Life with liveaboards in D.C.’s Gangplank Marina

Kelly Simon walks her dogs in Gangplank Marina in Southwest Washington. Simon has lived in the marina for five years and says her dogs love it on the water. “It's not too much different than walking them from an apartment building,” she said. (Marlena Sloss/The Washington Post)

The boys tumbled on the living room floor as their parents sat on the couch. Balls, toys, picture books were scattered about. Sunshine poured through the windows. Nothing unusual about this domestic scene except the setting was a boat. A houseboat.

Laura and John McLaughlin and their sons, 3 and 6, are liveaboards. Their home is Panacea, a 47-foot yacht-style boat. Their neighborhood is Gangplank Marina on the Southwest Waterfront in the Washington Channel.

The McLaughlins moved from Capitol Hill to Gangplank a dozen years ago but maintain connections there.

“Our oldest plays T-ball on the Capitol Hill Little League that Laura coaches, and he attends our local elementary school,” John McLaughlin said.

“I’m active in the school’s PTA and sing in the Capitol Hill Chorale,” Laura McLaughlin said. “We’re lucky to belong to two communities, on the water and on land.”

Their first boat was a 32-foot cruiser. “We bought a larger one because we knew we wanted kids and would need a dishwasher, washer, dryer and three bedrooms,” she said.

There are 88 floating residents at Gangplank Marina. The newest moved there in June. The most senior just celebrated his 30th year. “We had a big party to celebrate him. Fireboats came out and put on a display in his honor,” said Ramsey Poston, who has lived with his daughter on the 45-foot trawler Sojourner for three years.

Life on a boat offers serenity, sun-dappled water, clean air, a closeness to nature and stunning views. “Most people in D.C. have to listen to traffic. We listen to ducks, osprey, seagulls, night herons and cormorants,” Poston said. “A pair of mallards nested in the mint pot outside my boat gave birth to nine ducklings. Who else can say that?”

“The feeling that we can go somewhere else anytime is liberating,” Poston added. “And when we go we take our whole house with us. You ask yourself: ‘Did I remember to bring my toothbrush?’ Well, it’s in the bathroom downstairs.”

“Back in June a few of us decided to cruise to Mount Vernon,” he said, holding up an Instagram shot of three boats side by side. “We cooked dinner, had a mad game of Yatzee and saw a remarkable sunset.”

A visitor was gently chided for asking boat owners the proverbial Washington question: What do you do?

“Gangplank people don’t ask what you do,” said Darryl Madden, who has lived in the marina since 2004. “There are people who are extremely accomplished in their professions, but that’s not what’s important. We ask what kind of boat do you have, what skill set do you have to keep it up, where have you been, what was the most difficult part of the transit?”

“When you move in, you buy into that,” Madden added. “You go to any community and I challenge you to know everyone. Not just on your street but two and three streets down. The esprit de corps isn’t removed or theoretical. I actually know all the people here.”

Children running and playing on the docks is common. Another little girl goes to the same school as the McLaughlin’s 6-year-old, and a couple of teens babysit their boys.

“They’re an intrepid band. A unique, treasured and often overlooked community. They may live on the water but they’re an integral thread in the fabric of our neighborhood,” said Andy Litsky, an advisory neighborhood commissioner representing the Southwest Waterfront.

Aubrey, Greg and toddler Rue Whittier have lived on the Tenalach, a 45-foot ketch sailboat since 2016. At 300 square feet, it’s one of the smallest boats in the marina.

“Rue’s a great sleeper. We put her to bed at 7 and she sleeps till 7. The boat is constantly moving and when it rocks she keeps her legs balanced. She has developed sea legs,” Aubrey Whittier said.

Curtis Sloan and 20-year-old Tubby, his cat, live on the Jamie Marie, a 58-foot houseboat. “My boat is a weird hybrid because it’s built like a house on top of a boat hull. It once had engines,” said Sloan, a floating resident since 2015.

“We’re a tightly knit, small-town family,” Sloan added. “This is the only place I’ve ever lived where someone has knocked on my door for sugar and coffee.”

The original helm wheel, gauges, throttles and a key in the ignition are interior furnishings. The previous owner added a cat door out to the bow deck. The surprisingly large, open kitchen has an industrial feel with stainless-steel lower cabinets, white upper cabinets with glass doors, a long white island and large appliances. A full-size stove runs on propane. “The refrigerator is bigger than in my previous house,” he said.

