How Did I Start My Life As A Liveaboard?
So like everyone, I was once a novice liveabord, here is how I gained experience. Since completing my two-year stint living aboard a 28’ San Juan sloop in Key West, many people have asked how it all started (...and many probably wanted to ask “what were you thinking?”). At the end of this article, there is a link. If you would like to share your story about how your liveaboard experience started, please follow the link and thanks in advance for contributing to Liveaboard HQ!
My journey was borne out of necessity. I was taking care of parents (father had shoulder surgery coming up and step-mother had broken her ankle and was on one of those kneel scooter thingies) in the Carolinas. I was 40 years old and had zero money, was essentially living for free but was feeling very much like a loser. Leading up to that point, I had tried unsuccessfully to relocate from San Francisco to Florida and had been called by my father just when I was at my lowest point. The timing was perfect and someone in Jacksonville was heading that direction and had a sibling in the area, so I hitched a ride and spent the next few months cooking and tending to the ‘rents.
Somewhere along the way I had decided that I wanted to be a liveaboard. I knew it was a stretch to make it happen, but I was determined. I created a few consulting gigs at my father’s company and painted a large warehouse to scrape together a few thousand.
My Boat - The Strega
I told friends about my plans. This turned out to be very important, since the boat I ended up buying was referred to me by one of my friends. Although he knew my budget, my friend was unaware that the seller was asking a very moderate price due to a family illness. Scenarios where there is urgency on the part of the seller can lead to better asking prices. Of course it is unfortunate, but in reality life is uncertain and often we must make big decisions in small time constraints. In this case, I was able to pay half of the asking price up front and the rest once my consulting pay cleared in my bank account.
On July 4th, 2012, Strega (Italian for witch) was all mine. I felt the excitement of a child, a new start, freedom and all the challenges that accompany it.
Getting The Strega Ship-Shape
After taking her out for a test run with a few friends, I performed a thorough cleaning and top paint, built a few shelves, and repaired some of the standing rigging. She was ready to set sail. We set out in the morning near the end of August and arrived at Oceanside Marina on Stock Island (adjacent to Key West) that evening. We even had time to cut the motor and go for a swim along the way. The weather was perfect and the trip was completed without incident, a success all around.
Finding A Job
The next day, alone and very aware of my lack of additional funds, it became clear that I needed to obtain work immediately. I had been given an old bicycle by a neighbor at the marina where I had bought Strega, so I set out looking for anything that would pay the bills. It was a struggle to say the least. Tourist towns in general are very cautious when hiring because of the transient nature of the place. They expect people to leave quickly and without notice, so in order to mitigate that risk they complicate the hiring process; often requiring several interviews for the simplest of positions.
In my case, I was applying to become a breakfast line cook. I had owned restaurants, so it took much internal humbling to play their game and nod and smile to get the position. But alas, I was hired and within a few weeks I was earning just enough to cover the slip fee at the marina and living expenses.
Local Research & Some Luck
Near the end of that month, I was concerned with a few things. First, the marina was approximately 35 minutes via bicycle to get to Key West and my job, which began at 6am. Not a morning person by nature, this was a challenge in and of itself. Second, the slip fees were quite high at $625/month when in fact I did not really have a slip, but rather a spot on the main seawall, where boats were being put in and removed regularly, disrupting my sleep and peace, especially on weekends when partying boaters would return and have music blasting. I did some research and found that the City Bight had a mooring field which was nearly half the cost of the marina. The only problem...I didn’t have a dinghy.
As luck would have it, I was riding home from work and spotted a pile of several deflated dinghies next to an engine repair shop that was just outside of the marina entrance. I went inside and inquired about a few dinghies that looked reparable. The first was a soft bottom and the lady said they wanted $200 for it. The second was a hard bottom that was stained with dirt and full of leaves. She made a quick call and informed me that I could have it for $50. I was beside myself. Barring any major problems, this was an $800 dinghy, I was gushing on the inside. With help from a friend, we brought the dinghy to the boat and scrubbed it, tested and repaired a minor leak, and filled it with air.
Awesome. Now what? Oh right, it needed a motor. Within a few days I found a 2.5 Hp Nissan outboard for $150. I was set. I had a working dinghy for $200 and was ready to make the move onto the hook (mooring ball in this case).
Moving To The New Mooring
At the end of the month, a few friends and I motored Strega over to the City Bight mooring field. The bight contains approximately 100 mooring balls and is roughly half of a mile to the dinghy dock and facilities, stretching about an acre or two of water. At the time I arrived, only a dozen or so boats were moored. Some of them looked abandoned, suggested by the number of cormorant birds perched aboard or the general disarray of their appearance.
I selected a ball that was near enough to other boats but far enough from earshot so that I would have the peace that I craved since enduring the boisterous marina surroundings for nearly a month prior. It was ideal. A small island was nearby, uninhabited but promising as something to explore. Months later I would be part of a small group who held movie night once a week, projecting onto a jib sail hung from trees on the island. For now, I boarded the dinghy and motored to the main dock and paid the deposit and first month’s rent of $315.
Establishing A New Life
A routine quickly developed. Awaken at sunrise, go to work, look for more work when possible, explore the island by bicycle, make friends when possible, avoid crazy people when possible, stock up on water, make repairs, fix this and that, and so on. The surprises came abruptly and almost immediately, however. On the second night, a swell came in from the north, where the field is exposed. Waves as tall as three or four feet caused my relatively small vessel to buck up and down, bow to stern, as if it was a bucking bronco trying to free itself from confinement.
This became a common occurrence as fall and winter storms battered the Keys that year. Some mornings I awakened disoriented from all the movement through the night, feeling as if I had not slept more than a few minutes the entire night. A few nights I opted to dinghy to shore with a sleeping bag rather than endure the chaos. But after the storm season, the peace and calm arrived, bringing the solace that I had only dreamed of with it. My hammock set from mast to bow rail, cocktail in hand, magnificent frigatebirds soaring above, marvelous colors of pink and
deep purple crossing the panorama, Strega lulling softly to and fro. It was heaven in those times.
A Great Experience?
So would I do it again, you ask? Absolutely. Not a day goes by when something in my current life makes me recall or even consider going back to the liveaboard lifestyle. The people alone are worth the adventure. Many are like-minded, whether anti-establishment or religious or outcasts or intellects. I met a graduate math teacher, a hit man, a philosopher, several engineers, some internet gurus who cashed out and bought into the lifestyle. And maybe that is the point.
As a liveaboard, there are no social classes, regardless of the size or price of your boat. When the proverbial shit hits the fan, you break down, they break down, everything becomes equal. It is survival and communal caring at its most basic level. And it is magical.