Volume 12, Issue 42 ~ October 14-20, 2004
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So You’re Ready to Live Aboard?
by Alice Snively

Lures and Lessons from Those Who’ve Left the Land for the Water

The name of my estate is Cherokee II, but I am not of the landed gentry. A little more than five years ago, my husband and I sold our house and business in Western Maryland, bought a boat and moved to Chesapeake Bay. It’s the best decision we ever made. Our boat is our petite mansion, and the ever-changing sea our manicured lawn. Even being anchored out on the Wye River during Hurricane Isabel — and more recently on the Little Choptank River during Ivan — has not dampened, so to speak, our love of living aboard our 43-foot Columbia sailboat. Whether we’re in port at the Maryland Yacht Club in Pasadena or exploring out-of-the-way coves off rivers and creeks up and down the Bay, every day is a new adventure.

Our boat feels more like home than any house we ever had. She’s a comforting cocoon, roomy enough to hold all the things we really need and want to have.

There are no hard statistics about how many live-aboards there are, but the numbers are increasing. Marinas and yacht clubs everywhere are experiencing shortages of live-aboard slips, and several have waiting lists. The Maryland Yacht Club has a proportionately larger number of live-aboards than many marinas and clubs, with 15 current full-time live-aboard boats.

No Mundane Days
What drives seemingly normal people from the comfort and convenience of land to the sea? Detractors have been known to call us two-legged lemmings, but we don’t care. We have our reasons.

No day is mundane when you live on a boat, even if you stay in port the majority of the time. Without exception, every live-aboard I’ve talked with says there is something about life on the edge that keeps them more alive and more appreciative of their surroundings.

We live on the edge both literally — at the edge of land and water — and metaphorically, for water is a fluid environment more changeable than land. Please note, however, that annual boating fatalities are fewer than those caused by hula-hoops for the percentage of the population practicing each sport.

Living aboard brings other pleasures. There is freedom of mobility; we are like retirees with their RVs, except our mode of transportation is different.

The pace of life inexorably slows when you live on a boat. Consequently, stress levels tend to be lower than in the general population. The fact of being more prone to the vagaries of weather forces us to look outside ourselves and recognize we can’t and don’t need to be in control of everything in our lives. It’s responding to challenges that helps keep our wits sharp, and there is a deep sense of fulfillment in meeting these challenges successfully.

By and large, live-aboards and serious recreational boaters are people who care about nature and are particularly in tune with her; many are activists for wildlife and natural conservation. They live and work with, not against, nature.

Among boaters there are no dress codes, nor so much of the political and social correctness our culture generally expects. There is, on the other hand, a strong community feeling, even among strangers. When you return from a cruise, there are generally a couple of people around to help you dock. In stormy weather, people don’t have to be asked to help secure boats or to assist in other emergencies.

But you don’t discover those pleasures until you make the leap.

Our Lemming Logic
My husband Hugh and I made the leap for a combination of reasons. A Naval Academy graduate, Hugh has always loved the sea and sailing. I’m a lake sailor from Indiana. Both of us like to travel. So we combined our love of the sea and our love of travel to spend our retirement years on the water, sailing to new and different places. Economically it made sense to live on the boat, and it was what we both really wanted to do. From the time we made the decision, it took about a year to complete all that needed doing before we could finally move aboard.

There are many reasons people make the leap, but common to all live-aboards and serious boaters is that inexplicable urge to be on the water, a craving that keeps us from being truly happy on land. Sometimes it takes us years to figure it out, but when we do, there is no stopping us from stepping off the shore into a very different life.

Dick Janes, the current commodore of the Maryland Yacht Club, had endured the craving for years before he stepped off.

“I need to be on the water,” says Janes, a mid-50s, single, former Crownsville resident who’s boated for years. A little more than a year ago, he took the leap. He sold his house to move aboard a 43-foot Trade Winds power cruiser.

“I gave up three bedrooms and two baths for this boat, but I love my little space,” says Janes. “When something disturbs me, it’s therapeutic for me to come home to my boat.”

Ken Valentine’s choice was driven more by pragmatism than by his love of the sea. His family home is in Mississippi, but his job as a manufacturer’s representative for audio/visual systems keeps him in the Mid-Atlantic about half his time. He liked being on the water, so he bought a 51-foot Bluewater power cruiser.

