Monday, June 9, 2014

House Boat Living




Ric asked for my views on houseboat living, so here goes nothing: don't do it! You aren't the first! I spent last week collecting pictures from Key West and Marathon marinas to illustrate the life. There are tons of places you can live on a houseboat from the docks behind Five Sixes cabs not far from the relative opulence of the marinas on south Stock Island, to anchorages crowded and isolated up and down the Keys. These photos are simply illustrations, the way I do it, of a series of words broken up into paragraphs and separated by pictures.   

 The first thing is to dispel the romance of living in a marina on a houseboat that is in essence a floating structure, and is only a boat by virtue of the fact that it floats. To move these things you need a) a very calm day and b) almost of all of them require the services of a tug. To live here one is not in any sense a mariner, one is not sailing or cruising; one is living in a floating home. A lot of people mix up the romance of a life afloat with the need to find a relatively inexpensive place to call home. If you choose to live in a marina this is your life, below, and these are the views, in the top picture.
I have lived on boats for years, probably half my adult life, but I have always lived on sailboats and always kept them able to move. However the longer you live on a boat the more crap and detritus you accumulate and thus the harder it is to go sailing. There is a lot to be said for living ashore and keeping a boat to use to enjoy the water. On the other hand as seen below some people convert their cruisers into floating homes. And here's the thing, to stay cool all windows are covered very sensibly and there is a cover to help keep the whole boat cool. Its very trim and nicely done. However what you end up living in is a cave. I know I've done it and it's not for me. The alternative is to live your life on public display.
 I met a couple of liveaboards and asked how they were and the woman reaching for her drink glared at me and spat that she had no interest in answering any damn fool questions. Okay, I thought, there's some material to disabuse the good natured Ric of his idea that these charmers might need him for a neighbor. The man engaged me a bit pointing out it costs $25,000 by his estimate to get a slip with a further $5,000 to the city...though he did grant that the monthly fees to live in Key west are quite reasonable compared to a two thousand a month rental ashore. He pointed out a couple of houseboats for sale, apparently thinking I was interested. Thanks but no thanks!
 You live cheek by jowl in these places and once you get past the romance of the sea you can understand that this is low income housing, with flair, yes, but this is not romantic in my book.
My wife and I have been discussing our own post-Cheyenne future and she is pushing the boat idea quite strongly, which surprises me. This time though she wants a slow economical trawler with no sails, easy to move  and spend weekends on the water. It's an idea but marina living will take some getting used to again.
Parking is generally available, under the sun, security is as you find it and it varies between marinas. We used to live on Stock Island in a brand new place which started out well as it cost more than most, not by much, but enough to keep it uncrowded. I used to walk Emma at night and chat with the security guard in his golf cart, and it was low key.Then it got discovered and the crowds came and the parking lot filled, just like this one at Garrison Bight, making it look like a mall lot on a Saturday...
 If you aren't working its far better to live at anchor, assuming you have a spot where you can get ashore without annoying people. This boat below, showed up a  while back in Niles Channel 26 miles from Key West, and clearly the owner is over it. The boat is a disgrace with sails abandoned, equipment scattered and the outboard motor forgotten in the water accumulating growth and corrosion. Imagine what a hell hole the cabin is. The trick with boats is to buy them sensibly (good luck) and sell them before you lose interest in them (fat chance). 
 I got a much nicer reception in Boot Key harbor in Marathon. The weather was gray and damp which gave me a realistic feel for the less than perfect days that do happen in the Keys, and the cool weather encouraged Cheyenne to want to walk. We met an old dude on the docks stumping back to his home of 25 years, a sailboat, and we compared notes on the liveaboard life. He said he couldn't imagine another way of life and I think that is the salient point. You really need to want to do it because if it is just a way to find cheap housing you end up like the worn out angry trailer park denizen at Garrison Bight.
Check out the sailboat below, a home apparently if you believe the evidence of ice chests and belonging strewn under the awnings. When I was a boat captain we used to race paying passengers around Key West harbor on Stiletto catamarans exactly like  this one below. How anyone could live in the "cabins" which are more like coffins I couldn't say but youth and determination overcome a lot of obstacles. Plus the boat sails like a cat with its tail on fire, ie: fast and unpredictably if you put up plenty of sail. As a home forget it.
If a houseboat is interesting  there is plenty of online literature like this and pictures of interiors which to my mind look like rental apartments or early RVs for the most part. But I have my sailor's prejudices...sorry.
The romantic image of houseboat living is, as is usually the case a character in fiction, Travis McGee . If you haven't read any of the novels you will find them rather dated, sexist even in a 1920s kind of way and the technology is of course far behind the times. Yet they collectively tell a story of a Sunshine State that is still possibly available for us today if we could only find it. To start with you need to live on a boat of course! Then you can be Travis McGee.
I guess the reality is you can do anything if you want to. I spotted a guy on a kayak paddling patiently in from his boat anchored in Boot Key Harbor. The odd thing was he had two large dogs balanced on the back and they were enjoying the ride. I would have loved to stop and ask how he trained them but I was on land and he was busy and I could not spot where he landed them. Plus I don't have a telephoto on my phone which I miss quite a lot from time to time...
 The privacy of life at anchor or on a city provided mooring is quite lovely, until it rains or gets windy or you forgot your phone in the car...everything takes longer than it takes when you live away from the ease of life on land. Boot Key harbor in marathon is the best protected anchorage in the Keys, and for all that Key West has a maritime history etc...it has nowhere as snug and secure as this anchorage, a tidal lagoon surrounded by land. 
The basics of living in a  houseboat are actually fairly simple.  The marina provides electricity, piped water and cable TV service usually as well as a phone line all contained in the white boxes you see on the docks. The boater connects the services required and pays the meters. Monthly rent for a 40 foot boat in a suitable dock will probably be around $1200 a month including liveaboard fees. Showers and toilets are available on land like in campgrounds and as a working stiff you will get used to driving to the showers with your work clothes and emerging into your car for your commute looking like any suburban householder starting his/her day. From my experience successful boaters who try to live and work are organized people. 
The social aspects of marinas are something else.  Some places prefer not to cater to liveaboards, other marinas love them as residents give a  permanent presence and watchful eyes on the docks. Some marinas are extremely social with events and parties, while others aren't. 
 Sombrero Resort in Marathon is a private facility attached to a hotel and club I believe and they see lots of winter residents just as one does in condos ashore.

