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Drop anchor, you're home

With housing prices high, living on a boat is gaining popularity among ocean lovers.

July 22, 2007|Ann Brenoff | Times Staff Writer

There are few issues in a marina more likely to rock the boats than the topic of live-aboards -- people or families who live full time on board.

For some, it's the fulfillment of a fantasy lifestyle -- the freedom to pick up anchor on a whim, living unburdened by possessions beyond one's true needs. But the reality is that people choose to live on the water for a number of practical reasons as well.

In Southern California, where homeownership can be cost-prohibitive and rents aren't far behind, living on a boat can be a low-cost housing option or a retirement choice for those seeking adventure. And it's a more affordable answer for families seeking a vacation home on the water.

There are no census or other reliable statistics to indicate how many people live aboard boats. But the long waiting lists at marinas suggest that the demand for live-aboard slips is strong, whereas 10 years ago, some marinas had to offer a free month's rent for people willing to sign a year's lease.

But against the backdrop of today's increased demand, boaters and marinas throughout the country continue to engage in a lively back-and-forth about whether having some -- or any -- boats occupied full time is a good thing. The issues involve safety, environmental concerns, establishing fair usage fees and plain old snobbery.

"If you are a considerate boater, clean and take care of your boat and dock area," said Dave Geoffroy, executive director of the Southern California Marine Assn., "living aboard can be a pleasant experience for all involved."

Once a live-aboard for four years himself, Geoffroy said a few bad apples can spoil it for everyone. "There are people who hang their laundry out, let their boats fall into disrepair, you know, make it look like a tenement."

According to Linda Ridihalgh, editor of Living Aboard magazine, marinas sometimes undervalue their live-aboard clientele -- an opinion echoed by many boaters.

"Sometimes, marinas lose sight of the fact that full-time boaters can be an asset," she said. In a storm, the live-aboards tend to take to the water in their dinghies, recapturing boats that have broken loose. In less dramatic circumstances, their everyday presence helps thwart criminals and vandals.

"Living aboard used to have a certain image, of derelicts or hippies," she said, "but now it's more for boomers heading toward retirement, people looking for more out of life."

But those boomers and others contemplating the lifestyle may find themselves met with a "no vacancy" sign.

Some marinas prohibit live-aboards outright; others follow the industry standard and allow 10% of their slips to be rented to them; far rarer are the marinas that welcome live-aboards unabashedly. And in virtually every marina, there are sneak-aboards, people who stay on their boats without the marina's knowledge or permission.

In most Los Angeles-area marinas, the demand for live-aboard slips so greatly outpaces the number available that long waiting lists are common.

Mark Nicholas, author of "The Essentials of Living Aboard a Boat," said that although it may seem backward, live-aboard wannabes should line up an available slip before buying a boat. This may mean paying rent for an unused slip for several months while they shop for a boat.

The Ventura West Marina in Ventura is rare inasmuch as it allows almost half -- 250 -- of its 554 slips to be rented to live-aboards. All live-aboard slips are presently occupied and there is a 200-name waiting list of people who plopped down half a month's rent as a deposit, general manager Chuck Ormson said.

"We are a reasonable alternative to not being able to afford a $500,000 house," Ormson said. Monthly slip fees range from $210 for a 20-foot boat to $1,080 for an 80-footer. Live-aboards pay an additional $110 a month (for one person; $135 for two; $155 for three) in Phase II and $160 a month (for one person; $210 for two; $255 for three) in Phase I. Children under 10 are free; 10- to 16-year-olds are charged $20 a month.

The Ventura West Marina, in welcoming live-aboards, also provides reasonable accommodations that address some of the problems other marinas have with live-aboards. It rents out inside and outdoor storage lockers for $20 and $10 a month, respectively. There is a laundry on site plus a game room with a lending library, video rental and gym. All the boats are owner-occupied and live-aboard slips are staggered -- meaning all the live-boards aren't in one part of the marina.

The live-aboard population at this well-maintained 30-year-old marina includes a number of families. A few are military families with one parent deployed in the Middle East.

Linda and Brady Guillaume moved on board their 35-foot sailboat with their two sons 18 months ago. The boys, now 6 and 8, attend Pierpont Elementary School in Ventura. Brady commutes to Camarillo to his engineering job. Linda, with a master's degree in counseling and a teaching credential, is a stay-at-home mom for now.

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