No Kitchen, Water Views

When Justin Omps, 28, moved aboard the Tycho Brahe last September, he transformed the timeworn tugboat into a floating frat house. Docked on the Potomac River at Washington, D.C.'s Gangplank Marina, Omps's 60-foot boat boasts an electric barbecue and a thatch-roof tiki bar lit by jumbo Christmas lights--and, inevitably, a trash bin overflowing with beer cans. Omps left behind a $1,000 apartment in Baltimore and now pays the marina just $700 per month. Saving money was appealing, but it is the marina's anything-goes lifestyle that keeps him onboard. "There's still a bit of pirate in the people who live here," he says.

For Omps and thousands of so-called live-aboards--who include recent college graduates struggling to get by, retirees on a fixed income and divorces starting over--life on the waves has become an increasingly attractive alternative to city living. While there are no official Census counts, live-aboard numbers appear to be climbing. Marinas across the country have reached capacity--and their live-aboard wait lists are growing. At Blind Pass Marina in St. Pete's Beach, Fla., there was no wait list a year ago; today it is 70-boaters long. At nearby St. Petersburg Municipal Marina, the wait list has doubled in the past five years to 160 boaters. And subscriptions to Living Aboard magazine--a lifestyle mag catering to those onboard--have increased from 3,000 five years ago to more than 10,000 today.

Not all live-aboards come to party. Carla Andrus, 51, moved onboard a 22-foot trawler in Marina del Rey, Calif., to escape L.A.'s smog and crime. While she puts up with some inconveniences--a bucket instead of a bathroom and a hot plate for a kitchen--seals frolic nearby and birds land on her boat.

But as their numbers increase, live-aboards face growing ire from affluent coastal residents and developers who view live-aboard communities as floating eyesores and a threat to property values. The perception of some boaters as ne'er-do-wells doesn't help. "Ninety-nine percent of the live-aboards are decent folks, but that other 1 percent can be a pain in the butt," says David Ghossman, dockmaster at Gangplank. (Even so, marinas often keep live-aboards around for security.) Last June a citizens' group on Washington state's Bainbridge Island filed suit against the Department of Natural Resources for allowing 30 live-aboards to moor--rent-free--in nearby Eagle Harbor. Paul Vibrans, a marine engineer, says he sold his $750,000 house on the waterfront and moved eight miles away to escape the trash bags filled with beer bottles that frequently washed up on his property.

Even live-aboards who pay rent and live quietly are under fire. Private marinas are raising fees, driving poorer live-aboards off the water. Last month the city commission in Madeira Beach, Fla., increased live-aboard rents by 60 percent. R. J. Linburg, a Vietnam veteran living on an $846-a-month pension, saw his rent increase from $525 to $840. He has listed his 42-foot My Pony for sale on eBay and relocated to a trailer park with Cheeseburger, his 130-pound Rottweiler. Officials say the increased rent revenue will help reimburse the city for electricity and water it provides to the marina's nine live-aboards.

Live-aboards aren't ready to walk the plank yet: they've organized in Washington, Hawaii and California to counter their opposition. Don Klein, a Marina del Rey live-aboard for 30 years and founder of Save the Marina, Inc., has six lawsuits pending against Los Angeles County that challenge ongoing commercial projects on the waterfront--part of what he calls "boater cleansing." Regardless of the legal outcomes, the tension is unlikely to subside. "They hate us and we hate them. That's just the way it is," Klein says. For live-aboards, it seems, making waves comes naturally.