IT DOESN’T GET MUCH BETTER than dinner at Terry and Michelle Willis’ home. Seasonal catches like rock cod, dorado and yellowtail are pulled from the chilly Pacific, grilled fresh and served up as the sun sets on San Diego Bay. Later, as the water turns gold to silver and finally inky black, they light a brass oil lamp that casts lazy, liquid shadows from windows that surround their dining room. Some lucky San Diegans can see the water from their home; the really lucky ones live next to it. The Willises live on it.
For seven years they have called the Coastal Passage II, a luxurious, 46-foot Hunter 460 sailboat, home. Terry is a certified captain and consultant who conducts sea trials, gives instruction and delivers boats to locations around the globe. Michelle works in the spa at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina. Their permanent address is a coveted, live-aboard boat slip in the Sheraton Marina, where they commute to jobs via a walk to the dock or a quick trip across the marina in a dinghy.
“We’re not in million-dollar real estate; we’re in billion- dollar real estate,” Terry says.
They bike and walk around the area, zip over to the yacht club for dinner and put a lot of their free time into keeping the Coastal Passage II sparkling and shipshape. But at any time, the Willises can pick up their lives and set their sights on any place they want: Catalina Island one weekend, La Playa Cove or Glorietta Bay the next. For them, home is truly anywhere the wind blows.
Many people think living aboard a boat is less costly than living in a traditional Southern California home, condo or apartment. That’s true to a degree. But it can depend on the size and type of boat, the live-aboard location, how well you take care of your boat and the amenities you want or are willing to do without. A standard slip fee is $15 to $25 per foot, and you can add $250 to $350 if you live aboard, Terry Willis says. Utilities run $25 to $45 per month. He jokes that BOAT is an acronym for “Bring On Another Thousand.”
The Willises pay a diver $1.25 per foot to clean the bottom of their boat at least once a month. Then there is washing and waxing, San Diego County personal property tax at 1 percent of the assessed value, insurance at a little less than 1 percent of the boat value. Boats also need to be inspected every year to make sure they are seaworthy and not polluting the harbors with fuel or waste.
IT’S SAID FOUR YEARS IN ONE HOME is forever in the Southern California real estate market. Most of us pack our belongings, sell the house and move on when the neighborhood gets too small, the noise of a freeway or barking dog becomes too loud, or the view of yet another red-tile roof becomes all too familiar. We move our stuff from one place to another, sometimes never opening boxes between trips. If the Willises need a change of scenery, it takes only an hour to stow a select few family pictures and treasured personal items—like an intricately carved whale tooth known as scrimshaw—and get under way.
The Willises are among a large community of San Diego –area residents who live and love life on water and have traded in their mowers and yard mulch for masts, marinas and mooring buoys. Many are single folks or retired couples, but others are families who have pets and even children who homeschool with the fish.
They live a comfortable life, but it’s one that most of us—with our overabundance of food, clothing, toys and bulging closets—might find too organized, too Spartan and too small. When you live on a boat, every item and every square inch matters.
Those who want amenities like bath houses, laundry rooms, electricity, cable, pump-out services, a close place to park their car and a quick trip to Trader Joe’s choose the pricier liveaboard marina option. Others, looking to save money or have more privacy, choose mooring or anchorages and row dinghies to shore for work, grocery shopping or errands.
Counting the exact number of San Diego live-aboards is a slippery proposition. State guidelines call for 10 percent of recreational marina slips to be used for live-aboards, and most marinas have a waiting list of people looking for a space. Many say the number of live-aboards is much higher than reported. Some “visit” their boat every night and live on their boats on the down-low until an official live-aboard slip becomes available. Several people decline to talk about or publicize their lifestyle for fear of drawing too much attention. Many were spooked by the wording of 2002 legislation—later amended—that could have prevented people from living on their boats.
The Port of San Diego did not provide updated figures on the number of live-aboards currently in the area, but a 2005 study on the Port’s Web site references a survey conducted in 2000 that put the live-aboard population for marinas in Chula Vista, Coronado, Shelter Island, America’s Cup Harbor, Harbor Island and Embarcadero at just over 1,000.
