December 14, 2010

Where have all the sailboats gone?

MARINAS ALL OVER PUGET SOUND are advertising vacant berths — the same marinas that not so long ago were telling people they’d have to wait years for a slip. So the question occurs to me: Where have all the boats gone?

Our local marina in Bellingham, one of the biggest in the Sound area, now has scores of empty berths. The recession is hitting closer to home at last. I expect that some of the smaller boats have gone home on newly purchased trailers, and some of the larger ones may have been hauled out for cheaper long-term storage, but an awful lot have now left the safety and convenience of the marina for exposed anchorages along the shores of Bellingham Bay. There they will take their chances with winter storms from the southeast and the occasional blast from the northwest, which can raise a nasty chop with a fetch to windward of five or six uncluttered miles.

These boats are refugees from the national economic storm, of course, huddling together in their discomfort and uncertainty, and disconnected from the marina’s umbilical cord. But sooner or later they will have more than storms to contend with. Sooner or later people are going to object to their growing presence off the opulent shores where they have clustered, where million-dollar condominiums overlook their peeling varnish and flapping canvas. Sooner or later the people who own the rock-strewn land where they park their tenders are going to object.

We live in a forgiving and understanding town that has few pretensions to grandeur. It’s known as the City of Subdued Excitement and although it has a university, a large hospital, and some high-tech industries, its background is in logging, fishing, and coal-mining. So there will be a lot of sympathy and understanding for those refugee boats bobbing up and down in the chop just offshore.

But at the same time there are always major forces at work that will want them removed. What is their legal position? Are they legally entitled to anchor there permanently and disturb the eelgrass, or whatever it is down below there that seems more important than human beings and their desires? If there are any liveaboards, how will they get rid of their waste without polluting the bay in the way it was polluted by the oldtimers without a thought for Nature’s health?

And what about the marina authorities? Are they going to stand idly by and watch their source of income flee, or will they use their hefty legal and political muscle to herd those deserters back inside and make them pay their dues once more?

I am all in favor of freedom of anchoring, because I don’t have a million-dollar condo overlooking a fleet of refugee yachts. I have always taken the part of the little man because I’m a little man myself. But if you look at what has happened to little sailors all over this country, the omens are not good. There is a heavy ground-swell of conviction that the free spirits among us must be corralled. They must be regulated and herded and taxed because they are different and therefore dangerous and — most of all — because they have the guts to take the risks in life that we would like to take if only we had the guts to take them.

I think I know where all the boats have gone, but how long they’ll be able to stay there is another matter.

Today’s Thought
Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult.
— Samuel Johnson.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #133
The exact length of a nautical mile has varied with our ability to measure the earth. It is the equivalent of one sixtieth of one degree, which is in itself one three-hundred-and-sixtieth of the distance around the earth. For all practical purposes, one degree of latitude equals 60 nautical miles. And therefore one minute of latitude equals one nautical mile. For many years the nautical mile was reckoned to be 6,080 feet, but now it’s officially 6,076.1 feet or 2,025.4 yards. For small-boat navigation, you can presume the nautical mile to be 2,000 yards. Unless you’re on fresh water, of course. There the mile is still the landlubber measure of 1,760 yards.

Mary has a cool, cool gown,
It’s almost slit to bits.
Who gives a damn for Mary’s lamb
When we can see her calf?


Dylan said...

Excellent post! In Filucy Bay in the south sound, waterfront proverty owners have disliked boats in the bay for a long time. All it took was one bad egg to move in and the locals used their connections with the DNR to evict all boats in the bay...I have also generally supported the little guys, but whichever side one supports, there is little doubt that the old days ware well behind us.

Anonymous said...

Are taxes and regulations always a villain. Market economies seem to place a very small value on free spirit. Yes, regulations can be used to suppress as well. They can also allow for common good and freedom of thought. Our constitution is an example of just such a regulation. If taxes are used for education is that such a bad thing? Objective appraisals of health care seem to indicate the common good would also benefit by sharing (i.e using taxes) the burden. The same with boating, ensuring that a high end condo maintains its view seems bad. But ensuring that everyone has equal access to the sea seems good. A hard question, but one that probably must include taxes and regulations to best serve the common good. As someone who is not yet through the gate, I would prefer that it be left open.

seadog1949 said...

