Ever since the days of Noah, the idea of living on a boat has appealed to a good many people, and even in these modern times of receding waterlines there is no sign that this desire is drying up. Today there are some eight million pleasure boats in this country, of which some 20% are estimated to be of a size and shape that permits living aboard Not counting merchant mariners, dredgers, ocean-going squash professionals and such, who are occupationally locked in the cradle of the deep, there are thousands of Americans who live on their boats. Some sack out aboard for a weekend or, at most, a vacation, but a growing number are permanently domiciled on the water—in Long Island Sound, Chesapeake Bay, the Inland Waterway, the Great (and many lesser) Lakes of the Midwest, in canals, channels, sloughs and bayous from Nebraska to Pennsylvania, St. Paul to New Orleans, Anchorage to San Diego. Wherever there is a puddle of sheltered water, people have moored, docked or run aground small craft and have made their homes in them.
Recently, during a tour of gracious homes on the water in California, where people are migrating to marinas like lemmings to the Atlantic Ocean, one of the first things I learned was that not every boat lived on by people is a houseboat. Among the set who fight barnacles rather than Japanese beetles, a houseboat, by common usage and sometimes by legal definition, is something that floats but does not move under its own power, any more than the land-based, mounted-on-foundation mobile homes that evolved from the house trailer. When houseboats must be moved they are towed like mobile homes. Using this as a point of reference, there are many other categories of things (things, since some of them resemble conventional boats only in a vague, free-form way) upon which people live on water. For example, distinct from the true houseboat, there are mudders and arks. A mudder is something that was once a boat but has been so permanently embedded on the shore that nothing short of a tidal wave will ever move it again. An ark is surrounded by water, but it was not necessarily ever a boat. Arks are more like artificial islands built on pilings, dock ends, high mudbanks or even anchored rafts, out of whatever material an arker can afford or, in many cases, salvage from the water.
At the other extreme, there are real boats that move under their own sails or engines. In California people who make their permanent homes on such craft are called liver-inners. There probably are more liver-inners than there are houseboaters, arkers and mudders combined, one reason being that they are more popular with marina owners and municipal authorities. The feeling is that colonies of permanently fixed on-the-water dwellings tend to degenerate into marine slums, where such things as garbage, sewage and fresh paint are treated lightly, if at all. By local ordinance and by the refusal of many marina operators to give them slip space, the boating Establishment wages a continuing vendetta against these immobile floating homes. In fact, it seems likely that arks, mudders and true houseboats may go the way of the log cabin.
The variety of structures that enable people to live on the water is great. There is an ark near San Francisco made largely of salvaged Styrofoam, as well as a mudder (once a cement barge) with a badminton court. There are houseboats that were once ferryboats, showboats, fishing trawlers, scows and rafts. There are people living on former subchasers, the decks of which, even to the engine room, have bulkhead-to-bulkhead white carpeting. There are people living on former subchasers in which most of the decks, including those of the engine room, have rotted, away. When it comes to real boats in which liver-inners are living, the categories of craft seem limitless. They run from boxes mounted on pontoons and pushed along by out-board motors (a shallow-draft contraption popular in the inland maze of the Sacramento River delta) to tiny cabin inboards where two bunks are cunningly fitted inside one shower stall to, finally, yachts with swimming pools and recreation rooms
At first inspection, the municipal marina at Long Beach, where there are a good many liver-inners, does not seem to be a likely haunt for seafarers. The marina grounds look like, and in fact are, a symmetrically landscaped, meticulously maintained park. The slips at which 1,800 small boats are tied up are a freshly painted white, and clean as a modern dairy barn. There is no smell of fish, tar or oil, nor is there much sea smell in the sheltered, man-made cove. (The full-time job of one municipal employee at the marina is to keep the water clean—straightening up the flotsam and jetsam.) There are no tattoo artists hanging around the Long Beach docks, no bearded sea-dog types, no sense that the boats are about to set off for some distant, exotic port. The sense one does get, if one squints until the masts of the motor sailers begin to look like TV antennas, is of Levittown or some other densely populated development community.
