Monday, January 5, 2009

Boat Living

"The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper; I cannot quite make it out."
- Annie Dillard

"Home is a shelter from storms - all sorts of storms."
- William J. Bennett

"The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears, or the sea." - Isak Dinesen

"For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),It's always our self we find in the sea."
- e.e. cummings

"Praise the sea; on shore remain." - John Florio

"He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea." -George Herbert

In places where population is high, or real estate is otherwise dear, some folks live on the water, like the boat families of Hong Kong harbour or the artists of Sausalito. Honolulu homes and apartments are rather expensive, so people who want to live here must accept pricey accommodations that they would turn their noses up at elsewhere. Home ownership seems unreachable to the average person without a “family head-start.” When an old friend of ours asked: “Why don’t you buy so-and-so's boat?” My reasonable husband reasonably asked: “And do what with it?” Then our friend made a bold suggestion that has changed our lives by taking us off of the beaten path of normalcy: “You could LIVE on it.” He let that sink in for a minute. We HAD sailed around the Caribbean out of sight of land, and fantasized about living on the homey new motor-sailors at the boat show, but that boat?! Perhaps with a bit of (read TONS of hard, dirty) work? Hmmmmm. The politics of harbor life was another education all together! Our Island state has fewer recreational boat slips than many land-locked states back on the continent boast of. State operated harbors have been permitted to become shamefully threadbare over recent decades, and the wait-list to get a boat slip (let alone a live-aboard slip!) is something out of Kafka. Resourceful boaters have needed to develop clever strategies to survive the top-heavy administration, contradictory rules, communist-like level of harbor services, and arbitrary policies. A person buys a boat by private contract; the former owner remains the owner of record while the new person waits on the list for a slip. Meanwhile, the new owner is listed with harbor authorities as a “care-taker” of the boat and is therefore permitted to be on, and to use, the boat. Live aboard slips, a fraction of the total by law, are even more challenging to obtain. The day we got our slip we had been boat owners for several years, forced to relay every official communication, registration or whatever, through a disinterested former boat owner away on the mainland who was so “over all this” by that time. That day was something akin to being freed from slavery: we were our own people at last! Today I’m (still mostly) happy to live with my husband, our cat, and all my memories and demons, on board our 55 year old, locally built, cutter-rigged pinky-stern line island trader. She’s steel, like a solid old car (or a dumpster!). This is not the boat that comes to mind when you hear the word “yacht” but it’s functional, funky, and “home.” Actually, it’s the boat a child draws: mast, Popeye wheelhouse, high bowsprit, and three round portholes on both sides, port and starboard. Electricity, phone (and Internet), water, and even cable TV come aboard via hoses, cables & cords. Storms make for exciting times as the falling rain drives into the roiling sea all around us. Breezes stir us at the end of our ropes, winds rock us to sleep, and high winds handle our home like a petulant kid. But there’s no one upstairs, or through the wall (no humans anyway). There is a sovereignty about boats. “Permission to come aboard?” “DENIED!” At night it’s beautiful to be at the town’s edge, between civilization and the immortal sea. Jumping on board is entering a special world. Of course, there are unsavory “issues” no one wants to talk about: our “waste” is not merely “flushed” but must be contained and conveyed appropriately – enough said, except that it is NOT elegant to be carrying one’s night-soil or chamber-pot to the receptacle! The giant tractor trailer-sized diesel engine in my “dressing room” is not what you would see in the closet of a fashionista. But I do have time to read, to write, and a great story to “top” any posturing stuffed shirt that I may meet: I live on my boat in Waikiki. Shuts up airport boors immediately (Listening, Travis?) Sometimes I dream of a real closet, a real kitchen (instead of the tiny “camping” refrigerator, toaster oven, and microwave I make use of now).
My closest neighbors are reef fish like Moorish Idols, Trigger Fish, and the occasional sea turtle like neighborhood favorite “Patty” with her missing fore flipper. Oh! And Boxy, my pet box fish. He looks eerily like a big, soulful face, with brown expressive eyes grafted onto the front of a square fish body like a psychedelic nightmare. If he weren’t so sweet natured he’d probably really creep me out, you know?
My human neighbors are a special breed, too: boat people. Folks with nice boats who come down for recreation on the weekend; there are also those of us persistent and patient enough to finally hold coveted “live aboard” slips. And always there are cruisers: folks in serious boats who stop here while circumnavigating the globe via the poles, like the big, steel Russian (the boat AND the captain) that was here a while ago, or retired couples from New Zealand on their way to San Francisco (or vice versa). We also see seasonal cruisers; folks who call no dock their home, just their trusty boats, along with their extended networks of connections in little coves and indigenous villages around a world that tourists never get to see.
Boats that I have known, or just marveled at, are just now cruising up the Thames, through the San Juan Islands, Central America, or the smaller islands of Samoa. The bulk of humanity does NOT live afloat, so most of us who do have an interesting story about what lured (or chased!) us off of dry land and the steady life. It’s a bit like motorcyclists, or hot air balloonists: “How did you get into this?” Yes, the sea has always been a safety net, safety valve, or alternative, to societies structures and life’s responsibilities ashore.
The always immediate and changing eternal sea makes light of today’s “important” concerns. Things always look different out here on the water, off shore, un-tied. Even boats that rarely leave the confines of the harbor remain attached to solid land only by a slender line of rope, a rope that may be thrown at any time. Floating out here at the edge we have furled sails, the sleeping engine, full water tanks, even boxes of canned beans. We are ever ready to slip away on the tide that always seems to be flowing somewhere. else. Yet…yet we stay in Waikiki…
Yes, our home is constantly moving, bobbing, swaying, and heeling with the wind. Such a home nurtures different certainties about home and foundations. Our main attachments are to nature, and to each other: other boat people. We have learned that boat people will always catch your thrown rope and make it fast. They expect that you will do the same for them, that’s just the way of the waves. One day, the neighbor in the next slip will be gone, leaving only an empty space of water. Then a new neighbor in a new house will arrive to share our narrow dock to solid land. Boat people know that nothing is forever, except maintenance. Shipmates will sail on different tides at last, and nothing really lasts except the dear harbor itself, the frigate birds, sailing clouds, monthly jellyfish, and the sea itself, all constantly morphing, eternal with it’s ever changing light, spinning seasons, and our passing wakes stretching out behind us. Nothing else remains- except Diamond Head (that sphinx!), and the way we choose to feel about it all. Here at the edge of Waikiki.

