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Sneak-Aboards: A Furtive Life in Marina World

December 14, 1985|GARY JARLSON | Times Staff Writer

It didn't take Fred Smith long to figure out where he was going to live after he broke up with his girlfriend and moved out of the apartment they shared.

"I just moved onto my boat," Smith said. "I was already shelling money out for slip fees, and it was just sitting there. So why should I pay for that and an apartment, too?"

It was not a decision, however, that would launch Smith into the vagabond, adventuresome existence many people associate with life aboard a boat.

To begin with, his 26-foot sea-going domicile is anything but cozy or comfortable because "there's no place to store anything, you can't even stand up and it becomes a real pain in the winter when it rains and there are leaks everywhere," he said.

And then there is the shadowy world Smith has found himself immersed in, one where he must cloak his every move in secrecy and learn to be "real sneaky like a spy or something."

Hides Lights

He leaves "home" early in the morning, before anyone else is up and about, and he doesn't return until well after dark. He has papered over his boat's portholes so no light will show outside at night and, after taking a late-night shower in nearby restroom facilities, he dries his towel in his car, which he must park in a different place almost every night.

Smith, which is not his real name, is a "sneak-aboard," one of the dozens or maybe even hundreds of people--no one is certain just how many there are--who are not supposed to be living on their boats and who violate all sorts of rules and regulations to take up residence in Orange County's harbors and marinas.

Although a certain number of live-aboards are permitted, they occupy less than 10% of the more than 10,000 mooring and docking spaces available in the county, and they are only intended to enhance security and safety.

Long Waiting Lists

Thus, the waiting lists for those few spots are lengthy and move at less than a snail's pace.

"Well, if you get on the list now, you might live long enough to get in," the manager of one marina told a 43-year-old man inquiring about the availability of live-aboard facilities.

That there are any restrictions at all on live-aboards puzzles some boaters and angers others. What difference, they argue, does the amount of time they spend aboard matter since their boats are already in the water 24 hours a day?

"We're very familiar with that argument," said Gary Horn of the State Lands Commission, which has jurisdiction over tidelands on which harbors and marina operate. "But the use has changed from being navigable recreation to residential.

"The idea is that the tidelands are public and should, therefore, benefit the public as a whole," he said, adding that one of the biggest environmental drawbacks to live-aboards involves proper sewage disposal, "the gray water problem."

While the commission currently has no formal policy governing live-aboards and instead relies on a state attorney general's opinion that "residential use of tidelands is not a correct use," Horn said, the matter is under study by the agency's staff.

Establishing Policy

"The Bay Commission in San Francisco is in the process of establishing a policy and we're following that closely, seeing what direction they're going," he said.

As far as unauthorized residential uses by sneak-aboards go, Horn said, recent commission surveys have found that "there are some but not as many as we had thought. The percentage is relatively low."

Should it become a problem, the commission could eventually ban all live-aboards. "That's certainly within the realm of possibility, but it is probably not very practical," Horn said.

The responsibility for preventing sneak-aboards from becoming a major problem rests, in reality, directly on the shoulders of the individual marina operators.

While the State Lands Commission has jurisdiction over tideland areas, it relies on local governments to administer their day-to-day use. In return, the cities and counties collect revenues generated by recreational and commercial concession leases they grant to private businesses.

"There is oversight on the part of the county because these businesses are located on state tidelands," said David Rosso of the county Environmental Management Agency's open space and recreation office.

"We simply review, from time to time, the policies and regulations that they set for live-aboards," he said. "If we find there is a particular problem developing, we may ask them to make some changes in their operations."

Sneak-aboards are not "that big of a problem for a well-run marina," said Jack Bolander, who manages the west basin at Dana Point Harbor where 5% of his 992 slips are set aside for residential use at a 20% premium over the regular rental fee.

"Our people sign their agreement on the basis that they will abide by the rules," Bolander said. "If they don't, then they've broken their lease. We talk to them, explain that they've signed this agreement and ask them how they want to handle it."

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