WHAT IS A LIVE-ABOARD?
The question really should be "Who is a live-aboard?" I will answer that question by examining the history of live-aboards on the Bay. But first, a profile of four of my informants.
R.C. is a live-aboard. He learned to sail long before he ever thought about moving aboard. Although he was afraid that living aboard would diminish his love of sailing, he suddenly found himself looking for reasons to stay aboard. Clothes accumulated. The boat soon felt more like "home" than his apartment. Before long, he had made the transition. He was a live-aboard. His girlfriend (now wife) moved aboard a year later, which accentuated the compromises in space and comfort. "The boat became small when she moved aboard." By necessity, organization became very important. After baby Jessica was born, her parents were forced to make more compromises and adaptations. They have had to increase their degree of tolerance and patience with one another so that three can survive on board. Their "home" has an estimated 160 square feet of living space. They want to sail to Mexico or the Caribbean someday.
T.P. learned to sail in 1971. In 1985, he and his wife decide that working twelve-hour days and weekends was "bull shit". They were tired of the rat race and the "need" for bigger and better homes and cars. Making $100,000 plus per year in Silicon Valley was no longer satisfying. Both decided that their mutual happiness was more important. After discussing the alternatives, and realizing that nothing they chose to do would be irreversible, they decided to sell their home and buy a boat. T.P. ran financial models on a computer to determine how much they were willing to pay for a boat, and opted for a smaller boat with less space rather than a bigger boat and bigger bills. Because they live in an estimated 175 square feet of living space, extra "tolerance" and "neatness" is required. M.P. loves to cook, and is known in the community as "the spice lady". She has allocated valuable space in her galley for culinary equipment. They hope to go cruising in two or three years, but meanwhile they are trying to reduce living expenses and add to their "cruising kitty".
M.V. and her husband have lived aboard their 27-foot sailboat for over ten years. They initially moved aboard in preparation for a "cruising" lifestyle and recently completed a seven-year circumnavigation. Their "home" has an estimated 104 square feet of living space within which they cook, do dishes, eat, sleep, read, go to the bathroom, watch TV, entertain, wash themselves, and store all their personal possessions. Since they "don't buy much and most of that goes in [their] mouths", they have no storage locker on shore. She told me, "We enjoy living in different places and the boat allows us to take our home with us." They would like to go cruising again. Meanwhile, both are working in order to finance a "cruising" lifestyle.
M. and K.S. have been married for almost ten years. They sold their house three years ago and purchased a 40-foot sailboat. When they moved aboard, they had a three-month-old son. They now have three daughters and another child on the way! Living aboard means mandatory physical closeness, and they enjoy the constant interaction between the members of the family, as well as the fresh air. "Living on a boat has allowed us more freedom. We are not spending every weekend [doing] yard work. We can spend much less time cleaning. We already have a time-constrained lifestyle with two incomes and four-plus children. Having the time on weekends to take day trips or whatever keeps us a close-knit family." They are currently saving towards financing two years of cruising. Their goal is to sail to the South Pacific - before the oldest boy is a teenager, and after the youngest is out of diapers.
AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE:
Houseboats and liveaboards have been a part of the Bay environment since the 1880's when a colony of "arks" existed in Belvedere. In 1906, many homes, businesses, and personal fortunes were lost in the great San Francisco earthquake, and many ark owners were forced to live aboard all year round. With the worsening economic conditions of the depression and two World Wars, the number of houseboats and liveaboards along the San Francisco and Richardson Bay waterfronts increased.
After the war, writers, painters, and craftspeople formed a houseboat community in Sausalito. They built houseboats that looked more like sculptures than residences. (BCDC 1983: 1) By the 1960's, houseboats were concentrated in a few areas. Today "only a handful of legal houseboat communities thrive in the San Francisco area - at the Barnhill Marina in the Alameda Estuary, the Berkeley Marina, The Point San Pablo Yacht Harbor in the Richmond area, Mill Valley, and a few other places." (Gabor 1979: 19) Liveaboards, however, continue to be scattered throughout the many public and private recreational marinas in the Bay Area, including Alameda, Sausalito, Redwood City, and Berkeley. Most are technically "illegal" communities since many marinas do not have the requisite BCDC permits which allow them to accord status to the live-aboards.
