Friday, September 16, 2011

What’s it like to live on a boat in the middle of downtown Washington, DC?


What’s it like to live on a boat in the middle of downtown Washington, DC? (Aug 13, you can visit and find out!)
Posted: August 4, 6:11 pm | (permalink) | (1 comments)
Last week I had a unique opportunity to visit Gangplank Marina, which boasts the largest full-time liveaboard community of any marina on the East Coast. The location, way up the Potomac, doesn’t offer quite the sailing and gunkholing possibilities that we gain in Annapolis because of our location directly on the Chesapeake. The residents there have a different sort of location bonus: they have all the amenities in the heart of downtown in our nation’s capital – across the street from Arena Stage, Washington and Jefferson monuments in the background, walking or easy bicycle distance to the Federal office buildings, museums, sports. The boats themselves are an eclectic mix of trawlers and powerboats and houseboats with a few sailboats sprinkled in. The liveaboards themselves are a no less diverse group than their dwellings.

[photo: houseboat in a slip between powerboats]
So, what’s it like living aboard in the middle of downtown DC? Laura Zylstra and Todd Garth couldn’t stop smiling when they described life on their 50’ Hilburn custom houseboat “Plan B.” It’s really a lot like living ashore, they pointed out, except smaller. Whether ashore or afloat, every dwelling has a space to cook and eat, a space to socialize, a place to sleep, a place to sit and think. “Think Manhattan apartment,” they explained. “We have 800 square feet.” Their comparison was right on, or maybe even a bit generous; my mother’s 1-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side was about 650 square feet. When their careers -- Laura is Director of Advancement for American University in Kosovo; Todd is Senior Director for Eurasia World Vision -- took them to DC 1-1/2 years ago, the couple looked at cost of living and wondered why they should spend more money for the same square footage? Because “Plan B” is a houseboat, they could buy regular furniture from Ethan Allen or Pottery Barn, unlike the built-in bunks and settees on a traditionally-styled boat. They have a regular (although small) land-style refrigerator instead of the top-loading icebox found on many traditional sailboats. Even, Laura seemed especially proud to point out, a washer, dryer, and bathtub. There is electricity, water, and land-line telephone and internet service available. Oh yeah, and the view. The incredible view.
[photo – Laura Zylstra and Todd Garth on the top deck of their boat "Plan B"]

The liveaboards agreed that life afloat allows them to be more in touch with nature than when they were on land. Some consciously sought this, for others it was a lucky bonus. Jason Kopp grew up around water in Michigan, and went to grad school in Monterey, CA. When an internship in Washington DC became a permanent job offer as a translator and project manager for translation (Spanish and Portuguese), he knew he was facing a lifestyle change from a pristine coastal area to a large urban area. He knew he wanted to live somewhere he could have some connection to nature, even though he could no longer go surfing or watch the antics of the sea otters the way he could on the Pacific coast. He found an ad in Craigslist describing a “great condo alternative” which led him to his 40x13 Bluewater houseboat “Argo” in November 2007. There are no sea otters at his new location in the heart of DC, but he’s seen osprey and herons, and hears fish nibbling on the hull.[photo – Living aboard requires a certain amount of innovation. Jason Kopp gained some mechanical skills since moving aboard "Argo." Here, showing his solar fan installation.]
Living aboard is not just an apartment with a waterfront view, though. The biggest adjustment they faced after moving from life on land to a boat? It moves! Sometimes that motion can be somewhat frustrating: a light breeze and moderate current gave a lively, bouncy motion to the upper deck of “Plan B” where we talked. Todd and Laura keep Dramamine on hand for visiting landlubber guests. On the other hand, the ability to move is a great asset – moving is, after all, what boats are for. Some of the boats that people live aboard look more conventional, boat-like than the houseboats, such as the 44-foot Atlantic Trawler “Tar Keel” that Justin and Liz Chambers call home. When not at work at area museums – she works with collections (objects, not money, she stresses) at Mount Vernon; he works at Smithsonian American Art museum with exhibits -- Liz and Justin take advantage of that mobility. They take “Tar Keel” out many weekends, and anchor where there are nice views of the city from the water, or opportunities for swimming. Sometimes they raft up with other boats for a weekend of socializing. Liz once even did the ultimate un-commute -- she moved her boat- home to work at Mount Vernon and tied up at the museum wharf. She and Justin are hoping for more opportunities to cruise the Chesapeake Bay, depending on their work schedules; and if they can swing a year or more off, to take a longer trip, perhaps down the IntraCoastal Waterway to Florida or the Bahamas, or up the East Coast and through the Great Lakes.