The principal reason that this $14 million public marina looks so well-scrubbed—and, in fact, the reason it exists at all—is that Long Beach is in some ways like a Persian Gulf sheikdom. Along with onshore boats, Long Beach has a lot of offshore oil. One of the restrictions on the city's share of the oil royalties is that they must be used for improving the commercial, scenic and recreational aspects of the municipal waterfront. Therefore, just as oil sheiks keep air-conditioned Cadillacs while desert sheiks keep camels, the Long Beach Marina keeps men, 45 of them, busy planting palm trees, painting slips, cleaning lavatories and laundry rooms, guarding boats and scouring the water. Because of the special economic conditions, monthly slip rental at Long Beach (approximately $1 a foot) is only about half what it is elsewhere, which explains a good deal of the carping about public marinas heard from private entrepreneurs in the same line of business. The low rates and fringe conveniences also account for the fact that there is a list of 6,000 boat owners waiting to get a slip at Long Beach. Owners who made reservations as long ago as 1960 have only now, in the spring of 1967, reached the head of the list.
As yet, no true houseboat has turned up at the head of the waiting list, but the possibility that one might does not please Lawrence McDowell, director of the Long Beach Marine Department. "At the moment we have no ordinance against houseboats," Mr. McDowell says, "but we might need something of the sort in the future. Some houseboats are quite elegant, but if you let in one you have to let in all of them, and that could change the whole atmosphere of our place. We don't want to be faced with something similar to what has grown up around Newport Beach or even Sausalito."
The Long Beach Marina atmosphere—clean, orderly, safe and low-priced—not unnaturally appeals to liver-inner families who apparently admired these virtues in their landlocked days. At Long Beach the stock answer to the stock stupid question, "Why do you live on a boat?" is, "You don't have to mow the grass here." The Long Beach liver-inners are good, responsible-citizen types. Many of them came to the marina after they had raised a houseful of children on land. Some are still working, and the Long Beach docks at 7 o'clock on a weekday morning look a little bit like the platform of a suburban commuter-train station. Not a few of the liver-inners have retired. And here and there one meets liver-inners who have made short voyages in their homes or are contemplating a cruise, but by and large they stay fairly close to the slips.
The romantic trappings of the sea are missing in this tidy boat park, but the romantic spirit is there. After talk moves on from quips about not mowing grass or having to climb stairs, Long Beach liver-inners almost invariably explain themselves by saying in one way or another, "We dreamed about this for years. We're so happy here we would never be satisfied living anyplace else." The thought occurs that at Long Beach the dreams and satisfactions of living on the sea must have a particularly strong and steady interior reality, because the conventional, exterior pelagic props are so sparse. Being able to think salty and feel salty in the snug and vaguely smug municipal marina is perhaps the unadulterated essence of romanticism—like that girl who dreamed about princes and crystal slippers while she cleaned the hearth.
There are, for example, the Thompsons, who formerly owned a wayside restaurant near San Diego. For eight years, two months and two days, out behind the kitchen, John Thompson worked on the boat in which he and his wife now live at the Long Beach Marina. In their floating home there is a brick-faced oven ("Real brick," says Thompson proudly. "Rap it and see. I split them in half to make room"), a hand-carved mantelpiece ("that baby took some time") and all the conveniences of a small, intricately planned apartment ("It's just as comfortable as an apartment and easier to take care of," says Mrs. Thompson). What with the bricks, mantel, a lot of decorative teak, mahogany and brass, the 40-foot, 18-ton boat, which Thompson values at $76,000 (it cost him $16,000; the difference is his eight years of labor), is not much for seagoing. However, from the Thompsons' standpoint this is hardly a drawback, since they seldom leave the marina, anyway.