Saturday, September 19, 2015

Is the Live-aboard Life for You?

I had a fascinating conversation recently with a reader of my memoir  Prepare to Come About. It revolved around the chapters that describe moving and living aboard our boat(s). My reader wanted to know if our story would prompt more people to move onto boats--or any sort of "alternative living" scenario. "I hope so," I said. "That was certainly one of the reasons I wrote it."

"Yeah, but it's not for everybody. I mean, what about people who don't have the background or the 'emotional fortitude' you guys apparently have?"

Emotional fortitude gave me a real laugh. Would that be the fortitude required to brave our winter windstorms that can last up to a week, tearing through the marina and causing banshee-like howls from sailboat masts... Or the fortitude to maintain composure when the marine head is left running by one of our land-dwelling visitors, resulting in a fondue fountain of poo running across the soles and into the bilges? Exactly which kind of fortitude are we talking about here?

"Uh, well, all of it." Was the reply.

"Hmm, good point actually. I dunno."
                                                                         .   .   .

That particular conversation has been rattling around in my brain for the past couple of weeks. Especially as our lovely summer weather begins it's transformation into the fall pattern, propelling Juliet and me to quote incessantly from Game of Thrones and The Fellowship of the Ring... "We must now face the long dark of Moria," and "Winter is coming."

It's not hard to see why one would want to live aboard when the sun is shining, winds are calm and the outside of one's vessel functions as another living space. When one can toss lines at a whim and move their home to another dock or anchorage at ease. It is entirely another thing when the weather forecasts call for freezing temperatures, gale warnings and rain for months on end.

I have read articles from various sources lately that hint at a sharp increase in people moving aboard boats because of high rent rates or dissatisfaction with land dwelling. UK's The Guardian, recently wrote several pieces about Londoners migrating to canal boats as an option against being squeezed out of affordable housing in the city. The problems listed in that article are largely the same ones we face in the US.  The Washington Post  article sites high housing costs as the predominant reason more people are choosing life on the water.

In my book, I write about our decision to shift to water life and describe the process we went through to find just the right vessel (coining the phrase "divorce-boats" along the way). We both arrived at the decision differently--Jeff because of his romanticism, me from a point of frustration with normality. Both of us however, were in complete agreement that a life more off the grid was what we were hoping to achieve.

"Little" Kwaietek alongside the big Z.
Since our dramatic lifestyle change, we've gained a lot of insight about the "fortitude" often required of liveaboards. It has been over five years now and still we continue to learn more. Jeff and I were lucky in that we'd gained experience sailing prior to living aboard. We also met quite a few seasoned water-dwellers once the purchase of 63-foot Kwaietek went through. The eighteen month period between buying our boat and actually moving onboard gave us plenty of time to talk with other liveaboards and gain some valuable advice. Not to mention the fact that Juliet and I lived onboard the 160-foot schooner Zodiac for almost a year while Jeffery finished the remodel and subsequent sale of our Seattle house. The Zodiac was a pretty luxurious transition boat in which to get our liveaboard life jump-started.

Not everyone has the opportunities that we did when it comes to making the big switch to life on the docks. We have watched a few couples attempt to make a go of it. Several of them threw in the towel after particularly wretched storms. We give them credit for trying and certainly respect them for knowing when enough was enough.  One couple who've recently moved onto the docks is of concern to me right now. With no prior boat experience for the wife, weight and physical handicaps for both of them, I watch as slips and falls have occurred numerous times over the summer. Their sailboat is small (relatively speaking in liveaboard terms) and has a high freeboard. Their steps ended up blowing away in the last big storm causing issues for getting on and off the boat. I worry for their safety this coming winter and wonder if one of us will be required to help them out of the water should any of these obstacles cause an accident--a consideration that comes with risks for all involved in a winter-storm-rescue situation off a dock.

One of the other considerations when opting for life on boats is finding the proper vessel to use as a home. This is a huge consideration and one that, (if not blessed with being or knowing a shipwright), can cause significant problems down the line. A buyer's survey is well worth the time and cost to obtain and is different from a survey furnished for the seller in some critical ways. Boat appraisals differ from houses in this sense, as the materials they are constructed from, the purpose of the vessel and even the places it has traveled to, all greatly factor into the condition. If you're considering purchasing a used boat, do the research and find a surveyor who specializes in whatever kind of vessel you are looking into.

When we narrowed our search down to Kwaietek, we found a great surveyor who'd inspected many of the old BC Forestry boats and was routinely hired by many of the other forestry boat owners. He knew their construction and specs, knew about some of their idiosyncrasies and had resources for solutions. Based on his observations and recommendations, we felt secure in our decision to move forward with the purchase.

Conversely, we know of at least three vessels whose owners are currently reaping the high financial and emotional repercussions of not having surveys performed. (The fact that Jeff is a shipwright, and makes his living off of fixing these dilemmas might have something to do with it). These boat owners are paying tens of thousands of dollars to restore or just repair their homes in order to keep them afloat. Again, when a boat loses it's ability to be water-tight, it is a vastly different consequence than when the roof of your house springs a leak.  The take-away here is: get a buyer's survey!

