There are few issues in a marina more likely to rock the boats than the topic of live-aboards -- people or families who live full time on board.
For some, it's the fulfillment of a fantasy lifestyle -- the freedom to pick up anchor on a whim, living unburdened by possessions beyond one's true needs. But the reality is that people choose to live on the water for a number of practical reasons as well.
In Southern California, where homeownership can be cost-prohibitive and rents aren't far behind, living on a boat can be a low-cost housing option or a retirement choice for those seeking adventure. And it's a more affordable answer for families seeking a vacation home on the water.
There are no census or other reliable statistics to indicate how many people live aboard boats. But the long waiting lists at marinas suggest that the demand for live-aboard slips is strong, whereas 10 years ago, some marinas had to offer a free month's rent for people willing to sign a year's lease.
But against the backdrop of today's increased demand, boaters and marinas throughout the country continue to engage in a lively back-and-forth about whether having some -- or any -- boats occupied full time is a good thing. The issues involve safety, environmental concerns, establishing fair usage fees and plain old snobbery.
"If you are a considerate boater, clean and take care of your boat and dock area," said Dave Geoffroy, executive director of the Southern California Marine Assn., "living aboard can be a pleasant experience for all involved."
Once a live-aboard for four years himself, Geoffroy said a few bad apples can spoil it for everyone. "There are people who hang their laundry out, let their boats fall into disrepair, you know, make it look like a tenement."
According to Linda Ridihalgh, editor of Living Aboard magazine, marinas sometimes undervalue their live-aboard clientele -- an opinion echoed by many boaters.
"Sometimes, marinas lose sight of the fact that full-time boaters can be an asset," she said. In a storm, the live-aboards tend to take to the water in their dinghies, recapturing boats that have broken loose. In less dramatic circumstances, their everyday presence helps thwart criminals and vandals.
"Living aboard used to have a certain image, of derelicts or hippies," she said, "but now it's more for boomers heading toward retirement, people looking for more out of life."
But those boomers and others contemplating the lifestyle may find themselves met with a "no vacancy" sign.
Some marinas prohibit live-aboards outright; others follow the industry standard and allow 10% of their slips to be rented to them; far rarer are the marinas that welcome live-aboards unabashedly. And in virtually every marina, there are sneak-aboards, people who stay on their boats without the marina's knowledge or permission.
In most Los Angeles-area marinas, the demand for live-aboard slips so greatly outpaces the number available that long waiting lists are common.
Mark Nicholas, author of "The Essentials of Living Aboard a Boat," said that although it may seem backward, live-aboard wannabes should line up an available slip before buying a boat. This may mean paying rent for an unused slip for several months while they shop for a boat.
The Ventura West Marina in Ventura is rare inasmuch as it allows almost half -- 250 -- of its 554 slips to be rented to live-aboards. All live-aboard slips are presently occupied and there is a 200-name waiting list of people who plopped down half a month's rent as a deposit, general manager Chuck Ormson said.
"We are a reasonable alternative to not being able to afford a $500,000 house," Ormson said. Monthly slip fees range from $210 for a 20-foot boat to $1,080 for an 80-footer. Live-aboards pay an additional $110 a month (for one person; $135 for two; $155 for three) in Phase II and $160 a month (for one person; $210 for two; $255 for three) in Phase I. Children under 10 are free; 10- to 16-year-olds are charged $20 a month.
The Ventura West Marina, in welcoming live-aboards, also provides reasonable accommodations that address some of the problems other marinas have with live-aboards. It rents out inside and outdoor storage lockers for $20 and $10 a month, respectively. There is a laundry on site plus a game room with a lending library, video rental and gym. All the boats are owner-occupied and live-aboard slips are staggered -- meaning all the live-boards aren't in one part of the marina.
The live-aboard population at this well-maintained 30-year-old marina includes a number of families. A few are military families with one parent deployed in the Middle East.
Linda and Brady Guillaume moved on board their 35-foot sailboat with their two sons 18 months ago. The boys, now 6 and 8, attend Pierpont Elementary School in Ventura. Brady commutes to Camarillo to his engineering job. Linda, with a master's degree in counseling and a teaching credential, is a stay-at-home mom for now.
