George Russell stood calmly on the dock at Fort Washington Marina watching night come to the water-front. Storm clouds rolled up the river ahead of him, rumbling, roaring block the setting sun.
People came busting out of their boats, retying knots, moving lawn chairs, preparing for the storm. He ignored them.
"This one'll blow over,"he said softly. "It's heading north now." He crossed his arms and let the wind blow his hair. It had been a hot day.
Russell, 55, is one of what seems to be a growing number of people who have spurned suburban life, tossed out the accumulation of a lifetime of apartment living, given up mowing the lawn, walking the dog, painting the porch . . . and moved onto a boat.
In the current issue of Motorboating and Sailing magazine, it is estimated that more than 200,000 Americans now live aboard their boats all year long. "We spoke to a majority of the marinas in Florida and the east and west coast," said associate editor Bonnie O'Donovan. "And then we made what I think is a very conservative estimate."
She also said that between 5,000 and 10,000 Americans are cruising around the world with no permanent address. "Living aboard has become a sort of alternative lifestyle in the past 10 years." she added.
Most live aboard their own sailboats or cruisers, she said. The old standby, the house boat, is only popular in the inland waterways, and nationally, houseboat production is down.
Traditionally, boat dwellers were thought to be rugged people who lived at the end of dark, rickety docks.
But this new generation of seadogs consits mostly of middle-class young couples on 15-foot houseboats, retired couples on 50-foot cruisers or single people who have bought a boat just to get away. They all talk a lot about "building equity."
Last year, more than $5 billionwas spent by Americans buying new and used boats and the gadgets that go with them.#T"There's really no way to tell how many people buy boats to live on them all year long," said D.C. boat salesman Jim Cavanaugh who also lives on a boat. "But nowsadays at least half of the people I talk to say they are buying a boat to live aboard all year long."
For them, living on a boat combines suburban pleasures like shag carpeting with more rugged joys like being rocked to sleep by the waves. Most feel they've found the good life and are very defensive about it.
"Let me tell you this," said one man. "Not many people want to talk about living on boats because they don't want a lot of people to think it's all romance and move on the docks with them. We just don't want any more people around".
Many people who live on boats are like Pat Tucker, a middle-aged single woman who had never spend much time on the water before she bought her houseboat.
"I don't even know how to drive this thing yet," she said, laughing. "But I'm learning."
Tucker has put most of her personal things into storage, her luggage in the hull, and moved her business - free-lance writing - onto her boat. On her desk, amid writer's rubble, are books on boating maintenance and safety. "Principles of Electric Theories" lies open on a chair.
,"I think that one day soon the whole technology of our society is just going to fall apart around us. Nodody knows how to operate anything knows how to operate anything around them anymore," she said. "But on a boat it's different. You're more in control of your environment."
Tucker is a tiny woman with graying hair that she has quit trying to contain. It blew about her face wildly as she talked.
In scuffed houseshoes and a polyester pantsuit, she bustled about her little houseboat, which is docked at the Gangplank Marina on Maine Avenue. She made herb tea in a tiny pot, took sugar from a tiny jar, and used space-saving plastic cups that stacked neatly in her tiny kitchen cupboards.
In a houseboat, there is no such thing as extra space.
"You have to get rid of a lot of your stuff, that's true," she said. "But it's a great feeling of freedom when you realize you really don't need all that stuff. You can live with just a few things and be just as happy."
Russ Wilkinson, 28, bought a houseboat "on impulse without really knowing anything about boats." he said. His boat is now docked at Fort Washington Marina.
But he wanted some measure of privancy that couldn't get in an apartment, and, well, "to build equity," he said. "When we start feeling hemmed in at all, we just pull out of the dock and head for the other shore. What a life."
But life on the water is not all fun and games, as live-aboards will admit.
Winter, especially one like last year's, is not very pleasant. Pipes freeze and makeshift emergency measures are necessary. Jim Cavanaugh, the boat salesman, said he had to run a garden hose from his boat to a nearby dockside restaurant throughout the winter because his pipes froze.
And those lazy floating junkets on the river can turn into disaster, if you're not careful. "I had a lady friend on my boat whom I was entertaining, "Russell said. "And I though we'd just drift around for a while. Before i knew it my boat had run a ground and was tangled up in an old pier."
It took a couple of chain saws and all day to get Russell's boat loose.
Boat owners learn to live with the trash in the river too. "Sometimes in the morning. I look out my window and there is all this sludge and trash blocked up around my dock." Pat Tucker said. "I get out and try to push it away, but usually I just wait for the tide. Then the guy on the other side of the dock has to deal with it."
The idea of living on a boat often arouses hostility, said boat surveyor Doug McCabe. "Whenever there's any publicity about people who live on a boat, everyone gets up in arms about the pollution they're causing," he said.
TO a person, boat dwellers claim they are more conscious of water pollution than "the guy in suburbia who gets heated up about it once a month," said Tom Wilson, manager of the Fort Washigton Marina. "After all, it's the boat people who have to live in the water. They don't want it polluted any moret ahn anyone else does.
Houseboats are usually equipped with holding tanks or some kind of serage treatment facilities. But most people would rather go use the marina's rest rooms, even lat at night, just to avoid having to clean out their tanks," he added.
Houseboat owners also don't pay property taxes because baots are considered luxuries by the tax authorities, rather than property. It is another sore point.
"I can understand why some people are against floating homes," said Jay Thomas, Wilson's business associate. "They've spent a lot of time and money fixing up their little hillside home so they could be near the water. And then someone comes along and makes his home right on the water with no property taxes."
Such unfavorable reaction from local residents to live-aboards helped spur the development of a national organization for boat dwellers called "Homaflote." It was started five years ago and since then, membership has grown to approximately 1,000. A quarterly newsletter advises them among other thing of the most tolerant marinas.
Tennessean Carl Gibson built the first fiberglass houseboat in 1958, and since then his customized boat-building factory has churned out one boat a day. "We can barely keep up with out orders," he said. "When somebody is paying $35,000 for a boat, they have all sorts of special little things they want on it. We cater to such people."
In 1958, houseboats carried up to 35 horsepower engines; now people want as much as 700 horsepower on their boats, he said. Special items like big beds, built-in television sets and stereos are also popular.
Gibson's family business in Goodlettsville - his wife is president and interior designer - will probably expand in the future because, "The boating market hasn't even been touched yet," Gibson said.
A new trend in boat living may be floating homes. These are houses which cost between $10,000 and $200,000 and are built on barges tied up to docks. They are like houseboats but have no engines so much to towed from place to place. More than 500 of these exist in Florida now.
But it's a new idea in the Washigton area, one that hasn't quite caught on yet. Tom Wilson and Jay Thomas recently said a floating home at Fort Washington Marina and plan to buy others as a business investment.
"True, not everyone would be happy with a floating home because it is not a boat," Thomas said. "It's a growing trend but it is not going to sweep the waterways.
Boat owners look at the floating homes with a touch of disdain, the superior attitude o f the true seamen.
"What's the use of living on the water if you can't even get out in it," said George Russell, who lives on a 31-foot sailboat. "The point is to live on the water . . . in a boat."
He looked proudly around the inside of his sailboat. "Here I have everything I need," he said, "I can pick up anytime I want and go to the (Caribbean) islands or just up the Potomac."
Russell has lived on a sailboat for five years, but he has been sailing, "most of my life." His well-worn blue jeans mark him as a seasoned sailor and his back is a leathery tan from hours in the sun.
"Here I am happy," he said. "And here is where I'm goint to stay."