It is one such community of live-aboards, not houseboat owners, that is the subject of this study. These people have chosen to live aboard boats that are designed primarily for recreational (sailing, fishing) rather than residential use. And although both live-aboards and houseboat owners share a love for living on the water, their cultural values are different. In this study I will show how the cultural values and behaviors of live-aboards are shaped by the spatial limitations of their shelter.
Today, the live-aboard population no longer consists primarily of squatters and vagabonds. Neither are they unskilled and poorly educated drop-outs from society. Instead, a large proportion of the live-aboard population is found to hold traditional jobs in all walks of life and to have a wide range of incomes. These individuals hold essentially middle-class values, send their children to public schools, and have a high level of education.
This analysis concerns itself directly with only one segment of the live-aboard community in the Bay Area. My informants had all chosen to move aboard. Some had purchased or built a boat specifically with living aboard in mind. Others found themselves finding excuses to spend nights aboard a vessel they already owned rather than returning to their land-based homes or apartments. Others had moved aboard in an effort to cut expenses so that a "cruising kitty" (cash in the bank or investment property) could be built, the boat paid for, and the dream fulfilled. Financially, all my informants were in a position to choose life on land or life afloat. None lived on derelict vessels.
In addition, this study deals with one example of the social expression of voluntary simplicity. "Historically, voluntary simplicity has its roots in the legendary frugality and self-reliance of the Puritans; in Thoreau's naturalistic vision at Walden Pond; in Emerson's spiritual and practical plea for "plain living and high thinking"; in the teachings and social philosophy of spiritual leaders such as Jesus and Gandhi." (Elgin and Mitchell 1977: 201) Elgin cites energy and resource shortages as well as "a growing social malaise and purposelessness which causes us to drift in our social evolution" as two of the elements which converge to make voluntary simplicity "a seemingly rational response to the current world situation".
In their article entitled "Voluntary Simplicity, Life-style of the Future", authors Elgin and Mitchell (1977) stress (1) that voluntary simplicity should not be equated with a back-to-nature movement and (2) that it should not be equated with living in poverty. This is important because although one of the most frequently cited advantages of living aboard was a feeling of being in closer contact with nature, a boat has a highly technical infrastructure and it is usually very expensive to own and maintain. It just so happens that one of the side-benefits of living on the water is a heightened awareness of the winds, waves, and weather, as well as a sense of harmony with the varied wildlife.
Because a vessel used as a liveaboard is usually indistinguishable from any other recreational craft, getting exact numbers of the liveaboards in a particular marina, or in the Bay Area, is nearly impossible. This is complicated by the fact that many marinas say they "do not allow live-aboards", yet they obviously do. The BCDC Staff Report of July 1983 estimated the number of liveaboards in the Bay Area at 2,000 to 4,000 vessels. According to recently released figures prepared by the Department of Boating and Waterways, there are approximately 24,000 berths in the Bay Area. The marina where my informants live allows approximately 12% of the 900 available slips to be used by live-aboards. If one assumes that ten to fifteen percent of the berths in the Bay Area are used by live-aboards, the the BCDC figures are still accurate.
People have lived on the water all over the world for a number of reasons. In the Bay Area, many of the original live-aboard communities sprouted up along the waterfront after the depression and were comprised of artists, loners, and bums squatting on public and private shorelines. Communities of artists still exist, but there are few squatters. Even so, live-aboards all too often face negative stereotypes of weird and transient "boat people". These stereotypes persist despite the fact that most live-aboards are well-educated, hold (or have held) professional jobs, and pay "live-aboard fees" for the privilege of occupying their vessels.
Most live-aboards have taken up this alternative lifestyle of voluntary simplicity after active involvement in the mainstream and not because their family lived aboard or because their family lived a life of voluntary simplicity. Informants had their own reasons for moving aboard: some had moved aboard in an effort to escape the "rat race"; some wanted to get used to living in small quarters before going cruising; others wanted only to do "something different". All expressed a desire to live a "more meaningful, less artificial" life.
GO TO Chapter 4 - HOW SMALL IS SMALL?
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