She said living in such close quarters -- about 300 square feet -- isn't a problem because her family "loves being together." Her only condition before agreeing to renting out their 2,000-square-foot Oxnard Shores home and moving onboard full time was that both boys take year-round swimming lessons.
Does the small space ever bother her? Cooking and serving dinner is a cinch, she said, because she doesn't need to take more than a step or two in any direction to reach anything. And when they lived in a land home, "we were all in the same room all the time anyway."
"Less is more," she said. "Some women dream about bigger houses. I dream about getting a bigger boat."
She has an off-site storage area where some family heirlooms are kept. The family's plan is to buy a mountain home in a few years.
Laurin and Caston Dalon spent a year cruising around Central America before the birth of their now-8-month-old son, Cas, prompted them to drop anchor at the Ventura West Marina in January.
"It's a good lifestyle," said Laurin Dalon, 34. "Don't let anyone tell you that's it's necessarily a cheap way to live. It helps if you can work on your own boat, or it can get pretty expensive." She added there's a running joke that "B.O.A.T. stands for 'bring on another thousand.' "
The price varies, depending on size, features and whether they are new or used. Even pre-owned boats can cost $100,000 or more. Many live-aboards get around this by buying fixer-uppers. The Internal Revenue Service permits tax deductions for boat-loan interest provided the craft is used as a primary or secondary home and has cooking, sleeping and toilet facilities. Another way to ensure the interest deduction is to refinance the mortgage on your land-based home to buy the boat.
Author Nicholas, who lives and practices law in Redondo Beach, agrees that the lifestyle only appears to be inexpensive. Typical costs include a monthly boat payment, slip fees, live-aboard fees, insurance and the normal expenses of cable, Internet and cellphone service plus routine boat maintenance and operating costs. He estimated that these could be as much as $20,000 a year.
The Dalons' 46-foot sailboat was a few years used when they bought it for $200,000. It provides them with about 650 square feet of living space on two levels.
Caston, an engineer and businessman, has been a lifelong sailor. Laurin came to the water later, when she met him.
"I can't say we won't, at some point, be land-based," Laurin said. "But we probably will always have a boat."
Although families dot the live-aboard scene, it's more common to find live-aboards like Rick Clemenson, a Santa Monica architect with his own firm. Clemenson, a bachelor, had been living on the water full time in Marina del Rey for the last few years but now spends a few nights a week at his girlfriend's home in Mar Vista.
At 57, he has lived on and off boats for 30 years and came to his current live-aboard status when he and his wife divorced.
"She got the house and everything in it and I got the boat," he said, joking. "It was meant to be."
Although his own boat and dock are clutter-free and spotlessly maintained, Clemenson is quick to admit that some live-aboards cause problems. Live-aboards get a bad name, he said, when they "junk up" the dock with their overflow possessions, don't maintain their boats and disturb their neighbors with excessive partying.
Boats are moored close to one another, Clemenson said, and it's hard to avoid overhearing everything occurring in your neighbors' slip. "Who wants a bunch of drunks next door?" he said. "If you have a bad-neighbor problem, it's literally on top of you."
Clemenson, who calls the Mariners Bay marina home and pays $790 a month for his slip rental (which includes $200 a month for live-aboard privileges), has mastered the art of scaling down possessions to those that are necessary for life on board.
The architect in him likes the minimalism that boat-living necessitates. He uses one of his three bedrooms for storage and tools, and his 150-square-foot living room-galley-dining room area is sufficient space to entertain. There are two bathrooms.
Despite the small quarters, he manages to fit in his books, guitar, laptop and a 17-inch flat screen TV. His business suits hang neatly in a closet tucked behind what doubles as a sink and vanity top. "Things are stacked, so you need to remember where you put them because they are often covered up by something else," Clemenson said.
Live-aboards seem to fall in and out of favor, author Nicholas said. The trend now, he added, is that marinas want "boaters whose boats look good."
He added, "They want their boaters to not look like they have garages in their slips. Right now, they are more flexible with live-aboards. They want people there to keep an eye on things."
