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The Seaburbs : 'Live-Aboards' Say They've Found the Good Life, Free From the Confines and Hassles Onshore . . . but Serenity Has Its Price


When Barbara Kelley wed an Inglewood dentist in the boom years of the 1950s, the California dream for many young couples was a small stucco home, a Chevrolet, perhaps a lemon tree in the back yard.

Kelley and her husband opted for a different dream: the Gypsy Clipper, a 52-foot wooden-hulled schooner with a mahogany interior and brass portholes. In time, they even cultivated a small garden--a few herbs, a lemon tree--on the dock alongside their floating home.

But Vernon Kelley died more than a decade ago. The tree is long gone. And at age 73, Barbara Kelley remains aboard the Gypsy Clipper in the same marina in Wilmington she has occupied for four decades, a potful of chives still marking the threshold. She harbors no thoughts whatsoever of moving ashore to some landlubbers' notion of a retirement cottage.

"A house, no matter how large it is, is a box to me," she said. "And I don't like being boxed in."

This stubborn insistence on staying afloat is what makes Kelley a "live-aboard," that resilient breed of Southern Californian that eschews dry land, bathtubs and closet space in favor of the freedom of life afloat.

Hundreds of boats- cum- homes dot the South Bay's coastal pockets and harbors, from the working-class docks of Wilmington to the upscale marinas of Redondo Beach. These are the dwellings of retirees, professional couples, singles, even families with young children, bound by the conviction that a boat equals freedom.

Now, with defense and aerospace layoffs battering the local economy, some marinas report an upswing in inquiries from landlubbers curious if they could save money by moving aboard boats. Marina operators warn that on the contrary, living afloat can prove more expensive than staying ashore.

Still, for residents of a region beset by car-choked roadways, tainted air and fears of crime and pink slips, life aboard a boat can seem to be the 1990s equivalent of Walden Pond: a simpler lifestyle, free of clutter, a regimen that tests your stamina and rewards individuality.

After all, a boat is an island, set apart from the continent--if only by a few feet.

"At any given moment, we could drop the dock lines and go, if we really wanted to," said retired aerospace engineer Al Erd, 70, who lives with his wife on a 43-foot sailboat in Redondo Beach.

"It's that escape route that's there in the back of your mind. Always. Even if you never do leave," said Tom Sullivan, 36, who shares a Redondo Beach houseboat with his golden retriever, Ashley.

The majority of live-aboards admit to keeping their dock lines secured most days, especially as they grow older, venturing out only occasionally to Santa Catalina Island or the Baja California coast. They usually stay wedged in boat slips in one of a multitude of South Bay marinas, coexisting among the recreational boaters.

The boat dwellers often form a kind of floating neighborhood, much like homeowners who share a suburban cul-de-sac.

But on weekend mornings, they wake, not to the whine of lawn mowers and leaf blowers, but to the cry of gulls and the occasional chugging of an outboard engine.

They are lulled to sleep at night, not by sirens and whirring freeways, but by the slapping of halyards against metal masts and the soft creaking of boat lines.


That is the romantic's view, of course. Veterans are quick to caution that amid all that fresh air and those gull lullabies, boats saddle their owners with endless chores.

"Boats are love affairs--and boats are 90% maintenance. You either do it yourself or you pay someone to do it," said John L. Quick Jr., 70, who has lived on boats in Wilmington for 39 years and has watched short-timers come and go. "People don't realize that 90% maintenance."

One long-timer who knows that well is Barbara Kelley, who spent a recent morning perched precariously above the water on a single wire next to the fir bowsprit, an extension of the bow.

She labored over the bowsprit, sanding the varnish by hand. The next day, she sat on the wire again, applying new varnish to prevent the wood from cracking.

Over 40 years, she has grown intimately familiar with every bolt, bearing and joint of her floating home. When a visitor admired the gold-painted bronze letters spelling out "Gypsy Clipper" across the stern, she responded briskly: "Oh, yes. They're tough to get off. Small screws."

Since her husband's death, she has done virtually all upkeep except for the once-a-year "haul out," when the boat is lifted out of the water so its bottom can be repainted.

Even though the abundant woodwork consumes can after can of varnish, Kelley has no plans to trade in the 1937 Marconi-rigged schooner for more modern fiberglass. ("Oh, gawd, I wouldn't even think of it.") She remembers spending one night on a fiberglass boat, when the unfamiliar "boom" of water slapping the sonorous hull kept her awake. "I didn't sleep a wink. It was never that way on my boat."

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