Many dream of jacking it all in for a life by the sea. Harty talks to a couple who have turned alternate living into an art form.
What’s the ideal lifeboat? No, not the vessel itself, which should obviously be sturdy and watertight, but the mix of people inside it? Most people would hope for a doctor, a builder, a chef, an outward bound Bear Grylls type and perhaps a comedian to keep spirits up.
The lifeboat scenario is often discussed on clinics as each group peruses how their collective talents would fare if cast away. On this particular week they all agreed Gerry would be essential.
When asked, “What do you do?”, Gerry reveals a profession which more than any other makes him instantly irresistible as a potential partner. A millionaire rock star you say? Or something more caring like a vet or a paediatrician? Neither, he’s a chocolatier. His own brand, ‘Artisan du Chocolat’ sells in the most exclusive outlets (Harrods, Fortnum and Mason etc) and comprises a wildly exotic array of flavours and recipes. When he first arrived on a course, he opened the boot of his car to reveal half a ton of choccy samples. He had us at hello. But the chocolate aside, he trained as a chef and would no doubt whip up a tasty casserole out of puffins and seaweed. However, it is not for his chef status, nor his generosity with sweetmeats that we showcase Gerry this month; but instead for his impressive, brave and, some might say, mildly eccentric choice of lifestyle, which will surely inspire those with itchy feet and adventure in their hearts.
For 4 years, Gerry and his partner Trish have lived in a campervan. I’m sat in it right now. If you’re imagining us crammed in around a fold-out camping table surrounded by windsurfing hardware, dirty pots and pans, damp wetsuits and half eaten boxes of Frosties think again. We’re in the cavernous living space of his classic US 30 foot Gulf Stream ‘Supernova’ R.V., equipped with separate bathroom, bedroom, office, kit storage unit, satellite TV, internet and cat; and behind which they tow a 4X4 jeep.
Gerry had been running the chocolate business for 10 years in Kent when he became addicted to windsurfing. “When I met Trish she told me about her horse trekking stories in Australia – and I thought, I want to be the person telling those stories – not listening to them! I liked the idea of the nomadic farmers following their herds. That got the cogs turning and I decided to become a ‘Wind Nomad’. The aim was to get rid of stuff and make everything mobile.” Summers so far have seen them explore the west coasts of France and Portugal. They showed me fabulous pictures of their recent time in Norway, windsurfing in the remotest fjords. For trips into more remote hinterlands, they park up the RV and move into there ‘holiday home’ – the jeep, which has a roof top tent and can get everywhere.
This past winter they drove 400 miles into the Arctic Circle in Finland to work on a Husky Farm – that is to say a farm where you can do sleigh safaris with them, not eat them. “It was often -40° celsius. We lived in the van and the warmest we managed to heat it up to was 10° – but we got used to it.”
All very wonderful … but how?
As most open the door to even the faintest possibility of heading down such a route, they at once slam into apparently ‘un-jumpable’ hurdles such as jobs, mortgage, debt etc. So it’s natural to assume that Gerry and Trish are on a ‘spending the inheritance’ jolly.
“As soon as anyone sees a van like this, they think ‘retired millionaires’ – then we get out (Gerry are Trish are only in their mid 40s). We don’t fit the image! When they ask us questions, we tell them our parents are around somewhere, they better ask them!”
There are no hidden millions. The project has taken a lot of planning, effort and courage. Trish sold her pet vacation business to raise the 100k for the van. They’ve binned or sold all but essential possessions, emptied their house out completely and rented it out. As for day to day to day finance, they both have to work, but have the advantage of having mobile, contract style jobs. Trish is an events specialist and signed up to a London agency, and Gerry is a consultant in the chocolate business. As we speak he’s about to fly to India for 10 days to share his considerable knowledge. They organise work trips so one of them stays with the van and looks after Tato the cat. With everything taken into account it costs about 30k a year to finance the lifestyle.
“A lot of that is taken up with insurance and fuel (the truck only does 12 miles to the gallon). We don’t go crazy, eating out maybe twice a month. And when it comes to parking up, we plan ahead – there are lots of websites out there telling you where you can rock up for free.”
Gerry is doing my Kerry wave clinic and has parked for nothing in the field behind our cottage.
The truth is that the challenge is just like learning to loop. You can talk about it all you like, but in the end you have to go for it, put your body on the line and see what happens. But you also have to be pretty resourceful. When the van broke down in the Arctic Circle this winter, it wasn’t just a case of calling the AA. Gerry ended up towing the truck off the road with the jeep, and then fixing the problem himself. Gerry is also Irish, has the gift of the gab and can talk his way into and out of most situations, which is surely the most useful skill of all.
So what are the real plusses and minuses of the project?
“The downside is that the truck is not bricks and mortar and that it depreciates. That’s why we went for a classic. It loses a bit of money at first, but then starts to appreciate. But then we basically have an apartment on wheels, one where you look out every day and have a different view. That’s amazing. And we’ve properly cut the umbilical cord. This is our home. For most camper-vanners, a trip is two way – you go and then you have to return. But for us, it’s one way. We go … and then we go again. The possibilities are endless.”
Peter Hart – 28th May 2019