Barefoot business: We spent a week on this innovative new remote working space on the high seas working, playing and sailing Greek waters and this is what it was like
A wifi-connected coworking and coliving space on a catamaran? Sailing and interacting with open-minded, location-independent professionals from around the world. What could possibly be more inspiring?
When I happened upon the innovative Coboat concept a few months ago, reading about the founders’ vision to create their dream coworking catamaran, it nabbed my attention – hook, line and sinker.
(No apologies for cramming as many sea-related idioms as I can into this story.)
So, when I caught wind of the fact that the Coboat crew was heading to the Mediterranean to launch a trial run commencing in Greece, I knew we had to get onboard.
We were curious to find out what it’s actually like to co-live, co-work and play on a boat for week as it sails from destination to destination.
Coboat was designed to provide remote workers, location-independent professionals, digital nomads, and freelancers – but also other individuals in search of new ways to work – with a space where they can connect with like-minded individuals from around the world on the high seas.
The aim is to draw creative inspiration from the endless blue, discuss ideas, deliver pitches and receive feedback and network in a relaxed environment, all the while remaining in touch with clients, colleagues and collaborators via a speedy internet connection.
The fact that the space is a catamaran makes it a unique remote working experience that sets itself apart from the coworking retreats, projects and “workations” that have sprung up in buzzing cities like Barcelona and exotic locales like Ubud.
Carlo and I are salty dogs to the core, so we knew that we would be in our element on Coboat.
We’ve been meddling about in motor boats and yachts, surf skis and kayaks, rafts and canoes, and anything else that floats since we were months old.
Carlo grew up boating on the White Nile, diving the Red Sea and sailing off Italy and Greece.
I was born on a big island – Australia – to parents who hail from the tiny isle of Agios Efstratios, a rocky speck in Greece’s northeast Aegean. All my life, I’ve lived near the sea, and can’t fathom what it’s like not to be able to run down to the beach whenever I want.
Saltwater courses through our veins, so we feel most exhilarated when we’re in or on the sea.
What is Coboat, and who is behind it?
The Coboat concept was born, not surprisingly in a coworking space in southern Thailand almost a year ago.
Berlin-born Karsten Knorr, a former advertising agency and nightclub owner who prefers the ups and downs of life at sea to those on land, came up with the idea at the coworking space KoHub on the sleepy isle of Koh Lanta.
Karsten, who owns a charter company, has been sailing for over 40 years of his 49 years, three of those living full-time on a boat.
“On Koh Lanta, I was hooked by the spirit of the people, the ideas. We were speaking about life, future possibilities over a few beers on the beach,” he said.
“I had been working as a location independent professional for a long time without knowing what it was.”
Karsten tracked down compatriot Gerald Schombs, 50, a communications professional and an avid sailor whom he had met two decades ago, to seek his input on the proposal.
Gerald founded a Berlin boutique PR agency 26 years ago; a decade ago he felt the need to move in other creative directions. He started to make himself “redundant” and started to become involved with other agencies and invest in startups.
While he still holds shares in the agency, he chose to work from home and freed himself up to spend time acquiring sailing and diving licences.
In what seems to be a twist of fate ordained by Poseidon himself, Karsten and Gerald swiftly agreed to partner on the coworking and co-living initiative on the high seas.
Within weeks, they had located a catamaran, an 82-foot Nautitech where they plan to host up to 20 Coboaters at a time for a week or more of sailing, working and playing. Key to their plans is a high-speed internet connection.
On the strength of the idea, some 200 people signed up for an early bird deal to spend a week or more on Coboat.
Gerald and Karsten ran a test sailing in Phuket for a small group of remote workers earlier in the year and it turned out to be a success.
While the big cat is in storage for now as it requires a serious refit, which entails serious funding, the forward-looking duo wanted to put their plans in motion and decided to launch a pirate beta season in the Mediterranean this past June.
“Through my contacts in Greece, we found a 50-foot Lagoon catamaran available for charter at a quarter of the normal rate, so we decided to launch from there,” Karsten said.
Within a few weeks, everything had fallen into place and the pair was ready to set sail with the good ship Marathounta, adorned with Coboat insignia and inspirational phrases, from the port of Lavrio, at the southeastern tip of greater Athens.