Thoughtful Diamond Head shields us from the earlier dawn, letting us sleep in a bit, and Splash the harbor cat stirs in the pink basket of a little girl’s bicycle chained to the rack at the head of G – Dock. Little feline “Radar O’Reilly” will follow her hunger unerringly to a friendly early fisherman, McMuffin sharing tourist, or juicy trash can fish head. Then, satiated and casual, she will patrol the docks, keeping an eye on the Kolea and Java finches feeding on “her” bit of lawn. Then it’s time to snooze again, no doubt under the dark blue canvas of some neighbors covered boat, till it’s time to work for her dinner again, posing for vacation photos, and licking her paw in the afternoon sunlight. No one exactly “owns” Splash, but she has lots of friends, and lots of names, and is clearly too friendly and self possessed to be a feral wild child. She is simply part of the Ala Wai Harbor, part of our community.
Hard working Hilton, Ilikai, and Hawaii Prince workers fill almost every public parking space in the harbor on some days, like the morning tide rolling in, just as the hard working harbor residents leave for their jobs. And Stan the Man, who builds and maintains everything at the Hawaii Yacht Club walks his two miles from home, smoking like a narrow gauge Japanese locomotive, and saying funny-friendly things to everyone that matters as he passes.
Older (or younger!) couples whose very appearance screams: “Maine!” “Ohio!” “Stuttgart!” or “Beloit!” thoughtfully muse upon the tethered boats, and our alluring harbor bulletin boards where boats for sale, and crewing positions to Tahiti, are offered. Till the wife (usually it’s the wife) gets hungry for breakfast at the Harbor Pub and, clutching her discount coupon, drags her husband away from what “might have been” and ultimately back to their normal life elsewhere. Having fallen under the harbor’s magical spell a lucky, blessed few of us never leave. Like Splash the harbor cat we awaken to another gentle Waikiki morning. What will there be to eat today? Who will I smile upon or talk with on my slow progress up the beach this afternoon?

The Small Boat Harbor, where I live with Miss Kitty and my Favorite Husband aboard, marks the proper beginning for a walk down the length of Waikiki Beach towards Diamond Head and Kapiolani Park at the other, the “Diamond Head” end. On the opposite side of the harbor is a channel separating us from Magic Island & Ala Moana Beach Park: sort of our Central Park with a long beach and D.H. view instead of the Manhattan sky line. Ala Moana Boulevard is the highway that brings many visitors to Waikiki from Honolulu Airport, and it marks the inland or Mauka (towards the mountains) boundary of the park. Across the boulevard: Ala Moana Shopping Center, our giant open-air mall containing everything from Neiman Marcus, to Sears, to a unique food court, to specialty shops you won’t find anywhere else. I hope that I will awaken here in Waikiki as long as my boat, my mooring permit, my luck, and my body hold up. Each day here is unique in beauty. . . like all the others, just because it opens its petals here in magical Waikiki. So the white doves of Fort DeRussy, Splash the harbor cat, and me, we’ll hold a place for you under the palms, right in front of the Hula Mound.
Till then. . . I’ll be here. . . Walking (with sea legs) in Waikiki.
. .
A L O H A! Cloudia