Debunking the myths about liveaboard boaters

Rick Schnurr and Jude Brooks have lived aboard their 1968 converted wooden fishing boat for five years. Photos by Rick Schnurr

We are liveaboard boaters. We want you to know that we love this life we have chosen. This means that our only permanent home is a boat.

Living aboard a boat is a time-honored tradition on our coast. Sometimes we are cruising the coast of British Columbia. At other times we may be anchored in a safe harbor or tied up at a marina. One of the real pluses of our chosen lifestyle is that we can choose where we want to live, and if we decide to move, all we have to do is untie the lines or pull up the anchor and go. It’s all about freedom, a thing many talk about but fewer find.

There are other things that attract us to the liveaboard life. We live in close proximity to nature. Often, our neighbors are seals, otters, mink, seagulls, Blue Herons, Kingfishers and a variety of fish. Our human neighbors are fellow boaters from all over the world. On a marina dock, we learn to live close to each other where the skills of both being a friend and at the same time giving each other the space needed for privacy are essential. This sense of community among live aboard boaters is the memory most cherished by many of those who have moved back to shore.

Living aboard a boat is also a way to simplify one’s life and have a smaller impact on the environment, using less of our increasingly scarce resources. We have been able to give up the use of an automobile and rely on our feet or public transportation. Because we spend the winter docked in downtown Victoria, most of the amenities we need are either a short walk or bus ride away.

Very often we are told by people living in traditional life situations ashore that we are living a secret dream they have had for years. Our response is always, “If you really want to do this, then just go for it!” As famous world cruisers Lynn and Larry Pardey said, “Go simple and go now.” However, careful consideration is needed before making this choice; it’s not for everyone. For instance, if you are married, it is essential that you both share the same dream. (And there’s little hope for avid gardeners!)

We are writing this article because we believe it is important that people have an accurate account of what the liveaboard life represents. Often in the media, people who live aboard and the boats they live in are presented in a negative light. A recent piece in the National Post newspaper had a large headline with the words “shanty town” and “derelict boats.” However, there were no pictures of either in the article. Many municipalities have a fear of liveaboard boats due to these misconceptions, so we would like to present you with some facts to counter the prevalent myths about liveaboard boats and their crews.

Myth number one: Liveaboard boaters are trying to live under the radar

Liveaboard boats and the people who own them are fully in the public eye. Many marinas where they live are either open to the public or, if gated, very visible from the shoreline. Here in Victoria Harbour, the boats are a tourist attraction, with many visitors coming by, taking pictures and asking questions. The liveaboard boats are a large part of the ambience of the harbor. Can you imagine how many of us there are in photographs of Victoria shown around the world?

There are a number of families with children living aboard, and we all know you can’t hide children. Liveaboard boaters do not wish nor choose to be hiding from the communities in which they live. If they are pushed into a position of feeling they have to hide, it is only due to the kind of prejudice and lack of real knowledge and understanding that so often afflicts minority communities.

Myth number two: Liveaboard boaters do not pay taxes

Anyone living aboard would prefer to be securely tied up to a dock in the winter months when they are not cruising. Anchoring out in a harbor in winter is a choice some are forced into when marina space is either not available or unaffordable.

Liveaboard boats rent the dock space they occupy in a marina from the marina operator. They pay all municipal and provincial taxes through moorage fees assessed by the marina, in the same manner that would be applied to anyone on shore living in rental accommodation.

If one sees liveaboard boats occupying an anchorage in the winter, ask if the adjacent marina offers liveaboard moorage at a reasonable rate. Most often the answer is that the marina operator does not or is hampered by local bylaws restricting liveaboard moorage. Too bad, because, as you will see below, they are giving up a lucrative revenue source. This fact becomes even more unreasonable when the same marina offers sequential moorage to people living on boats all summer long in the same location.