Now the 51-year-old father and grandfather divides his time between his boat home and Mississippi. His wife Patsy makes both short and long visits.

“While I do miss being away from home,” he says, “this arrangement works well for us.”

West Virginia native D.J. Morrison had still another reason. The 56-year-old lifelong bachelor and retiree from the Federal Protective Service has been a live-aboard since 1986.

“I chose to live aboard because of financial feasibility,” Morrison says. Economics aside, he adds that even though he didn’t know anything about boats when he first moved aboard, he has no desire to move back to land. “I don’t have to mow, I have a pool every day of the year if I want, and if I don’t like my neighbors, I can just move,” he says.

Last year, Morrison replaced his aging power cruiser with a boat he could better customize to suit his health and taste. He found a vintage Pearson Portsmouth 43-foot fast trawler, one of only a few of the company’s special power cruiser design. He’s spent nearly a year, (interspersed with surgeries and lengthy hospital stays), making over the interior, and some of the exterior, of his boat. Nearly finished, he will be ready to move aboard sometime in November.

“I gave up three bedrooms and two baths for this boat, but I love my little space,” says Maryland Yacht Club’s commodore Dick Janes of his 43-foot Trade Winds power cruiser.
Sea Stories
Most full-time boat people live on power cruisers, which have more usable living space and are more comfortable as defined by landers. Like my husband and me, however, Arne Reistad, an engineer retired from Hershey Chocolate and a former Pennsylvania resident, lives on a sailboat. His is the 45-foot Catherine Mayme, where he’s lived for three years.

The jolly fellow with red hair and beard says his Norwegian and Irish descent may or may not have led him to the sea. The single 56-year-old father of one grown son has been a boater since high school.

On a camping and canoeing trip to Canada with his son and a group of Boy Scouts 13 years ago, when most of their provisions were lost in a storm, Reistad had what he calls an awakening.

“I realized that I just had too much junk, too many things,” he says. “I thought of the trappers who first traveled here, that they only had a gun and a few supplies, and that I had packed entirely too much, especially the lots of extra potatoes I’d insisted on bringing. Guess that was the Irish part of me.”

An accomplished single-handed sailor, Reistad travels frequently. “When the spirit moves me, I love the freedom to cast off and go, sometimes even in the middle of the night,” he says. When he’s not sailing he shares his knowledge of boating and how to buy and sail through his business, Boat And Bay Skills, and as a teacher at Anne Arundel Community College.

A joking challenge and chance moved Liz Keller, an active young woman in her early 20s, from land to water.

“I didn’t like my apartment,” she says. “It just never felt like home. I was looking for a mobile home or a small house. My parents objected to the mobile home idea, and my father jokingly said to me one day last August, ‘why don’t you just get a boat and live on that?’”

Both parents were astounded when she took the challenge seriously. By the end of September, she’d found a 36.5-foot Holiday Mansion. It was considerably smaller than her apartment, but she likes it. Her apartment lease ended with the year, so she moved aboard in January.

“My first winter here was a challenge,” she says, but now she can’t imagine living on land again.

“I didn’t like my apartment. It just never felt like home,” says Liz Keller. “My father jokingly said, ‘why don’t you just get a boat and live on that?’”
Preparing to Leap: Downsizing
As they deal with ridicule and disbelief from friends and family, people who have decided to abandon land life for life aboard face the challenge of downsizing. Not all are as lucky as Reistad, for whom downsizing was no problem, thanks to his camping awakening. “My memorabilia is here,” he says, pointing to his head.

Giving up things that have been convenient or personally important can be a minus, but reducing the amount of stuff to keep track of and take care of is a real plus. Every live-aboard in this article advised seeing downsizing as a positive opportunity, not a dreary task. From the outset, they make it a game with two main rules: Embrace the necessary and love the practical.

Giving up the lawnmower seems to be very easy. All of the people interviewed for this story said they dreaded yard work. Washing their boats, on the other hand, they enjoy — or find at least more amenable than mowing and weeding.

Going through a life’s collection of stuff is both fun and melancholy. You’ll end up laughing at yourself, wondering why on earth you kept some of these things. Others will bring back memories, both happy and sad.

