Friday, September 16, 2011

May You Live In Interesting Times

Posted: September 13, 8:09 am | (permalink) | (0 comments)

“May you live in interesting times,” goes the old Chinese curse. Of course, the times that are most interesting to historians may not be the most tranquil or pleasant to the ordinary people living through them. Similarly, the trips that make the best stories to tell in the bar are not the uneventful ones. So it was with our weekend least weekend. Plans were for dinner at the waterfront home of good friends Steve and Jane, followed by a raft-up next night on another part of the river with different friends, an easy three hour trip to the Magothy River from Annapolis. (Three-hour tour? Now I’ve got the Gilligan’s Island theme song running through my head.)

It was rainy and no wind when we left on Friday afternoon, and although the predictions were for clearing skies, we hadn’t seen the clearing yet. But the last several times we’d promised Steve and Jane that we’d come by boat, we’d gotten lazy at the last minute and come by car instead, and this time we were determined to follow through. So we donned our foul-weather gear and headed out – little knowing that the chance of rain was going to be the least of our concerns before the trip was through.

The trip passed without incident until we were north of the Bay Bridge, just the flat gray sky and the flat gray water. In fact, it was somewhat easier than normal because the water levels were up due to flood releases from the Conowingo Dam upstream. The rain was still holding off although it looked ominous up ahead. I picked up the phone to look at weather radar one more time and saw that we had gotten a phone call from friend Chris about the raft-up Saturday night. Unable to hear well over the sound of the engine, I asked Dan to take the helm while I took the phone below to return Chris’ call from the relative quiet of the v-berth, but when I went below … “Dan! We’ve got water!” The forward part of the cabin floor was awash, and the access plates at the base of the mast were floating gently back and forth.

We have three bilge pumps – the small electric “everyday” pump, a manual fallback pump that you can crank by hand even if all power fails, and a gigantic automatic “emergency” pump. Thought #1 – there’s got to be a BIG hole if the emergency pump can’t keep up with this! But we hadn’t hit anything, I was sure of that. We were later to learn that the big pump had never activated. That was both good news and bad news. The good news is we would never have noticed the problem if the big pump had worked. The bad news was, well, the big pump didn’t work when we needed it!

We traded places, me at the helm and Dan below trying to find the source of the leak. Me, I started steering for the shallows. If worse came to worst, I was going to find some water less than 5 feet deep. Hey, a boat that’s aground can’t sink, right? Meanwhile, Dan went through methodically shutting off seacocks to see if he could find the leak. N.b. for other boaters: You know, when you’re sitting in a public bathroom stall, your eye is drawn to any printed matter, whether its graffiti or advertising or [whatever?] We figured, if you’re going to read something, and read it over and over again until you’ve inadvertently memorized it, might as well memorize something useful. So, we posted in our bathroom (head) a floor plan of our boat showing where each of the seacocks is, the locations of the fire extinguishers, and other critical emergency info. This came in useful, when Dan reported that he had shut off all the seacocks he could remember and the water was still coming in. He checked the chart to make sure he hadn’t left anything out and indeed, he had not forgotten any of them. So we were left with an even greater mystery!

We determined that the bilge pumps were able to keep up with the leak, so we continued on, slowly. I had a lesson in the relativity of time: a few minutes is a very very long time when water’s coming into your boat! At least, I assume it was the relativity of time; the other alternative was that (a) the clock broke when the crisis started; and then (b) it magically fixed itself when Dan looked up at me from his position on the floor under the main salon table, big grin on his face and hands dripping black bilge gunk like the creature rising from the lagoon, and said, “Hey, I know where the water’s coming from!” Turned out that a check valve in the bilge pump was stuck in the open position, letting water flow in. The outlet from this pump is normally above water when we’re at rest. But underway, the bow wave is just enough to submerge it and, the broken valve allowed that water to flow in. Time started once again passing at its normal rate as soon as Dan said he understood the problem, and we continued on our route. An hour later we were tied up at Steve and Jane’s dock, the offending valve was removed and awaiting repair in the morning, and we walked up the hill to their house and an excellent dinner and lots of laughter and catching up. If we laughed a little more shrilly and drank a little more than we might otherwise have after our “interesting” afternoon (and didn’t need to drive anywhere), can you really blame us?

Next morning Dan and Steve worked on the valve while Jane and I chatted and compared future plans (more on that in another post) and shortly the valve was declared serviceable again, although it would be replaced when we returned to Annapolis. We had a pleasant one-hour journey across the very protected waters to the other end of the Magothy where we’d meet the other boats for the Saturday raft-up. The first part of the trip, we took turns checking the bilge at three-minute intervals, each of us gleefully reporting to the other that it continued to be dry.

We arrived at the (gorgeous) raft-up spot at the same time as friend Dave was arriving on his boat and determined that although we were smaller, we were also heavier and with a bigger anchor, so we got the honor of being the anchor boat. We would be the only ones in the raft-up to set our anchor; the other boats would tie onto us. I think of this as an honor because by doing so, they are completely trusting to our anchoring skills and judgment to keep all of us safe from dragging overnight. It also put us in the center of the action for the evening’s socializing.

And socialize we did! There were a total of four boats, and the cockpit table barely had room for all the delicious food that appeared from the various galleys. The conversation was even better than the food! It covered the usual boating chatter, anchorages and storms we had known, nautical lore and gadgets we coveted; and it also covered some unique stories of travel and restaurants and congressmen and science and music and history and aviation – an amazing range.

