When Tropical Storm David swept through Washington two weeks ago, Katie Lang, a white-haired grandmother, pulled on a weathered rain slicker and helped bail out the boats at Alexandria's Old Town Yacht Basin.
"This is the only life I know," said Lang who has run the marina for the last 16 years and has become something of a Potomac River legend in the process.
The aging marina on the edge of Alexandria's business district is Lang's life. "I don't know what I'd do without it," she said last week after the storm cleared.
Nor could many of Washington's weekend sailors imagine the Alexandria waterfront without Lang.
"Katie Lang is a dying breed of individual," said Andy Orlin, an Arlington county official who docks his 26-foot sailboat at her marina. "She creates a wonderful family atmosphere here, bringing strangers in and making them feel at home."
Despite such affection, Alexandria city officials recently said they are closer than ever to evicting Lang from the riverfront that she calls "my home."
:We feel she is a squatter, living off a dispute between the city and the federal government," said Maston T. Jacks, deputy city attorney. "If that dispute is settled we will seek to reclaim the area."
The issue in the dispute is who owns 50 acres of valuable Alexandria waterfront, including the 2.5-acre marina that Lang operates under a controversial lease from the city. The federal government claims the property belongs to the Department of Interior and has managed to snarl the issue in the courts for six years.
What prompted the Interior Department's suit was not Lang's marina, but the threat of high-rise buildings lining the Alexandria waterfront, despoiling the Washington skyline. But the suit has managed to effectively stop all developments or improvements along the Alexandria waterfront and city officials say it has prevented them from ending their long term lease with Lang.
Two weeks ago, Interior gave a strong hint that it might drop its suit as it issued recommendations for the waterfront, which parallel the city's own recent proposals. In both plans, high-rises are banned, and most of the area would be used for park and recreational purposes.
If the suit is dropped, city officials said they will upgrade the marina, probably without Katie Lang.
"That place has been a minor blighting influence for years when it should have been a gem," complained Alexandria City Manager Douglas Harman, a recent interview.
"There are basic problems there which have nothing to do with money, such as a careful attention to detail, or keeping the place in good array. Now it's the most unsightly thing going," he said.
The marina's pilings are totting and tilt in all directions. The dock's wooden planks sag and squeak underfoot, and the increasing siltation of the Potomac has caused Lang to encourage only small sailboats to dock there, rather than larger powerboats.
Harman said the city will probably issue a franchise to someone who would agree to make improvements once the title question is resolved. Lang could enter a franchise competition, but Harman said she is not likely to be chosen because of her "past record."
Lang, who won't disclose her age, defends herself, saying that she has been unable to obtain money for the upkeep and renovation of the marina from banks because of the federal suit. Before the suit, she said, personal difficulties prevented her from spending money for needed improvements.
Criticism from the city officials doesn't faze many of the one hundred-plus people who pay Lang $30 each month to dock their boats at her marina.
Mike Hollingsworth, a solar energy consultant who has kept his custom-made 23-foot vessel at the marina for four years, said, "There are better facilities nearby, but they have no personality. I've docked everywhere from Key West to New York City, and it's always a pleasure coming back here, because of Katie."
Lang and her husband divorced shortly after they began operating the marina, and she has run it single-handedly in the years since. Because of the suit, the $300 a month she pays to lease the marina goes into an escrow account, according to city finance director Howard Holton.
Lang said the marina, with all its admitted failings, is her world.
Much of her time is spent in the tin-roofed shack she calls her office. "In the winter we keep the fireplace blazing all the time, and sip brandy while the sailors nurse their boats."
"We had a baby born on a boat right over there," Lang said, pointing to the dock. "It was a girl, and the father ran a pink flag up on the mast."
Before purchasing the marina, Lang and her former husband, a merchant marine, "traveled around the world. I've been to Moscow, Shanghai and Manila," said Lang who was born in Mobile, Ala.
She can sprinkle her conversation with anecdotes about coolies in China who ate too much garlic, the history of the marina in the days when it was known as Old Barge Wharf, or the best knot to use in a storm.
"Everybody loves Katie," said Hollingsworth. "This place wouldn't be the same without her."