A handful of Coboaters signed up for the first week of the maiden voyage that kicked off in Lavrio, on a route winding around Greek islands as diverse as Limnos in the northeastern Aegean to Mykonos, Paros and Lesvos.
Coboat returned to Lavrio and that’s where we boarded in mid-August for a week of work and play on a route plying the Argosaronic Sea, the Gulf of Corinth and the Ionian Sea.
Footloose captain Karsten, who sports a shock of sun-bleached seaspray curls, makes the decisions on board.
Ask him about the route the boat will take and he’ll answer “It depends on the wind”.
He very often opens up the process to Coboaters, in terms of what they prefer – morning swim first then workshop, or the other way round?
Captains need to lead the crew and give direction, while they also have to deal with the nuts and bolts of the craft – making repairs where necessary. So, they often seem tough on the outside.
But what I found was that Karsten, armed with both entrepreneurial and life experience, is more than willing to share his knowledge and offer advice.
Warm-hearted and willing to lend an ear to individuals facing difficult times or major life decisions, he charmed and embraced all of us.
As business partners, Gerald seems to perfectly complement Karsten. Gerald frequently takes the wheel, allowing the captain nap time, while he also oversees bookings and mostly manages the logistics, such as ensuring the wifi connection is working efficiently.
“We’re learning as we go. It’s a very motivating, rewarding project. It’s very expensive at the moment for Karsten and I, but it’s wonderful to meet so many people and touch so many lives,” Gerald said.
Polish-Briton Jacob Kowaleski, 24, who has worked on marine conservation projects in Mexico and as a content manager in the renewable energies sector, is the onboard cook.
“At some point, I felt like a glorified solar panel salesman as my writing needed to correlate to sales,” he said.
“I handed in my notice and the same day I saw an ad for Coboat. I thought it sounded too good to be true, that it must be a scam.”
While he’s not trained in the field, cooking is his passion and he finds it therapeutic. Jacob enjoys experimenting with recipes beyond the go-to sailor’s meal of pasta with alternating sauces.
“Coboat also offers me the chance to grow and incubate my idea for a platform through which I hope to be able to cover the cost of glasses for people living in developing countries,” he says.
Austrian native Helena Mayr, also 24, is one of Coboat’s community managers and is responsible for managing the day-to-day schedule of life onboard, with a key focus on themed workshops, presentations and discussions.
Each Coboater has the opportunity to speak their mind, be it in the form of a pitch for which they require feedback, a workshop in which they can share their skills or a discussion of a topical subject.
Helena, who studied politics and international relations in the UK, has worked in hospitality, teaching and recruitment, including a non-profit organisation, all of which she says have assisted her in learning how to motivate people and creatively promote a cause or brand with limited means. A licensed sailor, she often takes the helm.
The Coboat mission
On Lesvos, Coboat – a not-for-profit company – steered a course in line with its goal to contribute towards making an impact on the places and people it visits.
The team paid a visit to a new coworking space established by Greek-Australian Eleni Atsikbasis on Lesvos, as part of the project Healing Lesvos, which aims to find ways to resolve the many issues facing the island, where tourism came to an abrupt stop this summer.
The northeastern Aegean island has received the greatest number of refugee arrivals, mostly escaping war in Syria and passing through Greece, over the past 18 months.
“We visited Lesvos to see the work that Eleni is doing. She is now working with two Coboater guests she met on board.” Gerald said.
“We’re a platform for communication, for connecting people and things.”
A key element of the Coboat mission is to raise awareness of the massive problem of sea pollution among Coboaters and local communities they visit.
“Most of the people who come onto Coboat aren’t sailors. It’s often the first time they sail on the sea and they see drifting plastic bags, rings, bands and other waste. It’s usually also the first time they see dolphins in the wild,” Gerald said during a sundowner presentation on the cat’s bow.
“It takes at least 500 years for plastic to degrade. Every piece of plastic that is in the sea still exists. It’s guesstimated that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.”
Gerald referred to rubbish patches, which are “like a plastic soup” that can run 10 to 20 metres deep.
“It’s not only a problem in developing countries. It’s everywhere – in Australia, Europe, the US,” he said.