The trip back was also cursed by being “interesting times.” Way upstream at Conowingo Dam, all the water from the floods in NY and PA was being allowed to pass down the Susquehanna to us here in the Chesapeake. The water was thick and brown with sediment, and with the water came flood debris. Dan stood on the bow to better see the flotsam, and directed me with hand signals to pick a zigzag path through the trash. We passed floating propane tanks, a portapotty, plastic trash and flowerpots and two-by-fours and five-gallon buckets, and an incredible number of logs and patches of grass. Sobering to realize that these are peoples’ homes and livelihoods that we were dodging. The three hours that it took us to return home were in their own way almost as harrowing as the outbound trip had been. Finally, though, we returned safely to our calm, sunny slip, hoping for a somewhat less “interesting” … or even downright boring … next few days.

[photos: (1) Birds finding a new resting spot on a large log in the debris. Note the unusual brown color of the water. (2) This is not the shallows, just a large patch of grass floating just south of the Bay Bridge. (3) Logs in the water near Baltimore Light. All photos by Chris Rizzo. (4) The U.S. Geological Survey measured the river discharge just below the dam (blue line). The vertical 'steps' show the opening of the flood gates, the small triangles at the bottom show the normal discharge for those days. The peak flow was almost 800,000 cubic feet per second, in a more normal year it would be around 10,000.]

Galley Musings

Posted: September 9, 12:24 pm | (permalink) | (0 comments)

galley smcu [the galley aboard our boat]

Living on a boat inspired Ken and Nadia to a career change, as I wrote about in a previous post. Thinking a little more about their transformation made me reflect on our own. Living in a small space makes you really question, and explore, the difference between what you truly need to live a good life and what you think you need. Dan used to own a kitchen design/remodel business. In fact, that’s how he got into sailing. Not obvious, you say?

When we lived in Colorado and had the kitchen business, one of my colleagues asked if we could replace the laminate on the galley countertop of their boat, a small Catalina 24 that they sailed on summer weekends on a nearby lake. This was a small, easy job – the countertop was so small that instead of having to go to the jobsite, the colleague just took the countertop piece off and delivered it to the shop in the trunk of his car.

A few days later we returned the finished piece, and the colleague said, “Cool, thanks, what do I owe you?” Dan replied, “Well, it was such a small job, I’m almost embarrassed to bill you for it. Tell you what; this represented about 3 hours of my work. Why don’t you take me sailing on your boat for 3 hours one afternoon?”

He was totally, utterly hooked from that moment on. I like to call it the most expensive kitchen project we ever undertook.

Anyway, back to my original thought. As a certified kitchen designer, there are guidelines he tried to follow when planning rooms for clients. These guidelines suggest how much space you need for each appliance, for adjacent workspaces, and for storage. Not to minimize the work of the NKBA (National Kitchen & Bath Association), their suggestions came out of extensive research into the way Americans live, into ergonomics, and into fire and building safety codes. I find it ironic just how much we had to turn those rules on their heads when we moved aboard, though. See that rule #3 that says that the distance for each leg of the work triangle in the ideal kitchen should be more than 4 feet to less than 9 feet? Hah! In our galley, each leg of the work triangle measures just two feet. And that rule #27 about storage? It says you should have a total of 360 inches of drawer fronts in a small kitchen? We have not 360 inches, not 300 inches, but just 30 inches – two small drawers. And the guideline also says you should have 300 inches of wall cabinet shelving? We have a single-shelf 35 inch dish cabinet above the sink, and another between the range and the fridge. That’s all. Oh, okay, I managed to sneak a few extra inches for chef’s knife storage in the back of the access panel for the navigation instruments, so that’s a bonus. But then again, where a normal kitchen would have a microwave, we have the VHF marine radio. Or rule #13 about dishwasher placement? (holds up both hands and wiggles fingers – this is my dishwasher!)

Of course, guidelines that make sense on land won’t work on a sailboat, nor should they. Sailboat kitchens (a.k.a. galleys) move; land kitchens don’t, last month’s earthquake notwithstanding. Those big roomy distances between appliances that make a land kitchen a spacious and comfortable workspace would be dangerous in a seaway. When I see open space I think, wow, nothing to break your fall as you’re hurled from one side of the boat to the other. In our little galley, by contrast, it’s very reassuring to snuggle into that little two-foot space and lean against the sink while cooking on the range.

The most profound way that the whole kitchen/galley design rumination has turned my perceptions on their head, though, is the relationship of people to their world. Everything in a well-designed land kitchen is done for maximum ease and efficiency of movement for the cook. The kitchen wraps around the user in an utterly comfortable ergonomic way. Is this, perhaps, a metaphor for modern times, that we create our environment, and control and modify the world for the comfort of the human? Do humans really need that much pampering? For the land kitchen, they talk about the most convenient storage and work zone, at a height between the knees and the shoulders. On our boat, we have to bend and twist and flex to get things. The world doesn’t revolve around the human, the humans have to adapt to it, not the other way ‘round. It’s a compromise and a partnership between comfort and (marine) functionality. Just another way that life afloat keeps you humble!

