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Setting Sail for Life After Uni

On post-grad Johnny Sturgeon’s lifeboat turned home

With a combined following of one million users across different platforms, 23-year-old University of Oxford alumnus Johnny Sturgeon has built a career (and small home) from his self-converted former lifeboat, ‘Orla.’

“It’s a totally enclosed lifeboat, which is a form of emergency escape vessel on cruise ships and oil rigs,” Sturgeon attested proudly.

A beat-up, run-down boat from an oil rig in the Irish Sea is not the usual purchase for a freshly graduated student. However, for Sturgeon, the prospect of owning one had kept him motivated through the hard grind of a History and Politics degree. 

18 months ago, Sturgeon chose not to get a corporate job in London like some of his contemporaries — instead, he moved back up north to a small fishing village near Whitby to live with his now 90-year-old Grandpa. 

In 2020, Sturgeon came across a BBC article about two architects who had renovated an oil rig lifeboat, which thrust him down a rabbit hole of doing something like this himself. Dreaming of his own endeavours, he became engrossed in the project as his favourite form of escapism.

“My idea of unwinding, between writing an essay and then getting ready to go on a night out [...] was sitting and watching 30 or 40 minutes of tiny home videos,” he said.

Sturgeon described how he loves lifeboats in particular because — despite being fairly makeshift — every boat is one-of-a-kind, with weird, unusual shapes and different designs. 

The obsession persisted, and by March 2021, Sturgeon told everyone that he was going to do it. With no technical experience other than piecing together IKEA flat-pack furniture, his friends jested that they would only believe it when they saw it. 

“I told anyone who would listen [that] it was what I was going to do,” he said. “Once you do that, you kind of have to do it, and I wanted to prove them wrong. I wanted to send them for six.”

Sturgeon explained that old lifeboats are surprisingly sought after. Determined to get his hands on one, he signed up for email and text alerts from websites that had previously sold them. He gave himself a timeline post-graduation, and if he hadn’t bought an old boat before then, he would put the dream behind him. But, as if by fate, six days prior to the cut-off date, one came on the market on Apollo Duck, a second-hand boat site. 

“I called the bloke and told him I would make a deposit and then that was it,” he laughed, “and then I called the boat yard and asked them if I could do the renovations there, and they said, ‘There’s no reason why you can’t.’”

His unconventional post-uni plan was actually happening. Just a few days after leaving Oxford, he flew to Aberdeen with his mum to collect the boat. With no backup plan, and his dream becoming a reality, Sturgeon did not anticipate the amount of turbulence, worry, and stress that Orla would cause. 

“I was naive, and idiotic, and stupid, and arrogant, and presumptuous to say, ‘Oh yeah, well I’m going to buy a boat with no building experience, no tools, and have no income,’” he admitted. “But my thought process was just like, of course this is going to work, why wouldn’t it?”

“I don’t know if people realise the sacrifices involved [in doing this type of project],” he added. “I get people telling me to get a ‘real job’, but on a low week I work 60 or 70 hours. On a big one I work 80 or 90.”

Quickly, Sturgeon realised he was in over his head. Now, with his beautiful (and nearly finished) boat and lots of attention on social media, Sturgeon explained that getting to this point has required a lot of luck, taken twice as long as he thought, meant being on the nose with his budget margins, and has left him occasionally feeling lonely and isolated. 

Comparing himself to Kevin McCloud from the popular restoration show Grand Designs, Sturgeon joked he now knows what the host means when he tells overly ambitious families their renovation isn’t going to work. 

Despite being grateful for his social media following, this has also not come without its own trials and tribulations. “To fund everything, my financial plan was always social media,” he said, “which now I look back at and think, ‘What was I smoking?’ That is the most stupid thing I have ever done.”

A world away from her current sleek look, when Orla arrived, she was bright orange and precariously covered with a large piece of tarpaulin. Sturgeon warned his visiting friend that they needed to use their imagination to see the boat’s full potential. “[My friend] thought I was f***ing nuts,” he joked. 

With this in mind, it wasn’t until two months later that Sturgeon first documented Orla’s progress on social media. Having not used Instagram in two years, he had to ask a friend and watch YouTube videos on how to make TikToks, unsure as to whether his account was going to pay off or be enjoyable to follow. 

“By the skin of my teeth, very good fortune, and the luck of the algorithm, [...] social media came through and paid off,” Sturgeon said. 

The quick success opened a whole new can of worms for Sturgeon, with many highs and lows throughout the process. Although he believes the general public get an unfair reputation on social media, he hasn’t managed to avoid the more sinister side of it himself.

Coping with unwanted attention, Sturgeon explained how it can be difficult to get the occasional negative comments out of his mind. However, it's not something he can avoid, as social media is what allows him to keep afloat financially. Conversely, positive engagement helps to propel him forward.

“99 per cent of people are actually pretty good people, and I would not have achieved this without them buying t-shirts and contributing,” he reflected. Giving thanks to donors, “there are over two and a half thousand names on the boat from people [contributing] from all over the world.” 

Considering whether he would recommend other people to ditch the usual grad job route, he said that while his journey has caused some isolation, the lessons he has learnt have led to so much personal growth. 

Other than preparing for things to be hard, his main advice is to willingly accept help from others. “Asking for help isn’t this terrible thing that the British education system teaches you it is,” he emphasised, “it’s actually vital.”

Once you have these two things under your belt, his main lesson is to simply do it. “I don’t want to sound preachy because I’m 23 — I don’t know what I’m talking about,” he admitted. “But I think there is value in doing something scary, different, and difficult. Whatever it is, do something that’s fun and pushes you outside your comfort zone.”

Sturgeon hopes to take Orla to London, where he plans to live. He has some exciting (but secret) projects in the works, and his risk-taking with Orla has spurred him forwards to make other big decisions.

“Despite the long list of further jobs, I do look around and think, ‘You’ve not done a bad job, Johnny.’” he reflected. “I’ve changed, I’ve developed healthy habits, I know who I am as a person, and it’s opened all of these doors. If someone said they wanted to do something different, I would encourage them.”

Photo: Jo Moseley


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