Living Aboard in San Francisco Bay

Introduction

Many people are being driven to explore living aboard due to exorbitant housing prices in SF Bay. There is a plentiful supply of cheap used boats, harbors all over the bay, and it’s certainly a romantic notion to wake up on the water and watch the seals and cormorants frolic while the sun rises. The proximity to water and nature is one of the prime reasons I love being a liveaboard.

I have lived aboard in Sausalito for a bit longer than six years. It’s quite a novelty at parties, and I’ve answered a lot of questions repeatedly: where do I shower? (Marina showers.) Isn’t it tiny? (Yes.) What about storms? (There have only been a few I couldn’t sleep through.) I also get a lot of questions from aspirational liveaboards about the process of finding a liveaboard slip in the SF Bay Area. Recently, I’ve been getting them in the context of helping my boss sell his Soverel 36. Many of the people that have shown interest in her have expressed a desire to live aboard the boat. This article is primarily geared towards those people, based on my experiences and observations.

The BCDC limits harbors in SF Bay to a maximum of 10% liveaboards. Not every harbor allows liveaboards, officially or unofficially. Many harbors in SF Bay have waiting lists for a regular slip, let alone one with liveaboard allowance. I think it’s pretty safe to say that liveaboard slips in SF Bay are running at near 100% utilization at any point in time. However, there is always some turn-over, so if your timing is right you may get lucky. Also, the farther away from the city you go, the easier it gets to find a slip (of any sort) and the cheaper they are. And the city is a terrible place to keep a boat, because the surge in the harbors there is brutal.

Are you fit to be a liveaboard?

Harbormasters don’t like problems. Liveaboards are often problems. So, your primary job is making sure the harbormaster likes you. What kinds of problems, you ask? As noted, SF Bay housing prices are causing many non-boating folk to want to live aboard who may also have insufficient or unsteady income. Not paying your bill is a problem for harbormasters. Having an old, broken-down boat that you don’t know how to take care of and can’t afford to pay someone else to take care of is a problem for harbormasters. If you turn out to be an unstable lunatic/drunk/addict/creep/whatever, that’s a problem for harbormasters. It’s not trivial for a harbormaster to remove a boat, let alone a liveaboard, so they are quite reticent to allow just anyone with any old boat into their harbor, liveaboard or not.

Let’s assume that you’re gainfully employed and not a complete miscreant, but you don’t have any boating experience. This is a red flag for harbormasters because clueless people on boats can be dangerous. Clueless people can often compensate with money, but generally liveaboards aren’t in the upper income brackets. I suggest that if your primary motivation for living aboard is purely financial, and you really have no interest in the boating aspect, you seriously reconsider your options. A small, cheap, broken boat is going to be perhaps marginally better than living in a van, depending on the van. Living with friends/family/roommates might be more realistic. Boats are not happy sitting stagnant. They need regular use. The plethora of cheap old boats reflects the epidemic of boats being neglected until they’re unusable and thus worthless. So if you don’t intend to use the boat, that’s a problem both for the boat’s well-being (and its value) and for the harbormaster (broken boats are problems).

So what’s the solution? Go boating. There are plenty of other blog posts you can turn up about ways to get out on the water. Maybe you get seasick at the first duck wake. Maybe you’re absolutely terrified of the entire process. You won’t know until you get out there, and familiarity helps you overcome a lot of the fear. Harbormasters aren’t going to ask for a detailed sailing resume with logs, but they are going to ask you to at least describe your experience, and so you’d better have something to tell them that sounds better than, “I go out on my friends’ boats sometimes.” Insurance companies are also going to want to know what kind of experience you have to determine what kind of premiums you pay and whether they insure you at all. Boating safety classes and any sort of credentialed class (ASA, US Sailing, etc.) are useful.

You also should have at least minimal mechanical skill or a desire to learn. Boats are basically RVs floating in salt water, a hostile environment to machinery and electronics. Your fresh water system springs a leak. Are you going to be able to track down the leak and fix it or at least isolate the troublesome bit to get you through the night? The shore power suddenly turns off and you’re left on a chilly night with no heater. Will you be able to diagnose it and find the problem? The engine won’t start. Where would you start looking? If you have to hire a marine mechanic (like me) at many dollars-per-hour to fix basic issues with your boat’s various systems, I’m going to be happy because I love getting paid to fix easy stuff, but it’s going to seriously erode the savings of living aboard versus living ashore. If you’re good friends with people that are mechanically-inclined, I suggest you start buying them meals regularly while you pick their brains.

What about the boat?

If I haven’t managed to scare you off yet, you’re still interested in living aboard. You’re browsing Craigslist and Yachtworld, looking for the boat of your dreams.¬†I’m not going to write a boat buying guide, but here are some things specific to living aboard/keeping harbormasters happy:

  • Don’t buy a boat that isn’t capable of moving under its own power. No harbormaster wants to see a new tenant being towed in. Don’t get a boat that you can’t insure. Any harbor is going to require it. Often that means that the boat will need a survey (recommended anyway, unless you’re very handy and/or you can afford to walk away if it’s a total basketcase).
  • It can be helpful to buy a boat that is already in the harbor in which you’d like to live aboard. The harbormaster already knows the boat, so it’s acceptable to them. Probably. It’s a good idea to talk to the harbormaster about any boat you’re thinking of because it’s also possible that the PO has been a thorn in their ass and you’ll only remind them of it or they know something the owner is withholding. Some harbors with wait lists won’t let the slips transfer with the boat, either. That said, if you follow the previous piece of advice, you can employ one of the chief advantages of living aboard: your house can move around, so don’t be shy about getting a boat that’s not where you want it to be.
  • Many harbors have a minimum size requirement for liveaboard boats. I think this is primarily to weed out the destitute¬† who can only afford to live aboard a tired Santana 22 that they got off Craigslist for $500. The flip side of this is that while a large boat is obviously much nicer to live on, it’s exponentially harder to find a slip for in SF Bay. So if you’ve got the cash to pony up for a sweet 57′ Hatteras with all the bells and whistles, you’re going to have a much harder time finding a place to keep it, particularly if it’s currently sitting in a yacht club harbor of which you aren’t a member.

