Elena and Ryan are cruising the Mediterranean Sea aboard Kittiwake, a Heavenly Twins 26ft catamaran. They sail frugally, going slow, anchoring out, and earning a living along the way. They also run the YouTube channel Sailing Kittiwake.
In this post, Elena shares what she’s learned about having a YouTube channel, a year on.
Big thanks to Elena for letting me share this article as part of the Cruising Stories series — a look at the real-life ups and downs of the cruising lifestyle. Follow her sailing channel Sailing Kittiwake on YouTube, her blog, and her Instagram.
The Realities of Having a YouTube Channel
In the past five years, there has been a huge boom of YouTube sailing channels. More and more people have watched successful vlogs, such as Sailing La Vagabonde and SV Delos, from their couch, got inspired to go cruising, and started documenting their journey in the same way. It’s great because it means more and more people, many of whom are young, are getting out there on the water.
When you look at how much money these big channels are making (over $10,000 per episode alone through a platform called Patreon), it’s easy to assume that running a YouTube channel is an easy way to make a living. Except, it’s really not.
In this article, I’ll share the reality of having a YouTube channel, a year after launching our own. I want to be honest and explain how it really works; I’ll try to stick with facts and keep this write-up as objective as possible. While reading it, please remember that I absolutely love having a YouTube channel and I do want to keep making videos.
Editing is hard
When you watch a sleek 12-minute La Vagabonde episode, you might think it’s easy to group together a few shots on a timeline, pop some music on top, and upload it on YouTube.
However, if you want your videos to be of decent quality, you need to learn how to use a good editing software, such as Final Cut Pro or Lightworks. This takes a lot of time and effort alone. Once you’ve mastered the software, editing can still be challenging – you may not have enough shots, some of the clips might be terrible, or you may have some sound issues.
I can’t tell you how many times we got down to editing a video and realized the wind makes it impossible to hear what we say in a key clip, or we didn’t shoot enough on a particular sail because one of us was unwell. Editing is challenging.
Producing videos takes a huge amount of time
A 15-minute video can take up to 40 hours of editing and 20 hours of filming. That’s our usual numbers, at least. You may think this won’t apply to you; unless you’re a professional filmmaker, think again.
You accumulate a crazy amount of hours of footage which you’ve got to watch (you won’t use most of it), then you spend endless hours editing the clips together and matching the sound levels, and finally, you’ve got to find good music that fits well with your narrative. Once your draft is complete, you may have to make changes to it. We typically have two or three rounds of amends for each video we create.
Then, of course, there is the time spent creating an attractive thumbnail, writing the copy for the YouTube title and description, writing a unique Patreon message and post, promoting your video on all your social media platforms, keeping your social media platforms up-to-date, learning more about videography, updating your website, studying how the YouTube algorithm works, and so on. It really is a full-time job, if you’re serious about it.
We typically dedicate around 40 hours to our videos (and related activities) per week, and we publish two episodes per month. Most sailing channels release four videos per month. We can’t – we still need to make a living because, guess what?
Making money out of a vlog isn’t easy
I’m not going to hide it: making money on YouTube is pretty damn hard. Here are the main options you have.
You can make money by allowing YouTube to display ads before, during and after your videos. To get decent money from ads, you need hundreds of thousands of views per month and to apply as a YouTube partner, you need a minimum of 1,000 followers.
Our small channel (currently 9,000 subscribers) typically generates around 40,000-50,000 views per month. This makes us about $50-$80 per month. We started making $30 per episode after about four months of starting the channel and then the amount grew together with the views.
If you’re lucky, you can get a few freebies through your channel. For example, we were given a free anchor and a free cruising chute last year. All we need to do is use them, which we of course do naturally, as we need to sail and anchor. The good thing about freebies is that you can get in touch with your favorite brands and ask them for a specific product directly, so you end up promoting something you truly love.
As you grow your audience, all sort of brands will get in touch asking you to promote their products in exchange of a couple of samples and, sometimes, some money. We have been approached by a number of non-sailing related companies offering free sunglasses and other merchandise. We politely declined, because we didn’t feel we could fulfill their requirement (a sponsored review) without sounding phony and irritating our loyal followers. However, some of the bigger channels do accept some of these deals, sponsoring DNA testing services, selfie sticks, sun ovens, etc. Whether you accept or not, it ultimately depends on the feel you want your channel to have.
