Floating Homes

Southern California's Liveaboards Enjoy a Life of Freedom, Privacy and Simplicity

Randy S and family copy The lifestyle of a liveaboard comes with certain romanticisms, most of which have nothing to do with Sonny Crockett’s life aboard St. Vitus Dance. Living aboard a boat is not as simple as being on a floating home, as the “Miami Vice” television series might have suggested.

Many liveaboards who spoke to us often find living on the water to be rewarding. Common perks include freedom to travel, communal living at the docks and simplicity in lifestyle.

Santa Barbara Harbor is unique in permitting a handful of houseboats to complement the 113 allowable liveaboards. At least one person has resided in a houseboat and as a liveaboard at Southern California’s northernmost harbor.

“It was a fantasy of mine,” said Helene Webb, a former Santa Barbara Harbor commissioner who now lives on one of four houseboats permitted in Santa Barbara Harbor. “I grew up in Florida and I’d go to the marinas and see the boats and thought, ‘It’d be so cool to live on a boat.’”

The liveaboard lifestyle became a reality for Webb when she moved from New York City to Los Angeles, where she spent time living aboard a vessel in Marina del Rey. She eventually fell in love with Santa Barbara and took up residence at the city-owned harbor.

“I love watching the sunrises, the sunsets; you’re close to nature,” Webb said of her attraction to the liveaboard lifestyle, adding her experiences living aboard have far exceeded her expectations.

The natural diversity surrounding Santa Barbara Harbor and the community feel on the docks helps make living aboard a vessel a pleasurable experience, Webb said.

Another major perk Webb and other liveaboards identify with is privacy.

“You know people on the dock for years and you see them, [but] most of the time you don’t go on their boats. To go onto a boat, you have to be invited. I like that, people respect that privacy, because [boats] are real small spaces,” Webb said.

There are some challenges to living aboard a boat, of course. Webb pointed out rain and windy weather can cause some challenges. Sometimes your neighbor might be less than ideal.

“If you’re next to someone who is loud, or has an unkempt boat, that could be a challenge,” Webb said.

Overall, though, Webb said she enjoys the Santa Barbara Harbor community, adding that people are personable, respectful of privacy and collegial.

The marinas in Ventura Harbor are rather friendly to liveaboards, providing a sense of community. Many liveaboards also enjoy access to Channel Islands National Park to the west and mountains to the east. Tony Porter, a liveaboard in Ventura Harbor, has observed some families living aboard boats where his vessel is docked.

“There are families with children, and I see how those kids are really happy and safe playing around. There aren’t many communities you can do that in,” Porter said. “It’s a little like I imagine people lived in villages used to live.”

Tony Alcock first lived aboard a boat in the 1970s and returned to the lifestyle again a couple of years ago. He even wrote a book about living aboard a boat, “Life at the End of a Rope,” available online and at bookstores.

“It’s a lovely life. It’s very safe and people look out for each other. We all share the same problems and challenges,” Alcock said.

John Howard, who has lived aboard for about 30 years, said being a liveaboard is “enriching.”

“My backyard is millions of square miles. It’s the Pacific Ocean, and we’re four or five docklines away from exploring that,” Howard said. “We get together and cook, we go out to wineries and taste wine, and we sometimes work together.”

Living aboard a vessel means being OK with downsizing on material goods, according to Mary Lee Huber.

“The biggest transition is learning to live small, [but] it is also incredibly freeing,” Huber said, adding dock parties, dinner dates and “buddy boating” are common phenomena among Ventura’s liveaboards.

“There are dock parties when the weather is nice. People come out onto the dock and mingle. Everyone brings a snack,” Huber said. “You make relationships with people you’re going to go to dinner with. There are times you might go with other people on your boat or have two boats go out at a time to the islands and spend a weekend.”

