BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : JULY 17, 2000 ISSUE
COVER STORY

Living Life on the Road--or the Water
Motor homes and boats are luring adventurous retirees

Richard and Barbara--she goes by Bobbie--Broockmann are spending the summer in their motor home on vacation in Canada's Maritime Provinces. They're in Nova Scotia now, headed for a month in Newfoundland. At the end of the summer, they'll return home through Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. ''I'm not sure we can keep it up for three months,'' he says. ''It'll be good to get home.''

Home? But home is their 34-foot Bounder motor home. Four years ago, Broockmann, 59, a retired Union Carbide executive, and his wife sold their 4,200-square-foot house in Colorado Springs and moved into a 250-square-foot recreational vehicle. With the last of their four sons entering college, and a college fund in place for that purpose, the decision was a simple one: Either keep their house and jobs, or give up both and retire. ''We can live comfortably now on a pension, which we could not have done with a mortgage and taxes and a kid in college,'' says Broockmann, adding that they live on about $35,000 a year. (The two-year-old, $86,000 RV is paid for.) Now, the difference between vacation and everyday life is one of pace: Vacations are planned, with the pair moving on to see the sights every couple of days instead of staying put at a campground or resort for a couple of weeks or months.

AMERICAN DREAM. More and more retirees are making a similar choice, forsaking the American Dream and hitting the road. Or packing all of their worldly possessions into a boat and sailing off into the sunset. The lifestyle definitely is not for everyone, but some guess that there now are more than a million retirees who have given up their roots for a more vagabond existence.

Most of them toy with the idea long before they make the break. The Broockmanns rented an RV a half-dozen times before they bought one. Many RVers suggest that you start out with a used vehicle. That way, all the kinks have been worked out by someone else, and you can take your time making a wish list for the RV that best fits your budget and your needs.

Or buy a boat. John and Suzanne Watson had two boats tied up behind their house in Florida when they worked for IBM. But IBM closed its personal-computer operations there in 1995, so the couple half-heartedly transferred to Raleigh, N.C., to wait out John's 30 years and retirement in 1996. On the way, they found their dream vessel, a 47-foot sailboat big enough to live on. Used, it cost $125,000, ''but we vastly underestimated the cost of keeping a 47-foot boat in good repair,'' says Suzanne, 58. They're now in Trinidad, where major work is being done to the bottom of their Phantom. Other costs, though, have been much less than their forecasts. All told, they spent $70,000 last year upgrading their boat and sailing the Caribbean, with inland trips to the U.S. and Venezuela.

For most people, the most traumatic part of the decision to cut loose from their past lives is getting rid of the detritus that they've accumulated. The best way is simply to jettison everything you don't need--and much of what you think you do. Give your children their pick of furniture and heirlooms, hold a massive garage sale, and cart the rest off to the Salvation Army.

''Everything we own is on these six wheels,'' says Barbara Ransehousen, 56, who, with husband Jim, 57, sold their share of a Western-clothing business in Woodstown, N.J., and in 1997 retired to a Country Coach motor home with a Jeep towed behind it for short runabouts. ''We don't need a lot of the trappings of household life, like bread machines,'' she says. Barb Hofmeister, 63, recalls being angry when, after three years of being away, she and her husband Ron opened their storage locker to discover belongings they'd never missed. A sale in a borrowed garage netted $3,000, barely covering the locker rent. The Hofmeisters have written about their experiences in a chatty how-to guide called Movin' On that lays out the details of living on the go, such as what to buy, how to budget, and where to stay along the way. (Wal-Mart parking lots are always a good bet.)

BIG WORRY. There's plenty of help like that for planning and making the break--or just dreaming about it if you're not quite ready yet. Virtually every maker of RVS and boats underwrites a members' group, with newsletters and get-togethers. Seven Seas Cruising Assn. has a monthly bulletin so members can swap information on how to ship a boat to England, for example. SSCA members who want to fly its coveted Commodore flag must log a nonstop ocean voyage of 1,000 miles, or 2,000 miles--stops permitted--in coastal waters. Landlubbers swear by the family-owned Escapees RV Club for its mail-forwarding service and long-distance phone cards. Escapees also runs an assisted-living facility at its Livingston (Tex.) headquarters for members who want to continue living in their rigs but can no longer handle them. Some organizations also offer group health insurance, a big worry for younger retirees waiting for Medicare to kick in.

Technology has made the nomadic life easier and, for the first time, feasible for retirees with, say, aging parents back home. Sailors have replaced their sextants with Global Positioning System satellite receivers for navigation, and there are modems that connect to onboard radios so you can handle your e-mail at sea. Computers and cell phones are becoming commonplace on RVs, and an occasional Internet connection makes online bill-paying a snap.

But what about when it comes time to retire from the cruising life? Elizabeth Pearce, 77, cashed out her job as a vice-president at Glendale Federal Savings & Loan at age 56 in 1979 and set out to sail the world on her 30-foot Crazy Lady--alone but for two cats a good part of the way. Fifteen years later, after a shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, she decided to come home. Now, she occasionally pilots boats for others, but mostly, she teaches the skills needed for a life at sea. ''There are many, many people who want to do what I did,'' says Pearce, who's now settled into a more permanent home: a 32-foot Morgan fiberglass sloop berthed at the mouth of Washington State's Puget Sound. As she puts it, some people never lose their thirst for water.

By LARRY ARMSTRONG

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