The Seaborne Wu
Liveaboard life in Casco Bay
by Robin Rage
“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.”
— Isak Dinesen
My father’s family came from Islesford, a hamlet on Little Cranberry Island, and I spent summers and holidays there until my mid-teens. When I was about 12, my grandmother gave me a Golden Book called The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone, by Robin Lee Graham, a teenager who’d done just that in the ’60s. I daydreamed of accomplishing the same feat, and have been fascinated by the sailing life ever since.
When I was 18, I decided I wanted a job on one of the schooners in Camden. My father knew someone at the town office who gave him names and addresses for captains of several tall ships. Unfortunately, your humble narrator acquired a bottle of champagne from his parents’ “medicine chest” for the ride down — you know, something to ease the anxiety of my first real job interviews.
So, the first time I ever got drunk I was driving myself to Camden. I only went to one of the addresses my father provided. The sign outside read: Tabor Forge. It turned out I wouldn’t graduate high school in time to join the crew — I think they started working in March — so I got back in the car and drove home, still buzzed, with the radio blaring.
Not long after that I got a different job aboard a ship, as the mate on a charter/tuna boat in Boothbay Harbor, the Squallus, under Captain Dan Caruso. I remember getting seasick quite a lot, and after I blew off a Saturday charter I was forced to relinquish my symbol of office: my Squallus t-shirt.
Before I lost that job, I’d often sleep on the Squallus while it was tied to the dock, but that’s not the same as living on a boat. Last year, I set out to learn more about this lifestyle.
I called my friend Travis, the homeless addict fisherman I’d lived with in Sherwood Forest — the patch of woods along the Fore River, by the Casco Bay Bridge, that was clear-cut last year to make way for, among other things, Phineas Sprague’s new boatyard and marina. It was Travis who’d said, “I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but if you put me in a boat, I’ll take you anywhere.” We’d talked about buying a sailboat together, but as with so many plans made by the homeless, the mad and the addicted, the idea went nowhere fast.
Travis put me in touch with a fellow who asked to be identified as Crazy Herman. Back when Crazy Herman was a successful contractor, he developed a love of sailing and, having the money, bought a 22-foot cruiser. He christened it Dreamz.
Crazy Herman loved that boat — maybe too much. Three months after the surprise end of a long-term relationship, he moved onto Dreamz. Herman, who’s 35, told me he’d been thinking about living aboard the boat before the break-up — it had everything his house had, except space — and soon realized he had more room on the boat than he needed. After the first year in his floating home, he was recommending the lifestyle to anyone who’d listen.
“I’ll never live in a house again,” Crazy Herman told me. “I’ve got it made!” He’s been living aboard Dreamz for three years now. These days, he works in Portland as a dishwasher, but with no mortgage or rent to pay, it’s not hard to make ends meet.
I bribed Crazy Herman to let me try a couple nights on the boat with him, just to get a feel for it. The living quarters resembled a dorm room. Herman had installed a wooden deck on the fiberglass craft, but beneath that deck there was only the sloping hull, with some little nooks here and there for stowing stuff. We both slept in the center of the sloping floor, with blankets and sleeping bags over and beneath us. It was insanely cold, but we did have electricity, so I could see the empty propane heater. Really, though, it was no colder than the abandoned houses or the tents I’ve occupied in previous winters — remember, it’s all about having a good sleeping bag.
“That’s what people usually ask me first, about the cold,” said Crazy Herman. “The next question is where do I shower.”
After three days hanging out with Crazy Herman, I left with the impression that most liveaboards, as they’re called, dwelt in similar squalor. They were like campers, I figured, just on the ocean.
But I soon discovered that’s not the case. Liveaboards are a diverse lot. Their boats may be luxurious sloops docked at marinas that offer amenities like power and Wi-Fi, or shabbier craft tied up to wharves among fishing boats and water taxis, sucking juice through jury-rigged extension cords. The one characteristic liveaboards share is an independent streak, an innate sense of adventure and self-reliance.
