Past stuff: Liveaboard life from the Daily Breeze

25 Jun

By: Dennis Johnson, Daily Breeze staff writer

Tony Heller can pinpoint the moment he saw his future.

Many moons ago, in the Berkeley marina, he had an experience that altered his world and turned him into something of a pirate.

KingHarbor_010411In the area for a trade show, Heller decided to stroll the marina docks while the other conventioneers motored around the San Francisco Bay on a dinner-booze cruise.

Looking out over the inky deep blue, Heller spotted a small trawler bobbing in the dark, a soft glow coming from the boat’s cabin. In the glow he could make out a man sitting, reading a book and smoking a pipe.

It was a sight that spoke of deeper meanings. A sight that told him there was something about the ocean, about boats that he needed to learn.

“I had never seen a more content looking man,” says Heller, stretched out in a plastic chair on a dock in the Port Royal Marina in Redondo Beach’s King Harbor one recent warm evening.

He knew what he had to do. He ditched his two-story Esplanade penthouse apartment, moved into a friend’s three-car garage in Torrance and saved for three years. He was going to buy a boat and he was going to live on it.

He got his power boat, the Gypsy Boy, and a liveaboard slip on Port Royal’s A-dock. Thirteen years later he wouldn’t change a thing.

“I feel gratitude that I’m able to live so close to nature in such an urban environment,” says Heller, a 58-year-old, barrel-chested, bearded man with tattooed forearms. “I just have to walk through the gates and I’m in a different world.”

“I’m not a sailor or a yachtsman, but I love the marine environment . . . being on the water is where I belong.”

Man has been always drawn to the ocean. Perhaps it’s that most of the human body is water or that 70 percent of the Earth is covered by the stuff. Maybe it’s something deeper, less tangible. To the hundreds who live aboard their boats in harbors from Marina del Rey to San Pedro it’s just home.

Within these marinas is a population of old salts and sailing fanatics, boat freaks and casual cruisers, people living on the cheap and people looking to hide away. A group as diverse as any mixed neighborhood.

Liveaboards like Heller understand. Like him, most say they couldn’t live any other way. There’s something about living on water that you can’t get from land, such as the roll of the ocean under your bed or the barking of sea lions outside your window.

The draw is strong in the damp shadow of the sea.

It’s a long, hot July evening, the kind that sticks to you as the clock hands slide into the p.m. Heller is aboard the Gypsy Boy while the rest of the Port Royal A-Dock crew pulls up deck chairs and wine glasses down the way for its evening board meeting. The topic? Cocktails over sunset.

Heller readily points out his pirate roots. A lineage he traces back to a Jimmy Buffett song, lyrics of which have made it on to the tailgate of his truck.

“Yes, I am a pirate, 200 years too late,” it says in hand-lettered detail. The former club biker says the specifics are sketchy, but he woke up one morning after a particularly good party and the words were painted on the truck.

Down on A-Dock, the Gypsy Boy is the first boat you’ll see after slipping through the security gate. The 1939 Fellows and Stewart – built in Wilmington – sits sentinel over a never-ending parade of boaters, fellow liveaboards, fishermen and gawking tourists.

“We have a little community down here,” he says, stretched out on a queen-sized bed shoe-horned into the boat’s main cabin. “It’s like an old frontier community where we help each other out. It’s kind of like a commune . . . the last bastion of neighborhood cooperation and spirit.”

Everybody helps with something. Heller offers his electrical services or his tools. Lobster Don deals out the leftover fish. Someone else loans their dinghy.

This is what keeps him here. This and the bond he’s developed with his surroundings. He points to crabs crawling along some rocks, speaks of the perfect stillness of evening hours and the daily sightings of marine fauna. This is his back yard.

“You’d have to stand out there on a foggy night and hear the sound of the fog horns, hear the bell buoy clanging at the harbor mouth (to understand),” he said. “It’s not an intellectual comprehension. It’s a different kind of connection.”

The inside of Heller’s 40-foot boat is a study in space management. To get to the galley, one has to slide over the bed and down a narrow, steep set of stairs, past the shelf holding his TV, satellite dish receiver, VCR and CDs. A computer sits scrunched onto another shelf, its monitor showing a fish tank screensaver. A dorm-sized refrigerator and some stools sit in the narrow path around the bed.

His space is no different than others who live on their boats. A good rule of thumb if you live aboard, is don’t collect things. Offenders of this rule have boats that look more like Fred Sanford’s front yard than they do pleasure crafts.

But Heller’s world is neat and orderly. It’s the working space in which he writes articles for Hot Bike Japan, a Japanese-language magazine devoted to Harley-Davidson motorcycles. This he does during breaks from his gig as a driving-school instructor.

The way he sees it, the same free spirit that fuels bikers also drives boaters.

“A lot of people down here, if they took a right, they would have bought a Harley, turned left, they would have bought a boat,” he says. “Well, they turned left.”

By now, Lobster Don is pulling in and Heller heads over from his boat. Some of the other A-dockers break from their board meeting to throw out a line as Don prepares to finesse his boat into the slip.

Heller introduces a reporter all around and a glass of wine is offered, the jokes start flying as the group of liveaboards and just-plain-boat owners discuss life on the docks. The group has the easy rapport of longtime friends and the saltiness of the seaworthy.

“The most dangerous thing on the dock is when you have a drink with an umbrella in it, you have to watch out that you don’t get yourself in the eye,” said Mike Morgan, a plumbing design engineer who has worked on the Disney Concert Hall and the Getty Museum.

The crowd soon breaks for take-out from the Cheesecake Factory and another evening drifts into night on the A-Dock.

In the early evening a few days later, the water in the harbor is glass. A light breeze comes through and there is no hint of the muggy humidity that usually blankets the ending weeks of summer. A screaming beauty of a blood-red sunset begins its show.

Down on A-Dock, things are quiet. As one of King Harbor’s five marinas, the Port Royal Marina is at the southern end of Basin II, across from the Portofino Marina. The harbor’s marinas also include one alongside the International Boardwalk.

Running a marina is a balance of keeping it nice for recreational boaters and calm for those who call it home, says Michael Aaker, operations manager for the King Harbor Marina. Liveaboard slips usually account for about 10 percent of a marina’s total boat slips.

Marinas with liveaboards are bound to have a mix of tenants. Some are there for the ocean, others are looking to escape something, hide out or live on the cheap, Aaker said.

“Generally they are easy-going, low-key generally,” Aaker says. “They like to spend their days on the water, just kind of get away from the riffraff.”

While living aboard can be inexpensive, it can also cost a fortune depending on maintenance and the size of the boat, Aaker says. Liveaboard slip fees vary among marinas and usually include electricity, a telephone line, cable television, access to laundry facilities, private showers, mailboxes, and sometimes a general store.

Marinas themselves operate like mobile home parks in that tenants often own their boats, but rent the slip in which they float. Some rent the whole set-up.

Aaker says King Harbor allows people to stay aboard their boats for nine nights out of the month without paying the liveaboard fees, a rule often broken by sneakaboards, those who live aboard without paying the additional charges.

As with any marina, there are some boats that are mainly floating apartments. Heller’s boat might fall into this category, but he has plans for repairs.

On A-Dock, the annual Christmas party is the big blowout, with food and drink lining the dock, attracting so many people that it dips into the water in the middle.

The dock is the great meeting place, a social mixing spot where millionaires mingle with thousandaires.

This is one of the things Mike and Sue Morgan discovered 22 years ago when they made the move from ocean-view condominium to seafaring home.

“There’s more of a restfulness being on the water,” says Sue, the editor of Latitudes and Attitudes, a magazine devoted to the ocean cruising lifestyle. “I have a hard time if I don’t have a view looking out at it. I think it’s an essential part of my being.”

One recent night, after an odd rainstorm in late July, a large blue canvas cloth still covers their boat like a canopy. It’s mostly to keep the sun from ravaging the teak wood deck of their 35-foot 1965 Cheoy Lee yawl – Because – but it also served nicely as a giant umbrella.

Mike is getting ready to smoke a chunk of yellowtail on the barbecue, while Poguey, their 6-year-old Australian shepherd “dock dog” runs around excitedly.

When the bug first bit, the two were learning to sail together, eventually chartering boats, but soon found themselves spending more time working on the boats than they cared to. They eventually bought their current boat, because it was in a 40-foot liveaboard slip, something they were looking for.

They chose to name it – Because – since that was the only answer they had when anybody asked them why they would do such a thing.

Like with the Gypsy Boy, space is a premium aboard the Because. While there is plenty room for standing in the main cabin for four or five people, they probably wouldn’t want to play leap frog.

One would wonder if such tight quarters has an effect on living with another person like this, but Sue said she could think of only a handful of times where she’s had to get up and walk away.

“You just kind of make your own space in your head. It’s easy enough to dig into a book or a magazine,” she says.

Books are stashed and held in place by bungee cords on small shelves above the seats that flank the main cabin. Glasses in a cabinet are covered with socks to keep them safe when the boat’s underway. The pantry is a miniature hammock strung across the counter holding crackers and bananas and other food.

This is daily living mode. When they sail, they have to stow stuff in their RV.

“We have what you call a pile-it boat,” Mike says. “You have a pile here and a pile there.”

“It’s homey,” Sue says. “We make it work, but there hasn’t been a time where we haven’t said we could use more room.”

But space isn’t the point of living on a boat, neither are the inconveniences of doing laundry at the coin-operated machines or having to go to the marina bathroom whenever nature calls. Space wise, the couple spends most of their time up top or out on the dock, and the other hassles are just part of living like you’re camping out every night.

“Instead of being cooped up in a house, there’s a little more freedom to take off and get out of Dodge when you need to,” Sue says. “The ability to get away from it and not be such a part of the rat race.

“I mean how many people get to wake up in the morning and see a seal swim by?”

The ocean and the sailing are the payoff, a point illustrated when the two left for a one-week Alaskan cruise with friends in late August, a trip where they scored their weight in salmon and halibut.

The day they return Mike is dockside curing the salmon filets and seasoning the halibut for a Labor Day barbecue. Sue is having a glass of wine, while Heller sits nearby having a smoke.

A creeping chill has cut into the long hot days. There is no crimson sunset, just a gray blanket of fog hanging over the sky. The fog horn bleats distantly at harbor mouth.

Some friends at the boat across the way finish their cocktails.

And so it goes on A-Dock.

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