Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series of articles by Squamish-based freelance writer Ana Santos about the joys and challenges of life on the water in Squamish and elsewhere in B.C.
He had been looking forward to the move for a long time. The day it finally happened must have been one of the most exciting days of Ron Battiston's life. But a week after the fact, he couldn't put his finger on the reason for the constant low-grade headache and the general malaise that were keeping him under the weather.
Although exhilarating, moving had been a huge, draining undertaking, requiring organization, focus and determination of mammoth proportions. Ron's relationship with his wife was now a little cool, and conversations were short. On exchanging a few words, though, Ron discovered that she was suffering from identical symptoms.
When somebody finally put a name to their affliction, they were dumbstruck: They were seasick. “We left our 1,500-square-foot three-level townhouse to live on a 40-foot ketch that had less liveable space than our previous walk-in closets.” Tied up to their slip, their new home was almost imperceptibly but relentlessly moving, Ron explains, his hearty laugh crackling over the phone line all the way from Ontario.
The life of a liveaboard is not all smooth sailing. Ron's introduction to it is testament to that, but a passing bout of seasickness could seem like petty trouble compared to other more character-marking hardships sometimes endured by “the waterborne Roma,” as Victoria harbour resident Rick Schnurr tells me they “not so jokingly” call themselves.
In his case, when he first became a liveaboard 10 years ago, what he wasn't prepared for was the hostility from the wider community.
“There's a lot of misunderstanding. I found it totally shocking!” – and, as if demonstrating, Rick's suddenly louder tone over Skype denotes surprise. “It really borders on the kind of prejudice that the black population faced in the United States.” Enough said. My curiosity has been piqued; I march towards the Squamish harbour.
The Squamish liveaboard is one of those mysterious marine creatures that, at least in our imagination, inhabit a dark, deep, distant world inaccessible to the rest of us. We all know they exist, but ignore the fact for the most part. Living on a boat in this town is not a topic that is easily broached, so it wasn't without a considerable degree of anxiety oppressing my throat that I brought myself to knock on Squamish Harbour Authority manager Bill McEnery's office door.
“I personally have nothing against liveaboards,” the wharfinger of 21 years assures me while, brandishing his pen in the air, he directs my attention to the docks under his watch. “There are three of them living very happily right there.”
“Are you telling me it is legally possible to live on a boat in the Squamish harbour?” my incredulous stare clearly says. Sensing, correctly, that I am having a lot of trouble believing him, Bill McEnery presents me with the Squamish Harbour Authority (SHA) Moorage Agreement: “The Wharfinger (...) may allow a liveaboard at his discretion,” it reads.
“This works just fine for us,” he adds, and to illustrate, he briskly signals me to stand, opens the door to the cold winter air, and ushers me outside. With a sweep of his arm, Bill covers the entire area he guards. He then points to different spots distributed around the docks, identifying the boats that are lived on.
“I run a tight ship here,” he assures me, “and I won't have it any other way.” And “Bill's way” seems to work — boats are tidy and incredibly straight, perhaps afraid of him seeing them listing, as in disrespect; docks and ramps are spotless; the pump-out station is clean and accessible... No boat owner has a deep enough soul to make Bill's tight ship rock.
Contrary to widespread belief, the District of Squamish (DOS) has no bylaws that restrict the presence of liveaboards in the Squamish harbour. “The District's land use plan and zoning bylaw don't specifically address harbour use and liveaboards,” reads the message from DOS Communications Manager Christina Moore.
Determining what can and cannot be done on the water is no small task, but a very complex one. “All levels of government have some role in managing coastal waters in B.C.,” Moore adds. Our so-called “government docks” are a good example of this multijurisdictional marine jungle; the water lot is leased from the Province, the seafloor is federal, and the land adjacent to the water is municipal.
From its part, the Canada Shipping Act includes no restrictions on liveaboard boats. Given this, and via spokesperson Jillian Glover, Transport Canada maintains that port authorities and municipal governments are free to make their own rules, and if no bylaws exist at the local level, marinas can dictate what's appropriate in their own specific situation.
This is precisely what the SHA does: the wharfinger controls the presence of liveaboards on the government docks. The Squamish Yacht Club doesn't allow liveaboards on its docks, as is the case with the Sea to Sky Marina. Staff at the Blue Heron Marina declined to comment.
A few days later, and a little more decisively, I'm back to see Bill McEnery. I knock and enter all in one move ...a bad one. “Morning, Bill. How are you today?” I ask. “Busy!” he barks, knocking the wind out of my sails at once. “I was hoping you'd help me find a liveaboard to talk to,” I hear myself sheepishly say. “Well,” he replies, “I told them about you, and I told you where they are, didn't I?”
With the pride of a child who gets the unexpected opportunity to show off his birthday gifts, Rick Schnurr stands up, takes his laptop in his hands, and turns it one way, then the other, making sure the camera catches every snug angle of the 40-foot vessel he and his wife Jude call home.
Over Skype, I watch, amused. I imagine myself on his laptop screen, smiling widely and approvingly, a touch of jealousy glinting in my eyes.