The high cost of housing has made the liveaboard lifestyle more attractive than ever to Portlanders, though just as in the housing market, dock space is severely limited. Still, you can live in the Old Port (with excellent water views) for about $500 per month, give or take a couple hundred, all winter, then sail out, come spring, to a mooring in Casco Bay that’s even cheaper.
There’s a Facebook page for Maine liveaboards that has a host of useful information: leads on available dock space, tips for over-wintering, moral support. Through that page I learned there are about 25 liveaboard “households” in Portland and at least another couple dozen in South Portland. One guestimate puts the total in Maine at about 100, but that’s likely low, since there are also lots of less plugged-in people, like Crazy Herman.
One liveaboard I met told me most of the liveaboards he knows are “drop outs” who’ve chosen this alternative lifestyle after getting fed up with, or forced out of, mainland civilization.
“I’m not mainstream in thought or in action,” this liveaboard said. “I saw what was happening to the manufacturing industry in New England, factories being shut down, work being outsourced to China and Mexico. … You’re taking out the middle class, and without the middle class there’s no American dream. Take down the flags, take down the crosses, and just raise the almighty dollar, ’cause that’s what it’s all about.”
“So, when you saw this happening you quit your job and headed straight for your boat?” I asked.
“It’s my escape pod, man. I’m off the grid. If the city goes dark I’ve got three months’ of food, I have my own heat, I have my own water.”
These are my kind of peeps.
“Sailing? Fuck sailing.”
— Captain Palmer, commercial fisherman
Years ago, fresh out of prison and residing at a shitty halfway house in the suburbs, I took the bus into town one day and sat next to a fellow who told me he lived on his sailboat. When I told him about my fascination with sailing, he gave me his card and offered to give me a tour of his boat sometime. I didn’t take him up on that offer, but I kept the card and, when I decided to write this story, I dialed the number printed on the back. I figured it was a long shot — it had been, what, four years? — but he answered.
“Robin Rage?” he asked, groggily. “Sounds like a rock-star name.” He said he was just waking up and told me to call back later. It was around 11 a.m., so I called back at 2, and he said he was still waking up, just making coffee. We finally connected at 4 p.m., and I realized he was the right man to call. After some back-and-forth regarding which pseudonym he preferred, he settled on Sailor Blue.
Sailor Blue described himself as a “corporate refugee.” After a successful two-decade career in business, he radically reassessed his life five years ago. He’d bought his boat in 2001. “My wife had passed away, the kids were grown up, so I made the conscious choice to move onboard the boat,” he said. “I decided to change my lifestyle.”
“I’ve spent the bulk of my life accumulating things, just an onslaught of materialism,” he continued, “like, you are what you wear, you are what you drive, and to have to go through all those things, to decide what I didn’t need, was liberating in itself.”
When you decide to become a liveaboard, “you’re signing up for an adventure,” said Sailor Blue. “Your ability to problem-solve, be self-sufficient, those capabilities, which we all have, will be thoroughly exercised. It’s all on you and how clever and how innovative you are.”
Sailor Blue really is a sailor — he takes his boat out for cruises quite often, and has considered attempting a circumnavigation of the planet. “Course, there’s no sailing in the winter, as you know,” he said.
“Of course,” I replied.
“Well, Christmas Day was incredibly warm, and I was tempted to go out sailing and get photographed by the Press Herald, because it would have been so unusual.”
“What about electricity and water?” I asked.
Sailor Blue said the monthly slip fee for his spot on the western end of the waterfront includes electricity, water and Internet. The rate is determined by the length of your vessel. Around here, the monthly charge ranges between $300 to $900, and “you do have to pay for your own heat — oil or propane,” said Sailor Blue, whose propane-fueled radiator costs him around $100 a month during the winter.
“Water is different,” he said. “Normally we can get it from a spigot on the docks, but during the wintertime they shut it off, so I use what’s in my tanks sparingly. I’m dependent on shore water, and either I fill the tanks by hose or I have to carry water, make trips back and forth from the spigot up at DiMillo’s [Marina]. It’s a haul, though.”