Small Home Living ... Afloat

Posted: September 6, 10:05 am | (permalink) | (0 comments)
One Saturday afternoon last month found us at the Gangplank Tour of Boat Homes as I described in an earlier post along with 300 other people for the sold-out event. I was looking for inspiration in ideas that other liveaboards had incorporated into their boats that I could incorporate into our own; but mostly, I was looking at people. I thought the folks at Gangplank had an interesting idea in trying to educate others into their way of life, now I was curious about how it would be received. Of the people who attended, you could see some folks just got it, and were thinking yeah, I could live like this. You could see others just didn’t get it at all, and couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to live in such a small and seemingly precarious space. David and Paulette Craig came from Bowie just out of curiosity and fell into the former group. I met them aboard the Sara K, a 1972 Trojan 34-foot houseboat owned by Kenneth Gill and Nadia Ezzelarab-Gill. The Craigs commented that they were surprised that the Sara K was so bright and airy, expecting boats to be cramped and dark. They joked that after the tour, they were ready to go home and start shopping. But although I had come with expectations of people-watching the other attendees, the most fascinating story I heard that day was that of the hostess, Nadia, herself. Ken was overseas during the tour, but we later had a wonderful email exchange.

[Nadia Ezzelarab-Gill at her desk aboard the Sara K]
One day Nadia, a lawyer, decided she had just spent far too many hours in windowless conference rooms full of other attorneys. She wanted to live somewhere with light and connection to the environment. She was perusing Craigslist when “something lit up in my heart and my head,” she said. She hadn’t really known what she was looking for, but she hadn’t expected to find a boat! She had never even been in a houseboat before, but it instantly felt right. That same evening, she introduced the idea of living on a houseboat to her husband Ken, and a week or so later she asked him, “Do you mind if I start selling and giving away the furniture?” The furniture they had was good quality, but wouldn’t be needed anymore – they were moving aboard. When Nadia came up with this crazy idea of living on a boat, Ken did not find it so crazy at all. “This would be an ideal chance for us to create ourliving space together,” he said. “It also satisfied my need to be a bit ‘alternative.’"

[Sara K interior - upper level - entry and home office. Photo provided by Nadia Ezzelarab-Gill.]
[Sara K interior - main level - kitchen and living. A lower level contains the sleeping area. Photo provided by Nadia Ezzelarab-Gill.]
They faced some initial challenges. They moved aboard in the middle of winter, February 15. Considering that Ken had spent 39 years in Copenhagen, and Nadia had lived in Sweden and Denmark, it seemed hard to imagine that they would complain about the cold in a Washington, DC winter. But Ken reminisced, “Our first night on the boat was one of the coldest I have ever spent! We'd spent the whole day moving and were totally whacked out so we just cleared a space in the saloon, piled all the mattresses and blankets we had on the floor and passed out fully dressed with our winter coats on and just our noses sticking out. We woke the next morning to the sight of a whole army of shivery looking seagulls marching past at eye level on the very solid looking ice! I must admit that I did have a second thought or two [about what they had gotten themselves into] then, but hey! I'd never experienced anything like this before in my life and it's amazing how a steaming cup of coffee can make even the stiffest seagull look welcoming.”
Living on a boat for a while can really make you reevaluate your perceptions of what you “need” to have a good life. After just 6 months aboard, they did more than just adapt to life afloat. The experience of living in this efficient but not cramped space inspired Nadia to consider a dramatic career change from law to designing / building very small houses. She and Ken are on the leading edge of a growing trend; almost every architectural magazine and website I’ve seen recently includes one or two very small dwellings along with the very large and elaborate ones. Reasons people give for their interest in very small houses range from spiritual/religious yearnings for simplicity, to concern for the environment and desire to minimize their environmental footprint, to finances.
Ken, a retired elementary school teacher, brings some construction skills to the planned venture – among other credentials, he’s a qualified woodwork/metalwork teacher in Denmark and says he has always loved doing things with his hands. He moved about 10 times and has lived in and owned both houses and apartments. Most of them he has renovated or improved – “not always in strict accordance to the building codes!” he admits. He has also worked as an instructor/demonstrator and volunteer at a historical/archeological research center at Lejre in Denmark, where he helped with some reconstructions of typical farm cottages from about 1850. But his involvement with the small house design idea is also philosophical. “It is very important for me to be able to physically form my living space with my own hands - to make it as I want it to be so that it becomes part of me and I of it,” he says.
Nadia loves interior decorating, designing rooms and dwellings, and creating gardens. She has found her legal career satisfying, but she realized that she was not willing to do it for another twenty or more years. “The reason we have decided to primarily design small homes is that we want to assist people in having satisfying lives, in homes that they can help design (perhaps even build), in ways that will make them love to be there, yet that are priced so that they can pay off their mortgages in 6-7 years. We want to assist people in getting out of the debt cycle, and in enjoying life at a more natural level.”

[kitchen table on the Sara K. Photo by Kenneth Gill.]
In addition to the boat, they have a place in the Appalachians a few hours’ drive west of DC, in a forest half way up a mountain ridge looking east towards the Blue Ridge. Ken has a workshop downstairs and Nadia is creating a garden with her bare hands up the mountain side Their need to be a little bit alternative shows up there too. “We sleep out on the screened balcony among the tree tops,” he says.
When asked about future plans, neither of them can imagine leaving the boat - having the water and the mountain is a perfect combination, they say, and a tremendous asset in developing their small-home visions. Nadia says they get plenty of practice at smaller living, and dual use of things on the boat. “We're going to try out some of our small house designs in the back yard [of the mountain home] and live out our small dwelling dreams on D dock [at Gangplank Marina],” adds Ken.

[The Sara K in her slip at Gangplank's D-dock, and a visitor aboard! Photos by Kenneth Gill.]

Irene. Wind Machine. Queen of Mean.