Finding the right harbor

You’ve found a boat that isn’t a total pile, and you know generally what part of the Bay you’d like to live in based on work/where your boyfriend lives/whatever. You google “marinas in Sausalito” and get a nice list of places to call. What should you do first? I strongly advise that you DO NOT call them and ask straight off if they have any liveaboard slips. My observation is that over the last several years they have been fielding an ever-increasing number of these calls and their response is a big red flag. Instead, do a little research online and find out which harbors allow liveaboards at all. Most harbors have copies of their rules agreements online, which will answer this question. Also look for FAQ pages that typically address this. If the official website isn’t fruitful, you can often find forum posts with people asking/answering the question. Some harbors are officially “no liveaboards” but unofficially allow people to ‘sneakaboard’. Seeking to liveaboard in these harbors is feasible, but I would categorize it as advanced mode as you’re much more exposed to the whimsy of the harbormaster since you’re invariably violating the rules.

Your list has been whittled down to a few harbors that allow liveaboards, in the area that you want. Now you call them, tell them what kind of boat you have, and ask if they have any slips large enough for her. Know what size your boat is. They’re going to want to know the length overall (include overhanging stuff like booms/bowsprits/swim platforms/etc.), beam and draft. They may ask if it’s insured. Ideally the answer is yes, the current owner has insurance and you will transfer it/get your own after purchase. They may ask other questions about you/your experience/the boat. They may want to you send them pictures of the boat. And they will likely ask you if you plan to live aboard. At this point in the process, I wouldn’t say yes. I may say something like, “maybe some time in the future,”or “not at this time.” They ask because they are trying to weed out the sneakaboards, and it’s extremely unlikely that they will offer a liveaboard slip to a person on the phone that they have never met with a boat they have never seen.

How To Make Friends And Influence Harbormasters

If their answer is yes, we have a slip available, then that’s great! Ask them to hold it for you, they may want a deposit. Buy the boat, transfer the title, get insurance. Then go to the harbor and fill out their paperwork. They are going to want to see a copy of the registration in your name and the insurance policy. Find out how much liability insurance they want (usually $300k or $500k), and make sure you have that much. You will also have to add them as an additional insured party on your policy. Having your paperwork square with no fuss is a great first impression. Once you’ve satisfied the red tape, bring the boat over. Read the rules, and know what you’re not allowed to do. Don’t do that stuff. Examples of stuff harbormasters hate:

  • Having a dirty, unkempt boat. If the PO let her languish, at least scrub the moss off her and get her cleaned up. Don’t leave a bunch of gear and crap on deck.
  • No plastic tarps. They make a racket in the wind and are flimsy.
  • Don’t leave anything on the dock, except perhaps a set of stairs. Keep anything that you don’t want in the boat in the dock box or offsite.
  • Make sure your boat is tied securely to the dock. If it bangs around in the storm and damages itself, the dock, or another boat, that is a problem.
  • Make sure halyards are secure in a way that they won’t bang on the mast in the wind. Neighbors will hate that, and complain to the harbormaster.
  • If you have a car parked in the lot, make sure it’s also presentable. Don’t stuff it to the gills with crap. Keep it clean. Move it around occasionally if you don’t drive it often.
  • Be a good neighbor. If I have to explain that, well…

Great, so now you have a boat that you aren’t allowed to live on. Now what? Use the boat. Go out with friends, explore the Bay, become familiar with your vessel. You’ll probably find things that need repair, and it’s a lot easier to do boat projects before you live aboard. Be a friendly presence at the harbor. Talk to your neighbors. Talk to other liveaboards and find out their experiences there. Try to ingratiate yourself with the harbormaster and their staff.

Most harbors allow you to spend a few nights per week on your boat without liveaboard status. Start to take advantage of that, and spend the other nights somewhere else (not in your car in the harbor parking lot). Once you start to get the lay of the land, you’ll probably perceive when it’s the right time to ask the harbormaster about getting on the wait list for a liveaboard slip. If you’re lucky, they may have an opening and nobody ahead of you on the list. Or if you played your cards right, you may jump up the list a bit. If it’s a particularly desirable harbor, you may have to wait a while. In this phase you can downsize your land dwelling considerably to save costs, as you’ll only be there part time.

Conclusion

The odds that you’re going to find a boat that you like and the harbormaster where she lives will just hand you a liveaboard slip is rather small these days. This may end up being a several-month process because the competition for these slips grows with the price of housing here, and the demographic shifts from knowledgeable boaters to laypeople interested in cheap housing. This also increases the importance of both having decent boating knowledge to set you apart from the people just wanting a cheap house and having good rapport with the harbormaster rather than cold-calling for liveaboard slips. I went from being a boating newbie to living aboard in about a year, and I’ve never regretted it. It comes with many unique challenges, but I fell in love with it and have managed to turn boating into a career. It’s possible that you will develop the same passion that I have.

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