Karsten noted that “fish eat the plastic, which means you eat it”.
He highlighted the man-made islet Thilafusi in the Maldives, which since 1992, has been the dumping ground for rubbish from resorts that now number over 100, producing some 500 tons of waste daily.
“It’s an open fire and it really feels like hell. For 20 nautical miles around it, there is no sea life. Everything is dead,” Karsten said.
On Coboat’s home beach in Phuket, where 750 tons of trash is generated daily, and elsewhere, they organise cleanups in collaboration with partner organisation Trash Hero Thailand.
“We’re still part of the problem but we support initiatives such as one launched by Trash Hero to make aluminum water bottles available for two euros. You can have it refilled with water for free at partner hotels and coworking spaces,” Gerald said.
Coboat also collaborates with Parley, which has been likened to a TED for the ocean, and has drawn the support of influential figures like Pharrell to raise awareness of the need to ban plastic, right down to straws, which are a significant source of pollution.
“Our other boat will be independent and not rely on external resources,” Gerald said.
Life onboard a coworking boat
The Marathounta is a spacious, sturdy twin hull, which has to be more comfortable than pretty much any single hull yacht of a similar length, or longer.
If you haven’t sailed before, there’s no reason to be hesitant. With Karsten at the wheel, you feel immediately at ease.
While the Mediterranean is not always tame, with some of the tallest waves recorded in Europe, he has handled major challenges at sea.
The catamaran can comfortably host up to 12 Coboaters in comfortable, spacious double and triple cabins.
We were fortunate enough to have a double cabin with a private bathroom and considerably more storage space than I expected.
If you’re travelling solo on Coboat, coliving means sharing a double bed or a triple cabin with people you’re meeting for the first time.
Our fellow Coboaters seemed to be just fine with that. Others might prefer to ensure they travel with a like-minded friend, colleague or partner, with whom they could share a double cabin.
I packed a rather big duffle bag, and found that I brought more changes of clothing than I needed.
Life on a yacht means taking care to use the limited water supply sparingly, and this means few showers, and lightning-quick ones at that. You better get used to bird baths and not throwing paper – or anything else – in the toilet as it can easily block.
At some point, my hair became used to the sea salt and pH levels seemed to normalise to the point that it didn’t bother me.
Towards the end of the week, I took Helena’s tip to wash my hair with a little (biodegradable) shampoo in the sea then rinse off with fresh water and condition on deck. I haven’t had a more enjoyable shower in my life.
While on some yachts, footwear needs to be sturdy and have non-marking soles, on Coboat, the rule is barefoot onboard, with shoes reserved for on shore.
This proved a therapeutic change from sensible office footwear. I definitely felt more grounded and in tune with my environment.
If you suffer from seasickness, pack a few tablets just in case, but it’s likely you won’t use them at all.
Day-to-day life and programme – and oh, the places you’ll go
Each morning began with a hearty breakfast whipped up by Jacob (his guacamole-filled pitas are divine) at around 8 to 8.30 at the communal table on deck.
Helena kicked off with an outline of the day’s programme, which needs to be a little flexible as timing of workshops, presentations and discussions – but also meal and play time – is dependent on location and sailing conditions, among other factors.
With minds fresh from a peaceful night’s sleep on the water, moored at a marina or a sheltered bay that Carlo and I often assisted in choosing in light of our local knowledge, we normally commenced with a morning session led by a Coboater.
It is, perhaps, this lack of a rigid structure which contributed to our ability to free our minds and allow ideation and thought processes flow.
If at anchor, noon or early afternoon was an opportune for a dip in the sea (can’t think of a better brainwashing), before lunch. Coboat has its very own inflatable unicorn – the loveable Uni.
This particular journey involved a significant number of nautical miles, which meant much of the day was spent sailing to our next anchorage, to ensure that we reached our final destination, Kefalonia, in good time.
July and August in Greece normally mean the dry northerly winds known as meltemi that blow through the Aegean Sea are at their strongest, so the Coboat crew and their seafaring guests were able to rig up the sails on a few occasions to take advantage of the gusts.
Sailing out of Lavrio, the Marathounta – with our calm skipper at the helm – handled 8 to 9 Beaufort gales like a breeze.