Other deals you may be offered are referral schemes – you recommend a product on your channel and earn a small referral fee when your viewers buy it. We never got involved in something like this, because we don’t feel we have enough influence on people to make them buy a product.
To make decent money out of brand collaborations, you need to strike quite a few deals per month and of course brands won’t offer you money unless you have a good amount of subscribers and views (30,000+ subscribers usually). So far, we only ever accepted freebies, no money.
Thankfully, there is Patreon. Patreon is an amazing platform on which people donate a fixed amount of money to a creator on a monthly basis to support their work. These amazing people recognize that making videos is actually pretty hard and they want to help you keep up with the costs of running a YouTube channel. Awesome. This is a great way to make money, because most of it does reach you and it’s real, hard cash. Making money through Patreon is a real possibility for anyone. There are a few things you need to bear in mind about this platform:
- Patreon keeps some of the money (around 5%) and there is also a processing fee for each transaction (around 4%), so on average you get 90% of the money pledged.
- The amount of money per video displayed on your Patreon page will only apply to your first published video per month. What does it mean? When people donate, they put a cap on their donation, so they don’t spend more than they can per month. A proportion of people will cap their contribution to one video per month, some to two, a few to three and a couple of people to four. This means that if your Patreon page says “$200 per video” and you publish four videos per month, your earning won’t be $800, but rather around $500.
- Patreon money isn’t a very reliable source of income – people increase or decrease their pledges and often interrupt their donations. Unless you’re making much more than you need per month, you can’t rely on the amount you see on screen at the beginning of the month. Even the amount made by the big channels fluctuates a lot, often by $1,000/$2,000.
- It’s not easy to convince people to donate – most people think you’re a scam, wanting people to pay you to live your dreams; they don’t realize how hard it is to produce good video content or how much effort (and money) you put into it. We’ve had Patreon for a year now, and we’re making around $330 per month on it. We’re forever grateful to our patrons – they are what keeps us going when equipment fails and views drop.
Patreon is truly great. It allows you to build a special relationship with some of your followers and to make some real money. I personally think this is the best platform for making money on YouTube. Don’t expect to open a Patreon page and be flooded by donations though – it takes time. On our first few months on Patreon we made $15/$20 per month and it took us six months from releasing our first ever video to get to $100 per month.
You can also give people the chance to make a one-off donation to you via PayPal – they may want to show their appreciation for your free content, but cannot commit to a regular donation. This is usually called “buy us a beer” on YouTube.
This is a great way to get a tip because it’s a lovely surprise to receive every now and then. We usually get one or two donations per month (around $10, minus 4% PayPal fees) and it definitely makes our day.
Most sailing channels offer branded merchandise, such as t-shirts, cups, stickers, and more. They use a print-on-demand platform, which takes care of creating the products and shipping them to their buyers. The platform keeps most of the profits from the transactions and you get a cut.
We decided not to go down this route yet, as we don’t think we’d sell much and we’d rather people gave us $1 per episode, supporting the content we produce, rather than having them spend a considerable amount of money on some low quality merchandise for which we get a small margin. Who knows, that might change in the future.
We now make around $400 per month all in all through our videos, thanks to the growth of our channel over the past year. Of course we didn’t make any money for the first few months and for a long time we made around $100/$200 per month – our donations have just gone up (thank you, amazing patrons!).
We’re very lucky we do make some money– many vloggers don’t make anything! Oh and we don’t use the money to eat – it pays back for some of our video production expenses. Because…
You need to invest in gear and data
Whether you want to produce high-quality videos or more charming homemade vlogs, you need a couple of cameras, a microphone, and use the Internet. There is no escape: you need to invest some money into your YouTube channel.
We started off really cheap: we spent $200 on a used old mirrorless camera, dug out an old GoPro we already had, we bought a crap old DJI drone ($200), and got a microphone for $70. Then our camera charger broke and we had to buy a new one ($70). Then our camera battery was lasting too little and we bought two unbranded ones ($35 each). Then we decided we needed a decent drone to improve our videos ($1,900). Then our main camera broke, so we bought a new one ($800). Shall I go on?