Posted: August 29, 1:17 pm | (permalink) | (0 comments)

irene navy[photo: satellite view of Irene on her way towards us; courtesy U.S. Navy]

Now, it’s calm and dry and sunny – as though Irene has used up our quota of wind and rain for the entire week (month?) in one single tantrum. Now, it’s laughing with neighbors and surveying the relative lack of damage to our boats. Now, it’s sitting in the cockpit with a cup of coffee. But only yesterday … Being on a boat in a hurricane has different worries of course than being on land for a hurricane. We’re not worried about power; we’re used to making our own – it’s not like you can run an extension cord out to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Or water; we topped up before the storm and that supply generally lasts us 3 weeks, more if we’re in careful-conservation mode. Or flooding; hey, we’re a boat after all, we’ll just float above it. Or even falling tree limbs; no trees out here. But remember I just recently posted about how being on a boat lets you be more in touch with nature, with the feel of the wind and the waves? Sometimes, we’re rather more in touch than we want!

The day Saturday started with mild winds generally building as people completed their last-minute preparations. Winds circle the eye of a hurricane counterclockwise, and the eye was predicted to pass east of us. That meant the winds would come from the northeast, then north, then northwest – pushing water out of the Bay rather than into the Bay as Isabel did in 2003. So the early, and strongest winds were on our beam. As each gust hit the boat tilted to port. Dishes shifted in lockers, and items fell from the shelf above the v-berth. We don’t heel any more than that when we’re underway sailing. And of course the wind. We have no anemometer (wind speed indicator) but we could get a pretty good feel by the sound and the feel -- the stronger the gust, the higher the volume and pitch. I began to distinguish between the sounds of moderate gusts, 30s and 40s, that made the rigging whistle, and the stronger ones, 50s and 60s, that were more of a scream. Large drops of rain were driven sideways, rattling on our windows and deck. Irene was being one noisy storm! The larger gusts set the mast to vibrating, and I kept waiting for the sickening sound of a dockline breaking. Luckily didn’t happen – of course it helped that we had 12 of them, and many were a bigger, stronger size than we use for everyday tie-up. The northeast winds continued for a long time, a bit longer than I had expected, and I began to worry. This could indicate that the eye of the storm was going to pass closer to the west – and closer to us (hence stronger winds) than expected. But finally, as the night wore on, and we wore out, the wind shifted more north. This put it on our bow, so even though it was just about as strong – and noisy – it was a bit more comfortable because we didn’t heel over as much.

We periodically left our little bubble of light and warmth and relative calm to go topside and check on the condition of dock lines that were working overtime, checking for chafe (rubbing and wear) and adjusting accordingly. It only took about 10 seconds out in the weather to be completely drenched. The wind and pelting rain were strong enough that it was almost hard to breathe when facing into it; in a worse storm than this one, we even wore a snorkel and mask to be able to see and breathe.

I’m intrigued by the various ways my liveaboard friends spent their time during the storm. Cindy scrubbed and cleaned. Dave cooked elegant gourmet meals for one. I obsessively checked storm tracks, and organized recipes. Dan polished off a 700+ page Tom Clancy novel. Here’s my theory: when it’s dark and every screaming wind gust tips the boat sideways and reminds you that there’s only a fiberglass eggshell between you and the storm’s fury, you do anything you can to create a feeling of control, of normalcy, in your little floating world.

Help me test my theory: go to Life Afloat on Facebook, or the comments section here, and post how you spent the storm. BTW, what’s with hurricanes starting with the ninth letter of the alphabet and Annapolis? We had Isabel in 2003, and the remnants of Ivan in 2004, and now Irene?

Here She Comes!

Posted: August 27, 10:18 am | (permalink) | (0 comments)

hurricane satelllite [photo: satellite view of a typical hurricane. Irene is bigger!]

Our very good friend and sailing mentor in the Caribbean, David Kummerle, once told us that it takes 4 days to have a hurricane on a boat if all goes well – a day to get ready, a day to have the storm, a day to rest, and then a day to put the boat back together. And that’s if there’s no boat damage. We learned the truth of that in two previous hurricanes, Lenny in the Virgin Islands, and Isabel here in Annapolis. We’re about to test that advice again. Earlier this week we started our pre-prep. That’s my self-justifying description of spending lots of time in internet chats with my sailing buddies, and checking multiple weather sites as soon as they were updated. In addition to the biggies like Weather Underground andAccuweather and NOAA, we like the graphics on Stormpulse.

We ran through our standard list of preparations: take off the sails, dodger and bimini; double up all docklines; secure everything above deck; tie halyards away from the mast. Fuel and water tanks topped up. Then the special tricks that David taught us after surviving half a dozen big hurricanes in the tropics: making sure that our mast wasn’t directly in line with the boat next to us, so that if we started really rocking the masts wouldn’t get tangled with each other. An anchor out in case we had to get off a disintegrating dock. A ditch bag packed with our passports, medications, some cash, and other emergency stuff. Cars moved to high ground and parked away from tree limbs. Most importantly, we laid in a supply of bad movies and good wine, and then declared ourselves as ready as we can get.

The first “gift” from the storm was another reminder of how much the people are the reason I love being part of the boating community. “Can I give you a hand with that?” was the phrase heard most often on the dock, even more often than “What’s the latest forecast?” Helping each other prepare, trading tips, watching after the boats of friends who were trapped out of town … nothing like feeling very small against a common enemy to enhance our sense of togetherness.

[More later, as time in connectivity allow. Stay safe, all]

We interrupt this hurricane prep to bring you … an earthquake???