Nicholas lives on land now, having had the sailor's curse of falling in love with a woman who experiences seasickness. But he keeps his 35-foot sailboat moored in Long Beach and is introducing his future wife to life on the water in weekend-long increments.
Sam Byker contributed to this story.
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For more information
Robert Doty's popular website with advice for living aboard.
A magazine website with a lively forum.
Author Mark Nicholas' website includes a useful FAQ section and links to other sources.
• www.sailnet.com/forums /living-aboard
A large online message board for those interested in sailing.
Latitudes and Attitudes Magazine website.
-- Ann Brenoff
Where to weigh anchor for good
Here is a sampling of Southern California marinas and their live-aboard slip availability.
Anacapa Isle Marina. Forty-four slips out of 440 accept live-aboards on boats 35 feet or longer, but availability is rare. Monthly slip fees are around $16 a foot plus $315 for two live-aboards. 3001 Peninsula Road, Oxnard; (805) 985-6035.
Catalina Yacht Anchorage. Only two slips out of 200 are occupied by live-aboards, and the marina isn't accepting more. Fees each month range from $9 to $12 a foot plus $150 for one live-aboard. 13505 Bali Way, Marina del Rey; (310) 822-0669.
Pier Forty-Four Marina. Forty slips out of 390 are occupied by live-aboards, but the marina isn't accepting any more. Fees for live-aboards range from $24 to $32 a foot. 13575 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey; (310) 823-4593.
Redondo Beach Marina. Five out of 65 boats in this small marina are occupied by live-aboards, but no slips are available. Fees are $10.50 to $17 a foot plus $100 for one live-aboard. 181 N. Harbor Drive, Redondo Beach; (310) 374-3481, rbmarina.com.
City of Long Beach Marinas. The three city marinas (Alamitos Bay Marina, Long Beach Shoreline Marina and Rainbow Marina) house 150 live-aboards among 3,800 boats. No spots are currently open, and turnover is very slow. Fees are $11 a foot plus $60 for one live-aboard. 450 E. Shoreline Drive, Long Beach; (562) 570-4950.
King Harbor Marina. Two-hundred-fifty of the marina's 827 slips are occupied by live-aboards on boats 27 feet or bigger, but none will be available in the near future. Optional cable, electricity and phone line hookups are available. Fees range from $280 to $1,200 plus $198 for one live-aboard. 208 Yacht Club Way, Redondo Beach; (310) 376-6926.
Peter's Landing Marina. Fifteen of 325 slips are occupied by live-aboards, and there's a long waiting list for any that open up. Fees range from $12.50 to $18.50 a foot. There is no additional cost for live-aboards, but electricity usage is metered and billed separately. 16400 Pacific Coast Highway, Suite 108, Huntington Beach, (562) 592-4441.
Dana Point Marina Co. Only seven live-aboards occupy these 1,436 slips, and the marina would accept more -- if there weren't already such a long waiting list for available slips. Fees range from $579 to $1,170 plus 40% for one live-aboard. 34555 Casitas Place, Dana Point; (949) 496-6137, danapointmarina.com
Al Larson Marina. Six out of 125 boats here are occupied by live-aboards, but no slips are available. Fees are about $8 a foot plus $175 for one live-aboard. 1046 S. Seaside Ave., San Pedro; (310) 832-0526.
Ventura West Marina. Around 250 live-aboards occupy the 554 slips here. Although none is currently open, new applicants are being accepted for the waiting list. The marina is designed with live-aboards in mind and includes cable TV and DSL lines, freezers with rentable lockers and a library, among other amenities. Fees range from $210 to $1,080, depending on boat size, plus $110 to $160 for live-aboards, depending on location within the marina. A rate hike is likely in the near future. 1198 Navigator Drive, Ventura; (805) 644-8266, venturawestmarina.com.
Dana West Marina. Forty-seven of the 980 slips here are occupied by live-aboards, but the marina is trying to reduce that number and will not be accepting any new applicants. Fees range from $579 to $967 plus $100 for one live-aboard. 24500 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point; (949) 493-6222.
-- Sam Byker