Myth number three: Liveaboard boaters are unemployed 

Most liveaboard boaters are either employed in the community (that’s why they need moorage near their jobs) or are retired. In my observation, most liveaboard boaters are in their mid-sixties and have lived aboard for more than seven years. In our community we have former military people, university professors, landscapers, retail staff, electronics engineers, mothers and fathers, computer programmers. A number of them are self-employed and work from their boats … you get the picture.

Myth number four: Liveaboard boaters pump their poop and other pollutants into the harbor

Federal laws prohibit the pumping of toilet waste (black water) and solvents ( oil, fuel, etc.) into marine environments. Boats with marine toilets (heads) have holding tanks for these wastes and most marinas provide services to promote environmentally friendly practices such as holding tank pump-outs.

The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority has a publicly available pumpout station located at Fisherman’s Wharf. The GVHA also provides its liveaboard customers with a weekly mobile pumpout service at the boats. This service is paid for by boaters using GVHA facilities as a portion of their moorage fees.

A mobile pumpout services a boat in Victoria Harbour, British Columbia.

Very often, pollution in the harbor comes from shore. Oil slicks on the inner harbor water and fertilizer run off come from municipal storm drains; plastic bottles, plastic bags and coffee cups are thrown from shore. And the worst pollutant, cigarette butts, come from thoughtless smokers of all stripes.

We liveaboard boaters choose to live in this beautiful aquatic environment and none of us wants to see it polluted in any way.

Liveaboard boats have a very small environmental footprint. Many occupy less than 400 square feet. They get by on 30 amps of electrical power for all lighting, heating and cooking needs. That’s less than a homeowner on shore uses to cook dinner on an electric range. Two people living on their boat will only use about 50 gallons of fresh water in a week. We have no lawns to water. A number of us do not own automobiles and make frequent use of public transit.

Myth number five: Most liveaboard boats are derelict

Most liveaboard boats are not derelict. Just like a house on shore, to be able to comfortably live aboard a boat, it must be maintained and kept in good condition. Also, like landowners, we take pride in our homes and spend a great deal of time and money on maintenance.

Often, to be allowed to moor, insurance is required. Boat insurance is more costly than house insurance and requires rigorous regular inspections to qualify. Many boats that appear to be derelict are, in fact, not lived aboard, but are abandoned by their owners.

Owners of rundown boats, like owners of rundown houses, are an individual problem that needs to be dealt with on an individual basis. The same thing goes for anyone putting pollution into the harbor. Deal with the individual committing the offence. Do not judge all for the bad behavior of a few.

Myth number six: People living on boats are not contributing members of the community

There are almost 200 liveaboard boats in Victoria Harbour, and we are very much contributing members of our community. Our moorage and associated fees alone contribute more than $1,100,000.00, to the local economy. Added to this is the money spent (locally) on groceries, clothing, maintenance, services, entertainment, education and a host of other expenses.

Liveaboard boaters also contribute to the community through volunteer work, they sit on the boards of local service organizations providing community involvement and they contribute to the economy through their jobs. One man living on his boat in Esquimalt, is a provincial emergency coordinator, providing amateur radio services during an emergency.

All liveaboard boaters have VHF radios on their boats and would be able to provide communication services in the event of an emergency. They are also the eyes and ears at the marinas where they live, preventing theft and damage to facilities and unattended boats.

That’s our perspective on living on the water. We laugh, love and feel just like everyone else, and we are a part of our community. Next time you are in the harbor, stop by and say hi.

18 Responses to Debunking the myths about liveaboard boaters

  1. AndyG August 7, 2014 at 4:10 am #

    I’ve been interested in the liveaboard lifestyle for quite a time now, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading various articles, is that if you want to liveaboard as a low cost living alternative, then !!! DON’T LIVE IN A MARINA or HARBOR!!!,.. you could pay as much or more than you pay for a room in an apartment despite the fact you’ve already spent good money on the boat.