Posted: August 24, 1:56 pm | (permalink) | (0 comments)

It had been a day of checking online weather forecasts and email and chatting with friends about how to prepare our boats for the predicted arrival of Hurricane Irene – taking down canvas and doubling up docklines and looking after the boats of friends who were out of town.

I wish I could give you a unique firsthand boaters-eye-view of what it felt like to be aboard when the ground shook, but I wasn’t aboard. I was at Fitness Forum doing my regular Tuesday afternoon physical therapy session with awesome physical therapist and trainer Jen when the building started swaying. At first I assumed it was a heavy truck driving past in the elevated part of the parking lot, but as the shaking continued and got worse, we all clustered in doorframes and room corners until we were told to evacuate (I did get out of doing the last 10 minutes of my workout, though) And, all being the products of 21st century technology, we then all stood around checking our smartphones and telling each other the news: my cousin Cheryl in New York reported an earthquake, as did friends Margo in Massachusetts and Penny in North Carolina – this thing must have been HUGE! It was actually a relief to learn from USGS that it was “only” 5.8 with an epicenter near Richmond. There was a bit of confusion as our car was in the basement garage, but in a short time we were back home aboard the boat at the marina, where all looked just as it had before.

What was it like to be aboard in the marina during the earthquake? I asked Dave German, who lives aboard his CSY 37 “Equinox” a few slips away from us. “I was in the boat, at the nav station when I felt a sharp bump,” he said. “I thought someone may have run into me so I went to the cockpit, looked around and didn't see anything. Boatswain [the dog who lives aboard a neighboring boat along with his owner Ed Menegaux] barked a few times but stopped when he saw me. I waited maybe another minute and saw masts further up back creek rocking back and forth followed by masts closer to Port Annapolis. Next the pilings began to shake maybe 2-3 feet at the top and a series of waves came towards me. It lasted for about 30-40 seconds and then all was quiet again. Except for Boatswain.”

I kinda wish I could have seen that, docks and pilings swaying like palm trees … or then again, maybe not. If I’d seen it I’d probably never again be able to trust my boat to those docks and pilings in a storm – like the one coming, for example. After all the excitement, we topped up our water tanks and took the boat over to fuel up in anticipation of the hurricane, and went to a previously-planned anchor-out overnight in Whitehall Creek. Late in the evening we were rocked by a series of waves like a boat wake, but that had no discernible source, that may have been the aftershock. An invigorating sail back home this morning, and now, back to our regularly-scheduled hurricane prep.

Back Where We Belong

Posted: August 20, 7:22 am | (permalink) | (0 comments)

P8191200 back in the water

Splash! By Thursday everything that had to be done on land had been done. Thursday evening, the boatyard picked up our boat in the big travelift and we “hung in the slings” overnight. Supporting our boat at different points than the jackstands held us allowed us to paint the sections that were blocked before so that every spot on the hull was protected. It also gave us a tiny taste of motion again, and a different vantage.

Several folks asked about what it was like up there in the slings and whether it was safe? Well, actually, yes. First off, we were only inches above the ground; it’s not like we risked falling from a great height. Secondly, our support was more assured. One way that boats on jackstands can fall during hurricanes is not the wind, it’s that the rain turns the ground soft and mushy and one stand can slide out making the whole thing unbalanced. (Not that it happens often!) But in the slings, as the lift operator Gary pointed out, we had this giant structural frame around us, four steel posts. But the most telling argument to me is that during hurricanes, most of the marina owners we know – who obviously have the choice of anywhere in their marinas to put their own boats – use the slings.

P8191189 slings P8191186 big wheel

Anyway, after a pleasant night we were back in the water Friday morning, and went for our test ride with mechanic Billy. The bay was pretty and conditions were perfect for sailing <*sigh*> but sailing was not what we were after that time. We motored at various speeds with Billy checking the new installation each time, and each time he pronounced it rock steady.

Later that afternoon we were happily back in our slip and one of our marina friends, who had seen us on the hard working several times during the past week, came sailing past in their boat. “She looks better in the water!” they called out encouragingly. “She feels better in the water, too!” we shot back.

