Saturday, January 02, 2010

Living in a boat

A month ago I moved onto a boat, a 37 foot Chris Craft Catalina built in 1987. The engine is in scattered rusted pieces. There's a faint bilgey, seaweedy smell and a gentle rocking motion. Pelicans, grebes, coots, ducks, geese, scaups, cormorants, and night herons hang around the harbor outside my window.

harbor

Last night for the first time, during a minus tide (a perigean spring tide) the boat grounded on the muddy bottom. Then there was a moment where the boat began to sway again - it had lifted off and we were floating. I looked out at the christmas lights in the rigging next door and realized we were at our usual height relationship again, with a view of the canvas roof over their cockpit. While we were both grounded, their deeper keel hit bottom first, and their boat towered over us so that I was looking into their lower portholes from my cabin window.

It's all a bit like a trailer park in a very wet parking lot. Some people's boats sail out into the bay or to far destinations. Others, like mine, stay put except for the promise and motion of the tide. People who have boats, and who live aboard their boats, seem to share a particular romanticism, dreaminess and the attachment of meaning to possibilities of a nomadic life, or a sense of needed refuge, shown in lists of the most popular boat names over the years.

Tides are complicated. On this part of the coast we get mixed tides -- with high water and low water twice a day, and one set of high and low points higher than the other. The tide moves north along the U.S. west coast because of the Coriolis effect. Here in the bay, down a marshy creek channel and in the middle of a slough, the tidal range is still over 8 feet. Floating docks and finger docks are loosely connected to piers by huge metal rings. Sometimes we on the boats, and the docks that bridge the water, are up at the level of the parking lot. At low tide, the ramp from the parking lot to the docks is quite steep.

Dock steps with a handrail lead up to my boat. Between the main cabin and the other rooms, there are a few more steps. These are still hard for me to negotiate, especially stepping down. But through the stress of moving I've held up very well. Now that I'm settled in, the constant small variations of the steps between rooms, with resting possible in bed or in the living room and kitchen, are making my knees stronger.

The head in the aft (captain's) cabin works well. The forward head has been in pieces for over a week, waiting for an out of stock valve to be shipped to one of a small group of my neighbors who have been in and out of the boat to study the valves and hoses below deck and the disassembled hoses attached to the toilet itself. I've learned a little bit about marine heads in the meantime. Everyone here gets to know the marine shop and the RV supply places, and, I think, the workings of each other's boats.

The boat had two circuits of 30 amps each. Space heaters, the microwave, and the toaster oven use the most amps and can potentially flip some circuit breakers. There's a 12 volt circuit too for the boat's batteries, and the bilge pump runs on that. Though the water and electricity are hooked up to the city services, I'm suddenly more aware of them as finite resources, and am now much more moderate in my use of both. My neighbors can see the water I use to wash dishes, as it's pumped out over the side. The toilets' holding tank is pumped out twice a month into a boat with a giant holding tank, with all our sewage sloshing around visibly inside.

A small subset of my books fills three half-size bookshelves. I brought a lot of books about exploration and the sea, fiction and non-fiction. So far the best one has been The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk By a Whale. Three survivors from the 1820 wreck of a whaling ship tell the story of the whale's attack, a long journey in three open boats, starvation, thirst, fear, and cannibalism. My other favorite book just now, a present from Oblomovka, is The Queen of Whale Cay, about a woman named Joe Carstairs who drove ambulances in WWI, raced motorboats, had about a zillion lovers including Marlene Dietrich, and bought her own island in the Bahamas which she ruled feudal or colonial style until the 1960s. Every paragraph of the book was full of new outrageousness. I also brought some books of poems to translate, and some of my favorite poets like Ginsberg and Alta.

