Home floats

For the newly single, living aboard a boat offers a refuge in rocky times

April 23, 2006|By JOHN WOESTENDIEK | JOHN WOESTENDIEK,SUN REPORTER

Not long after he split up with his wife of 23 years and moved into his new home, Brian Stafford woke up one windy night feeling slightly nauseated.

"I was kinda queasy," said Stafford, a 49-year-old appliance repairman, "and it was like, damn, I think I'm getting seasick in my own house."

While he admits to being sad, lonely and an emotional wreck at the time, there was a physical cause behind his wooziness: For Stafford, and a growing number of singles -- especially the newly single -- home floats.

Stafford was navigating financial and emotional straits when he arrived at Nick's Fish House and Marina a year ago and moved onto the Voodoo Lounge, a twin-engine cruiser that he bought for $21,500 by cashing in an IRA.

In so doing, he joined the diverse and burgeoning ranks of liveaboards -- eccentrics and vagabonds, partiers and recluses, the not-so-rich, newly rich and the always-been-wealthy, sea-tested old salts and nautically challenged landlubbers, young and old, who, for better or worse, call their boats home.

"It's a common pattern -- men get separated and they say, 'I'll go live on a boat,'" said Tony Scrivener, a broker for Cherry Yachts in Edgewater and a liveaboard himself since his divorce eight years ago. "It's a totally different lifestyle, and it's the best deal in town. For $1,000 a month you can cover both your boat payment and your slip fee, and you get to live on a nice boat."

Scrivener said the liveaboard population is expanding dramatically -- so much so that some marinas have taken to limiting the number they allow, charging additional liveaboard fees, or banning them entirely.

"The perception of liveaboards used to be a bunch of characters who preferred substance abuse over personal hygiene. But now, go someplace like the Gangplank (a Washington marina that Scrivener once managed) and all you see is suits and high heels going up and down the dock."

Scrivener is not above using a boat's sex appeal to make a sale. "My pitch to men who are separated is, which sounds better: 'I live in a condominium in Glen Burnie' or 'I live on a boat?'"

At Nick's, a fourth of the 20 or so liveaboards are recently divorced or separated.

Bill Zimmerman, 46, has lived on a 40-foot houseboat -- more "house" than "boat" right now, as its engine isn't running -- since he and his wife separated four years ago.

Still paying for the house in Jessup that his wife and two children live in, he couldn't afford much. He hated apartments and feared any house he bought might end up with his wife in the still-pending divorce settlement.

He knew she wouldn't want any part of a boat. Zimmerman's beach-based charter fishing boat, and the amount of time he spent on it, were a major source of arguments in his marriage. Living on a boat not only struck him as poetic justice, but seemed the safest, cheapest and most pleasant alternative.

"I've got waterfront property," he said. "I have a great view of the sunrises and sunsets. The sleeping -- that gentle rocking -- is incredibly relaxing sleep. And if I ever want a change of scenery, I can just go. The flexibility is fantastic."

Zimmerman paid $3,000 for the 1972 houseboat -- a cluttered but seaworthy fixer-upper -- and his only monthly expenses are his $240-a-month slip fee, insurance and his electric bill.

"Basically, it's a shoebox, but it's comfortable," said Zimmerman, who works for an environmental company. His sons, 11 and 15, visit regularly, and enjoy the bedroom they share behind the boat's stairway, even though the space is only about 3 feet high.

Living on a boat doesn't impinge on his dating life, he said.

"A lot of women find it romantic being on a boat. But I've learned to ask them early on, 'Do you like boats?' Motion sickness sometimes comes into play."

Zimmerman isn't in a serious relationship, but he thinks he has found his true love: "I just love being here. It's home for me. I guess you could say I'm married to the water."

Shedding chores

Both men and women who are untying the knot sometimes resort to living aboard boats -- no matter how nautically inclined they might be, said Doug Coupar, general manager for Authentic Yachts, Inc. in Annapolis.

"It's a lonely time, and they want to reduce their responsibilities and find a way to comfortably recover," Coupar said. "The smaller scale lifestyle that a boat offers is very appealing to those kind of people. ... All those years of caring for lawns and trimming trees and looking after the roof are over, and people who are free of those responsibilities, they just love it. The look on their faces when they climb aboard the boat is just pure joy."

After living in a house in Ellicott City for 12 years, Forrest Hoffmaster, a separated father of two, couldn't face living somewhere with other people "living above me, below me, beside me." The separation was a dismal enough time, and "it was more depressing to think about moving to an apartment."

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