It’s rare for me to feel seasick but it was the one time I needed to sit outdoors and keep my eyes on the horizon.
For most Coboaters, post-lunch usually meant catching up on emails from work or collaborators, preparing notes for their upcoming presentation or Skype phonecalls with colleagues.
Working from a boat means you can also sneak in some power nap time, and many took advantage of the opportunity.
Late afternoon saw a second presentation or workshop, followed by discussion and feedback.
Coboat sundowner sessions are usually held on the trampolines on the bow, with two of those focused on the company’s mission and project.
By the time dinnertime rolled around, it was time to switch off laptops and relax over a good meal, be it on the boat or at a local taverna or restaurant, if we happened to be docked at a marina.
We spent our first night anchored off the Saronic isle of Poros, in Monastery Bay, where we took our inaugural dip the following morning.
After a five-hour journey from Poros, we reached the turquoise waters of the narrow Corinth Canal in the Peloponnese, which connects the Argosaronic Sea with the Corinth Gulf.
That week we were lucky enough to experience a full moon, which is even more atmospheric at sea.
Such full days meant that most would check out early and head to their cabin. I won’t forget the evening we were moored at the tiny Corinth Gulf islet of Trizonia.
Looking out of our cabin porthole at the midnight, I saw the moonlight dancing with a waveless sea, and a tiny traditional fishing boat anchored nearby.
Trizonia may not play host to a marina with water and power supply, let alone other accoutrements you’ll find at slick locations elsewhere in Europe, where you’ll pay a premium for the berth and services.
But, it was at this natural harbour that’s a popular stop for yachties where I had one of the most peaceful sleeps in my life. Not a sound, apart from the near imperceptible sway of the boat and water lapping against it.
It’s also where we shared a lovely seafood meal at a waterside taverna, looking out over a narrow strait separating the island from Central Greece, between which a zealous sea taxi zoomed passengers back and forth.
Connecting with our fellow Coboaters
This floating coworking and living space is an apt application of the over-Instagrammed phrase, “it’s about the journey, not the destination”, which actually has no firm origins.
The week that we sailed on Coboat was an unusual one, Gerald pointed out, as all Coboaters – except for me – possessed a sailing licence.
“Most of the people who have come on Coboat so far weren’t sailors, or had particular experience with the sea,” he said.
It was also the first time that most Coboat guests were aged 40-plus. Previous sailings had seen mostly 20- and 30-something digital nomads on board.
The term digital nomad or location-independent professional is normally associated with millennials, and it’s true that the majority of those who have adopted this lifestyle and career path are in the latter age range.
However, it seems there is a huge gap in the market for professionals who have worked for many years in a company or organisation, in a corporate environment or the public sector, and are ready for a major shift.
I’m referring to individuals who have honed their knowledge, experience and skills in a specific area, established a powerful network of industry contacts and feel confident enough to strike out on their own, to work in a freelance capacity, perhaps as a consultant, or set up their own small business.
Washington DC-based career coach Stefan Bielski, 47, grew up in Chesapeake Bay where he regularly sailed. He has worked as a journalist, banker, publisher and CEO in the US, Argentina and Poland, among other professions, and considers himself an entrepreneur.
Stefan builds tools and a community “for people who want to go through scary or meaningful changes” and landed the opportunity to sail with Coboat as a special guest through a competition run by open innovation platform Jovoto.
He is in the process of formulating a career design platform and conveyed his proposition to Coboaters in workshops and interactive sessions, during which he gleaned useful feedback.
“A business I set up in Buenos Aires went badly. I realised at the time that most people chase a solution before taking time to define the problem,” Stefan said.
His premise is based on an Einstein quote: that if he had an hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes coming up with a solution.
He also runs Professions on Purpose, panels through which he introduces professionals who explain how they have made dramatic career changes, such as a lawyer who became a sea captain.
In his first onboard presentation, he spoke about the need for us to acknowledge that we possess multiple, malleable selves and that we should consider which of those we wish to learn more about, cultivate and test.
“There are many ways to make small changes, take small steps, experiment and explore. This lowers the cost. You invest a little and gain information,” he said.
A visit to the archaeological site of Delphi, ancient Greece’s most important oracle, and its museum sparked further inspiration for Stefan and all of us to seek to “know thyself”.