Bamboo shades cover the windows, an upright piano sits under a bank of windows, and photos and maps decorate the walls. “The coffee table has storage space,” he said lifting the top. “You get creative when buying furniture so that you maximize storage.”

Two bedrooms are down a short spiral staircase under a hatch in the main floor. A portion of the floor lifts out to create an opening through which large furniture can be raised and lowered. A toilet with a step-flush occupies one bathroom; a sink and shower are in a second one.

There’s an extraordinary amount of space on Jason Kopp’s 50-foot yacht-style boat, the Ocean Sunliner. “There are some people for whom we have boat envy and Jason is one of them,” Poston said.

“Two extra feet in the beam [the widest point of the boat] make a big difference,” Kopp said.

The boat interior has two bedrooms — each with full-size beds, bathroom and shower. There’s a living room called a saloon (pronounced salon) and kitchen called a galley. Strawberries, muffins, a jar of peanuts and coffee dot the kitchen counter. The one-unit washer/dryer sits beneath the stairs leading down to the galley.

“I’m planning cruises to Potomac crab houses, Tim’s Rivershore in Dumfries, Va., Rick’s on the River in King George, Va., and north to Three Sisters, a favorite spot for local boaters to anchor just upriver from Key Bridge,” said Kopp, a 12-year resident.

“When you cruise for pleasure, you can just drop an anchor in the middle of the Potomac. You don’t have to make a reservation as long as you’re not in the navigable channel,” he said.

Bob and Jean Link have lived on the Serendipity, a 39-foot barge, for the past 3½ years. Outside the front door on the side of the boat hangs a sign, ‘Bob-O-Link Lane.’ “I ‘borrowed’ that sign decades ago and it has always hung where we call home,” he said.

Their kitchen is tiny yet functional. The Miele oven is a pullout. The stove consists of two induction hot plates hidden in a drawer and placed on the counter for use. The refrigerator and freezer are in under-counter drawers. “We eat simply and don’t cook much as there are many walkable options for great dining,” said Bob Link, who is also president of the Gangplank Slipholders Association.

They get to their bedroom loft by ladder. “We wake to morning light from wide port holes and skylights in the ceiling,” he said. They use the lower stateroom as a guest bedroom and home office.

The living room decor is emphatically un-boaty. Bookcases, paintings, decorative lamps, hanging plants and wide windows make it cozy.

Sitting on the living room couch, they see the water practically lapping at the windows. “We watch people glide by. They stop and say hi,” he said. “Boats and docks float so the whole community rises and falls with the tides.”

Despite the fun, there are some drawbacks to houseboat living.

For instance, winter can be a challenge. “One February we came back from a trip to Florida to find our boat iced in,” John McLaughlin recalled. “That night I woke up repeatedly to the sound of ice cracking.” He knew they weren’t in danger but nevertheless looked for (but didn’t find) leaks. The next day the family moved to land to wait for the ice to melt.

Sloan moved in during a hurricane. “Marina people were telling everyone to prepare. I didn’t know what that meant. I threw a couple more lines [ropes] on to more strongly secure the boat to the dock. It rained a lot and was windy. I went to bed. That’s when I learned there was a leak and that a seam in the roof wasn’t sealed well. Water was running down the inside of the wall, across a beam in the floor/ceiling above me and dripping out of a light fixture. It was a little unnerving.”

“There’s a reality that a boat is an inherently dangerous space, but it doesn’t remotely enter your mind that you could witness the demise of your home,” Madden said.

A few years ago, he left to go to work. “I get a call from a neighbor who said, ‘Leave the office and head back to the marina. Your boat’s on fire,’ ” he recalled.

The D.C. fire department kept it from spreading and the mechanic onboard recovered from burns, but the boat was gone. “The community rallied and helped me get through the first 24 hours and the days afterward. I needed clothes and toothpaste and a place to live. Afterward, I went through a kind of reckoning, ‘Do I want to continue this life?’ ”

The answer was yes.

“I decided to jump back into the fray,” Madden said. He purchased a 50-foot yacht-style boat and named it the Black Pearl. “There’s no such thing as perfect, but if there’s heaven on Earth it’s on the water.”