Houseboat neighbors enjoy views, commutes, camaraderie
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The view from David Murray's home in Washington is among the best in the city, a panorama of the Washington Channel bookended by the army's Fort McNair and the Washington Monument. "What more could I ask for?" asks Murray, surveying his surroundings as his shirt flutters in a breeze city dwellers would envy.
Murray, 30, is one of about 140 waterborne householders who live in Washington's Gangplank Marina, a vibrant, tightknit and quirky community of folks who have given up life on land — "on the hard," as they say — and maintain year-round homes on the ebb and flow of a waterway.
It might sound like an odd living situation, fraught with inconvenience and seasickness, but talk to anyone who lives at Gangplank and they'll gladly list the advantages: the great views and neighborhood feel; the proximity to Interstate 395, the subway and a Capital Bikeshare stand; a Safeway grocery within walking distance. All this, but at a lower cost than living on terra firma near the waterfront, where one-bedroom condos average $267,486, according to real estate listing service MRIS — about twice the cost of similarly sized houseboats.
Gangplank boasts the largest live-aboard population on the East Coast, in part because of its supremely convenient location.
The number of live-aboard homes permitted to anchor to one of the Gangplank's nine 60-foot docks, which have room for more than 300 boats, is limited to 94. There is a waiting list for houseboat slips; about three or four open up a year.
The Gangplank boats run the gamut: loft-style barges and renovated yachts, sailboats and cruisers, even a historic 70-year-old tugboat, with names such as Tycho Brahe, Shannon's Steal and Reckless Abandon. Their residents garden on sun-drenched decks, float waterlilies alongside their boats, and walk their dogs on the half-mile-long pier. They hold weekly happy hours, and, each fall, open their unique living spaces for public tours.
Washington's live-aboards are also experts in managing small living spaces and gas-guzzling engines. They know the ins and outs of boat maintenance and are all too familiar with the perils of life on the water, such as staving off a flooded hull. (Rainwater runoff in the basement is a landlubber's inconvenience, but river water in a houseboat could sink an entire home.)
As with on-land houses, purchasing a live-aboard home often requires borrowing money. But instead of mortgages, buyers take out boat loans, and instead of home insurance, they obtain boating insurance — just as they would for a recreational vessel. Boat loans are available with 10-, 15- and 30-year terms, but interest rates are slightly higher than for mortgages, residents said. Houseboat owners don't pay property taxes or condo fees, but they do have to pay slip and live-aboard fees. At Gangplank, a monthly slip fee costs $11.50 to $15.50 per foot, depending on location and length of the boat, and the monthly live-aboard fee is $150, which includes a parking space at the marina and scheduled pump-outs of waste through a hose that connects to the Washington's municipal sewage system. By comparison, condo fees in the nearby waterfront neighborhood average $492 per month, and property taxes average $1,842 a year.
At Gangplank, running water is supplied by the city, and electricity is provided via hookups to shore power at the marina. Many live-aboards have washing machines and dryers, dishwashers, cable television and wireless Internet.
In 1945, about 25 live-aboards called the Washington Channel, which parallels the Potomac River, home. A Washington Post article from that year described their lives as carefree: "They don't pay rent on the first. The landlord's whims aren't a matter of alarm. They get a fresh breeze with their breakfast. They take their house along on vacations or outings. And they have all the comforts of an earthbound home."
Little has changed.
"The marina is like its own little neighborhood ... ," says Karen Anderson, 52, a nonprofit worker who lives on a houseboat near Murray on the dock farthest from the security entrance; residents lovingly refer to that dock as "Land's End."
"Everybody knows everybody, and everybody is willing to help each other out. You have the sense you're out in the country, not in the middle of the city," Anderson says. "At least until the helicopters fly over," she adds, her voice nearly drowned out by the drone of aircraft in the distance. "It's really one of D.C.'s best little real estate secrets."
