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Gangplank Marina:
The Best of Boat Worlds

By Julie Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 2, 1995

At the Gangplank Marina, where there are three blocks of boats of all sorts along the Washington Channel, the amphibious residents have a love-hate attitude toward their chosen homes. They savor the adventures the water offers them, yet they are constantly aware of the deadly potential of their lifestyles.

The 15-year-old marina at 600 Water St. SW operates at 80 percent to 85 percent capacity despite fires and winter hose freeze-ups that sometimes occur. Some take the risk to enjoy sandy beaches and nearby coves, whether it it is on their $40,000 cruiser or a half-million-dollar yacht.

Stretching from a docked Spirit of Washington tour boat to the Capital Yacht Club, the marina is home to 238 boats, 115 of which function as year-round residences.

Attracting mostly singles and couples, ages 20 to 50 years, the marina is a congenial mix of people of no particular economic class or occupation. Airline pilots, plumbers, laborers and actors all pay slip fees based on the size of their yacht, houseboat, trawler or sailboat. The monthly fee ranges from $123 for a 20-foot boat to $417 for a 50-foot boat.

Among the high-profile names known to have docked at Gangplank are actress Kelly McGillis and Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), who said he left the marina three years ago because the prices were too high.

"A boat is an alternative lifestyle," said Brian Clarke, the marina's dock master. "A boat is more than just a {recreation vehicle} on the side of the road. It puts you right up next to God because at any time, you can sink. You are at the mercy of Mother Nature. You have to remain aware of what's going on."

While residents cite weather hazards and repair work as disadvantages to living aboard a boat, they admit to indulging in the freedom and sense of community fostered by the marina.

For six-year marina resident Ronald van Vliet, who has sailed since childhood, an initial quest for a parking space burgeoned into a permanent lifestyle.

"I thought I could get a parking space if I had a boat at the marina," said van Vliet, who used to work at a nearby office. "The plans kept getting bigger and bigger."

Van Vliet bought a 42-year-old yacht, for which he paid $1, only to see it sink the next day. But even after a slew of renovations, costing $30,000, followed by a steady stream of repairs, he remained steadfast.

"{Boats} are a big hole in the water that you throw money into," he said. "You have to kind of like {the lifestyle} in order to spend money on it."

Van Vliet, 30, an undergraduate student at George Mason University, finds life on the dock a suitable fluctuation between costly repairs and adventurous sojourns. Unlike other live-aboards, he foots the extra three-month winter insurance bill to take wintertime cruises out to Georgetown, where docking is less of a problem.

"You have to be in tune with what's going on on the boat. You can't just assume everything is going to stay working forever," said van Vliet, who does most of his repair work himself.

Along with the hassle of costly insurance and repairs, live-aboards must guard against winter perils to ensure a hazard-free, year-round existence.

Sometimes, just slipping off the icy docks into the water can be fatal.

"People don't seem to know how cold water can be in the wintertime," van Vliet said. "You can't yell for help very loudly. You could potentially be in trouble. It's something to keep in mind when you're walking down the docks late at night. You have about six minutes or so to think about what you're doing."

Fires, dubbed "the big fear" by the Gangplank's general manager, Bob Taylor, pose a substantial safety threat when they strike a boat after it has left the dock.

"You're out and underway, there's nowhere else to go," said Taylor, 50, who lives at the marina on a 40-foot cruiser. "I think folks here are a little more safety conscious living around the water because of natural safety hazards."

Even at dockside, a fire can quickly ravage a boat, Taylor said, recalling that a small sailboat was destroyed about a year ago after a cooking fire swept through the vessel.

Roger Rozelle, the marina's longest resident at 15 years, came from a high-rise apartment building in South America to settle into a used 35-foot catamaran. Even though condensation occasionally leaves him with a wet interior, and lightning struck the mast of his ocean-going sailboat last summer, destroying all the electrical equipment, Rozelle clings to the ideal vision of boat life he had years ago.

"I just wanted to simplify my life and just do something different," said Rozelle, 50, director of publications for an Arlington aviation association. "I had some dreams of taking off and going sailing. I was younger and stupider and I bought a boat."

Eileen Thietten, 48, who lives with her husband on their 40-foot trawler, said she enjoys weekend excursions to Georgetown, but is sometimes drained by the maintainence the boat demands.

"I like it," said Thietten, a waitress at a Capitol Hill restaurant. "It's not anything I want to do in my seventies. You have to be very agile. It's very physical. There's a lot of schlepping."

Although boats have most household amenities, such as phone lines, cable television, running water and heat, some residents feel cramped by the small living quarters.

"You don't have much space. It's limited and sometimes precious," Rozelle said. "There's lots of compromises you have to make on a boat and what you have on it. Living on a boat is obviously not for everyone."

Privacy also becomes an issue with the close proximity of one boat to next. Van Vliet said boaters often develop a sixth sense for detecting the daily routine of others.

"You have to be subtle," he said. "People know immediately. You can't go to the bathroom without someone knowing that you did."

But overall, live-aboards relish in the tranquillity and reclusion their lifestyle affords.

"When we take the boat out, it's to get away and to . . . spend a peaceful weekend away from the city," said Rozelle, who lives on his boat with his girlfriend. "I'm in a busy place, a busy job and for me, the boat is a way to get away from it."

A common meeting place is the Gangplank Marina restaurant where boaters, who get a 10 percent discount, can convene for burgers and beer. The two-level dining area affords a broad view of the waterscape: the stark glare of the sun reflecting off the rippled water, flanked by the gleaming boat shells and the skeletal outlines of masts.

"It's this sort of dream you have -- this freedom that you can go anywhere at any time," van Vliet said of life aboard a boat. "It's not necessarily true, but the feeling's there."

© 1996 The Washington Post Co.

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