Among those who helped Stefan clarify his direction was Catherine Hernandez, 40, who lives in Minneapolis, works in IT and spends her summers sailing at home and around the world, including a recent mind-blowing journey through the Panama Canal.
“Build a model that is flexible, particularly as yours is service-oriented,” she advised Stefan.
“You have the credibility and experience coaching MBA students. Don’t diminish it. Just publish and market the sh** out of that, on Medium and LinkedIn. Don’t put too much energy into it.”
Catherine recommended experimenting with two different products or models, and to invest in Facebook targeted advertising focusing on two groups – 20-somethings and an older group.
“Show the product and see if people click on it. Look at the analytics and see what works. It’s an affordable way to run an experiment or survey,” she said.
Catherine also helped him plant the seedlings of a podcast, which he launched a couple of weeks later.
It’s no surprise that it was often feisty Catherine who literally jumped ship as Coboat sailed into a port or marina. As Karsten gently navigated the vessel into position, she would leap off and lasso the boat’s ropes around the cleats or bollards, assisted by crew and Coboater sailors.
Catherine was so immensely inspired and filled with confidence after her week on board Coboat that she decided to quit her job as a CFO for a software application company, rent out her home in Minneapolis and search for a fully location independent job, that will allow her time to devote to her great love: sailing.
Prague-based Pawel Curda, 44, hails from a landlocked country but takes to the lakes of the Czech Republic on a sailboat as often as he can, expressing a yearning for the sea that his fellow Coboaters shared.
He worked in corporate finance and the media before breaking out as a freelance consultant two years ago. He invests time and “not just money” in startups, serves as a mentor and advises on equity crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending.
A frequent traveller, he is passionate about the coworking scene and likes to familiarise himself with a destination by reaching out to and meeting up with key members of the local startup community.
Pawel, who also writes about startups and technology for websites, prefers slow travel and shared his favourite travel hacks with the group.
We liked the fact that we were a small group – nine in total including crew – as it felt more personal and gave us the opportunity to connect with each individual and hear their story in a group session or one-on-one. We became quite a tight-knit group by the end of our journey.
‘It looks great, but do you actually get work done?’
This question was posed to us on social media.
Sure, there are fun and games, and swimming often involves a ride on Uni. In fact, Uni played an instrumental role in a covert Coboat mission involving Coboat stickers and a mega-yacht off the Ionian isle of Ithaca.
For most Coboaters, work was not only possible but necessary, though not in the way you might conduct it in your office at work or at home, or even in a regular co-working space.
If you’re thinking that you’re going to whip out your laptop and sit in a corner to work on your own for hours at a time, you’re missing the whole point of Coboat.
You will be able to log onto your laptop and work in peace, particularly during long stretches of sailing to the next stop, and when seas are calm. This is an opportune time to make notes about your experience, email or Skype a client, or prepare your presentation to fellow Coboaters.
But the point is to remove you from your normal working space to a space where you may feel as if there are no limits to your imagination. A place where you might feel you can make brave decisions that you wouldn’t make on land, perhaps in the rigid environment and mindset of an office.
The aim is for you to experience a new environment with new people. To help your mind foster new ideas and disrupt your mind space, but also switch off completely and contemplate in peace.
What’s the wifi like?
Wifi connectivity was good, particularly whenever we were in close proximity to land.
Coboat has partnered with the company CellWeaver, which provides satellite connection at sea and 3G/4G network and wi-fi along coastlines.
It comes at a premium cost, so you will need to save the heavy data uploads and downloads till you’re back on dry land.
We used it mostly to post updates on our Coboat experience to social media, peruse and respond to email and research the web.
Huge progress has been made over the years to improve internet connectivity on land and provide fast wifi at sea, but the truth is you’re on a boat.
It’s unreasonable to expect to be connected 24/7 to high speed wifi, even when close to land mass. Think how difficult and costly it can be to connect to the web on land in some locations, let alone when you’re casting across the deep blue.
Electricity is also limited on a boat, so devices are charged via multiple outlets at specific times, while there is also a solar power charger onboard.
If you feel the need to be online all the time, then you’re most likely missing the point.