The residents of Gangplank Marina come from different backgrounds: singles, couples starting families, retirees. They include university professors and government workers, professional musicians, event planners, and public health and policy experts. They have two things in common: They heeded the siren song of the water, and they weren't put off by the seafarer's way of life, which for every beautiful sunset and dockside cocktail counts stormy nights, water service breaks, faulty sewage lines or other troubles.
Katherine Yohman Tighe, 25, and her husband, Jeremy, 29, moved onto the Tycho Brahe, a 64-foot World War II-era tugboat, just two weeks before Hurricane Sandy temporarily forced them off it (the craft survived no worse for wear). It was just the first of the unusual experiences they would encounter as live-aboards.
For example, one morning when her husband, a manufacturing controls engineer, was out of town, "I woke up to a bunch of tapping noises on the hull," Yohman Tighe says. Marina neighbors told her it was just a school of fish cleaning up the boat's hull.
The Tycho Brahe's previous owner, who had lived on the boat for eight years, went to great lengths to transform the onetime work boat into a comfortable, modern live-aboard. He preserved the vessel's shell and its charm but essentially ripped out the entire inside.
Today, the former wheelhouse serves as a foyer and small sitting area. The original engine room is a living area, with a living room, apartment-size kitchen and built-in dinette. The stateroom houses a queen-size bed and walls with built-in storage space. The boat doesn't have any large windows, but light floods in through the many small portholes in the ceiling and walls. The centerpiece is the deck, a spacious wraparound where the couple has comfortably entertained more than 30 people at once.
But at 700 square feet, the red and green Tycho Brahe was an adjustment from their previous home, a two-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom condo in Greenville, S.C. Yohman Tighe, an architecture school graduate with a passion for interior design, plans to "maximize every nook for usable space" and further modernize the antique feeling of the boat's interior, which includes antique boating memorabilia, as well as an original wooden television cabinet that was upgraded to hold a modern flat-screen behind the classic bubble glass. There is open shelving throughout the boat, so baskets and cloth containers are a decorative way to control clutter.
The couple had to get creative when choosing seating, purchasing four small, cushioned, armless office chairs that are stackable and can be used indoors and out on the deck. They are now searching for a new couch. "My dream couch from my land-dwelling days is now just a dream," Yohman Tighe says. "Instead of the low-back, modern, straight-lined couch I've imagined for the last year, we are now looking at something a little homier."
Likewise, she scrapped the idea of painting the interior in modern, neutral tones and will opt for something bright, warm and welcoming. "In the tight space and lack of exterior views, I think neutral will make the space feel confined and sterile. It is now more about how I feel in the space versus a specific style."
Though the Tycho Brahe is different from anywhere they've lived before, it immediately felt like home to the couple.
"We knew we were home when we first brought the Tycho up the river" after its inspection, Yohman Tighe says. "As we were pulling into slip, at least half a dozen people we had never met before came out of their boats to greet us with open arms and caught our ropes. Those people have since become very good friends."
Karen Anderson bought a place in the marina about two years ago. She had longed to live near the water, and when her son moved out of their 900-square-foot Cape Cod in New Jersey and she was between jobs with environmental nonprofit groups, she saw her opportunity "to do something crazy." Drawn to the bustling live-aboard community in Washington, she took the plunge, so to speak, and bought a 450-square-foot houseboat at Gangplank.
When that boat's tight spaces and low ceilings made her feel cramped, she decided to "upgrade" to a houseboat that is still less than 500 square feet but makes better use of space.
Serendipity 2, a barge that looks like an A-frame house with the top lopped off, has three skylights and an open cathedral ceiling in the living room, with bamboo floors throughout.
She describes houseboat-dwelling as "the ultimate experience in small-space living."
Her coffee table transforms into a dining table in case she and her guests don't want to sit at the butcher's block in the kitchen. She bought the previous owner's couch, because to get it out or get a new one in, she'd have to pop out a large window. Her kitchen counters are laminate, because a heavier material, such as granite, would throw off the small boat's balance, and, perhaps, leave it too low in the water.
