Life on Orla: A tiny home from a refurbished oil rig lifeboat

Life on Orla: A tiny home from a refurbished oil rig lifeboat

Johnny Sturgeon is unassuming. You wouldn’t look at him and think “TikTok influencer.” Dressed simply in a worn sailing cap, old jeans and trainers coated in marine insulation foam, he defies traditional influencer conventions. He’s warm and friendly, with none of the social media glitz and glam. And yet, in the span of just one year, Johnny, a self-proclaimed simple man, amassed one of the most popular boat renovation followings online today.

And the key to that following, Johnny knows, isn’t him.

“The people aren’t here for me,” he said. “They’re here for the boat.”

On a Sunday morning, beneath overcast London skies, I met Johnny for coffee. He had just arrived off the train from the Southampton International Boat Show, the United Kingdom’s largest boat festival, where he had given a presentation on his lifeboat conversion project, Orla. Over hot drinks, Johnny and I sat down to discuss his burgeoning social media following on Instagram and his aspirations for both Orla the Lifeboat and himself.

Photo: Johnny Sturgeon

Photo: Johnny Sturgeon

Orla is a 28-foot-long decommissioned oil rig lifeboat. Her name, Gaelic for ‘Golden Princess,’ appropriately suits her, given her bright, once-orange hue. Johnny bought the vessel over a year ago with the goal of transforming her into a liveaboard boat suitable for the English canals.

While many people renovate boats into live-aboard homes, few purchase actual lifeboats. Even fewer acquire such vessels without the means to complete the build or, at the very least, without some background in boatbuilding. For Johnny, however, who started this project with only $2,100 in the bank, this was all part of the plan.

“It was always going to be a lifeboat,” said Johnny. From the beginning, he intended to finance the boat’s restoration through online crowdfunding and documentation. Having never really worked on boats and having refrained from social media for two years prior to the project, Johnny’s success seemed unlikely.

“My friends, I think they thought I was f—ing nuts.”

Photos: Johnny Sturgeon

Numbers, however, don’t lie. In the process of documenting an incredible retrofit, during which he candidly chats about hard days, financial struggles, and his personal life, Johnny has amassed over 360,000 followers on Instagram (@johnnysturgeon) and over 670,000 followers on TikTok (@orlalifeboat). And while Orla certainly receives a lot of views, those clicks don’t necessarily translate into money. “I worked it out across both platforms,” he said. “All my platforms have like 70, 80 million views and I think I got paid 400 pounds ($500). I’m grateful for it, but it’s not how it’s going to pay for the boat.”

For the first 8 months of the build, Johnny didn’t see a single penny. It was only after he managed to amass a significant following that he started selling merchandise and forming partnerships with marine brands. As he shared in our interview, a common misconception among online observers is that Orla is funded by his hypothetically wealthy parents. While Johnny is grateful to have a family that supports his decision, he stresses that all financing for Orla has come from himself.

For Johnny, it really is just about finishing his vessel. He typically spends 6 days in the yard working on Orla, complemented by over 30 weekly hours of content creation, administrative tasks and reaching out to sponsors. “I always knew that if I could build and accumulate an audience of a decent size, I could take it to sponsors and say, ‘I don’t want money, but if you give me a free product, I will show your product being installed,’” he said.

In part, his sincerity and commitment to storytelling may be one reason for Johnny’s considerable social media success. His 60-second videos are well-edited, delivering practical explanations of his building process through compelling mini-narratives. And the array of work is dizzying. Completely custom cabinetry, new paint and motor, marine-grade appliances and electrical work, fire suppression gear and a custom front berth whose construction and mattress installation have garnered over 2 million views on Instagram. In short, Orla herself is a charismatic and compelling character, brought to life through Johnny’s visual depictions. It would be remiss, however, to not also consider Johnny as an integral part of the cast.

In order to raise money for continued restoration of Orla, Sturgeon will even hold raffles, at $6 per entry ticket, for the chance to spend a weekend aboard his lifeboat.

Photo: Johnny Sturgeon

In many ways, Johnny embodies the beloved underdog that audiences naturally rally behind. Here is a young man, new to the boatbuilding world, attempting to construct a budget-friendly home. With each new video he uploads, audiences get to witness his growth in both skills and confidence. He can surely be considered a product of the times. While living on a lifeboat is both neo-chic and compelling, the motivation behind this project is far more practical: it’s just plain affordable.

In a world where many people are rent or housing-burdened—defined as paying 30 percent or more of a household’s income toward housing—the liveaboard lifestyle can provide an alternative to the struggle of “just scraping by” in urban metropolises. In London, where Johnny plans to ultimately moor a finished Orla, the median cost of a one-bedroom apartment is estimated to be approximately $1,900 to $2,000 per month, totaling $23,000 annually. Johnny estimates his monthly mooring will be just around $190 to $250.

As the cost of living rises globally and wages stagnate, scores of people have turned to alternative forms of housing. In recent years, social media platforms have seen an explosion in van life and tiny house content. Whether it’s on a vessel or in a vehicle, this style of relatively low-cost living offers people like Johnny a means to live life differently from their parents’ generation. With reduced overhead costs, individuals can exchange their 9-to-5 routine for a lifestyle that aligns more closely with their passions, interests and values. “It opens me up to a simpler life where I don’t have to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week,” said Johnny.

Johnny recognizes, however, that his lifestyle isn’t for everyone, “I can’t afford to live in London,” he lamented. “It’s just a fairly dystopian reality. This is a literal oil rig lifeboat.”

While niche conversion projects like this won’t alleviate the affordable housing crisis, if Johnny has proven anything, it’s that he can put a roof over his head through the power of social media. That isn’t to say, however, that his journey has been easy. In pursuit of his dream, Johnny has chosen to reside in an isolated fishing town, a six-hour drive from his closest friends. He reckons he’s the youngest person there by about 40 years. Alongside the construction of his lifeboat, he has also taken on a companionship role for his 90-year-old grandfather, managing the washing, cooking and cleaning for him. Though few young people would covet such responsibilities, Johnny says he loves it. He has willingly and proudly embraced these sacrifices to achieve affordability and take control of his own future.

Photos: Johnny Sturgeon

Embracing social media fame, on the other hand, has been a more complicated path. While Orla has garnered significant online support, Johnny was also caught off guard by unexpected backlash. Among certain viewers, one-sided, parasocial relationships can evoke a peculiar sense of ownership over both the boat and Johnny’s time. During our conversation, he mentioned experiencing the strain of meeting the constant content demands from some of his audience. And while he’s been blown away by everyone’s interest in his project, negative comments pose an entirely distinct challenge.

In one poignant and deeply personal video, Johnny paid tribute to a late friend who had urged him to paint Orla blue instead of orange. Despite his sincere explanation for the color switch, Johnny was inundated with a barrage of criticism, as he explained, “the comments on that video were surprisingly harsh, even coming from people who owned blue boats themselves.”

Photo: Johnny Sturgeon

In the world of boatbuilding though, opinions abound, and because Johnny is relatively new to the world, his audience can sometimes be quite eager to chastise. Fortunately, Johnny’s learned to develop a thick skin, and is keen on keeping a positive outlook saying: “For all the negativity, there’s a vast majority of people who love it.”

Despite the social media pressure and the steep learning curve that comes with DIY boat projects, through Orla, Johnny has demonstrated adaptability and capability. Millions will be eagerly watching as Orla grows into her full maturity as a houseboat, and as Johnny likewise keeps growing in both confidence and skill. His growing following serves as an inspiration for others, encouraging people to more deeply question which lifestyles might better suit their needs in an increasingly expensive world.

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.


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