It’s like being in the womb again, living on a boat. The walls protect you in an intimate, rounded space; and you’re gentled by the soft sound of water on the sides. The belly of a boat has its own smell, sort of musty; and it lights itself with a kind of glow. Almost never is there lack of peace for the boats in San Diego; rarely are they thrown around by an hysterical sea.
But berth is not always such an easy thing. Most of San Diego’s private yacht clubs and public marinas have a few boats tied to their rented docks that are permanent homes for the people aboard them. The clubs and marinas allow only as many people to live aboard as can be comfortably handled by the toilet and bath facilities. They provide water, electricity, and a lock to the front gate. But usually each club or marina has only about one opening a year for live-aboards.
These people are carefully screened by the management, who want to make sure they are “the right kind of folks,” for live-aboards are a kind of quiet constabulary of the waterfront. There seldom seems to be hanky-panky on the docks at night. As one man related, “I could hear his footsteps coming all the way down the dock, so that by the time he was close to my boat, I was already up there waiting to see who he was. He was just looking around.”
Real honest-to-God waterfront people are a class by themselves, and each true boatperson will find his place in the water if his soul belongs there. And like landlubbers, waterbabies divide themselves into neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has its own identity, its own ideals, rules, regulations, tastes and standards. One man, who has been living on a boat in a well-kept yacht club for about thirty years, no more wants garbage in his back yard than does any landdweller. “You see, everyone is free to use the water. They have a right to it. But this is my home, and I like to see it nice. I want to be able to dive off the back of my boat and not poison myself.”
There are only three rules all dwelling boats must follow. They must have anchor lights, they must be registered with the Dept, of Motor Vehicles, and they must do something about their sewage. And here as elsewhere, sewage assumes the spotlight. It probably constitutes the pith of harbor controversy. Military and commercial vessels are exempt from the regulation, as are weekend pleasure craft. The current conflict is between the Federal Maritime Commission, which requires a kind of chemical sewage treatment apparatus called a Chlorinator- Mascerator, and the California Water Quality Control Board, which believes that this device might introduce unseemly chemicals into the water. Instead, the Control Board proposes mandatory holding tanks for sewage, which could be pumped out at the several police and fuel docks throughout the bay. The problem with this is the inconvenience of having to pull anchor so often just to go pump out the sewage.
All other regulations are those of the various boat communities, which have both admissions and maintenance standards. If you don’t like fees and rules. Commercial Basin is the place for you. You can anchor free, and anything goes. Including, from what I have heard, a lot of unwatched belongings. But there, nobody is going to tell you how to live or how to keep your boat. As long as you can get out to it, you’re ok.
Actually, no private clubs and marinas force you to keep your boat in shape. But Silvergate, for example, gives a yearly bronze award for the best maintained boat, and apparently the competition for the award is hot and heavy.
Boats that people call home are just as various as land-houses. A Spartan-at-heart can live on his 30-foot sailboat and be guaranteed two things—coziness and convenience. Anything at all, whether he wants it or not, is right at his fingertips. One man I know is building a computer on a boat no larger than my clothes closet. As long as he remains pretty much in one position—perfectly prone—he can function perfectly. He doesn’t have to move at all from the bedroom to the kitchen; in fact, he can’t.
But life on a boat is by no means all hardship. Far from it. I asked one lady what her boyfriend’s boat was like. She said, “In my language, 3 bedroom, 2 bath. In boat language, oh, I don’t know—50 feet, LeFevre—that’s a brand, like Ford. It’s real comfortable, if you don’t mind being locked up.” Needless to say, this particular lady was able to think of better things than being in an impermeable paradise with her true love. But other couples think differently. “Oh, the wife and I have it fixed up real nice. We have shag carpets throughout and color television—the works. Oh, I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”
Homeowners whose homes are boats ran the gamut of income brackets. We won’t discuss the price of buying and maintaining a 100-foot boat. If you have that much money, you probably know how to manage it. But middle and low income people might find boatliving a relatively economical proposition. Ten thousand dollars is a credible minimum for a seaworthy boat with civilized amenities. Of course, if you don’t care about a motor or sail or any sort of differentiated interior, you can construct a lovely interior on a mere hulk. There is no law saying an anchored boat must be seaworthy. The only rule pertaining to a derelict boat, so long as it is still afloat, is that it not obstruct navigation channels.
If you really care about keeping your boat up (and it is not a bad idea, considering the consequences), you have to figure on sizable maintenance costs for keeping the bottom tight. If you are planning on kissing off the cost of keeping up the bottom, you should have some funds on hand for dredging or diving purposes, to pay for recovery of your boat and your personal belongings, respectively.
The county tax assessors assess boats as personal property, unless they are a taxpayer’s principal place of residence. In this case, the boat-owner can file for a homeowner’s exemption. And what is especially nice about this, if taxes are unbearable, is that you can always move to Mexico or Australia without even going out the front door of your home.
It is also possible to rent a boat to live on, at least in Commercial Basin. That is a community quite unlike any boat community I have ever seen. In Sausalito, Amsterdam, and London, the houseboats generally hitch up by the sides of canals, rivers, or docks. Not in Commercial Basin, where you can anchor, but not dock, for free. Off the H&M Fishing Pier on Scott Street are the lines of docked boats, most of them commercial fishing boats or sportfishing boats. They look like their names — Champ, Cubasco, Vagabond, Fugitive, Charger, Genie, Bumfuzzel – a real collection of waterfront characters. Beyond the docks, framed by the city skyline, is a group of boats cuddled like loveducks, with rowboats for ducklings. They are either nameless or too far out for their names to show. A couple look like little houses perched atop boat hulls. One frail and delicate craft is like a red and wooden Chinese ancestor. Some look like tug or ferry boats. One is a floating barn, another the traveling home of Vancouver natural-lifers.
I talked to one buoy-shaped man with a long fuzzy beard, who looked like a classic Scandinavian boatman, and turned out to be just that. He and his wife and their Keeshound have been living for several years on a big boat that looks very much like one he would be likely to live on in Copenhagen. They, as well as the others who anchor free in Commercial Basin, keep their skiff or rowboat hooked up beside their boat when they are at home, and tied to a hitching post on a small beach by the piers when they go ashore to shop, get water, or do whatever they do ashore. Standing on the beach, you can see people in little rowboats wandering among the big boats, either on their way home or to visit one another. The boat households, children, dogs, cats, old people, young people, like to get together here like everyone else. “It’s a nice life. Fishing is good, the air is clean, and there is always a chance 'to head south for the winter.”