  2. nic October 29, 2013 at 12:58 am #

    I would like to liveaboard but I don’t make alot, 10hr in Missouri one of the reasons I wanna be near coast hoping to make more. Thought I could live on hook at first but do they charge extra for dingy area while I would be at work that would just counter the hook savings? Thought I would get composting toilet if anybody cares. Also one marina has $2,000,000 insurance requirement that I can imagine would be out of reach for a guy in my pay grade, am I worried for nothing?

    • Avatar of Scott Wilson
      Scott Wilson October 29, 2013 at 6:34 am #

      In our experience, it costs less to live aboard our sail boat than it does to live in a house ashore, and we know that’s true for a lot of our neighbors as well. Maybe Rick should have added another myth to his list “You have to be rich to live on your boat.” You don’t.

      You’d have to check your local harbor and landings for the answer to your dinghy questions. And insurance policies with large liability coverage amounts are surprisingly affordable for smaller boats. Again, you’d just have to check into it to find out.

  3. Douglas Walling July 5, 2013 at 3:05 am #

    Thank You Rick , for sharing this info. Currently , I am returning to the US after a 14 year, extended cruise to S E Asia, and doing the research on living aboard , in the PNW , while re-acquainting, and adapting to the fast lane , again . My wife will be working in Federal Way , just north of Tacoma , as she is getting a job transfer , from Singapore . We had hoped to live aboard , until we could get settled near her work , but are getting quite suspicious that live aboard slips, have v long waiting lists especially in that area . Are there any suggestions that you would pass on to us , as to what marinas might be able to accommodate living aboard our 40′ LOA sailboat ?

  4. Mike Ratrie November 26, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    Sorry if this is a re-post. Looks like my first attempt failed.

    I actually believe that calling these things “Myths” is too strong a word. There is a segment of the liveaboard population that IS trying to live under the radar on derelict boats, dumping their waste overboard, avoiding taxes, etc.

    Yes, it is a small subset of the liveaboard community (which is itself a very small subset of the general population), but they are not mythical. Indeed, their actions frequently lead to excessive regulations and insurance requirements that negatively impact liveaboards who are doing all of the “right” things.

    • Rob Davison November 27, 2012 at 9:28 am #

      True Mike, there are always those few that seem to stand out as bad examples or sore thumbs to be pointed at. But if you take a serious look at society as a whole there are similar individuals in every segment of living abodes be it brick houses, apartments, Mobil homes or motor homes or boats. While the majority abide by the rules or the norm and keep things squared away there will be those that don’t just ask any chairman of any home owners association in about any planned community around Puget Sound.

      Rumor has it that there are a number of older couples or older individuals living aboard on the Sound who are on fixed income who can’t afford regular or full time in a marina and anchor out because of that. They do show up in some places every so often to be able to go to the doctor, shop, refuel, pump out and maybe spend a nite or two in the marina to recharge the batteries and do a bit of maintenance they can’t do on the hook.

      My wife and I have been talking about buying a larger boat and living aboard full time but lately we have been thinking more on getting a boat big enough to cruise on half a year and live on land the other half hopefully doing some traveling in warmer areas then.

  5. Mike Ratrie November 26, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    I actually believe that calling these things “Myths” is too strong a word. There is a segment of the liveaboard population that IS trying to live under the radar on derelict boats, dumping their waste overboard, avoiding taxes, etc.

    Yes, it is a small subset of the liveaboard community (which is itself a very small subset of the general population), but they are not mythical. Indeed, their actions frequently lead to excessive regulations and insurance requirements that negatively impact liveaboards who are doing all of the “right” things.

  6. Al F. November 25, 2012 at 7:51 pm #

    Well thought out article. Covered most of the bases in regards to liveaboards. We are liveaboards ourselves in La Conner on the Swinomish Channel.

    We have come across “Anchor Out Liveaboards” during our travels away from our home dock. We found they are a different breed of liveaboard in that they cannot even afford moorage. They take their black water to shore in buckets and cook on a small propane stove. No electricity, just candles at night.