[photo – Justin and Liz Chambers on "Tar Keel."]
The small size of the boats for full-time living presents some challenges. In a time when many people are questioning the mindless acquisition of material goods that we are urged by advertising, all the liveaboards had considered their relationship to their possessions. Several had owned houses in other locations before moving to DC. They went through a downsizing exercise to move into apartments in DC, then again to move onto the boats, and continue to streamline. Jason had committed to living simply, both in what he does, and what he has; since moving aboard, every time he purchases something he has to consider what he really uses, and where he will store it. Laura has trained her family to give gifts of experiences rather than things, useful for those with space constraints: “If I can’t eat it, or go to it [think tickets to a museum, concert, or sporting event], then don’t give it to me. If only I had known this years ago,” she lamented, “I wouldn’t have had to have this enormous garage sale!” Renovating while moving in might be the ultimate space nightmare, but that’s the way it turned out for Travis Johnson, an environmental engineer at EPA, and Jess Dankert, who works in sales, when they moved aboard their 33-foot Holiday Mansion houseboat “Alt Angler.” You have to move something, say a bowl, out of the way to get to the thing behind it, say, a stack of dishes … “but then it’s in something *else’s* way!” Travis explained. Justin mused about the contrast between his and Liz’s personal and professional lives. Because he and Liz both work in museums, they are in the business of preserving and presenting ‘stuff.’ On the face of it, nothing could be further at odds with their personal liveaboard lifestyle which is Spartan. But Liz was quick to point out the difference - she is taking care ofGeorge Washington’s things – at the museum they save things that have historical meaning. It’s cheap, mass-produced disposable “made in China” things that make up everyday life that the couple don’t bother collecting. Justin laughingly declared that no museum-style exhibit display case is on the boat nor is one planned to be. Liz agreed; museum objects are too sensitive to temperature changes and humidity on the boat.
Every person I spoke with mentioned the amazing sense of community they found among their fellow liveaboards. “You live on a boat, too?!” You have an automatic connection to your neighbors, Jason explained. “You all have this crazy idea to live aboard.” It’s something of an indoor-outdoor lifestyle. “In order to get to your boat, you walk down the dock, you have to pass your neighbors and talk. It’s like in neighborhoods where people sit on the stoop. In general people here are more open because the boats are more open.” Although there is security in having neighbors aware of the comings and goings on the dock, and watching out for each others’ boats, especially when the owners are traveling as so many of their jobs require, there is respect for privacy, too. “People watch your back, but not your business,” is how one put it.
That strong community was important to Laura, who moved aboard singlehanded while Todd was working in Haiti after the earthquake. “I can’t think of a better place to have landed,” she reminisced. “Everyone was supportive, helpful, welcoming.” But the most dramatic story about community came from Justin and Liz, whose previous boat was destroyed in a fire almost exactly 1 year ago. Fortunately, they were not aboard at the time. For 3 months they were boatless. One neighbor after another opened their boat-homes to the couple, giving them places to stay until they were able to regroup, purchase their present boat, and move back aboard.
Living aboard boats is a great equalizer in the community. Both Travis and Jason pointed out that in DC, when you meet someone, almost the first question they ask is “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?” Too often, the cynical subtext of those questions is “Are you important? Can I get something out of this relationship?” On the boat, though, no one asks about what you do, they just want to know who you are. Jess carried the thought further: “On land, you just hang with friends who are like you.” Same age, same income level, often the same kind of career, and so on. Here, she explained, you get exposed to more variety. The most fascinating may be the transient boaters visiting DC. Travis, who grew up in Montana and had to reorient drastically when he came to bustling urban DC, said living in this community has taught him how to open up to new people.


[photo: Jess Dankert and Travis Johnson. Their boat, "Alt Angler," is in the background directly over Travis' right shoulder.]
There is also a sense of being part of the larger community. For a while there was uncertainty about how that would or might change with the proposed SW redevelopment. Jason, who is president of the Gangplank Slipholders Association and has been active in working with the developers, said the liveaboard community is glad that Hoffman-Madison Waterfront (HMW) views the liveaboards as an integral part of their development plans for The Wharf. "We were ecstatic when HMW put guarantees in writing … that ensure a transition plan and slips in the new marina for all members of the live-aboard community." Jason wants people to know that the liveaboards at Gangplank are just regular people, trying to be part of the entire SW community. He wants more people in DC to be able to access and appreciate the water, to think of these waterfront spaces as their spaces. Then people will want to take care of the aquatic environment, address the environmental health issues. “It’s our backyard,” he says, “but hopefully they’ll think of it as their backyard too.”
Next Saturday, Aug 13, from 10 AM until 2 PM, the liveaboards are hosting a tour, a kind of Parade of (Floating) Homes. You can visit 23 of the houseboats, housebarges, trawlers, and sailboats that people call home for an entry fee of just $11 (proceeds benefit two waterfront environmental groups).
Living aboard, say Todd and Laura, has totally changed their idea of what retirement will be. And it has changed their lives on an even sooner timeframe – they say they can’t imagine not having a boat, and are looking for future postings where they can live aboard. They still have a house with 6+ acres near the ocean in Maine, which Todd describes as “a spectacular life.” They excitedly look forward to going there on breaks. “But now,” Todd says, “as we leave Maine to come back here [to the boat], that’s equally exciting.”

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