Echoing Arne Reistad, Dick Janes said, “You don’t have to have all those things. After all, you will always have the memories. Most important to me was to be able to fit my musical equipment on the boat. It fit, and with that I need little more.”

As you challenge yourself to find places for really special things on the boat, live-aboards discover overlooked spaces. If you make the leap, you’ll be amazed at your creativity in solving storage issues, finding smaller versions of important tools and discovering multi-tasking capabilities of things you already have. You wouldn’t believe all the things I do with my oyster knife.

Casting Your Stuff Adrift
Learn this lesson quickly when it’s time for downsizing: Do not let family and friends help you decide what to keep. “But you can’t get rid of your bottle-cap collection,” Uncle Fred says. “It could be valuable some day.”

“You’re right,” we’ve learned to say. “Would you mind storing it in your attic? The humidity on the boat would destroy it.” Even better is to give objects to their admirers. Downsizing gives you an opportunity to give to family those things you planned to give them at your death.

It’s also time to give friends things they may have admired or those that bring to mind special memories of times shared.

There will also be items worth selling, and there are three ways to go about that. For good furniture, silver, china, crystal, art and similar things, an auction may be worthwhile. A reputable auction house can produce more cash than you might expect. Newspaper ads can be useful, and of course there’s the yard-sale option.

Keep running lists for giveaway, sell and keep items, reviewing them frequently as you add to them. Chances are you will change your mind about some as you go along. Keller even designated areas of her apartment for items to keep, those to give away and those to sell.

“Several things got moved between areas more than once as I refined my decision-making. Having the extra months to review my choices also helped,” she said.

When my husband and I chose to become year-round boat people, I assigned silly names to these decision-making classes to make the task more fun and less confusing. I discovered later that I wasn’t the only one.
Grandma, What Big Things You Have

Large appliances, furniture, entertainment centers and such will not fit aboard a boat. Some can be replaced with smaller versions. Most sailboats have built-in furniture designed for the space and to ensure stability in rough water. Power cruisers will have space for some furniture, but size and stability will still be a factor.

It can be more challenging to decide what tools to keep, and these choices cannot be as arbitrary as clothing or galley items. There are tools that are critical to have aboard if something goes wrong with the boat out in open water away from port.

Let’s Play Dress-Up
What clothing should you keep or give up? If the hanging lockers on the boat are not full-closet height, long dresses, coats and robes cannot hang straight. Drawer space will be limited, so bulky clothing will be a problem.

Also in this class are decisions about how many bed, bath and kitchen linens to keep for the amount of storage space and the number of sleepover guests your boat will accommodate. Don’t discard old towels. They’re extremely useful for Whoops, I forgot to close that hatch episodes and other messy situations.
It Mattered At The Time

This is the stuff class, which may include travel souvenirs, mementos, kids’ report cards and usually a bunch of unidentified photographs. Little gifts from friends, interior décor items and don’t forget those special TV-offer gadgets that turned out to be too bothersome to use.

As you go into every closet, drawer and storage space, you may find things you forgot you had. If you didn’t remember you had them, why keep them? From games to collected pens to the badminton set, these are the things of which yard sales are made.

Ken Valentine’s family home is in Mississippi, but work keeps him in the Mid-Atlantic half the time. He liked being on the water, so he bought a 51-foot Bluewater power cruiser to live on here.
Have-To’s and Want-To’s
Have-To’s include important documents such as wills, insurance papers, stock certificates and tax returns. Most of these you will want to leave on land. There are some documents you are required to keep on your boat, but it’s also good to keep copies of these on land.

Want-To’s are those things that hold the most emotional value. What these are varies wildly from person to person of course. Disposing of all is not wise; certain comfort items are important to emotional well-being. Deciding which of all these emotionally important things to give up makes this the toughest class. If you save these decisions for last, the task won’t be as painful because you will have had a lot of practice.

A Year-Round Campout
Not long after we moved aboard our boat, a new neighbor referred to living aboard as a year-round campout. I didn’t quite understand then, but I sure do now. Living aboard is very much like camping, because you suddenly have fewer amenities, you are more subject to weather. And if you’re on a sailboat, you don’t have a bed — you have a bunk or you have a V-berth, a sort of misshapen bunk in the bow of the boat. Of course, that is a cut above a cot or a sleeping bag — usually.

