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Unsinkable Spirit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Consider this for a Southern California sea dream come true: A nice girl from Philly, a landlubber by birth, harbors these vague adult visions of living near the blue-hued Pacific Ocean but can only laugh at the hefty coastline real estate costs.

So one day Katherine Campbell answers an advertisement in a local mariners newspaper and, as though discovering some long-submerged treasure, salvages a way to make it all happen:

She buys a boat.

Not just any boat, but a run-down hull of a boat, a just-barely-sitting-in-the-water box of bolts and beams moored in Marina del Rey, a humble old vessel that nonetheless costs her $1,500 and puts her not just near the water, but right smack on top of it.

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This boat is so bad, so literally unseaworthy, that it doesn’t even have an engine. It has a million wounds, gashes and leaks that make it groan in its slip like an old man of the sea.

But that doesn’t bother the 44-year-old Campbell. With no small amount of determination, hundreds of hours of sanding, painting and chiseling, emptying her entire savings, she refurbishes the derelict 1962, 36-foot Chriscraft into a motorless floating home, complete with weathered clapboard house shingles on the outside, for her 12-year-old son, Michael, and her.

That was 1993, when Campbell joined the ranks of untold hundreds of Southern Californians who forsake the space and comforts of life on land to live on their boats in marinas from San Diego to Ventura Harbor.

Known in seafaring circles as “live-aboards,” they prefer being lulled to sleep each night by the subtle shift of the evening tide rather than being jolted awake by any shuddering earthquake like their landlocked cousins.

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Said Campbell: “I never, ever, ever want to live on land again.”

But like other live-aboards across sprawling Marina del Rey, she may have no choice.

Campbell, a marine biology student who occasionally works as a saleswoman, is caught between a dock and a hard place over an 18-month-old county law that requires her to make her houseboat seaworthy or abandon ship.

Designed to remove the eyesores that more respectable yachtsmen call “junkers"--the rusted house trailers and homemade, flimsy rooms hammered onto the backs of rickety boats--the law affects 600 boats, or about 10% of the vessels, moored in Marina del Rey.

County officials say they modeled their ordinance on a similar seaworthiness law in Ventura County and have since received inquiries from other coastal counties.

Marina del Rey officials say the law ensures that the marina--the nation’s largest small-craft recreational harbor--is used for its original purpose. They note that a handful of “floating homes"--houseboats designed without motors--are exempt from the law and that such owners can remain indefinitely.

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The rest of the flotilla, officials say, better shape up or ship out.

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So far, sheriff’s deputies have meted out 70 citations, which can cost $500 for repeat violations, to get the point across to boat owners.

“If a boat was meant to be seaworthy, if it started out as a boat powered by sail or motor, it has to be returned to that, so it can navigate on water,” said Kenneth Foreman of the county Department of Beaches and Harbors. “We’re not taking ‘no’ for an answer here.”

But that is exactly what Campbell is saying. N-O.

Earlier this year, she appeared before the Harbor Department’s “seaworthy committee” to plead in vain her case that her boat should be considered a floating home and therefore exempt from the law. Deputies have cited her twice--most recently last week--but she is not giving up.

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Campbell said she is being harassed by “an old boys’ club here . . . because I’m giving them a fight over their silly law.”

Foreman denies her charges of elitism: “We have people on dinghies here. We’re not trying to make this a playground for the rich and famous . . . just preserve a recreational boating harbor.”

For Campbell, the bureaucratic battle is a low among the highs of a life on water.

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She came to the harbor after fleeing a Westside apartment and its almost weekly occurrences of graffiti and gang shootings. “I thought, ‘Where can I go that’s safe for a single mom and her son in Southern California?’ ” she said.

Her friends laughed at her. Her dad thought she was crazy. But Campbell believed.

She moved out of her apartment and spent the next three months on her project. She hollowed out the innards of the boat into a two-bedroom home, with Michael’s room in the bow and mom’s in the stern. In the middle is common room that serves as a galley, living room and office.

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But the overhaul did not come easy. Cashing in her $6,000 in savings to buy materials and pay for work she could not perform herself, she borrowed odds and ends from friends. (“Nathan, do you think I could have those old doors in your garage?”)

She became a regular customer at do-it-yourself centers such as Home Depot, Builders Emporium and Minnie’s, a used marine equipment store in Newport Beach, looking over the shoulders of her hired workers to see just how things were done. She made endless “to-do” lists and recorded her progress with before-and-after pictures that she proudly displays in a photo album.

“I think my little boat is cute,” she said. “I don’t think it’s ugly or anything.”

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She also made an audiotape set to music, describing the mental and emotional transformation this boating life has brought her. She savors the sense of community among her dockside neighbors, their low-toned conversations about the weather and how to deal with daily headaches such as leaks and bilge pump breakdowns.

She talks of now knowing the various grades of sandpaper and how to paint early in the day so the sun has a chance to thoroughly dry her work.

She likes foggy mornings and the smell of the sea in her hair and watching the schools of fish that visit regularly, swimming past majestic boats of Balboa blue, sunfish yellow and aquamarine.

In the end, Campbell says, she is at peace with her renegade harbor life. “Win or lose,” she says, “it’s all been an adventure.”


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