A Neighborhood Afloat

At the Berkeley Marina, some find shelter, some wash away

More than 1,000 boats line the docks where Berkeley meets the Bay. Schooners and fishing scows, houseboats and rowboats, they form an eclectic community of people seeking amenities from land and shelter from the sea.

But even the richly contoured Berkeley Marina can't protect all these boats from the economic storm battering the country. Early next month, 20 boats go on the auction block, having been abandoned by their owners and repossessed by the state.

Harbormaster Ann Hardinger calls it her "worst problem" -- boats that have been abandoned by people who just walk away, failing to pay their slip fees, and leaving the harbor to auction off the boat, if it can.

There are 1100 slips in the marina, mostly for recreational users and a small commercial fleet, but 110 slips are for live-aboards, and another 13 are for houseboats. People don't always realize all the costs of keeping a boat, and an increasing number of people have found the expense too burdensome. Hardinger will auction off 20 boats in June -- double the number of vessels abandoned just a year ago.

The increase is caused by the economy, Hardinger said. If people are struggling to keep up with home mortgages or have lost jobs, their boats often end up on the auction block. With few buyers, some boat owners find it easier to walk away.

For others, however, the marina is a place of refuge, and they use their boats as a primary residence. If people are prepared for the costs and are capable of keeping up with maintenance, living in the marina can be cheaper than an apartment.

Rick Foster, a business consultant and author, owns one of the 13 houseboats, or "floating homes," in the marina. Ten years ago he paid $270,000 for the 1,500-foot, two-bedroom houseboat, which he then moved on to the permanent foundation on H Dock. The houseboats rarely change hands, Foster said, so he's not sure what the going price would be today. One of his neighbors has lived in the Berkeley Marina since 1968, he said.

The reason to live in the marina goes far past the economics, Foster added. It's a way of life. Foster, who teaches happiness workshops, said he values the beauty of the setting and the sense of community.

Daniel Chadwick, who owns a 40-foot "live-aboard," is selling his boat. He and his wife lived on it for five years while they built a home on land. Now they use the boat for recreation, taking it out for the day or for the weekend. Chadwick said he has another building project in mind, and the money from the boat will go toward that. The boat, priced at $50,000, is an old wooden vessel with character, Chadwick said, and he can afford to wait until the buyers come back.

Like other land-locked communities throughout the area, this floating neighborhood is a microcosm of economic tides. Both the success stories of people who have found a home here for decades, and the hard luck tales silently told by the dozen boats chained to the impound dock, live side by side.