Anderson says the only major compromise she has made in moving off-land is giving up her garden. But she's making it work with potted plants by her entryway, and herb and vegetable gardens in planters, plastic containers and PVC pipes on her deck. Her efforts are an ongoing battle against wind, sun and ducks eager to lay eggs in her pots. "We'll see what I end up with. It's one big experiment," she says.
As with landlubbing homeowners, some boat owners, such as Eve Bratman, are interested in green design. Bratman, 34, a professor of international environmental issues at American University, has been making eco-friendly renovations to her 1979 CarlCraft houseboat for more than a year.
In March 2009, three months after she typed the word "houseboat" into Craigslist on a whim, Bratman moved from a group house in Washington onto the 42-foot vessel. Transitioning from land to water was easy, she says, even though the boat has only about 400 square feet of indoor living space, including a living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. To keep it uncluttered, she lives by one rule: If one thing comes on, another thing has to go off.
The renovations on Last Resort started in February 2012, when she removed the leaky deck — which essentially serves as the living area's roof — to repair it before it caved in on her while she slept.
With the help of a boat mechanic and her future mother-in-law, a retired art historian and experienced DIY-er, Bratman raised the deck/roof, replaced the floor joists, extended the bedroom by about 60 square feet to nearly twice its size and added insulation to the thin plywood-and-fiberglass walls. She also installed a 30,000 BTU, marine-safe fireplace in the bedroom.
"The vision is a lot of natural elements. It's 'eco-chic,' if you will," Bratman says. "We've got cork floors, wood accents, continuity of light ... and new Energy Star appliances," as well as sustainably harvested wood and no volatile organic compound paint.
Bratman won't get to enjoy any of this. Once she gets married this summer, she and her husband will embark on their "next big dream project": starting an eco-village in Washington with cooperative housing and shared common spaces.
Despite the investment of time, energy and money, the last of which she hopes to recoup when she sells the boat, Bratman says she has no regrets about moving to Gangplank. "At first I was like, 'Amazing, a view of the Washington Monument. Water, I love water.' And then I found this incredible community of people. People would just pop in and say, 'Permission to come aboard.' There was always an opportunity for distraction, in the best possible way. The social dynamic is really like a small town. For sure, I'm going to miss it."
Greg Nichols, a Kentucky native, moved to the marina two years ago when his wife, Tonya, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency, was transferred to Washington. "We wanted to move to D.C. without it busting us," says Nichols, 52, an IT project manager.
The solution to the Nichols' conundrum came in the form of Golden Princess — a 1,300-square-foot, 60-foot-long motor yacht that was first sold in 1979 for $324,000, or more than $1 million today. Nichols and Tonya scored the boat for $198,000. "The engines and hardware were worth more than that," he says.
Of course, at that price, the vessel needed serious work. It was overrun with mold and rotted wood, and a hot tub installed on the upper deck had crushed the ceiling, Nichols says.
"This boat was a decaying mess," says Matt, 23, one of Nichols' two sons.
The Golden Princess was put into dry dock almost immediately. Nichols, a retired military man, said he and Tonya stayed at a naval base in the area during the four months the boat was out of the water. "We ripped out all the walls," says Nichols, who had restored several houses, including a 5,000-square-foot historic home in Kentucky. "We ripped out the instrumentation. We redid the electric and the plumbing, and installed air conditioning, GPS cameras and lighting controls. Every window except the windshield came out. We put in granite countertops and all new appliances in the kitchen. We restored the original teak deck. We finished the lower level first to make the boat livable" since that is where the two bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom are. "Now, we're working on the upper floor," which the family intends to convert into a 400-square-foot music room to house their baby grand piano, which is currently in storage.
Nichols is especially proud of the "multiple levels of alarms" designed to alert him if any water gets into the boat. "Some people say that all boats leak," he says. "I don't like that philosophy."
