All aboard

Two 20-somethings dive into liveaboard life

click to enlarge LIFE AT SEA: "The only things I'm afraid of is lightning and the Coast Guard," says Josh Collier, who lives in a 23-foot sailboat off the coast of St. Petersburg with his wife, Amber. - Alex Pickett
Alex Pickett
LIFE AT SEA: "The only things I'm afraid of is lightning and the Coast Guard," says Josh Collier, who lives in a 23-foot sailboat off the coast of St. Petersburg with his wife, Amber.

Josh and Amber Collier's blue and white residence is a little cramped and lacks air conditioning, but for $500 it was a steal. The neighborhood is nice, too. The closest coffee shop is only a few blocks away. There's a movie theater nearby. And the neighbors are always willing to invite the Colliers over for a meal or a card game.

The Colliers' neighborhood is probably much like your own, except for one small detail: It floats.

But it doesn't look like a neighborhood, at least not from a distance. In fact, if the Colliers hadn't taken me aboard the 23-foot sailboat they've inhabited for the last year, I never would have known that the boat, along with five others in a basin off a popular St. Petersburg park, is part of a community of liveaboards.

Unlike some waterfront towns in the area, St. Petersburg doesn't forbid liveaboards — yet. Just the same, the Colliers would just as soon not reveal the exact location of their offshore enclave so as not to, um, rock the boat.

Just by watching 22-year-old Josh Collier move gracefully between mast and deck, you can tell he's no landlubber.

"I grew up on boats," he explains, checking the tautness of a few ropes. "My dad was a marine biologist, so every day I wasn't in school I was on a boat somewhere."

His wife isn't quite so familiar with the life aquatic.

"I was surrounded by cotton, wheat and cattle," Amber, 21, says of her hometown in the middle of Texas, where the closest she ever came to water was a fish fry.

She still doesn't know how to swim. But a year ago, after living for several months in a claustrophobic apartment on Treasure Island, she took to Josh's liveaboard idea.

"The more we talked about it, the more it made sense," she says. "Rent sounds like the stupidest concept ever invented."

It was also the perfect compromise between Josh, who can't stay in one place for a long period of time, and Amber, who likes the stability of a home.

"This lets her have her house," he says. "And if we're going someplace, it's not starting over."

After several weeks of searching online and visiting moorings, the Colliers ran into a man in the St. Petersburg marina anxiously trying to sell his 1966 Southcoast single-mast sloop sailboat to make way for the new speedboat he'd bought for his wife. His asking price? $2,500.

"But he said he liked us, so he sold it for $500," Josh says.

It was their first stroke of luck. The second came when they found the perfect basin to anchor in, near all the amenities they needed. The small inlet, protected from the rough waves of the Gulf and sheltered from high winds by surrounding condos, harbors a small community of passionate liveaboards.

"There's always someone willing to help you just because you live on a boat," Josh says, looking out at the five other boats anchored around the basin.

Contrary to some notions of what liveaboard life is like, there's no dirty laundry hanging from the masts here, no balls of toilet paper floating in the surf. There's not even one scuzzy old man peeing off the side of a boat. The vibe is relaxed but civilized and definitely friendly.

On the weekends, most of the neighbors get together on one of the larger boats to cook out and watch movies. Sometimes they play Dungeons and Dragons over the boat radios. There's a mutual aid component to most of it: one boater has a DVD, but no movies. Another boater has movies, but no food. A third boater has food, but no electronics. And everyone takes part in a crime watch to make sure dinghies aren't stolen.

For the Colliers, who prize their privacy, it's the perfect neighborhood situation.

"It's a nice kind of solitude," Amber says of the basin, "because you have people around, but they're not intruding."

And if things get weird, you can always pull up anchor and move.

Except for the boat, the Colliers' lives are really not that different from that of any other 20-somethings. Five or six times a week, Amber paddles to shore and takes a bus to the St. Pete Beach coffee shop where she works, while Josh does odd jobs around the city marinas. They usually meet up in the afternoon and go to a movie or watch a DVD on their laptop. Josh rigged up a MP3 player and speakers to play while he works on the boat. Instead of Jimmy Buffett, he prefers heavy metal thrashers Slayer.

They eat simply — canned food, chili, tortillas. They usually try to use public restrooms (the onboard facilities are located, awkwardly enough, under their bed) and they take rainstorm showers on deck. It's not too different from camping.

But even liveaboards experience one bad aspect of suburbia, no matter how far out to sea they go: annoying solicitors.

"Just because you're not on land, you don't get away from junk mail," Josh says, producing a laminated flier for a boat sale that someone stuck to his boat the other day. It's become a regular occurrence.

The Colliers take great lengths to keep their small community secret, especially after the recent hubbub in Gulfport, once thought to be Tampa Bay's best area for liveaboards.

"Gulfport used to be great," Josh says. "They slowly whittled it down."

Since the late 1980s, liveaboards have always been on the losing end of city ordinances, but in the last four years several coastal cities have taken a more active role in enforcement. With Clearwater and Madeira Beach leading the pack, almost every municipality bordering the Gulf now restricts boat stays to a day or two.

In every city, it's the same pattern: Condos go up, owners start complaining about the liveaboards as "eyesores" and the city enacts strict ordinances to push them out. The few allowed in municipal marinas end up paying more in rent than they would in a two-bedroom apartment.

It's gentrification of the ocean.

"We're keeping alive something that's been done for thousands of years," Josh says, playing with the cords hanging from his Scottish sailing shirt. "To have it be unacceptable just seems wrong to me."

To the critics, liveaboards are dirty, inconsiderate and hurt the environment. They receive the same disdain as the homeless on park benches.

"They're just jealous," Josh quips.

He's probably right.

The Colliers have complete freedom to move their home anywhere. They enjoy sunrises and sunsets that most people have to buy a condo to witness. Seeing a dolphin or two is as common as seeing a stray cat. Instead of being kept awake by thumping car stereos, they hear fish nibbling at the barnacles attached to the boat's hull. Plus, they don't have to worry about rent or property taxes.

"That's another reason we're not too popular with the cities," he says.

Josh knows it can't last forever; eventually, the city will clear out all the liveaboards. He just hopes his grand plan is in place by then — a sailing trip to Japan (the Colliers are big samurai fans). In the meantime, they save money for their trip, maintain self-sufficiency and try to hold on to their new life at sea.

"I'm only a part of that society when I choose to be," Josh says, pointing to land. "This is freedom. It's the American dream."

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