“Last year, for the first time in 35 years, Casco Bay froze,” Sailor Blue said. “I remember walking outside, and there were no birds, no seagulls. Just a stillness. A stillness because the boat was surrounded by ice and other boats were surrounded by ice. I was engulfed in that. … Sometimes animals just know when something like that is going to happen, they’ll sense catastrophe before the humans will and they’ll leave.”
“Makes me think of Shackleton and the Endurance, trapped in the ice in Antarctica,” I remarked. “Weren’t you afraid of your boat being crushed?”
“Well, it could have, but the ice was too thin. It was cold, though — with the wind chill factor it was 30 below. Thirty below! Lasted for three days, maybe.”
“How many other liveaboards were there with you? Were they freaking out?”
“There are maybe 25 other boats down there, and I think everybody was freaking out. I mean, lobstermen had to take a three-day vacation, stuff like that.”
“Is that the craziest thing that’s happened to you since you’ve become a liveaboard?” I asked.
“Well, a friend of mine fell in the water last January. His last words were, ‘I’m not drunk!’”
How many times had I said that in the dark days before homelessness and prison? A lot. Too many.
“What about thieves?” I asked. “Is that a concern?”
“No, there are cameras down there,” he replied. “And besides, nobody wants to stagger out there in the middle of the night.”
Sailor Blue still has a place on the mainland that he rents out. He told me his future plans “probably involve becoming a snowbird, sailing to Maine when it gets warm, and to Florida when it gets cold. The cold’s just getting to be a bitch.”
“Are you ever moving back on shore?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Well, never say never, but not in the near future.”
“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, / There is a rapture on the lonely shore, / There is society, where none intrudes, / By the deep Sea, and music in its roar: / I love not Man the less, but Nature more…”
— Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”
When I was a younger fellow I read Noble House, by James Clavell, a novel set in Hong Kong during the 1960s. One of the main characters is Four Finger Wu, a.k.a. Wu Sang Fang, leader of a smuggling gang known as the Seaborne Wu. I kept thinking of the Seaborne Wu while researching this story, drawing parallels between that lifestyle and the one I was discovering.
A century ago, the government of Hong Kong built a storm shelter on the waterfront, the Yau Ma Tei Typhoon Shelter, and the fishing families who settled there became known as the “Yau Ma Tei boat people.” During the ensuing decades, as local fish stocks were depleted, the boat people increasingly made their living selling ethnic cuisine and booze, and presenting various kinds of nightlife entertainment. By the 1950s and ’60s, the shelter was a popular tourist destination, albeit one beset by the predictable plagues of prostitution, gambling and dope.
It’s hard not to see the parallels to Portland, where the collapse of fisheries in the Gulf of Maine has coincided with the transformation of the “working waterfront” into a tourist destination, complete with government-funded gambling cruises to Nova Scotia and, of course, no shortage of hopelessness and heroin.
My friend She-Ra is a heroin addict using and sleeping and half-living in a boat she doesn’t own, though it bears her mark now. It’s a 25-foot sloop with a small cabin built into it. I don’t know what the cabin looks like when the owner’s around, but when She-Ra’s staying there it’s scary — nasty used needles everywhere, the contents kept vital by the cold that seems to blast right through the fiberglass hull. Junk food and the occasional lunch bag from Preble Street lay here or there, next to a couple other junkies that also came from Preble Street. Sometimes it’s a good thing that I can’t smell.
Not so long ago, She-Ra was a media buyer for a local P.R. firm, allegedly bringing in $60,000 a year. Two years into the job, the company downsized and She-Ra was let go. Around the same time, she said her landlord doubled the rent and she was forced to move out. She ended up moving in with a guy she met at Asylum (the nightclub, not the cracker factory). He introduced her to heroin, and that led to the street.
She-Ra told me the sailboat belongs to a former “customer” of hers, and said she didn’t think he’d mind her staying there.
No one has died yet in this article, and I’d like to keep it that way.
At the other end of the spectrum are Sophi and Leah, who I met through the Maine Liveaboards Facebook page, which they administer. Leah and her husband Jonathan, both in their late 20s, also maintain a blog about boat life called “With Brio!” (see withbrio.com).
