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Life on the water

Posted: June 16, 2013 - 12:02am
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Bridget Milligan tells the tale of finding her Bristol Bay double-ender on Friday. The boat is her summer home in Aurora Harbor.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Bridget Milligan tells the tale of finding her Bristol Bay double-ender on Friday. The boat is her summer home in Aurora Harbor.

As it turns out, there are boat people and then there are BOAT PEOPLE.

It’s not uncommon in Southeast Alaska for people to live aboard boats, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s convenient — finding the floating housing, not necessarily the upkeep — and sometimes it’s financial. Sometimes there’s a certain perceived romance ascribed to life aboard a boat.

“I definitely had a vogue version of what living on a sailboat was like,” Trista Crass said, “Lots of turtlenecks, white wine and good teeth.”

A recent discussion with a friend revealed similar notions — he lived aboard a boat in Kodiak with a girlfriend many years ago but said the romance of it was overwhelmed by the permeating cold and the smell of diesel fuel.

What’s life on a live-aboard like?

There are certain sacrifices.

“You’ve got to like small spaces, and be ready to make a few sacrifices — maybe no shower, taking on a few additional chores,”Olivia Sinaiko said of living on her houseboat, “But if you like the coziness and don’t mind the occasional project, it’s the best. I’m totally hooked and can’t imagine wanting to live anywhere else.”

Despite being on the water, water becomes a chore for those living aboard boats. The toilet situation can range from good — there’s a toilet! Sometimes with bioluminescence! — to fairly rough. Clara Don, 9, lives aboard a “float house” with her father half-time.

It’s small, she said, but she’s got her own space, a pet rabbit and a little swing her dad built.

She almost forgot to mention that the toilet is a bucket with a seat. She’s used to it.

“We use a bucket. And a seat. It’s OK. It’s kind of weird for people that visit. But it’s not really much different,” Clara said.

I didn’t get into the specifics of taking care of business with each person interviewed, but while aboard the larger of Bridget Milligan’s two boats, a refurbished Bristol Bay double-ender, I noted a definite lack of a bathroom. Bridget’s boats, the double-ender and the dory, are both wooden boats with a lot of history and a lot of work put into them.

For Colette Costa, who lives aboard the Glacier Seal, a 60-foot charter vessel, the tradeoff might just be that she has to be ready to go whenever the vessel is chartered.

“In the summer time ... we have to keep it totally ready for charters at any moment,” she said. But it doesn’t sound like too rough a situation considering the rest.

“Mine is very roomy, compared to other vessels for sure. It’s got six state rooms, a full 30-foot living area up top and it’s got one of the biggest galleys I’ve ever seen in a boat, which is the main reason I love it. And it’s go a full 360-viewing top. It’s a completely different live-aboard than a sailboat or a houseboat,” Colette said.

It seems mostly charming.

How does one end up living aboard a boat anyway?

“I was moving up here for a job and really excited about Juneau — but the rental market was so tough. I wanted to love my home and hoped for a cozy space with some sort of view, but instead, everything I was finding was anything but that. And what I was finding was expensive,” Olivia said, “I saw this houseboat for sale with everything I wanted — cozy atmosphere, a view, close to work — and realized I could buy it for the same amount I would pay in three and a half years of renting. Most impulsive decision I’ve ever made, but nearly four years later, I still love it.”

Trista said she was “tricked into it” by her now-husband Scott Crass, “I met him at Folk Fest (in) ‘10 and, after seeing his boat, I decided I should move in.”

Recall that vogue idea of sailboat living.

“We own it,” Trista said, “Well, Scott did. And I just took half, recently, when we got hitched.”

Colette ended up living on a boat out of convenience. Not necessarily because boat-living is always convenient, but because when she first moved to town she worked as the chef aboard the Glacier Seal for charters and being able to live aboard as a renter was easier — and cheaper — than finding an apartment. She said it was “mutually agreeable.”

Clara has been living in the float house since she was three, and it seems completely normal to her, though she admitted she’d probably choose to live on land when she’s on her own, so she can have a garden.

Bridget insisted she wasn’t good with numbers, but has been living aboard boats for more than 30 years. She sometimes rents an apartment in the winters, but during the summers, she’s spending as much time on the water as she can, while also running her business Kodiak Coats. Bridget has been around boats her whole life, the daughter of a whaler and destined to be on the water. She shared a number of anecdotes about life on the water. Bridget’s stories were a lot bigger than this article about live-aboards could contain, so look for an article on Bridget and her boats next week.

How much work is living aboard a boat?

Olivia mentioned extra chores, and it varies by boat and by harbor. Bridget has put a lot of work into her boats and said she just spent the last six months fixing up a motor — Bridget’s projects are on the extreme end. Most who live on boats will deal with refueling, filling up on fresh water and trying to keep the boat from succumbing to whatever issues the current weather brings.

“It’s lovely being rocked to sleep, and being able to move it as you please — like an RV of the sea! But then there’s the constant upkeep, mold and moistness. We live in Harris, so there’s no showers or bathrooms, and that gets — interesting,” Trista said.

Clara definitely helps keep the float-house in order, but her dad is in charge of most of the upkeep.

“In the winter, he has to sometimes even wake up in the middle of the night to put more wood on the fire, and in the winter he also has to shovel a bunch of snow off the float house, and sometimes actually the waves are so high that it starts getting the deck all icy and he has to break all the ice off because if he just let all the ice pile on, sometime eventually the float-house might sink,” Clara said.

Olivia said there are additional chores like “pumping the bilge, filling the water tanks, etc. But whenever you own your home, there’s chores and responsibilities that come with that, so I just see it as part of what it means to be a homeowner.”

