Homes afloat fill Maryland waters

Maryland Marinas: Cheap rent, a romantic setting and a sense of escape are some of the reasons people choose to live on their boats year-round.

July 08, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

They've gathered under the fading Annapolis sky to drain some Bud Lights and unwind. The green dome of the Naval Academy Chapel glows in the distance, and on the radio, Paul Simon is singing "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes."

There's just one problem on this eve of summer's solstice. The friends, mostly in their 20s, are hungry. The pizza deliveryman was supposed to have arrived 30 minutes ago. He's obviously lost. Again.

But then, you can't exactly paint an address on the side of a sailboat.

Onboard living year-round means putting up with inconveniences. Winter can be rough, and packrats don't stand a chance. Yet those drawn by the watery lifestyle - and fairly cheap digs - say it's well worth it, not least because of the close and sometimes unexpected friendships that develop.

"It's like our own little neighborhood," said Chris White, 29, between bites of the pizza that had finally arrived. He has lived on his 30-foot sailboat at Annapolis City Marina in Eastport for four years and says he never tires of it.

From Middle River to the Inner Harbor and Eastern Shore, the number of retirees and young professionals living aboard boats has risen so much in recent years that finding a place to tie up can be difficult. Only about half of Maryland's 600 marinas accept full-timers.

For those able to claim a spot, marina living confers membership in a close-knit, often strangely connected little world.

At Annapolis City Marina, host to 16 boat-homes, White, an employee benefits adviser, is part of a varied group that includes Jonas Hawk, a St. John's College graduate given to pondering man's relationship with nature, and Gabrielle Clark, a chipper 25-year-old whose job at a loan office recently ended.

There's also Jamie Dipper, a 43-year-old naval architect who dubbed his 29-foot powerboat Constellation to play off his name. "It's not the age you have in common," he observed, "it's the boat."

A close community

Many rituals have taken hold on Pier A.

The friends convoy to Fells Point every Halloween dressed as pirates. They cook for each other once a week in winter to ward off the blahs and escape the chill. They kick back at McGarvey's Saloon in downtown Annapolis every Thursday, for the company and its Cheap Beer Night.

"Everybody knows everybody," Dipper said that night on the boat, unsuspecting of a reality sandbar soon to jar their status quo. .

"You can't hide," said Clark.

If an unfamiliar person steps off someone's boat one morning, the reaction is automatic, White said: "So who was that on your boat last night?"

The marina has brought at least one couple together. It's how Carolyn Weisz, a Navy lieutenant commander, met yacht broker Rick Yent. The two recently shrank their fleet: He sold his boat and moved aboard hers.

Land life

Not that these marina dwellers are tied to dock or boat. Most go to work in the morning, commuting to landlocked places such as Bethesda or Columbia.

They also have land friends, and some have girlfriends or boyfriends elsewhere in Annapolis.

Most evenings and weekends, though, they can be found hanging out at the marina unless they're out on the bay hoping to catch good air.

"I see my neighbors more than in any place I've lived," said Hawk, 27, who teaches English at the private Rockbridge Academy in Crofton.

"There is a lot more interaction, much better sense of community. We definitely have a shared sense of history.

"It's like the front porches in my grandmother's time."

Docking the neighborhood

They put into port at different times, for different reasons.

White arrived first, in September 1996, after six months cruising the Bahamas with his brother. He wanted to be in Annapolis but couldn't imagine getting off the boat he shares with Chesni, a hyper Yorkshire terrier.

Clark showed up nearly two years later, needing a place to dock the 33-foot sailboat she had bought despite her father's doubts. A lifelong sailor, she won't say how much she paid, but her monthly expenses are about $800.

"Living here," Clark said, gazing at the forest of masts bobbing around her, "is like a vacation."

She hasn't worked since April, when her mortgage loan office shut its doors. Since then, she has lived on savings and spent her days exercising, reading, sailing and expanding her vast collection of chip-and-dip platters. Below deck she has a kitchen, a television and head room to spare.

This is Dipper's second live-aboard stint. He was drawn both times by the sense of escape he feels being so near open water. His main problem is finding storage for his possessions.

Hawk at first dismissed as impractical living on a boat after he got his master's degree. But he changed his mind.

"The first reason is, it's adventurous, romantic, you might say," he said. "The second reason is, it's darn cheap downtown rent."

His slip costs $2,700 a year, which is $225 a month. Electricity, phone and cable TV are extra, but the marina provides water, showers (for those who don't have one on board), laundry room and parking space.

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