Still on the Hard, and Working Hard

Posted: August 18, 9:15 am | (permalink) | (0 comments)
Two weeks out of the water are drawing to a close, we expect to “splash” (put the boat back into the water) on Friday … and it can’t come soon enough! The shaft and propeller are back in place, held in by a new cutlass bearing (one, exactly one, cutlass bearing this time!), the bottom and new waterline have been painted and we are literally just hanging out waiting for the paint to dry. Dan, with his more practiced technique, did the burgundy paint; I was relegated to the underwater parts. Or, as Dennis, one of the yard guys, put it, “He did the parts people would see. You did the parts fish would see.” A lot of work for the marina staff, and us, but we’re incredibly happy that its fixed, and that we’ve gotten to the root of the problem – I think this means it’s likely to stay fixed!
[photo: Bottom paint is meant to repel marine growth, so it’s not likely to be too good for people, either. Note to self: Tyvek in August ain’t too great either.]
[photo: Marina mechanic Scott “Spuds” Callahan reinstalling our propeller]
Although we’ve spent a lot of days with paintbrushes in hand, it hasn’t been all work. We got a break one day when marina friend Chris Rizzo offered to take us for a short evening sail on his Hunter 30 sailboat “Domingoman.” Winds were light, if our boat had been in the water there wouldn’t have been enough of a breeze to move us, but for Chris’ smaller boat it was perfect, and we glided along, serene and peaceful in the sunset. Last Saturday we were up early to put on a single coat of paint, then we took the afternoon off to attend the Boat Home Tour at Gangplank Marina while the paint dried (more about that coming in a separate post).
Our really fun break came one afternoon last week when we headed to Oxford. I was amused to realize that although I knew the way well by boat, I had never been there by car. We drove and walked the historic town, stopping for ice cream. We visited Cutts and Caseshipyard, and chatted with owner Eddie Cutts Jr, an odd conversation that was partly shipbuilding and partly life philosophy, about their unique method of restoring/building wooden boats, and mirror bright varnish, and the idea that anything worth doing is worth doing as well as you possibly can. The highlight of our getaway though, was a rather unlikely party at Oxford Inn.
Given our lifestyle and the title of this blog, you would think any christening ceremony we attended would be for the launch of a boat, right? Not this time – this time was all about a car. Not just any car – an impeccably restored London taxicab born the same year as my kid brother Brian, 1958. I’m all about *any* form of transportation, and Oxford is a town that is proud of its British history and will throw a party for any reason, the quirkier the better. So there we were… and what a fun party it was. Elegant appetizers (I was tempted by the ceviche served in ceramic spoons, but my far and away favorite was the shotglass of gazpacho) were just the backdrop for chatting with absolutely fascinating people. Here’s what the local paper said about it. There was even a signature drink created just for the occasion appropriately named the “Black Cab.” The whole thing was a little frustrating irony for me personally, though. The classic taxi is intended to pick you up at your marina if you’re going out to dinner at Pope’s Tavern (attached to the Oxford Inn). And here I was, aching for a ride in this thing -- I remember riding in taxis just like it when I visited London with my parents and brother in 1969 -- but for the first time in my life I was in Oxford by car instead of by boat!
[photo: After the boatyard grime, an elegant table is doubly appealing. Especially when, shortly after I took the photo, we sat down to delicious rockfish and impossibly fresh “Maryland succotash” with corn and limas and tiny grape tomatoes.]
[photo: The taxi! And an excuse to go back, by boat next time, and get a ride from a marina to go to dinner. And we’ll certainly go back; the food and company was awesome!]
P1010302 dan lisa and the taxi[photo: owner Dan Zimbelman and owner/chef Lisa MacDougal ... and of course, the taxi, the real star of the party]

On the Cusp of a Dream

Posted: August 13, 9:12 am | (permalink) | (0 comments)
In honor of liveaboard boater day August 13, I chatted with some people who have just moved aboard in the past few months, or are just in the process of moving aboard. They have, on the surface, almost nothing in common. Their ages range from late 20s to mid-50s; their careers include a novelist, an airline pilot, a psychotherapist, and others; their locations range from Seattle to Miami to Boston. But they all share a dream that looks somewhat like this:
sailboat at anchor off a tropical island
And they share an incredible, and very attractive, mix of enthusiasm and trepidation for their new lifestyle.

Why move onto a sailboat?
Sometimes, your life can change in a single afternoon. That was the case for Norm and Eileen Dillon. They went for a sail aboard Annapolis’ own Schooner Woodwind and she was instantly hooked. “My soul cries out for peaceful bliss,” she writes, “something as beautiful as a small ripple on the water, a bird flying by, the sun, the moon, and the stars.” Norm is no stranger to boats and water; he spent 20 years in the Marine Corps and currently is a senior analyst working with UAV (unmanned aircraft) at the Pentagon. But for Eileen, currently the assistant director at a small private school, this will be a leap of faith; she has no previous experience. They are readying their house for sale and she plans to spend the next year learning sailing, navigation, even how to swim. That last is to me a measure of her dedication, and of how different her new life will be from her old one, that she hadn’t learned to swim before adulthood. Still, she says, “I think we have the need to make our life simple. Although we have no illusion about how hard it will be and different than anyplace we have lived, we are anxious to connect with each other on a deeper level. We feel it’s time for us….. We have 4 children and have spent our lives raising them and now that they are grown we feel passionately that is our turn.”
Norm and Eileen on Woodwind

“When I first thought of living aboard a boat, I fell in love with not just the idea, but the fact that I could pick up the boat and move it to virtually anywhere I wanted,” explains Seattle novelist Courtney Kirchoff, who is in her late 20s. “I live in the greater Seattle area, so I have the entire Puget Sound and surrounding areas in which to cruise. … My goal for next summer, however, is to cruise to the San Juan Islands and up into Canada. I cannot wait to do that. In the mean time, I love living rent free and having zero utility bills. It’s a bragging point to all my mortgage and rent bound friends. I’m sure they’ll love that.” She summarizes her list of other reasons she is making the change in a wonderfully articulate blog post titled Why I’ll Be Living Aboard a Sailboat: “freedom, romance, frugality, pride of ownership, it’s darn cool, and because I can.”

Chris Tucker (no, not the comedian!) describes himself as “one of those IT guys;” he helps customers specify big systems, servers and storage. He lives in Cincinnati and is in his early 40s. He began to feel a general dissatisfaction with his life, and started asking questions. “Was I passionate about what I was doing in my life? My job? What was the reason that I worked?” After some reflection, he realized he was caught in a crazy cycle of working to buy the things to project the image of success to advance in the job to get more money to buy the things, and on and on. His dream is to work less because he needs less, and go exploring on his boat. “I looked at the stuff I had - the house, the stuff in it. How much of that stuff did I use? Very little. How many rooms did I use? A couple. I found myself wanting... [a] simpler life, one more in touch with the world around me.” When I asked him about including his story for this article, he clarified that because he’s a divorced dad of the mid-life crisis age whose two children will both be in college next year, “I imagine some people will think that maybe I'm just running away from an unsatisfactory life, and taking the easy way out. … I am under no illusions that life on a boat will be easy. There is plenty of work to do to keep a boat (your home) safe and working properly.”