Colette helps to keep the Glacier Seal in order, describing her living situation as “I sort of house-boat-sit-slash-live the rest of the year.”

Though she lives alone during the summer, during the winter she said she often takes roommates, “just to offset the costs of fuel, mostly, fuel, moorage and live-aboard fees, etc., and rent that we pay for the upkeep of the boat. It’s also a little bit nicer — it just keeps the place warmer, frankly, in the winter, having extra bodies. And it’s a lot of space, and as we all know, housing in Juneau is crazy expensive, so it’s nice to be able to offer people a slightly more reasonable living fee,” she said.

Back to money again, is living aboard a boat less expensive?

Olivia owns her houseboat. Trista and Scott own their sailboat. Bridget owns both her boats (she got the double-ender for $500, but has put a lot of time, money and elbow grease into fixing it up).

Colette noted that a person could buy a houseboat for about $40,000, while buying a house in Juneau will cost, on average, around $400,000.

“I don’t pay all the boat bills, like I don’t have to make a boat payment, for example, which is exorbitant, but as far as a month-to-month, it doesn’t even compare. For me to get an apartment, it would cost me $1000? $600 at least. A shared room is $700, not that you’re sharing a room, but taking a room in a two-bedroom, that’s a lot of money. Living on a boat has essentially enabled me to continue living in Juneau and not having a real job,” Colette said with a laugh.

Trista has to agree, “The price is right. For Juneau, it’s the best deal out there; if you own your boat, and just pay moorage, it’s heaps cheaper than even a room in a shared flat.”

But how are the neighbors?

Clara said there aren’t many people around except in the summer, and then her neighbors are often fishermen.

Colette likes the idea of not having neighbors above or below, though it’s not always all quiet in the harbor.

“I did wake up one night to gunshots,” Colette said. “This is when I was in Aurora, and I heard gunshots clearly, and I peeked out the back of my boat. It was one of those great mystery things, I peeked out the back of my boat just in time to see this guy running up the ramp, but he paused and turned around and threw something into the water, which I kind of made the assumption was the gun, but nothing was in the paper, so, I don’t know.”

She also recalled a time when she discovered a couple kids on the vessel “ stealing a cooler full of skunky beer.” She called the police and noted that, “of course there’s nowhere to go in the harbor, you have to go up the ramp.” Busted. One of the kids wrote her an apology note and delivered it a few days later.

But the neighbors that seem to be fodder for most stories aren’t human.

Otters seem to be the most common visitors, though some have reported whales, bears, birds and fish.

“We see a lot of ducks and eagles on the posts looking for fish, and ravens, and not really that many fish. One time we saw orcas. It was cool. A lot of people think they’re cute (otters), but they’re not really that cute when you live on a float-house. I think they’re cute,”Clara Admitted, “But they’re really annoying. One time, one came on our porch and pooped. My dad almost stepped in it.”

Trista is charmed by the otters and her favorite live-aboard experience was, “Probably the time we woke up to an otter on our hatch. The dog was growling at the glass hatch on the cabin, and when we had a look, it was an otter curled up sleeping! Bioluminescent water from the faucet when in Barlow Cove was also pretty magical.”

Bridget has lived in boats all over Alaska and recalls a summer when “we had bears eating out of our pots and pans and whales coming up next to us.”

“I’ve never had any animal attacks,” Colette mused, then recalled, “Oh, we did have a bear swimming at the dock. I just came home and I was about to walk down the ramp and someone said, ‘Hey, stop, there’s a bear’ ... and there was a bear about to swim onto the dock and the guy that was down below came running up, and just then this really drunk guy came pin-balling up the dock, and we all started yelling, ‘Hey mister, there’s a bear down there,’ but he couldn’t hear us, couldn’t understand us, and he got closer to the bear, by this time the bear’s got one arm over the rail and is trying to pull the back leg over, and the guy was so drunk he thought it was a person, so he was like, ‘How come you’re not helping this guy?’ and starts walking toward the bear with his hand out to help pull him over the rail, and we’re like, ‘Noooo, it’s a bear!’ and just then the bear got his back leg over and the drunk guy goes, ‘Oh, he’s got it,’ and he just turned and walked away. The bear got onto the dock, shook off, and just took off in the other direction, ended up jumping on some guy’s boat and then back in the water.”

Olivia listed the view and the wildlife as definite perks of life on a boat, “seals, great blue herons, buffleheads, merganzers, salmon.”

Does the boat leave the harbor?

There are definitely boats that stay put, but Clara said even her float-house has a motor and they used to have to move it to a different location for half the year.

Bridget observed that some people aren’t that comfortable with their boats, but she couldn’t imagine not taking hers out, and her boats have taken her all over.

“I can drive mine once it’s going, but as far as starting it and getting it out of the dock, I could get it out but I couldn’t get it back in,” Colette said of the 60-foot Glacier Seal.

“Everyone starts somewhere,” Trista said, “I grew up in the Interior, and didn’t know anything about sailboats, and didn’t speak sailor at all — and now we’re planning to sail to New Zealand.”

I don’t think it’s safe to really say it takes a certain type of person to live on a boat, but it probably doesn’t suit everyone. While Clara said she’d ultimately like a house where she can have a real garden and Trista and Scott are living on the land in Fairbanks currently, Bridget feels most at home on a boat, and Olivia said, “If you like coziness and don’t mind the occasional project, it’s the best. I’m totally hooked, and can’t imagine wanting to live anywhere else.”

Because there are boat people and then there are BOAT PEOPLE, look for a more in-depth story about Bridget Milligan, her dory and double-ender next week.

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