    So my point is, there are different levels of living aboard just like our landlubber neighbors. Just watch the TV show called “Extreme Houseboats on cable channel, HGTV (Home & Garden TV) ” for a look at the other extreme of liveaboards.

    • Al F. November 25, 2012 at 9:38 pm #

      The show “Extreme Houseboats” is on The Travel Channel, not HGTV.

    • Rick Schnurr November 26, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

      True enough. Thanks for the response. My emphasis was on ” affordable moorage” because so many marina spaces here in the Victoria area are actually occupied by large, new and expensive yachts of US registry. Many are here illegally in that they are avoiding paying US sales taxes ( by bringing the boat to Canada) and also avoiding Canadian duties and taxes by using loopholes to maintain their ” visitor” status in Canada. Thus, marinas are full and can charge outrageous moorage fees and extra live aboard fees on top. We (BCNR) understand that authorities on both sides of the border are aware of these illegal boats and are working to stop the practice. If marinas had to work a little harder to attract moorage customers, then the fees might float to a more appropriate level.

  7. Avatar of Scott Wilson
    Scott Wilson November 22, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    Great article, Rick. I’ll be linking to it every time I have the opportunity to engage folks who share these popular misconceptions about the liveaboard lifestyle.

    I share the concern of other commenters that many of those who are working so hard to stomp us out of existence aren’t really amenable to reading or considering logical, well-stated arguments, but you have to have hope, I suppose.

  8. Elliott Bayman November 21, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

    A liveaboard once noticed that my headsail was coming unfurled in a storm and acted quickly to prevent it. If not for that I would have received a disappointing phone call from the marina staff.

  9. Tom November 19, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

    Great article. I’m a landlocked liveaboard wannabe. In 2-3-4 years I expect to retire and move back to the ocean. I really like the look of Mr. Schnurr’s boat. Does he read these posts? (Sorry – I’m new to these online articles, etc.). If so, would he please contact me at t2ieb (at) hotmail.com?

    Thanks.
    Tom
    Kamloops, BC

    • Rick Schnurr November 21, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

      sure, write to me. rick.schnurr@gmail.com or check me our on facebook

      • Maggie Murphy November 25, 2012 at 8:39 pm #

        Agree with all the “Myths” We have been living aboard at Elliott Bay Marina for 11 years. We pay taxes, are certainly not under the radar, try to go everywhere when we can, we are not “unemployed” but hope to one day be retired. In the mean team we have our friends, the eagles, the kingfishers, the Herons. the Sea Lions, the Seals, the Ottor’s..It is a life but not for all expecially not for those that cant get along with their partners or spousal units!!! It is a life for us, married 36 years, 42 foot sailboat, same interests!
        Thanks
        Maggie
        S/V Tir Na Nog

  10. Cindy Matwichuk November 19, 2012 at 7:37 pm #

    Thank you for such a well spoken and informative article to help educate the landlubbers. The National Post article certainly painted liveaboards with a rather large and nasty brush. Thank you for presenting our side of the story.

  11. thom November 19, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    PNWB,
    I certainly hope we don’t have to go the way of FOX TV to get our message out!
    Here at Shilshole they at least pay lip service to the value of liveaboards in the marina.

  12. Avatar of Pacific NW Boater
    Pacific NW Boater November 19, 2012 at 1:01 pm #

    A well written and properly structured case argument for liveaboards. That being said, I wonder just what kind of impact this approach has with non-boaters. As liveaboards and responsible boaters, we can all relate to what Mr. Schnurr said. But in our culture’s climate of quick sound bites and frequently shoddy journalism, such a well intentioned piece is, I fear, almost too nice?

    Not sure what the “answer” is. But if non-boaters read stories about derelict and abandoned vessels being associated with the small percentage of worst offending liveaboards, might we need to take a more aggressive stance in offsetting that perception?

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