By comparison to many other towns on the Peninsula, Redwood City has kept a little bit of its working class industry and feel, in part because it's a working deep water port. Ships from China and South Korea bring construction materials, like gypsum and rock for cement. They leave filled with scrap metal. On one side, a complex of tall buildings is built around a rocky artificial stream, then some salt ponds shade towards more slough and a landfill to the south. On the north side of the port, there's a yacht harbor surrounded by tech and genetics companies in a chain of long low buildings and their oceanic parking lots. Then, bits of slough and winding creek channels. At the point where Redwood Creek crosses 101, there's a marina called Docktown, with some enormous "floating homes" built on pontoons, and boats ranging down to the "barely floating" category. There are lots of flowerpots and dogs and amazing, attractive clutter, and a completely non-snooty yacht club. I like it there. My boat is in Pete's Harbor, a quiet marina just across the creek and around a point, facing Bair Island and Smith Slough. The liveaboards here all seem to know each other and it's a good community. Two newer marinas in town, West Point and Bair Island, are stricter in their rules and are out to attract a richer set of residents. But my impression of Docktown and Pete's Harbor is that people here are just regular -- not wealthy yacht owners -- and in fact it's very affordable to live on the water here once you have the boat and a slip to rent. The politics of the existence of marinas seems as complicated as tides and less predictable. Here is an area in flux, whose ownership is a bit unclear or is municipally owned. Would it even be possible to own a tiny bit of the coastline in the bay, here? Could it be possible for a consortium or co-operative to buy up some land and own their own personal boat slips, rather than renting the slips? I wonder, too, if that would inevitably lead to people filling in the spaces between docks and new land pushing outward into the Bay, as much of San Francisco was built on docks and filled in to become land, owned and controlled rather than the liminal space that coastlines seem to be.

As I read about the complexities of tides I learned about amphidromic points, places in the ocean where because of the Coriolis effect, the topography of the sea floor or the nearby landmasses, the tidal range is zero. The tides here keep me noticing things and alert to this small bit of the world. I'm paying attention to weather and watching the marine buoys nearest to the harbor.

Anyway, the changes in my life have been overwhelming and absorbing, so much that I haven't been blogging much or spending time online, other than for work. I need to jump back in, though, and in a couple of weeks am leaving for New Zealand for linux.conf.au and DrupalSouth. Wellington is on Cook Strait, between the North and South Islands of New Zealand. On the east coast, high tide comes at the same time as low tide on the west coast. So the current through the channel is fierce and for various reasons, nearly unpredictable. A bit like my interest in geology and gardening and compost made me notice dirt and rocks and want to learn about the geological history of every place I go --- seeing a landscape as a potential narrative over the scale of geologic time and simultaneously from the point of view of a gardener --- living aboard a boat (which happened somewhat by chance as I looked for a cheap place to live in my town on Craigslist) has given me a new overlay or template or lens to view the rest of the world. So there's a new set of things to learn and notice, everywhere I go, which makes me feel incredibly lucky and happy. The rock and soil based lens of my view is about deep history and rootedness, and how to settle and blend into that landscape, making a sort of habitat or ecosystem where I make a home for birds and bugs, getting back some tomatoes and oregano and flowers. Here on the water in my glorified floating trailer, I find I've made the same sort of cozy domesticity inside the house, but outside, there's no feeling of rootedness or connection. I'm detatched, ephemeral, temporarily in residence, trying not to make an impact with my biodegradable soap, an observer and traveller. What would it be like, living in a spaceship? It's like what that anthropologist whose name I can't recall wrote about the attractions of waiting rooms and hotel lobbies. But rather than waiting in an impersonal static lobby for a particular event, I'm a temporary resident along with the ducks and herons as enormous forces keep our world in flux.

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4 comments:

nina said...

Lovely! We have lots of liveaboards in my small WA town, and I've often wondered about it.

kimberly/tippytoes said...

I loved this! We sometimes go sit and watch the boats near some of the tech buildings, but before this, I knew nothing of the different harbors.

Al_Pal said...

AWESOME post. Loved reading this!

dnw said...

Wow Liz what a fantastic, adventurous thing to do. Fascinating reading. Enjoy.