Living on a coworking boat for a week, I think we all felt this was an invaluable opportunity, so we often switched our devices to offline so we could sit down and connect with other Coboaters.
All were individuals in comparable situations, with a similar outlook, facing common issues on a personal and professional level.
What we learned from a week on the cat
Living, working and playing together for six days in this floating office and home is an experience you can’t replicate on land.
On land, if you don’t get along with someone, you can get up and go. On a boat, you have no choice. So, you need to learn to get along but also give yourself and others space.
So, it’s no surprise that the experience led to some major revelations for some Coboaters.
Speaking to a captive audience in a small space, you’re exposing yourself in ways that you wouldn’t in a meeting room at the office. There’s room and freedom to delve deeper into your thoughts and the way you express your ideas and opinions.
Perhaps, the ebb and flow of the sea prompts flexibility in our thought patterns, impacting us in ways that researchers are only just starting to investigate.
Researchers like marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, author of New York Times best-seller Blue Mind, have found that simply looking at the sea and horizon – this binary beauty of nature – can help us blow away the brain fog. Bodies of water stimulate fresh neural connections, which may help us to view a situation from a different perspective.
One of the biggest lessons learned was the value of teamwork. When a battery glitch knocked out one of the catamaran’s two engines, everyone banded together to help moor the yacht in tight spaces.
On the Ionian island of Kefalonia, we had to slip into a narrow berth at the sleepy village of Assos, between a schooner and small motor-boat.
Stefan may have come up with his 55 Minutes proposal, but it was through feedback from others that he was able to sit back down and sift through his ideas that he will continue to develop over coming weeks on Coboat.
While the main purpose of our joining Coboat was to observe and document fellow Coboaters, we did take the opportunity to contribute to discussions. I spoke about life in Greece, why we choose to settle here and why we have stayed, in spite of the challenges. It also allowed us to address some common perceptions about the country and Greeks themselves.
In a skill-sharing session, Carlo delivered a photography 101 class (as well as killer afternoon espresso), offering advice to both those who use DSLR and point-and-shoot cameras.
Our week on Coboat turned out to be a profound experience which impacted us on a professional and personal level.
Connecting with people from different cultures and countries on a boat at sea did more to drain information overload, boost confidence, restart mental hard drives and inspire fresh ideas than a holiday ever could.
No matter how diverse our interests and fields of expertise, we were highly motivated to learn from one another, establish connections and continue the communication post-disembarkation.
It was interesting to see each Coboater open up, develop and progress and how the group bonded over just one week, revealing deeply-held thoughts and concerns in sessions but also one-on-one chats.
It highlighted the fact that, sometimes, it’s easier to bare your soul to someone you don’t know, who has no bias, and consider their advice.
We learned that people are willing to hear you out and help you shore up your confidence.
How much does it cost to Coboat?
A week on Coboat costs €1,180, but if you book far enough in advance, the rate drops to €980.
All in all, the cost is reasonable, if you consider it includes workshops and presentations, meals, non-alcoholic drinks, port fees and other fees normally associated with sailing.
Bring some cash to spend on a dinner or two at the destinations you visit, so you can savour the local flavours, and perhaps purchase a small memento of your travels.
Take into account the cost of reaching the embarkation point and departing from the disembarkation point, which is quite straightforward as flights are available to and from destinations Coboat is heading to in coming weeks.
You could easily tack on a few days’ stay at the disembarkation destination before returning home.
Post-Coboat, now what
There’s something incredibly liberating about working on the water, letting your thoughts wander over the waves.
We’ve been back on dry land for a couple of weeks now, and while September in Greece still feels like summer, we’re feeling homesick for life at sea with our fellow Coboaters.
Our minds have already begun wandering with thoughts of the various ways that we can combine work and play, and inspire new ideas, on or near the water.
We’re excited to be members of the growing Coboat community and feel that we sealed friendships with like-minded, open-hearted individuals on this voyage. We’re definitely planning to get back on board in the future.
Coboat continues in pirate beta mode through November, with numerous highlights coming up, including a flotilla sailing involving Berlin-based coworking space betahaus and Coworkation in the Balearic islands from October 8 to 15.
For more information, visit www.coboat.org