San Francisco Chronicle

Boat grants home ownership dream

- By Kristen Hamilton Kristen Hamilton is a creative nonfiction writer who lives on a boat in Marin County. She lived in 34 locations before finding her boat home. Email: kmariehami­

For years, magical thinking led me to believe that somehow, one day, I would own a home in the Bay Area. It took me a few decades, but at 58, I finally achieved that dream.

I’m now the proud owner of a 38-foot cabin cruiser that’s nearly as old as I am.

No, this is not the dream scenario of home ownership I previously imagined. But with today’s outrageous prices, worsening inequality and prohibitiv­e rents in the Bay Area, attitudes about housing are changing. The definition of a home is no longer four walls holding up a roof. Many people now live in recreation­al vehicles, tiny houses or retrofitte­d vans. Innovative solutions are being tested.

Sometimes the best house is a boat. My nautical journey started last year when I searched Craigslist for a new apartment. Instead, I came across a boat for rent. At $1,300 a month, it was far less than any studio or one-bedroom apartment in the Bay Area. It also was a short-term lease — and a novel experience. So, I signed on.

A few months later my rental started to take on water, (a broken sea cock!). Torrential downpours intensifie­d the situation — the bilge pump couldn’t keep up. Luckily, the owner hauled the boat out of the water before it sank and moved it to a boatyard. Placed on jack stands, a few feet from the ground, its tired hull waited for repairs.

I had nowhere else to go. So, I climbed a steep wobbly ladder to reach the deck, only to find that the heat, water and electricit­y were gone. I spent a rough couple of nights wondering whether this was a rational answer to the insanity of the Bay Area’s housing crisis.

Despite that experience, when my lease was up, I decided the benefits of boating life outweighed the cons. I went from renting to buying a boat of my own.

I told myself that, other than my vessel sinking, I had already experience­d the worst possible scenario boating life could offer. So, I found a boat for $3,000 that needed significan­t work and paid $950 monthly for a slip on San Rafael Creek in Marin County that included utilities and waste haul-out. The boat’s name was Lucinda. Yes, she was affordable. But she was also a new adventure.

Moving into a small space required big changes. I downsized. All my possession­s had to fit in 240 square feet (the average size of a tiny home). In their place: a boatload of new considerat­ions.

For instance, I can’t make a cup of coffee without considerin­g how many amps it will take. Everything is small, toilets, sinks, ovens, refrigerat­ors, and there’s a daily checklist of gauges to check — water, propane, fuel and waste tanks.

Living on a boat required grit and ingenuity. I learned to be hands-on and to do my own repairs.

When people hear “boating life” it no doubt conjures images of catamarans in the Caribbean, snorkeling and sundowners. But it’s not all glamorous. It’s a lot of work and can be dangerous. California’s first mega-storm hit the day I moved in, and Lucinda started to leak. More leaks have spouted in the storms that followed.

Several slips away from me, a woman died after falling off her boat during last week’s atmospheri­c river. Her handbag still hangs off the ladder of her boat.

Despite the dangers, I have come to like this lifestyle and appreciate the serendipit­y of finding what I didn’t even know I was missing — a tight community. Many dock mates stop by my boat to share their latest mechanical quandary, offer advice, equipment, knowledge and labor. One neighbor built me a shoe box, another gave me a tarp. They’ve given me indispensa­ble boat hacks, like how to make a canvas grommet for a tarp where there is none.

It’s a tight community compared to the Northern California towns I’ve lived in — Woodside and Palo Alto to name two. Neighbors there, although warm, either didn’t see the need for community or simply didn’t have the time. Probably because they were busy trying to pay their mortgages.

A boating lifestyle draws people who value freedom over material wealth. I’ve met people of diverse social and economic background­s, among them: a retired horse jockey, nurse, architect, single mother, retired Navy admiral, TV writer, makeup artist and world-class sailors, to name a few. I was especially surprised to meet so many women living on their boats — growing up I had always thought of boating as a stereotypi­cally male-dominated pastime.

I don’t have a mortgage or property taxes to pay. I can avoid excessive debt. I’m not at the mercy of a landlord or market fluctuatio­ns. Yet I still get to own something.

If you are tenacious and flexible, a boat can satisfy many needs. But it’s not for everyone. And it’s not the solution to the brutal local housing market.

I’m thankful I was able to find this life and make it work. I now have something I would have never been able to achieve otherwise, a home of my own in the Bay Area.

 ?? Courtesy/Kristen Hamilton ?? Author Kristen Hamilton’s boat Lucinda, where she lives, in its slip on a sunny day in Marin County.
Courtesy/Kristen Hamilton Author Kristen Hamilton’s boat Lucinda, where she lives, in its slip on a sunny day in Marin County.

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