Raised in a boat-loving family, the Idaho-born 66-year-old was forced out of his floathome in Victoria some years ago. Rick avoids sharing too many details of the traumatic experience.
“Misunderstanding did it all,” he offers, in a low, saddened tone. “There are certainly those who ignore the rules and misbehave on the water, but that's the same on land, and we shouldn't all be painted with the same brush.”
But at the time, the negative perception of liveaboards in the broader community couldn't be swayed. Rick didn't let the episode put him off, however, and now, living in Victoria harbour aboard the Julie May, you can tell things have come a long way.
It was experiences like Rick's that led to the creation, in 2010, of the BCNR, the British Columbia Nautical Residents Association. Currently including 120 members from several communities along the coast, the group aims to preserve the tradition of living aboard, promote environmental awareness among those who live on boats, address issues that concern liveaboards and, as far as the wider community goes, improve relations and eliminate misconceptions.
BCNR members work hard to prove their lifestyle is harmless, or at least not more harmful than our way of life on land. They observe all harbour standards and regulations; for instance, they must have onboard sewage holding tanks. Also, to avoid derelict vessels becoming unsightly and polluting problems along the waterfront, liveaboard boats must be fully insured. Going beyond their obligations, BCNR members dedicate much of their time to environmental awareness and education.
“We do research on environmentally friendly products for boaters. And we're considering an 'Adopt a Waterway' program, like 'Adopt a Highway' but on the water,” Rick explains, pointing out that most of the litter in our waterways comes, in fact, from the people who live on land.
Curtis Grad, president and CEO of the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority (GVHA), recognizes the BCNR's efforts: “Liveaboards are not only a client group; they're a community,” he assures me. “We expect very high standards, for example, in the use of pump-outs. Our relationship with the BCNR is very useful in this sense, say, if somebody dumps raw sewage in the harbour, we deal with it individually, but we try to manage it with the larger group.”
The GVHA is 10 years old and its relationship with liveaboards goes back almost that entire history. On hearing this, I share my surprise with Grad — I've learned many marinas favour what they consider the more lucrative market of unattended boats, which require few services or none at all.
“We've always been quite receptive to liveaboards in our properties,” he tells me. “They provide a year-round presence in our facilities, so even in the low months, they never look abandoned and, therefore, open to other kinds of problems. A liveaboard community is also an attraction; it adds an element of interest on the water. And it brings us a year-round revenue stream of approximately $1 million.”
Listening to Curtis Grad, it sounds like Rick Schnurr's chief wish of gaining acceptance for liveaboards is no longer a dream, but a fact, so when asked how long he plans to live on his boat, he doesn't hesitate: “They'll probably take me out feet first.”
Lacking the ingrained courage of a seasoned reporter, who would likely approach any one of the boats with no need for contemplation, I spend weeks paying what could easily be taken as fruitless visits to the Squamish harbour. As in anchor watch, I simply stand there and observe. Sunday mornings are best — the stillness of the place only disturbed by the groans of wooden hulls, the moans of masts being whipped by idle lines, the calls of gulls hungrily hoping for a feast revealed by the falling tide.
I pick a bright, sunny, crisp, cold day. My fruitless visits to the harbour turn out not to be so; I also pick the perfect boat. As soon as I knock, the latches swing up and the metal door swings open.
“I live on a boat because of the freedom it gives me,” the bearded sailor starts telling me almost as soon as I step into the middle of his kitchen... I mean, galley, introducing myself. “Here, I have all the freedom to create my own world.”
Certainly, inside Alistair's boat, you immediately get the sense of a person's world being created. There are several projects on the go, but it's cozy and warm, the kettle is on the stove, the dishes are done and drying on a rack, and the table and chairs below the port-side portholes, offering a million-dollar view, are inviting. I invite myself to sit down and take in the experience. I feel entitled. After all, it's taken weeks to get to this point; I'm not about to let it go.
Like all liveaboards at the government docks, Alistair pays moorage and garbage collection fees, and agrees to use the pump-out station or go out several miles offshore to empty his sewage tank, as required by regulations. Even with all the disadvantages, which he quickly and readily lists (“long way in and out of Howe Sound; dust from the log-sorting site; fierce winds in the summer; lack of facilities; no fuel on the dock...”), the four feet of fresh water in the harbour make Squamish a very attractive spot to moor a boat, as hulls stay clean for much longer than in salt water.
I tell Alistair all I've learned about liveaboards this winter. I'm relieved to hear he has experienced no hostility and feels part and parcel of the community. “Why wouldn't I?” he shrugs. “I pay my fees and taxes like everybody does; I buy all my supplies at local stores; I respect rules and regulations, and I open my door to people who come asking endless strings of questions,” he blurts out without a pause, but with a smile.
I smile back, feeling at home and relaxed, and incredibly grateful.
If you are a boater, a liveaboard, a wannabe liveaboard, or simply want to learn more about life on a boat, visit the British Columbia Nautical Residents Association's website at www.bcnr.org