 The city marina across Boot Key harbor has a few docks but is mostly a dinghy landing with facilities in the converted warehouse. they have a workshop for rent, a lounge with a book swap, laundry showers and toilets designed to serve people who live on city moorings and at anchor in the harbor. It is a fabulous refuge for travelers through the Keys. 
 It is crowded too, especially in winter. Marathon is a great jumping off point for the Bahamas as the Gulf Stream will carry you straight to Bimini like an elevator. The last time I sailed across I left here at lunchtime and anchored at Gun Cay the next morning for breakfast.
In the end I don't give advice because I fully expect it to be ignored. If you have an itch you cannot ignore then you must follow through, but to live on a boat, especially a boat that is not self propelled requires passion. The reality of daily living on a boat when you are used to the conveniences of a house are hard to get used to, and if your spouse ain't happy, ain't nobody happy, especially in a  relatively small space.

Fortunately we aren't, most of us sensible people so we will make emotional choices and perhaps a boat is in your future- a houseboat! Good luck.

Garrison Bight Marina

Marina Village Stock Island

Harbor yacht Club Stock island

Sombrero Marina Marathon

Marathon City Marina

How To Be Sensible



Real Key West On Houseboats


6 comments:

Ric Kaysen said...

Why would you think your advice will be ignored? This blog entry was very educational and appreciated. I admit the lure of a cheap place to call home attracted me and not having any rose colored glasses, I had thought of a few of the downsides you mentioned, but some other aspects you wrote of were eye openers. Thanks again for a great read.

Conchscooter said...

If it's helpful I'm glad. But most often people want you to confirm not contradict when advice is given, in my experience. Glad I answered your question though! If you need a follow up let me know, but in general I advise would be migrants to burn no bridges at home, plan to rent here for a while ( trailers are good value and a test if your neighborliness) and abandon all ambition. Cheers

Ric Kaysen said...

I attempted a move to Florida a couple years ago when I became enamored of the Fort Lauderdale area do to a wealthy friend loaning his sky mansion to me several times. Of course, I couldn't afford to live like that and settled on a town nearby. It was a disaster for me. The crime, the drugs...I got out after a few months and high tailed it back to NYC (ironic, I know). On the other hand, every time I want to have a little vacation, I come back to Key West. I keep saying I need to tour Europe...after one more Key West trip.

mq01 said...

thanks conchscooter! i found it enlightening too! :) great post!

Anonymous said...

The two happiest days in the life of a boat owner: The day the boat is purchased and the day the boat is sold! In between can be just about anything.
After all a boat is an outline on the water into which you pour money.

Dirk Disco said...

BOAT = Break Out Another Thousand. Great post.