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Stalwarts Opt Not to Jump Ship in the Winter

The Nation | DISPATCH FROM SOUTH PORTLAND, MAINE

A few hardy boaters weather New England's deep chill on the water, relying on a layer of shrink-wrap to keep the elements at bay.

April 16, 2006|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — On an especially fierce day not long ago, Janet Acker heard the wind ruffle the shrink-wrap cover of her quaint wooden home. The structure pitched sharply from side to side. In the 8-by-11-foot living room, Acker asked her husband, "Can you think of any place on Earth you'd rather be?"

Their home -- a 42-foot sailboat -- lurched again. Barry Acker bent down to avoid smashing his head on a low passageway and told Janet there was no place in the world he would like to be other than right there -- in the water, in the winter, in Maine.

The Ackers and 11 other boat owners form a year-round colony known as "the live-aboards." This aquatic lifestyle is fine in Waikiki -- or Washington state, where the Ackers lived until last year. But winter in Maine is a treacherous proposition on land, and all the more so at sea.

Though the arrival of spring means the harbor is no longer so frigid, the live-aboards anchor in a marina whose services include an icebreaker that could do double duty in Antarctica. East Coast boat owners routinely shrink-wrap their vessels in dry dock, but for live-aboards such as the Ackers, the plastic sheeting acts as insulation. It also means they gaze at the world through a cloudy filter, like a soap-filmed shower curtain.

The year-rounders have electricity, plumbing and heaters. Some have primitive galleys, just a hot plate and cooler.

Aboard the Windrifter, Janet Acker has whipped up dinner parties for 11 on the propane stove. She bakes pies and cookies in the microwave -- which provides storage space for cereal boxes when not in use. When they cook together, the Ackers move like samba dancers, gracefully maneuvering in a space that barely accommodates two sets of hips.

On the 32-foot Encore, Nate Jones and Heather Michaud insist they never feel cramped in a 9-by-20-foot living space. They share a trapezoidal bed known as a V-berth, with their water tanks stored underneath. The couple, fresh out of college, say the cozy sleeping area is especially romantic during harsh storms.

Jones and Michaud also enjoy the sound of icicles hitting the shrink-wrap. "Like missiles," said Jones, who patches the holes with duct tape.

All the live-aboards are accustomed to a standard set of questions from dry-landers:

"Are you nuts?"

"Is this about money?"

"Where do you go to the bathroom?"

All swear they are not clinically insane. Even when the thermometer lingers below freezing -- which in Maine is most of the winter -- they say they simply love being at one with the ocean. They love the nonstop motion, and they love the close connection to the elements. After all, they point out, it's only cold for half the year.

"I love weather," said Anne French, who has lived with her boyfriend on the 27-foot Ice Princess for two years. "I really love it when the boat is just covered in snow."

The full-time marine life definitely costs less than a conventional living arrangement on shore. The live-aboards own their boats, although some have steep mortgages. Mooring fees vary by a boat's length: The Ackers, for example, pay $5,600 a year for their spot at South Port Marine.

They also pay insurance, as well as monthly electricity charges. They pay Internet and cable TV costs. But they have no property taxes.

As for the bathroom issue, the boats have toilets and showers.

The live-aboards share a hose that stays submerged in the harbor until someone declares a "water day," and they all get together to pull it up and fill their tanks. One young couple cuts their water supply with vodka to keep it from freezing.

When the Ackers installed a new heating system last year, one vent produced an unexpected result: heated toilet seats. Janet said the experience was close to nirvana on a year-round boat.

The Ackers bought their boat with plans for long-term cruising. Barry was a school superintendent and Janet worked in software. To be closer to their families on the East Coast, they bought land for a retirement house on an island in Maine. Then Barry was offered his dream job: running a boat-building school in Kennebunkport. Instead of renting or buying a house, they decided to live on their boat.

They have no children, and the rare kind of marriage that apparently does not require the frequent release of steam by one party or the other. Neither is claustrophobic, another essential in such a cramped space. Even before they shrink-wrapped, they were unfazed by the prospect of Northeastern winters.

"So it snows," said Barry, 58. "So you shovel the boat."

The Ackers shared shrink-wrapping duties with Jones and Michaud. The younger couple bought a 175-foot roll of thick plastic, and the Ackers purchased a sealing gun that Janet described as a cross between a blowtorch and a hair dryer.

Stretching the plastic over simple wood frames, they fashioned front doors that swing open and closed. Their decks became mudrooms where they could peel off snow-covered parkas and boots as they headed to their living space down below.

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