Liveaboards: The high life in hard conditions
SOUTH PORTLAND — Last summer, John Martin and Dora St. Martin sold their 15-room Victorian house in Lowell, Mass. and moved aboard the Windrifter, their 42-foot Westsail docked at South Port Marine.
The couple, married for 22 years, have family living in the area and have spent the last 10 years enjoying summer weekends sailing and sleeping aboard their boat. But every Sunday afternoon, as the evening sun bathed their boat with the promise of another tranquil night's rest, the couple dreaded having to pack up their gear and head south.
"It was always the perfect time to be aboard," said Martin, a 46-year-old computer programmer who commutes to Massachusetts during the week. "(But), you have to leave your boat and head down the Maine Turnpike.
"So we decided not to," said Martin, sitting in the pilot house where a hanging sign reads "Welcome to Paradise."
The couple now lives year-round on their boat with their two Maine coon cats, Romeo and Juliet. Above the deck is an elaborate framework of two-by-fours covered in translucent shrink wrap. The resulting dome is the only thing protecting them from ice, wind and snow.
"This is John's first shrink wrap," boasted Dora St. Martin, a "40-something" Biddeford librarian.
The dome lets in the sun, creating a greenhouse effect. Even on a chilly Saturday, the enclosed deck was quite pleasant on the deck. St. Martin hopes to grow tomatoes.
Down below, the temperature was a balmy 68 degrees in living quarters, which consisted of a kitchen, dining area and master bedroom.
"Any tricks we have have been stolen," St. Martin said. "Having people around who have done this before is a help."
Two of those people are Barbara and E.W. Stewart Hart, who in 2002 moved aboard La Luna, a 47-foot Cutter. Over the years, the couple have become the de facto leaders of a floating neighborhood, which once boasted upwards of 25 people, but has since dwindled to about a dozen.
Although this winter has been particularly cold and snowy, the Harts said they've been through worse.
South Portland Marine is generally considered to be the most sheltered in Portland Harbor. Typically the only sleepless nights come when nor'easters combine with high tides, making chunks of harbor ice slam violently against the hull.
There were six nor'easters during the Hart's first winter. The couple calls them "Dog Storms" because they were forced to move their dog, Jake, and valuables to land in case of an evacuation.
"It was as if the universe said, 'So you want to live on your boat. Let's see if you can handle it,'" Barbara Hart said as she prepared bagels and coffee amid the deep wood tones of their floating home.
The couple said the Patriots Day Nor'easter of 2007 lasted a week. It was followed by another nor'easter on Mother's Day, which wrecked havoc upon non-year round boaters.
During nor'easters, liveaboards tune into a special UHF channel to receive updates from Hart. If there's trouble at a specific dock, other liveaboards take it upon themselves to gear-up and help out, providing a much-needed hand to the year-round dock crews of the marina.
Last week, Barbara Hart said the Feb. 22 nor'easter wasn't strong enough to be a Dog Storm. But the couple was up throughout the night clearing ice and snow from the shrink-wrap. They used a pole to poke at wrap from the inside, a technique that sometimes left holes in the protective bubble.
"Not as many holes (in the shrink wrap) as I expected," Hart reported.
Both couples their love of the ocean and sailing prompted them to sell their homes – and many of their belongings – and move aboard their boats. Hart said she ran into unexpected resistance from her husband, who sells yachts at the Great Island Boat Yard in Harpswell.
"I was playing devil's advocate," insisted the 62-year-old Stewart Hart, who in 2007 sailed across the Atlantic.
"I just didn't want to be living down here with someone I had to convince."
Barbara Hart said it wasn't hard to sell off most of their possessions. The hardest part, she said, was holding off the hordes who had responded to a yard sale ad in the paper.
She doesn't anticipate moving ashore any time soon. If she does, it will be a small condo.
"One thousand square feet," Barbara said, "with all the furniture built in."
So far, Martin and St. Martin said that living on their boat isn't nearly as difficult as they originally thought. Instead of walking into the next room to take a shower, they must now traverse the docks, let themselves out of a locked gate. Similar journeys must be made for fresh water and fuel.
But that's not to say the couple doesn't miss their former life.
"I really miss being able to sail in the winter," Dora St. Martin said.
Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.