You don’t have a bathroom; you have a head, which is also a cut above the camping latrine — usually. Still, I have yet to feel comfortable with that moniker.

Some boats have a shower or tub in the head, but many don’t, so the trek to the showers in the marina may remind you of that camp where you had to walk a mile to the poorly rigged excuse for showers, only to get a cold-water drenching. Repeating cleanliness is next to godliness during these episodes may be helpful.

The year-round campout is more a state of mind, a way of experiencing your new lifestyle, that adds another dimension to the adventure. With this attitude, you can actually say that it’s really kind of fun when the water freezes up in the winter, or the AC (if you have it) goes on the fritz in 90-degree heat. Of course, non-boaters will think you’re a little weird with such an outlook, but then, you’re a live-aboard, so chances are they already put you in a different class.

Strandings and Other Dubious Fun
Living aboard, you are creatures of the tide. On a good day, the variance from low to high won’t be more than a couple of feet. But a strong wind from the south blows water into the Bay. You may suddenly find yourself five feet above the dock and stranded. This happens most often in summer. In the winter, it’s the reverse. North winds shove water out of the Bay, so you wake up some mornings and look up five feet to the dock.

Smart boaters have a tide clock, and they pay attention to the winds. When the weather is variable and the winds are strong, you will have to work your errands around low tide or high tide, whichever will allow you to get off the boat and back on again. It can take hours or days, depending on how long the wind blows, before the tide levels return to normal. Be sure you have plenty of toilet paper and canned soup.

Speaking of food, everything regarding edibles becomes interestingly … convoluted. There’s no better word I can think of. Except for the larger power cruisers, boats don’t have a lot of regular cabinet space. You will have to store some provisions in funny-shaped holds. I think they should be called holes. The challenge is to find and retrieve things once you’ve piled them in. In general, you will spend considerable time collecting ingredients, so you will learn to start meal preparation earlier than you used to.

Cleaning: Now there’s a party waiting to happen. Just because your boat is smaller than your long-gone house, it does not follow that you have less cleaning. You probably had to give up that powerful vacuum, and you will encounter small strangely-shaped spaces that need cleaning but are a pain in your stern to reach. My prescription is to pretend that you’ve got important company coming. Better still, invite a friend to dinner the next night. This is about the only way I’ve found to make cleaning bearable. But buck-up, matey. You will feel very, very good for the hour or so that the boat stays clean and looks (sort of) like a picture in a boating magazine.

When you cast off for a trip, you discover another reason it’s hard to keep a floating home clean and tidy. If you forget to secure or stow moveable things before leaving port, you may be unpleasantly surprised when that favorite expensive bottle of extra-virgin olive oil goes flying at the attack of a broadside wave and creates an extra-virgin oil slick on the floor.

Most of us don’t like doing the laundromat routine. It’s especially bothersome in winter, with snow six inches deep, to negotiate from boat to dock to car to make the trip. But, hey, you might make some friends or meet other boaters with whom you can commiserate.

I could go on listing these day-to-day adventures, but I wouldn’t want to spoil your fun.

There is one final piece of advice I offer to assist your survival on Camp Lost At Sea. Buy stock in Glad Products and Pittsburgh Steel. Plastic bags and containers will be your best friends for storing everything from food to clothing to papers. Stainless steel will be your metal of choice for tools, fixtures, pots, pans and cooking utensils.

Red Sails In The Sunset
None of these inconveniences matter when you sit on your boat in a quiet cove like Eagles Nest or Snug Harbor, sipping your favorite beverage and cracking incomparable blue crabs from the Bay. You are witness to a glorious sun sliding below a tranquil seascape, and at that moment, you may recall a song by devoted sailing woman Eileen Quinn.

You smile and toast in delight that you are no longer a dirt dweller.
About the Author

Alice Snively began her writing career right out of college in 1968. She has worked as a journalist for daily and weekly newspapers in Indiana, Virginia and Maryland. Over the years, she has also done technical writing for the federal government as well as designing and writing tourism materials. She was a contributing author to a best-selling business book, How To Start, Finance and Operate Your Own Business. The mother of two grown children, Alice shares life on board with husband Hugh and with Ferd, their pet rabbit. This is her first story for Bay Weekly.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.