Not so easy to just ditch it all, says Melissa Feinmel, an airline pilot (Captain) for American Airlines who is in her mid-fifties. Two months ago she moved onto her 2006 Hunter 36 sailboat "Rhapsody in Blue," currently in Key Biscayne, full time. “Asking a woman to give up her home is huge. They may say a man’s home is his castle, but for us women [it] is more than a castle -- it is our security ... The home is where we make a statement of who we are and defines us. We build our relationships of family and friends here. We gather things to make the home a safe environment and nurturing our family ties. In essence it [may be]what defines our gender. Having the last two days just getting rid of my household goods, thru yard sales, Craigslist, eBay, donate to charity and storage of those things precious in my life is probably one the hardest things I have ever done. It has been a sobering week.” Like Chris, she wants to travel and adventure by sailboat, although in her case she’ll wait to retire first; she’s only a few years away.

How long did it take to translate dream into action?
It would seem that shedding possessions, moving, researching the right boat, buying it, learning to sail and learning boat systems all would take a lot of preparation and time. And indeed, for some, turning the dream into reality has been a long time coming. I first met Boston psychotherapist Jack Cleary online, he was asking about tips for wintering aboard, and the vibrant excitement in his online ‘voice’ led me to think he was in his 20s. That must be the anti-aging effect that sailing has on us; he’s actually in his 50s and has been dreaming about moving aboard for 20 years. When he was first divorced in ’95, he was unwilling to subject his then 4-year-old daughter to the New England weather, but now she – and he -- are on their own. He just bought his boat, a 1984 Pearson 303, last week and hopes to move aboard at the end of September; it’s all so new he hasn’t settled on a name for the boat yet.

Courtney is the other extreme – words like “impulsive” and “audacious” come to mind -- she got the idea to live aboard in a sudden burst of inspiration last May after a visit to a friend’s sailboat, and by August first, she had already bought a boat, sold her stuff, moved out of her apartment, and moved aboard with her dog Riley. “I’ve only seen a few boats in my lifetime, having always been a horse and barn sort of girl, but I’ve always marveled at a boat’s clever use of space, coziness, and how cool it is to just be on a boat,” she said. “It tickles me hot pink to think of traveling with my home and my dog, all on my own, to gorgeous places, dolphins, whales and seals as my company as I make my journeys.”

What still ties you to land?
What ties them to land varies, but at least for now, all the folks I interviewed were still working. Jobs sometimes helped, and sometimes complicated, their liveaboard dreams, but weren’t the only ties to land. Chris won’t move aboard until next year when his daughter leaves for college, but he envisions for himself: “At first as I'm living aboard and working on land, I will still have a vehicle. Other than that, the only ties I plan on having are just my kids, parents, and brothers. Nothing else material is important. The only land ties are emotional/family ties!” For Norm and Eileen, in addition to jobs, land ties include car, gym, bikes, church. “I will keep my friends, but add the boat liveaboard community,” says Jack, who plans to move into a marina in the Boston area. The job will be a big tie holding him in place – he’ll keep his work at the clinic, and will probably rent a small office near the marina to continue his private practice. The job accelerated Melissa’s plans to move aboard case, instead of tying her down. She was commuting on a weekly basis from her home in New Jersey to Miami where she worked and sailed when she decided to quit the commute insanity and just live on the boat full time. The job wasn’t an issue at all for Courtney. As a writer, her job is portable; she can work from anywhere she has a laptop and an internet connection. Her first published novel, completed before she even contemplated living on a boat, has nothing to do with boats or sailing; she’s currently working on a second book. What ties her to land is her horse Dante, who is staying at her parents’ home as he has for her last 3 moves.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Jack and Courtney will have to face a winter aboard before they’ve had a lot of time to learn their boats; for Melissa, winter in Miami isn’t much of a threat. On the other hand, this season she is carefully watching for hurricanes.

Learning mechanical and electrical systems is a challenge all are grappling with, but there are other challenges. “My biggest challenge so far has been the overall adjustment to a smaller space and limited resources,” said Courtney. “It’s not a surprise, though, I knew it would take some getting used to. I’ve learned so much about electricity in the past few weeks than in my entire lifetime. Now I look at the bottom of appliances and determine what stays on the boat and what must be boxed up (my Mr. Coffee uses 600 watts of power! Yikes!) because it sucks up too much of my limited electricity. I’m also finding that I still have too much stuff, so there’s going to be another purging to make more space aboard.”

Melissa agreed. “Storage by far has been my biggest challenge. … I have very little closet space for my uniforms, coats, dresses, shirts and pants. 95% of my nice clothes are in storage. Most of my non-uniform clothes are boat clothes, very causal. I keep 2 nice outfits on the boat with one [pair of shoes] that match both.”

Maintenance, and learning their boat’s systems, is on the minds of all the new liveaboards. Melissa describes herself as very mechanically inclined and has the advantage of having owned her boat for three years before moving aboard earlier this summer. Jack acknowledges his good fortune when he got his boat, “the elderly gentleman who is selling it for health reasons will be my mentor for as long as I want/need (within reason). He even offered to help me touch up the teak, etc.” he said. “I KNOW how it sounds like a sales gimmick, but the guy HATED to sell it - and because it's for age/health issues, it really bothered him. I think he's delighted that I'll be keeping the boat in the same area and that we'll probably become friends; I'll invite him out often - and get free lessons to boot!”