On top of the equipment, we spend around $40 per month on mobile data to upload our videos onto YouTube. A year on, we haven’t yet recovered the costs of running our YouTube channel (mostly due to the huge expense of the drone). We make money through freelance work each week to cover our cruising and living costs. The truth is, we don’t do it for the money – we do it because we love it and hope one day our efforts will pay off. There is no guarantee this will happen, but we’re still having fun.
My advice to you is: don’t start a YouTube channel to make money. Do it because you love filming, because you want to show your travels to your family, because you want to watch the videos when you’re older, or because you want to learn how to film and edit. Basically, do it for a good personal reason; there is no guarantee a vlog will earn you a living or even make you any money. With new sailing channels starting every month, it’s getting harder and harder to get viewers interested in yet another sailing story, so it’s important you keep motivated from personal reasons.
You’ll have amazing followers and supporters
Sailors and aspiring sailors are awesome people. I’m not sure why they’re so special – maybe the link to the sea and nature connects them all in a unique way. Whatever the reason, they are truly supportive of other cruisers. This will reflect in your channel’s audience. 99.9% of the comments and emails you’ll receive will be amazingly nice, kind, and warm. Your fondest followers will take the time to say thank you, or compliment you on a video, or help you solve a problem, or simply encourage you.
We have a truly wonderful band of followers and supporters. Reading their comments and messages day in and day out is what makes making videos truly worth it.
The trolls will find you
I wasn’t quite prepared for the trolls. I thought they were mean mythological creatures hanging out around huge channels. I was wrong – trolls are everywhere and they will find you.
Trolls are people who specialize in upsetting creators on YouTube. They will offend you, criticize you, and spam your channel with off-topic comments. These people hate you and will do everything they can to make you feel crap about yourself.
When reading their comments, try to remember they don’t know you and they are just throwing their own anger and resentment at a random person, so try to ignore them. Imagine they’re a stranger shouting obscenities at you on the street – it’s nothing personal. Dealing with their comments can be rather hard (I know I still struggle), but you’ll grow a thicker skin for it. Take a deep breath and block them or hide all their comments. Then try to forget what they said. Easier said than done, but I’m working on it.
You’ll make amazing friends
The sailing world is rather small. It’s weird, but once your channel gets going, people will start to recognize you. It’s usually other cruisers on other boats, or on shore. They’ll pop round and say something like: “Hey, are you Sailing Kittiwake from YouTube?” and they’ll quickly become new great friends.
This, for me, in one of the best advantages of having a channel. Not because we like to be spotted (it can actually be kind of awkward), but because we get to meet new people!
Ryan and I make so many more friends thanks to our channel. As we live at anchor and work on our laptops inside the boat a lot, sometimes it’s hard to meet other cruisers. We usually don’t have much time to go around to other boats to introduce ourselves between the video creation, the freelance work, the boat maintenance, the sailing, the blog, etc. So it’s always a pleasant surprise when someone dinghies over and asks if it’s “really us.” We can quickly invite them on board or make plans to meet them later.
When we think back, most of the friends we made because we got recognized, we would have never met, had we not had a YouTube channel. We met most of these people by pure luck – we were in the same supermarket as they were on shore, or they were rowing to shore while we were swimming. We’re so grateful we got to meet them.
You’ll also make friends when people reach out to say they live in an area you’re about to cruise. That’s another amazing way to make new friends. You’ll get to meet locals, make friends with them, and they will be awesome enough to show you their hometown.
Lastly… the most painful of all aspects of having a YouTube channel. I couldn’t leave it out. No matter how good your filming and editing get over time, people click on videos based on the title and thumbnail. So unless those really make people want to click, your videos won’t get a lot of views. What generates tons of views? Sex, nudity, disasters, negativity, money, celebrities, … So… not the actual sailing.
More than once we released a video, which we thought was our best one yet, only to see it get a fraction of the views we usually get because there was no drama in it. This can be very discouraging; there’s no denying it. You just have to take it as a learning process. Each time you release your “best video yet” and you see it flop, try to learn from it and improve. YouTube’s audience is unpredictable and can sometimes astound you.
So there you have it. Having a YouTube sailing channel isn’t stress-free and it’s not an easy way to make money. However, it’s extremely rewarding, it pushes you to learn new things, it allows you to see the best side of humanity, and it helps you make new treasured friends. So if you’re prepared for what’s to come, have a go at it! I personally think it’s a great experience.Some links above (including all Amazon links) are affiliate links, meaning that I earn from qualifying purchases. Learn more.