The condition of a potential boat-dwelling is not the only factor for consideration. The type of boat to live aboard is of equal--perhaps even primary importance. Again, I admit that we are lucky in the regard of having multiple boats at our disposal. Our first boat Sugaree, is a 40-foot sailboat. Although comfortable and versatile as a cruising boat, we knew she wouldn't work as a permanent home for us--primarily because of Jeff's height. We've kept her to use as our play-time vessel. We looked specifically for vessels that had headroom, ample sunlight and multiple living areas. Kwaietek fit the bill perfectly for our family in those regards. It did not bother me to have to walk through her engine room in order to get between our galley and the rest of the boat. However, some people might not be keen on that feature. The key in searching out styles and types of boats is to know what your preferences are in advance.

Some former liveaboard neighbors of ours split up due in large part, to the differing expectations of what they each wanted from the experience. It is vitally important to talk through what you want and don't want from living onboard a boat.
Once you've landed on what kind of boat you want to live upon, you also need to look closely at where you would eventually moor it. Many marinas have a "no-liveaboard" policy, or have restricted numbers of liveaboard slips. Some marinas just adopt a don't ask-don't tell policy. The marinas that do have liveaboard slips often vary drastically in the services and corresponding fees that apply and it's wise to get a list and description from their office. Important factors to consider are things such as pump-out facilities, power (and the amperage), water, dock-carts, access to public transportation and stores etc.  As for the pump-out facilities, more and more marinas are adding a liveaboard fee for pumping out, whether it is used or not. Personally I am in favor of this policy, and I truly wish our own marina would adopt it. I'm ashamed of some of the liveaboards on our gate (and there are truly are too many of them), who continue to pump their sewage directly into the marina water rather then using the pump-out cart. It is disgusting and hypocritical and it boils down to nothing but laziness. Ugh.

Sewage in the marina is NOT OK.

Some of the factors that you should think about are actually the really small ones and usually boil down to personal preferences. For instance, look around the docks--are there a great number of sailboats nearby? This matters only if you are someone who might not want to hear the constant slap slap slap of halyards whacking into masts during windy periods. (As a sailor girl, I never thought that this sound would bother me and yet I found it almost unbearable when staying in a Seattle marina full of hundreds of aluminum-masted sailboats... who knew)?  Perhaps you are faced with a marina that is full of work boats? If you are not the type of person who wants to listen to the sound of equipment and big engines all the time, then you might not want to select that kind of a dock. Personally, I am happiest surrounded by the big working boats--but I realize that isn't everyone's cup of tea... rum... whatever.

Love our big old workhorse neighbors in the 'hood.

When we were looking around at marinas originally, we found quite a few with moorage rates that were much lower than others in the region. Our initial impulse was to save money and rent at one of those places. Then we thought about how our personalities and lifestyle preferences would play into living in one of those places. We ended up in Bellingham where the town, people and aesthetics most closely resembled our own tastes. We pay more, but ultimately our experience is better because of it. If you are fortunate enough to have options available, it is definitely a factor worth considering.

Finally, and I believe that I've saved the most important for last, is the matter of people. A vast, complicated subject that requires one to look inward as well as out. What kind of a person are you? Do you like interacting with all sorts of folk? Are you gregarious, introverted, do you handle conflict or crisis well? Do you see living aboard as a means to get away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world--escape the necessity of  interacting with others? Just trust me, this is a huge issue in which to spend a lengthy time contemplating upon before you actually move onto a boat. Contrary to popular belief, living on the water is not all solitude, communion with nature and tranquility... It most often is slatting halyards, bow-thrusters, loud stereo systems and diesel exhaust. Life in a marina is not dissimilar at times, to life in a trailer park. The difference, as one of our wizened neighbors describes it, is that most of us who live aboard have chosen to do so out of aesthetic reasons. Therefore, we try and treat our fellow inhabitants with care, aware as we fully are, of what can happen when the balance is upset.

Good dock neighbors are the best of folk.

I have spent years blogging about marina life, and many of our previous Flota-Navium posts are concerned with how to make life in the harbor safer and more pleasant. Therefore, I will allude to these posts rather then expound further. Suffice to say, one will always encounter those who view things differently and it is how one can deal (internally and externally), with the "others" that can make living in close quarters a positive experience... Yeah, yeah, yeah, it is definitely easier said than done, and I'm still learning. My Scottish temperament is frequently at odds with my diplomatic skills in this regard. 

But, having laid out some of the challenges of living in close quarters on the water, it is only fair to touch upon the benefits. As a result of our location and the conditions that affect us all, we are typically a very caring and care-full bunch of people. Quick to lend a hand or catch a line, mindful of each others boats and property. Liveaboards are typically a big asset to marinas when it comes to reporting alarms, intruders or vessels in need of attention. We value and trust most of our marina neighbors and enjoy getting together with them for special dock events. In that aspect, living aboard is much the same as living on land--just perhaps more necessary. (Sort of like pioneers and settlers in the old days, I suppose).

Home Sweet Home

For whatever reason you might be considering a switch to the lifestyle of boats on the water, just be aware that it will challenge you in one way or another. The liveaboard lifestyle makes you confront who you are as a  person; what you're willing to accept and what you are unable to cope with. It will force you to quickly learn what your real priorities are in life, whether or not you are ready to do so.
It is rewarding and it is humbling. Most of all, life on the water brings you back to the simplicity of living; mundane at times and overwhelmingly grandiose at others.
I wouldn't trade it for anything.

 ~ Chris