Nichols and his wife plan to decorate the home in a "modern 'Mad Men' style" after the renovations are complete, he says.
"The time frame has tripled, and so has the budget," which is in the six-figure range, Nichols says. But it's all worth it for the simple pleasures a boat affords. "It is just too cool to take your house downriver. Every evening, my wife and I sit out on the deck and toast the sunset."
And sometimes they do that at the many parties on other decks. "You start drinking at one dock and work your way down, from A to I," Nichols says. "I haven't made it all the way down."
"Challenge accepted," Matt replies.
Some evenings, if Gangplank residents get lucky, they might hear live music floating out of one of the houseboats. The source is David Murray — better known around the marina as "Trombone Dave" -- a trombonist with the National Symphony Orchestra.
Unlike his DIY-happy neighbors, Murray is content to enjoy his one-bedroom, one-bath barge as is. "I haven't done anything to the boat since I moved here last year," he says of the approximately 450-square-foot Shannon's Steal. "I like to practice in my living room and look out at the water, or, if the weather is right, just sit up on my deck or take the kayak out."
Murray, who grew up in Belair, Md., outside Baltimore, hadn't planned on moving to the marina when he was in the process of relocating from Philadelphia to Washington to join the symphony. He checked out a few condos in Southwest Washington and, while walking along the waterfront, happened to see a "For Sale" sign. In that moment, something clicked, he says, and he soon put an offer on the boat. "I wouldn't call it an impulse buy," he says. "It was one of those things that was just 'right.' "
Murray says that he and his cat, Flughafen, took to boat living quickly, despite the fact that the summer months were "hotter than I ever expected," thanks to the greenhouse effect of skylights and large windows, and that his water pump broke in the winter, leaving him without running water for about two weeks.
"Part of the enjoyment of living here is the adventure," he says, laughing. "Some days will be good; some days won't be. But you learn the most during disasters, and you always have your neighbors. There are so many cool people here from all walks of life, and they are so generous."
And the deck makes up for all the headaches, Murray says. "This is what really sold me on the boat. You can sit here and watch the I-395 traffic jams, take a sip of your beer and think, 'Good on you, folks.' "
A recurring theme among Gangplank residents is that nearly any issue, problem or disaster can be overcome, thanks to the tranquillity of the setting and the solidarity of the people. No one knows this better than Darryl Madden.
Madden, 49, moved in 2006 from a small town on the Maryland-Pennsylvania border to the marina, where he could indulge his love of boats and water as well as his gregarious nature.
"On a boat, you're in a constant state of motion. There are days when the water is angry. There are days when the water is calm and beautiful. When the cherry blossoms fall, it's like pink rain," he says, peering out through his sunglasses at the water. "The allure is, there is always something dynamic happening."
An added bonus, his new two-bedroom, two-bath home — a classic 44-foot cruiser dating to 1967 that he found in prime condition — was a stone's throw from his office at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Madden was at work in March when he got the call: There had been a fire.
"I remember walking down here. I thought, 'Maybe it's not that bad.' But from four blocks away, I could smell it. I got here just in time to see the firefighters cut the lines and push her out into the water" to minimize damage to neighboring boats.
Madden's home, the Dorothy Mae, was destroyed. "The only things I had were literally the clothes on my back," he says. "It was surreal."
But he wasn't alone. His neighbors rallied to help, feeding him and offering a place to stay; one group of women set out to buy him more clothes and debated whether Madden wore boxers or briefs. Since the fire, the cause of which is still under investigation for insurance purposes, Madden has been hop-scotching between houseboats.
"The most important things were not lost in the fire. I look at what I have: my community and my friends. I am extremely grateful that no one was hurt," he says.
Despite the loss, Madden plans to stay at the marina. He may not have a boat, but he still has his slip — an empty spot to dock a new cruiser.
"I can't imagine going back to 'the hard,' " Madden says. "No matter what happens, my home is on the water."
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