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Friends in foul waters

Camaraderie forms among those who anchor at a marina in Wilmington. To them, home is 'where the sewer meets the sea.'

May 06, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

For the self-proclaimed "escapees from society" who live there, Leeward Bay Marina is a perfect hideaway: a nest of mostly old boats bobbing over a toxic hot spot in the nation's busiest harbor complex.

Hidden by a hectic maze of trains and cranes, big rigs and refineries, the marina offers solitude, as well as shelter, to dozens of "live-aboards" who make their homes above the fouled waters at the mouth of a flood control channel.

"Ah, Leeward Bay," locals like to say with a laugh. "Where the sewer meets the sea."

That joke pretty much sums up the dual nature of the Wilmington facility. It can be ugly but oddly beautiful, dogged by despair but buoyed by hope. The marina's residents share a camaraderie. "Everybody knows everybody else's business," said resident Marc Greenwald. But sometimes they just want to be left alone.

Awash in bad debt, lost jobs and lost weekends, the residents -- retirees, disabled veterans, shut-ins, runaways, ex-cons, day workers and a few sex offenders -- have come to view Leeward Bay and its listing watering hole, the Chowder Barge, as their isle of dreams.

"Look around," said 11-year marina resident Vernon Lovelace, who owns a scuffed-up little workboat named Indigent. "The only things holding up some of these boats are good luck and paint. But you can live pretty good here on $800 a month. It's not a great life, but it's comfortable. A lot of these people have no place else to go."

At certain times of day, when looking in certain directions, Leeward Bay offers glimpses of a glassy dawn or radiant sunset streaming between swaying masts. There are endless days of mellow rocking, nights aglow with industrial lights and down-home gatherings at the Chowder Barge, where regulars carry on about funny boater mishaps and old times. Or the occasional tragedy. They talk about the man who fell into the water last year and drowned a few yards from his boat.

Not all the tenants are down on their luck. Some sail magnificent vessels, which they dock at Leeward Bay because of its relatively low monthly slip rates of about $10 per foot, well below the $15 charged elsewhere in the harbor. The marina is composed of boat slips jutting from shore, along with others attached to a nearby floating dock anchored in the Dominguez Channel. The facility has been in Robert Perel's family for 50 years.

"I get the craziest of the crazies," said Perel. "And I have a soft spot in my heart for them. I feel as comfortable here as I do at home on the Westside of Los Angeles."

A mantra often heard at Leeward Bay goes something like this: One of these days, I'm going to fix my boat, untie and sail into the sunset.

In the meantime, the engine in Dedee Newman's 42-foot boat can start, but it's got a bad oil pan. Glenn Truitt's 27-footer -- a sleek fiberglass craft built for speed -- can sail, but the engine doesn't work. Sonja Massingill's 36-foot cruiser needs an engine and a prop. Even a popular resident Mallard duck has a cracked beak.

Standing on the top deck of her boat, Toujours Mon Amour, and shouting to be heard over the horns of a freight train hauling scrap metal, Massingill spread her arms and welcomed a visitor to "paradise."

"There's nothing like sitting out here at night with a few drinks and enjoying the lights on the refineries and drawbridges," she said. "It's like a damn fairyland."

The marina exists in isolation at the southern end of the narrow Dominguez Channel, at the intersection where the flood control channel's tainted outfall mixes with salt water. It's about four miles from the breakwater, and on a good day with smooth conditions, it takes an hour to sail from Leeward Bay to the open ocean, given the port-wide speed limit of 5 knots (a bit less than 6 mph).

Living full time on the water is legal, to a degree. In June 2001, the Port of Los Angeles renewed the 11 marina leases it controls in Wilmington, limiting the number of live-aboards to 5% of each marina's berthing capacity and to no more than four residents per boat. Port officials say they might allow an informal limit of 10%, provided that marina owners upgrade their facilities to accommodate that many residents.

Those rules, however, do not apply to Leeward Bay Marina, which has operated for five decades under terms of a rare month-to-month master lease that does not include a limit for live-aboards, according to the marina's bookkeeper. That might explain why about 30% of Leeward Bay's 180 slips are leased by live-aboards. That's about 75 residents.

Although many boats have peeling paint and rusty prows, Perel has invested heavily in secure pilings, new docks and well-maintained restroom and shower facilities. But the channel is one of the most polluted spots in the harbor area, with high levels of carcinogenic DDT and PCBs, which accumulate in the tissue of bottom-feeding fish.

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