Monthly costs associated with being a liveaboard can vary from resident to resident, according to Alcock. Living aboard a 40 foot vessel in a marina where the slip fee is $20 per foot means a liveaboard would pay $800 per month to the marina. Other costs include electricity, sewage pumpout, bottom cleaning, topside cleaning, maintenance, insurance and taxes. These costs could add another $500 to $600 or more per month to living expenses. Another potential monthly expense: payments, if any, on the vessel.

Randy Sysol has lived aboard a 55 foot trawler at National City’s Pier 32 Marina with his wife and son for about four years. Transitioning from a land residence to one on the water was not easy, he said.

“The process of moving aboard was painstaking, as we sold our home of 16 years and divested ourselves of anything that did not fit on the boat. We did this as we were planning on traveling for a couple of years and didn’t want to be worried about storage of stuff,” Sysol explained.

He said the relative newness of Pier 32 Marina makes it an ideal location for liveaboards.

“[The marina] has tons of amenities and a good liveaboard community. We like the pool in the summer and the jacuzzi anytime. We don’t particularly like the location of the marina as much as others, but the amenities certainly make up for the long run out of the bay,” Sysol said. “The liveaboards here are a friendly group, looking out for one another as well as having occasional parties and potlucks.”

Being a liveaboard does come with a few pitfalls, Sysol observed, though specific shortcomings obviously vary from boater to boater.

One San Diego boater said being a liveaboard could be cheaper than living in a land-based house or apartment, but the affordability of residing in a recreational vessel ultimately depends on marina rates and the boat’s type, size and quality.shutterstock_328341794 (1) copy

Donna Ethington has lived aboard a boat for decades and currently makes port in Wilmington, which is home to Island Yacht Anchorage, Cerritos Yacht Anchorage, Lighthouse Yacht Landing, Pacific Yacht Landing, California Yacht Marina and Holiday Harbor.

Finding a liveaboard slip at any Port of Los Angeles marina is no easy task. Port of L.A. limits living aboard a vessel to 5 percent of available slips at each marina.

Those who do decide to live along the Cerritos Channel and adjacent to Port of L.A.’s East Basin will find a unique blend of charm and challenges, Ethington said.

Liveaboard slip rates in Wilmington are generally competitive and more affordable than marinas in Long Beach or San Pedro, Ethington said.

Challenges include frequent ship traffic, industrial noise and air pollution. Ethington added liveaboards in San Pedro and Wilmington play a unique role in watching over local marinas. “Because they walk by the same boats every day, liveaboards notice if a boat is taking on water, or if there’s a boat that doesn’t belong here. Because they’re familiar with the surroundings, liveaboards will call the Port Police if there are unusual activities in their marina or in the area, and many of us have had valuable CERT and U.S. Coast Guard training.”

Neighboring Long Beach allows up to 230 liveaboards, or 7.8 percent of slips, in all of its marinas, according to the city’s marine operations manager, Elvira Hallinan. Shoreline Marina in downtown Long Beach has the highest number of liveaboards in the city, with 169 slips (10.5 percent of the slip count) assigned to those living aboard a vessel; Alamitos Bay is home to 58 liveaboard slips (4.5 percent of slip count).

The Dana Point Marina Co. manages liveaboard permits at Orange County’s southernmost harbor. A prospective tenant must meet certain requirements and pay an appropriate rent and fee to obtain a liveaboard permit in Dana Point. A liveaboard vessel, for example, must have at least 140 square feet of livable space for one person and an additional 40 square feet per extra tenant. The liveaboard fee is 40 percent of the basic slip rent. So the owner of a 35-footer, the smallest vessel allowed in a liveaboard slip at Dana Harbor, would pay $622 in rent plus $248.80 in liveaboard fees for a total rent of $870.80.IMG_1744 copy

Are you looking to be a liveaboard? Be sure to visit each harbor or marina website to find out whether liveaboards are permitted there. What restrictions apply to liveaboard tenants? Is there a wait list for a liveaboard slips? How much is the liveaboard fee? Also inquire about amenities, such as parking, security, restrooms, showers, community rooms, Wi-Fi access, and proximity to dining, highways and shopping.