated that year that we put about 10% of the value of the boat back into the boat,” she said, which worked out to roughly 10,000 euros, or around $10,400.
They also had to shell out 4,000 euros, or around $4,200, to hire a professional team to sail it to Sweden as neither were trained enough to make the crossing themselves at the time. In retrospect, both say they were very lucky in the boat they chose because they really ended up going with the first one they thought “looked good.”
“It’s not like buying a car,” Ellison said. “And it’s a thing that we didn’t know much about.”
For the first year or so, they mostly lived off of their savings, which wasn’t sustainable in the long term, they said.
For just over a year, the couple said they lived off of their savings. They’ve also continued to make money from the apartment in Sweden that’s rented out.
But when they realized just how much they enjoyed life on the sea, they needed to figure out how to sustain it by going back to work.
“We had to adapt,” Ellison, who works for a business he helped start up a few years ago, said.
Meanwhile, Darsy was earning mostly through running their YouTube channel, where they have a following of over 63,200 subscribers. She said for the past two years, she made around $700 a month and since December has been taking home $1,000 a month. “YouTube does not make a lot of money at our level,” she added.
Darsy started doing consultancy to bring home more money. In total, their joint income is around $5,000 a month, Ellison said.
“I had to start doing more work because there is only so much that you can live with $700 or a $1,000 a month,” Darsy said. “I found it after a couple of years it’s just rough.” Now she makes a bit more by doing knowledge management consultancy for big corporations, she said.
“But we’re pretty unique in that sense that we both have these jobs and we’re doing it,” Ellison added.
“We’ve met people that they’ll live off savings or they find really unique ways to make money. Some people will go somewhere and work in a boatyard for instance, or some are hairdressers and everybody needs a haircut on boats. So, they’ll just go around to the boats and make 20 bucks here or there and that works,” he said.
But working full-time on top of sailing full-time is sometimes “incompatible,” Darsy said.
“Two weeks ago we had a tropical storm come over us and we had to sustain two days, preparing ourselves to sustain a storm on anchor and then for a full 24 hours we didn’t sleep,” she said. And on top of all that, they had to work their day jobs.
“Sometimes it is incompatible with boat life in a sense that it’s so inconvenient to live on board and everything is so inefficient and takes so much more time,” she said. Sometimes they work upwards of eight hours a day on top of their workday, she added, and she’ll have clients who expect her to deliver and participate in meetings.
“I would say the first thing we discovered is that the sailboat dream of it being free or cheap was not true,” Ellison said.
Tough moments throughout the experience include the first time Ellison witnessed first-hand a migrant raft rescue that took an emotional toll.
With their experience of learning to sail in Gibraltar, the couple both said they knew of the migrant boat crisis where Europe-bound asylum-seekers travel by sea via raft, according to the UN.
“Migrant rafts are a reality in this part of the world,” Darsy said. “You hear the radio calls from the rescue looking for them.”
What they didn’t expect is for Ellison to not only witness but take part in a rescue while attempting his first solo crossing of the Atlantic in January. “The emotions that it draws of seeing about 50 people on a raft that are probably going to die if they don’t get rescued,” he said. “It was hard. It was really hard.”
Darsy said the rescue eventually made the news, which is when they learned that the total number of people taken out of the water that night was actually 300.
“We have heard those stories happen so many times,” Darsy said, adding that confronting the reality “hits you in a very different way.”
Knowing about the migrant crisis and experiencing it firsthand is a completely different experience, both Darsy and Ellison said. And it made them truly understand the “giant gap” between those being out on the sea for fun and those trying to reach a better life.
Through the experience, the couple also learned that more people seeking asylum in Europe are taking routes via the Canary Islands, waters Darsy said can be “lethal.”
An NGO called Caminando Fronteras reported in January that over 4,000 people died trying to access Spain in 2021, with nearly 95% of those killed disappearing into the sea without having their bodies recovered.
In terms of their own relationship, being together on a boat all day every day has plenty of ups and downs.
Unlike on land where you can have space from your partner or socialize with other people for different reasons, Darsy and Ellison are all each other has when they are out on the ocean together, they said.
“You become everything for your partner,” Darsy said. “Ryan is my romantic partner but he’s also my best friend, and my confidant, and my therapist, and my nurse, and my colleague. And you have to fill all the roles for each other and it doesn’t always work to jump from one role to the other at a moment.”
“This is a small space,” Ellison added. “You really need to make sure you have an outlet to work, to keep yourself mentally and your relationship going.”
And one thing they’ve learned along the way is that it’s OK to have time apart, they said.
“We took a break last year, Sophie and I. She went to Paris, and I went back to the States. For almost two months we were apart,” Ellison said. Lots of people reached out to ask them what’s going on, to which he explained to them that when you’re with your partner 24 hours a day, it’s only natural to want to some distance at some point.
People who are in relationships and live with their partners on land normally get breaks from each other through work or seeing friends separately, he added. Because their boat is too small to have any real alone time, they’re basically catching up on those hours apart every so often, he said.
One thing they try to keep as normal as if they were on land is the coziness of their home.
“We try to have it a little homey. I’m more of a minimalist when it comes to stuff. Sophie’s a little opposite of that,” Ellison said.
“At the end of the day, you’re going to do the exact same thing as you do on land,” Darsy said. Some of the things she said they do is collect art and objects from everywhere they go, as well as investing in new cushions and fabric to make their living space look and feel good, and getting a new bed.
Then there are also all the mechanical things Ellison said he did to make the boat feel like a home, such as adding running water. “We know people that don’t have a shower and have to use a bucket off the back of their boat, and that was a big no-go for Sophie,” he said. “Probably a no-go for me too.”
Two huge takeaways from their time on the sea are how small the world really is, and that they can do more than they thought was possible.
“If we put our hearts into it, we can do anything,” Darsy said. “I still have the biggest imposter syndrome. And it’s insane to me to have that and look back and be like, “Wait, okay, you’ve changed your life. You have a new career. You’re pretty successful at what you do. You’ve crossed the ocean two times and you have so many notable miles and you didn’t even know how to sail six years ago.”
Ellison said he agreed, adding that his primary takeaway is “the world is a lot smaller than we believe it is.”
“We’ve crossed the Atlantic Ocean three times on this boat,” he said. “To me, that just shrinks the size of the world.”
“We end up meeting some really great people out here,” Ellison added. “And we end up meeting them in very random places and parts of the world that we’re like, ‘Oh, what are you doing here?'”
“We always say this to people, the highs are really high and the lows are really low,” Ellison said.
“We have more lows than highs, but the highs are so high it makes the life worth it,” he said.
For Darsy, a particularly profound moment came after they were coming out from Mediterranean after spending a year sailing there, two years into living on the sea full-time.
“The sea was calm. There was no wind,” she said. “The water was like oil and the colors of the sunset were reflecting in the water and it created this painting of red and orange and purple, and it was amazing. And then all of a sudden, dolphins start to jump in front of the sunset.”
Then suddenly, there was a bioluminescence lighting up the water, especially when the dolphins were chasing thousands of fish around the boat. Although it was impossible to capture on camera, she said it felt like they were in the 2009 movie “Avatar.”