Has it changed you? Do you feel different from your land-based friends?
The challenge of untangling their identities from their possessions may be related to age, or it may be a coincidence. At least, the two youngest new liveaboards, Chris and Courtney, seemed fairly unconcerned. Jack said he “may get a storage unit at first just to keep the things I can't bear to part with NOW. Then I'll filter through things a second time.” Melissa also found her relationship to her possessions complex. Selling her condo and most of her furnishings has, on the one hand, been very liberating. On the other hand, she says, “since I am approaching retirement age, with no land base house or furnishings, I am back to square one like when I moved out of my parents’ house at age 18. I have 35 years of good living and in some respects nothing to show for it from society's point-of-view.” Still, she puts it in a broader context. “I think any lifestyle change as drastic as living on the water in a very small space has to change that person. Many things come to mind about how we as Americans live or are supposed to live … chasing the American Dream. For me it changed/re-enforced the notion of the material world we live in and how false that perception is to make one's inner self happy. The old saying "Money cannot buy happiness" comes to mind. The move has been very liberating in what is really important in my life.”
Leaving it all behind -- Melissa at the helm

On The Hard. Again.

Posted: August 8, 12:25 pm | (permalink) | (0 comments)
If you’re a cruiser, you already understand the significance of this photo.
In the jackstands
For everyone else, here’s the explanation. First, notice that this picture, unlike most of the pictures I post of our boat under sail or at anchor someplace beautiful, shows our boat on land instead of in the water. Remember I said we had to be towed back to the marina after our visit to Cambridge because the v-drive broke again? And we couldn’t figure out why it didn’t stay fixed? Well, the good news is, now we know what’s been going wrong and how to fix it. The bad news is that we’re waiting for parts to fix it right. And while we’re waiting for those parts, we’re “on the hard,” with no refrigeration, no toilet, no air conditioning. In August.

I described being on the hard two years ago, when we were getting the boat ready for our first trip south. It wasn’t fun that time either, but at least we picked our weather a bit better.

By the way, how do you get a boat onto dry land if that boat is too big to just pick up and carry like you would a canoe, or haul on a trailer behind a car? Well, one way is that there are some places that have 10-foot tides so you can just go near to shore and wait for the tide to go out and leave you high and dry– Maine or Georgia come to mind. Of course, since our boat has a single deep keel, once the water went out we’d be lying on our side – which would be inconvenient to say the least! And anyway, that wouldn’t work here because we only have 1-foot tides here in the Chesapeake. Our tides aren’t big enough to do the job.

Travelift empty ...
We do, however, have a travelift -- a handy way to pluck a bigger boat out of water. It does just what its name says, travels, and lifts. Here’s the empty frame sitting over the haulout slip in our marina. The slings you see are lowered down into the water below the level of the boat’s keel. Then we brought the boat into the slip, and the slings were raised, lifting the boat out of the water. Next, the frame + boat is wheeled over to the location where the boat will stand while work is being done. And finally, jackstands are put in place to support the boat upright, and then the slings are removed and the frame wheeled away. And here we are.
...and with our boat
Once we were out of the water, marina staff powerwashed the bottom to get the barnacles off. It is nice to know that this part of the Chesapeake is good habitat for something,although not a very exciting something to be sure. Believe it or not, it took only about 6 weeks for this growth on the propeller to form - just since the last time we had a diver clean the bottom! The next thing we learned is that the propeller shaft is a bit loose – it wiggled. I’m not very strong but even I could wiggle it. That smug look on my face is pure satisfaction. Hah! We’re closing in on the source of the vibration that caused the v-drive to fail! Not to overwhelm you with details, but at some time in our boat’s 32 year history, someone “fixed” it the lazy way instead of the right way.* Which came back to bite us, years later. Anyway, we’re on the right track now. The marina staff has been competent in the repair, and communicated well. They even took care of us in the little things, like positioning us where we could catch some breezes and be comfortable, yet close to the workshop. They provided a sturdy and comfortable set of stairs to get on and off the boat. Normally, we use a rickety ladder – climbing up and down that many times each day as we work gets old in a hurry.

A very mucky propeller
Power Washing

Aha! The shaft is loose!
The second thing about that very first photo I showed you? Maybe you couldn’t see it in the original, it’s not very big, so here, I’ll give it to you again in closeup.
close-up of the waterline

Well, the green tape masking off the part to be painted is about 2 inches higher than the existing paint. You see, every time we add some weight to the boat, whether it’s a new piece of safety gear or a load of groceries, the boat settles a little lower in the water. And over time, those extra weights add up. Parts that had been painted with the red bootstripe are now underwater, and need instead to be painted with protective black bottom paint. In a boatyard, raising the waterline is a very public statement that over time, we’ve accumulated a significant amount of new possessions. This is kinda embarrassing to admit for the girl who’s all about shedding material possessions. Wonder if I’ll have any credibility left next time I write about downsizing tips?

In any case, with repairs well underway and the heat expected to moderate in the next couple of days, spirits are high here on Life Afloat … er, Life Aground????

*For the tech types: Once upon a time, someone decided to replace the cutlass bearing, but they couldn’t get the old one out, so they just shoved it further up the shaft and put the new one in behind it. But the old one was in the way and prevented the shaft from being properly aligned, so it got a bit of vibration that went on until it shook the v-drive apart.

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.”