John, I started living aboard in the 70's. At the time, in my 90 boat marina there were 2 of us who did so. There was no such thing as "live aboard fees". As a matter of fact,people thought I was nuts! Fast forward to 2007. Slip fees were skyrocketing. The harbor I was in at the time was doing 2 increases a year AND tacking on the live aboard fee which was also rising. The harbor commission held a meeting and invited live aboards to attend and give their 2 cents. The room wasn't nearly large enough to hold the crowd that showed and after a short time, the commissioner held up his hand and said they had heard enough. His next comment floored me and probably everyone else in the room. I quote him, " People, you are just going to have to suck it up and then cough it up as there is no end(to the rate increases) in sight". My wife and I looked at each other and decided then and there we were selling our boat (the sale was in the works at the time) and instead of looking for our next boat, we were looking for some dirt. That particular harbor was the only place we were "legal live aboards" in 30 years but that didn't mean we had any of the rights land dwellers(renters)had. As a matter of fact,the harbor could kick anyone out with as little as a 1 hour notice! So, I'm not surprised to see the empty slips and they are everywhere,up and down the West coast and the East coast as well.Everyone knows that yachting is not a compulsory activity and until the marinas figure it out and adjust their fees to the state of the economy,there will continue to be more and more empties. It's sad but the days of the common man being able to "mess around in boats" may be coming to a close.
I hope I'm wrong.

Robert Salnick said...

It's not just that boats are fleeing the marinas... the slips that the ones at anchor free up are probably the cheapest slips in the sound. Those slips are slowly being occupied by the next tier up and so on. The end result will be that the most expensive slips in the sound will slowly be vacated.

Competition for slip renters is only just beginning - it's in the "if I just advertise more, I'll get more customers" stage. The marinas are just starting to notice that their wait lists are empty, and to realize that they are going to stay that way. I'll add that, for the first time since 1999, our marina did *not* raise our rent.

But they haven't dropped it yet either.


starcarfttom said...

another though about anchored up live aboards. any one can anchor anywhere for 90 days. so you really only have to move four times a year. everyone wants to think that Anchored Live Aboards(ala's) are good stewards of their boats and the waters in which they sit. The truth is that most are just floating homeless. Their boats are sinking around them, they dump waste in the water and in the worst cases cook meth in there boats. I have seen it done right and I have seen it done wrong. the wife and I where in eagle harbor this summer at the public dock. every time an ala paddled to shore my wife got scared, and shes no sissy. talk about your unwashed masses. far worse then the homeless in belltown. One ala used the very nice map/display of the harbors history as a table to rebuild a old seagal out board. One guy just stared at us from the dock for 20 mins with out moving, I think he fell asleep standing up. we did not go to town and eat or shop because we did not think our boat was safe. The city of sacramento had this same problem. homeless or close to homeless would buy or be given boats then anchor up in the American river. they never moved until they sunk. One family of four sank 5 boats in one year. and who gets stuck with the clean up?? you got it the tax payer. I really think that if you are able to maintain your boat and move once in awhile you should be able to live on the public's land or water. but if your boat is in disrepair and you have no means to maintain it or move it it should be removed. if I parked my truck in a park, public land, and lived out of it and was unable to move it it would be towed double quick. just a different thought on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Hey Marinas GOT EMPTY SLIPS? Lower the rent per foot. Problem solved..welcome to the new normal.

Alfex said...

This a great post about the current state of one aspect of boating. We live on our boat at 12th St. Yacht Basin, Everett. The only raised the liveaboard fee by $2. We have thought about going on anchor or Anchored Live Aboard (ALA), but the power, heat and sanitation requirements are formidable. It is hard enough in the summer. I totally agree with starcarfttom. The 90 day limit seems perfect. Now if I can just get a big enough battery bank.