There are a few hundred liveaboard anchorage spaces, where boats are tethered to the sea floor by anchor. (A recent decision by the San Diego Port Commission will soon put an end to rent-free living at what’s known as the A-8 anchorage off National City, where some 80 boats are now anchored.)
There are several hundred mooring balls—buoys attached to the sea floor that boats can be secured to—for rent throughout San Diego Bay, but it is unclear how many live-aboards actually reside in boats like those bobbing off the side of the Coronado Bridge. A liveaboard permit or space is not easy to come by.
THERE ARE ALSO BOAT DWELLERS in the northern part of the county, where marinas such as Oceanside Harbor are home to some 90 live-aboard boats. Another 60 or so are on the waiting list for a slip, says Don Hadley, director of harbor and beaches for the city of Oceanside. To get a live-aboard slip, boaters must obtain a general slip, then move to the waiting list, which can take up to two years. “When I applied, the waiting list was two months long,” says Ray Moon, who has lived on various boats in the harbor for nearly 30 years, including about 12 years with his beloved, 120-pound chocolate Lab, who died on the boat a few years back. Ray’s current home is the Lunar Landing, a 38-foot Burnscraft houseboat he and his wife, Cindy, call a “dock potato.”
They take the boat out occasionally but for the most part are happy to just bob alongside B Dock, where Cindy is known for her great cooking and where other live-aboards, along with those who are visiting or working on their boats, congregate and share tales. They are people such as Manfred “Bob” Olson, a former Oceanside policeman who lives just down the dock on the Serenidad, a 47-foot Islander Freeport.
“Living aboard was my idea at first but later forced upon me through a divorce,” Olson says. “I also wanted a place where I could live in the middle of my hobby.” Nearly all those who live on their boats say they have little desire to go back to life on land—at least not any time soon. Like the Willises, many have the dream of retiring and traveling the world on wind and a whim.
The biggest initial hurdle is downsizing from life with a garage and several rooms of furniture. Many boat dwellers have storage spaces to keep stuff they just can’t part with, but some, like Ray Moon, say they tired of paying to store stuff they no longer use or need.
In most cases, marinas like to have liveaboards around, because they are the eyes and ears keeping watch for vandals, thieves and other mischief. Live-aboards look out for each other and are a mostly closeknit group that helps secure loose lines on unattended boats and stow flapping sails without being asked.
But there are hardships to living life on a boat 24/7, to be sure. Try trudging up the dock for a shower before 6 a.m. in the middle of January, when it’s raining sideways and 42 degrees, Ray says.
“It’s a challenge; you dry off at the shower, and then you walk back to the boat and dry off again,” he says. Cindy says that without fail, Ray— not a small man—steps back onto the boat just as she is putting on her eyeliner. The boat dips, the pencil skitters across her eyelid—and after four years, she still laughs.
Laundry day is usually a trip up the dock with a cart. Groceries come back to the boat the same way. If you live at a mooring or anchorage, you schedule trips to shore by the tides and by the number of times you want to exercise your arms bringing items aboard and rowing to shore.
Depending on the type, age and ventilation of a boat, live-aboards also have to be vigilant about moisture. Cindy has had more than a few pairs of leather shoes grow mold. And you can pretty much forget dockside newspaper delivery.
“But how can you beat this?” she asks. “You’re in a place where it’s the perfect climate, the best in the country. We have an ice maker, CD, DVD; we have everything we need—and all this beauty.”
She points out a heron nesting atop a nearby tree. The couple love to sit and watch the mullet jumping from the water and listen to the seals breathing beside the boat. “I’ve had their fish breath come right in the window at me,” she says.
Ray won’t complain too much, either. He used to get cold. Then he was introduced to the wonders of an electric blanket.
“There are maybe 10 days a year that are too hot, 10 days a year that are too cold, and everything else is just fine,” he says. “To be a live-aboard, you have to be willing to give up mowing the lawn. And you have to be willing to have Happy Hour at 4 o’clock. Those are sacrifices I’m willing to make.”