Leah, Brio’s captain, describes herself on the blog as a “Vancouver-born dreamer with an insatiable curiosity and a penchant for nice upholstery and pretty things. … Responsible for all gross jobs, jobs that involve heights, and jobs that involve diving underwater.” Jonathan is a Mainer who handles mechanics and meals “other than Kraft Dinner.” He runs a house-painting business in the summer months. The couple live in a bubble, literally — the shrink-wrap plastic used to winterize boats. After crawling through a “hobbit-sized zipper entrance” last winter, when they weren’t living aboard Brio, Jonathan cut a full-sized doorway in the plastic wrap this season, when they are aboard full-time.
Sophi has “wintered aboard” for four seasons, but is not in the harbor this year. Last time, the crew comprised “cat, dog, hubby, myself, and baby for the first 9 [months] of baby’s life. Now we have two babies and will move back aboard in a few years,” she wrote. “Decided to buy an investment property to pay off some student debt and it only made sense financially if we sold our boat… Looking for the next boat already — [winking emoticon].”
“Why do people choose to live aboard?” I asked Sophi. “I’d always assumed it was just the working poor.”
“Travel, affordability, minimalism, sunsets, oh, and SAILING,” came the reply.
Leah jumped into the online conversation: “Rage there are SO many reasons to live on a boat, and finances are definitely NOT one of them. Haven’t you heard ‘Boat = Bring On Another Thousand’? I agree with Sophi — freedom, a connection to nature, the ability to bring your house with you when you travel, something cool to tell your friends about, challenge, and, again, freedom!! You don’t like your neighbors? Change harbors! Tired of the winter? Go south! Ready for a new adventure? Try a winter in Maine!
“That being said,” she continued, “this is only our first winter on Brio and we don’t have any kids, so Sophi is really the expert there!! Life is too short to say later. And winters suck.”
“The ship set sail for the coast of Maine, I took the oath, I signed my name. I’m ever to feel the ocean spraying early in the morning.”
— North Sea pirate shanty
Jack Marrie, a 31-year-old bookseller, had been living on Peaks Island when his housing arrangement ended. Facing the brutal apartment market in Portland made him seriously consider living on a boat.
“The math came out the same,” he told me. “I figured that I’d spend from $5,000 to $10,000 on an apartment [annually], or I could buy a boat. I’d finished boatbuilding school a year earlier, so I was already into the romance of the idea. I went on Craigslist, found the right boat in Provincetown, on Cape Cod, went down and sailed back.” That was three years ago.
I asked Captain Jack what the negatives are to liveaboard life. “It’s parallel to living on land, you know, maintenance,” he said. “I have leaks, which I deal with as you would on land. You have to shovel your driveway, I have to shovel out the boat. I don’t consider there to be any negatives.” The liveaboard lifestyle is easy to learn, he said. It doesn’t require any special knowledge or training — well, except for the sailing piece.
“What about neighbors?” I asked. “What about community?” Jack again compared the situation to land life. He’s aware of the other liveaboards tied up along Maine Wharf — one of whom is locally known roots musician and songwriter Jeff Aumuller — but he hasn’t gone dancing or played poker with any of them yet.
Jack’s first boat had a wood-burning stove. The stove in the boat he has now burns coal for heat and has an alcohol-fueled cook stove. He and his girlfriend Michelle are splitting time this winter between the boat and her place in town. Michelle recalled the surreal scene last winter, watching Jack walk around the boat atop the frozen harbor. Cooking on the two-burner alcohol stove isn’t necessarily more difficult than making a meal in a kitchen, Michelle said. You just have to plan ahead and be a bit more patient.
The Seaborne Wu of Casco Bay aren’t smuggling drugs. They don’t need to. As Jack explained, the lifestyle cultivates a blissful, Zen-like mindfulness. He considers his boat “a tool for learning, for self-awareness. The ‘immediate way,’” he calls it. Liveaboard life compels you to pay attention to the things of this world, to watch your steps, duck your head, heed which way the wind is blowing. It’s a “constant engagement with the moment,” Jack said.
Jack’s future plans? To buy a bigger, affordable boat and sail away, see the world.
Like Robin Lee Graham. And maybe, someday, Robin Rage.