A port in stormy times
By David Abel | Globe Staff | Feb. 16, 2010
Most of the boats are covered in shrink wrap, with specially built doors, some decorated with wreaths. Others have satellite TV, wireless Internet, even a full bar. Then there are vessels that barely stay afloat.
They are the homes of local boaters who have chosen to live on the water when others packed up for the season, a hardy lot willing to brave the cruelties of winter at moorings on Boston Harbor. Now, with jobs scarce and the recession taking its toll, more city residents have traded terra firma for bobbing real estate.
One is Keith Bentele, 31, who recently started a new teaching job but is struggling to pay school debt while helping his mother cover her mortgage.
"This is just a much cheaper way for me to live than having an apartment," said Bentele, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
The leaky 26-foot Sea Ray he rents lacks an oven, a shower, or closets for his clothes. A few weeks ago, he awoke to find the motorboat slowly sinking into the icy water in its slip. But it costs him just $200 a month to live at Constitution Marina in Charlestown.
"When the water hasn't frozen and the boat's not sinking, it's really not that bad," he said on a recent night as he kept warm below deck with a space heater. "Right now, it's the right price."
Marina managers from Charlestown to East Boston say they have seen the winter population increase significantly in the past decade.
At Constitution Marina, the city's largest port for boaters, more than 100 people live on 70 boats, about double from a decade ago. At the nearby Shipyard Quarters Marina off the Navy Yard, 17 floating homes are on the water, nearly twice as many as two years ago. Boston Harbor Shipyard & Marina in East Boston has 28 boats serving as winter homes for 35 people, up about one-third in the past five years.
"We've seen a huge interest," said Patrick Lyons, dock master at Shipyard Quarters Marina, who has been mulling trading his own apartment for a boat. "It's just a much cheaper alternative, and you get ocean views."
The ranks of the self-proclaimed live-aboards include everyone from wealthy business owners in well-appointed yachts to students living in cramped, drafty boats that no longer move.
No matter their station, they share the pros and cons of living on the water through winter: They endure the storms that shake their berths, the constant maintenance boats require, and ice-covered docks that have left more than a few with stories of plunging into the harbor.
But they insist there are perks aplenty.
"The people who live on boats share a sense of adventure and get to live on the water, where they love to be," said Linda Ridihalgh, editor of Living Aboard, who says subscriptions to her bimonthly magazine based in Texas have increased as more people leave land.
No one knows how many people live on the water nationwide, but Ridihalgh attributed their apparent rise to economics, technology, and the increasing ranks of retirees.
"Baby boomers have the money and freedom to do this, and more of them are choosing it as a lifestyle," she said. "If they have access to the Internet . . . they can work from anywhere."
Among those who know the trials of life on the water is John Lewis, 70, perhaps the dean of live-aboards on the harbor. The owner of a Newbury Street jewelry store has lived on a 35-foot sailboat at Waterboat Marina off Long Wharf for about 35 years, most of it with his wife, who recently died.
He relishes the quiet of the docks and the broad views, but at 6-foot-7, he had to cut a wall out of a compartment of his old wooden boat so he could lie down and stretch his legs. And a few weeks ago, as he was stepping off, a gust pushed the boat a few feet from the dock, a sudden move that caused him to misjudge the distance, slam his head on the dock, and fall in the water. It nearly killed him.
"You can't complain; it happens to everyone," said Lewis, whose boat lacks running hot water. "I do this because it's really a nice existence."
About a dozen people live beside Lewis on boats at Waterboat Marina. Another 15 boats have live-aboards at Marina Bay in Quincy and at least four people live at Lewis Wharf Marina, including a father and son on separate boats.
The price to dock for the six-month winter season ranges from $40 a foot at Boston Harbor Shipyard & Marina to $75 a foot at Marina Bay, excluding electricity, cable, and Internet access, which are available at many marinas. For the average 30-foot boat, it often costs no more than $300 a month for the season.
The price attracted Jarrett Grobleski, 26, a marine technician who bought his 30-foot sailboat last summer after tiring of living with roommates in Brighton. He paid $2,500 for the 39-year-old boat - half price because it came without an engine. He sailed it from Connecticut to Waterboat Marina, ripped out the head because of the stench, and has not moved the boat in months. The marina's bathroom has become his own.
"It's still worth it to live here," he said. "The boat costs less than the first and last month and security deposit to move into an apartment."
When Dave Nelson and his girlfriend learned they had to move to Boston when she was accepted to Harvard Medical School last year, they bought a 33-foot powerboat for $5,000.
Since then, they have made it feel like home, even though the boat constantly rocks and their collie Rusty has little room to roam.
"Without having a crazy bus ride into the city, this was the cheapest option," said Nelson, 34, who fixes boats for a living.
"But this is a good life. We could live this way forever."
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel