Houseboat neighbors enjoy views, commutes, camaraderie
The view from David Murray’s home in Southwest is among the best in the city, a panorama of the Washington Channel bookended by 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 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 L’Enfant Plaza and Waterfront Metro stations,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 Southwest 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. Other communities in the region include the somewhat secluded Tantallon Marina in Prince George’s County, where about 20 peoplelive on boats tucked away on Swan Creek, and the 30-slip Port Annapolis marina in Annapolis, where strict regulations limit the size of houseboats.
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 parkingspace at the marina and scheduled pump-outs of waste through a hose that connects to the District’s municipal sewage system. By comparison, condo fees in the Southwest 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 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, just like Petworth or Columbia Heights,” 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.