Marina life makes their boats float

Harbor: The dock at Middle Branch is a live-aboard haven for the working-class boat owner.

August 14, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

It wasn't the romance of life afloat that made Bill Davis choose Middle Branch Marina as his new home.

It wasn't the soothing sound of water lapping against hulls or the sweeping view of downtown's skyline. It wasn't the abundant wildlife, which gives this tranquil urban spot a country feel.

Davis just needed somewhere to dock a creaky houseboat. He'd bought it for $1,500 so that he could sleep onboard instead of on a brother's pool table in Catonsville. But, he says, he was snubbed by marinas in Dundalk - "Dundalk, for crying out loud."

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So the 44-year-old boat worker headed last month for Middle Branch in southern Baltimore. He had no clue that his 1969 Island Queen had landed at a workingman's haven on the tree-lined banks of Cherry Hill.

There is nothing chichi or yuppie about Middle Branch Marina, teeming with unsexy houseboats and past-their-prime powerboats. While a few snazzy models can be seen, all that's left of one sunken sailboat is a mast poking the surface.

But, for the 18 full-time residents - a meat cutter, a piano restorer and a union carpenter among them - it is paradise. Nowhere else, they say, can you gaze at the city while feeling so far from it. Nowhere else can you make it to work in minutes, yet be surrounded at home by birds and fish and a creature one resident swears was a beaver.

Nowhere can you get this for a few hundred dollars a month.

"You feel like a poor man-rich man," says Bill Harrington, a Food King supermarket butcher. "You have this breeze, the beautiful view. How many people can do that?"

Welcome aboard

Some Baltimore marinas, including Inner Harbor Marina, do not allow people to live on boats. Others discourage it. Reasons vary, says city planner Beth Strommen, but concerns include pollution and image.

Middle Branch welcomes live-aboards - as long as they pass a background check, pay $45 a month plus a $5 per boat-foot slip fee and obey rules such as no polluting "of any sort" and no laundry flapping in the breeze.

Marina owner Charles Cao says he has had good luck. "Here the people are very neat," he says. "They behave themselves very good."

They also act as informal security for the 280 boats docked there. Intrusions are rare by land or sea, Cao and residents say. For some, the biggest pain is noise from early morning outings at the nearby Baltimore Rowing Club.

True to its name, the marina sits on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, a largely unappreciated slice of the city's waterfront. From the piers, one can see tall grasses and the Carr-Lowery Glass Co. to the left. To the right are the graceful arcs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge, formerly called the Hanover Street Bridge.

Straight ahead in the distance are downtown's towers, framed over the horizon by Interstate 95, which is far enough away that cars and trucks inch along silently. The curving spans are like sculpture.

Between the boats and highway is water, its glassy flatness broken only by the occasional passing boat or skid-landing bird. Sometimes trash clumps on shore, but if you squint, it almost looks like white sand.

This is the view Bill Butz wakes up to every morning. A 52-year-old union carpenter at the Baltimore Convention Center, he sold his rowhouse on Fort Avenue and moved to Middle Branch a year ago on a 40-foot houseboat.

"This is about the best it gets," he says, shirtless on a hot summer day. He grew up in South Baltimore but grew tired of always seeing other people's houses and hearing noise out his window.

The marina's peacefulness has helped him fight his personal demons, he says. After the Vietnam War, he says, a drug addiction sucked him into what he calls a "sorry past." He says he has been sober 2 1/2 years.

"There's something soothing about the water that's tranquil," he says.

The view amazes him, too. At night, even the blinking stack at the trash-to-energy plant is beautiful, he says.

His 1972 River Queen has two main rooms - one with a bed, desk, dresser and television, the other with a coffee table, couch, propane fireplace and a second TV. He has a kitchen sink, refrigerator and microwave oven.

The boat has a bathroom, but Butz says it is for emergencies. Like many of his neighbors, he walks to a bathhouse on land that has toilets, showers and laundry.

Pier captains

Also like some of his neighbors' boats, his isn't fully operational. An engine part is broken, making Butz a pier captain for now. Even when he is cruising, he goes easy. "This ain't no speedboat," he says. "It's take-your-time speed."

But Butz, who paid $7,500 for the boat and has spent double that on upgrades, does not mind being tied to the dock. "It's home," he says.

The marina is home to an array of folks, all of whom say they are friendly if not close.

There is Harrington, a three-year resident who goes crabbing and fishing every chance he gets. Winter is no fun, he admits, but he has found an upside: "You and your companion can really get together. It's kind of cool, like Eskimos and their igloos."

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