River Nomads, Liveaboards, Canal-Dwellers and Other People of the Water

Laura Trethewey on Water-Based Communities Fighting for Survival

Water-dwelling communities come in all shapes and sizes, molded by the coastline, the climate, and the culture surrounding them. Water nomads called the Bajau once traveled and lived on the waters of Southeast Asia in teak houseboats. In Amsterdam, woonbootbewoner live on canal boats or float homes that range from run-down and rat-infested to sleek and modern. In Sausalito, California, cute and colorfully painted float homes line Richardson Bay where Otis Redding supposedly penned “(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay” while he stayed in one float home. Just below the Arctic Circle, a community of liveaboards hack out a living from the frozen shores of Yellowknife’s Great Slave Lake. For a time, you could watch their goings-on on the short-lived reality show Ice Lake Rebels.

Across these diverse communities, a few traits hold true, at least in the West (it’s harder to make generalizations about the Bajau because the communities are more scattered and, according to researchers, stretch back at least a thousand years). These communities grew out of the freewheeling days of the 1960s and 70s. They’re more offbeat than your typical neighborhood on land. Living on the water draws in a fringe group: eccentric, creative, handy types, such as inventors, artists, engineers, and fishers. They take pride in catching their food, rebuilding their engines, and living outside the mainstream.

Looking back throughout history, the port was a crowded, busy place of industry where people of different backgrounds, cultures, and incomes mingled and traded. Many poor people lived near the waterfront because the living was cheap and many of them worked there, too. In 19th-century Seattle, loggers slid their timber from the mountain along a road to the mill on the waterfront, giving birth to the term skid row. Over time, skid row became shorthand for the poor, crime-ridden areas that often clustered at water’s edge.

In San Francisco is another, more famous Dogpatch that was also once a gritty waterfront district populated by people who migrated there during the Depression, looking for work in the shipyards. “This was during the time that Li’l Abner was a popular comic strip,” Christopher VerPlanck, an architectural historian, told the New York Times. The strip took place in a fictional hillbilly town called Dogpatch. “San Franciscans saw the Lower Potrero area as a working-class, white, Southern enclave and called it Dogpatch.”

In post–World War II Amsterdam, working-class families who couldn’t afford housing on land bought barges retired from the Dutch navy and took to living on the city’s canals. In her Booker Prize–winning novel Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald captured a similar world in the downtrodden life of water-dwellers along the Thames River in the early 1960s. “The barge-dwellers, creatures of neither firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were,” Fitzgerald wrote. “But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway.”

But as cities deindustrialized and developers converted former shipyards, docks, and factories into tourist destinations, living near the urban coastline became desirable. “For a long time, people didn’t want to live close to the water, but you certainly see a lot of valuable real estate today on the shoreline,” said Andy Yan, an urban planner who studies high real estate prices in Vancouver. “We’ve come from a utilitarian relationship to an aesthetic one.” Today, real estate agents can tally in dollars and cents just how much that ocean view costs. A 1997 survey in Point Roberts, Washington—a tiny US peninsula in the Strait of Georgia accessible by land only via Canada—found that a house with an oceanfront view could cost up to 147 percent more than a house without one. A 2010 study in South Carolina pegged the waterfront premium as high as 287 percent, although that premium may decline in the future with the prospect of climate-change induced sea level rise. One Finnish study found that even the quality of the water is a commodity, and people will pay up to 20 percent more to live near cleaner coastlines.

On the Thames River, homes now sell for over a million pounds. In San Francisco, Dogpatch condos cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, although some buildings are Airbnb-friendly for those who can only afford a night there. At the San Francisco airport, you can buy a ten-dollar sandwich at the Dogpatch Bakehouse & Caffe. In Amsterdam, the canal boats and float homes are no longer the last resort of cash-strapped families; they’re now cute bed-and-breakfasts for tourists.

A trait that runs through many liveaboard marinas and water-based communities today is a sense that their days are numbered.

Environmentally, the waterfront’s gentrification has been an unmitigated force for good. Where effluvium was once flushed without second thought into the ocean and pools of creosote floated, we now talk of raising the water quality and collecting plastic. Amsterdam’s canal residents were required to pay for an expensive upgrade that connected their boats to the city’s sewer system. Now, in the water between the homes of the Ijberg neighborhood, children horse around on swimming rafts and pool noodles. The Billion Oyster Project aims to cleanse the once lifeless New York Harbor with millions upon millions of water-filtering bivalves. In Copenhagen’s formerly polluted port, children learn to swim, and pool parties flourish on warm summer days at the harbor baths.

More people bring more competition for space. Another trait that runs through many liveaboard marinas and water-based communities today is a sense that their days are numbered. From Fort Lauderdale to Hong Kong to Vancouver, marinas are being squeezed by oceanside development and the rising cost of living. Waiting lists stretch a decade long, slip prices are on the rise, and marinas engage in renovictions: kicking out long-term tenants to upgrade the docks and then up the rental price. As the cost of living legally at a marina creeps upward, it becomes comparable to life on land, not to mention the surprise costs that come with maintaining a boat. As the available space continues to shrink and prices continue to rise, who gets to enjoy the water will be even more fiercely contested.

Municipalities tend to like offshore sailors (like Fiona McGlynn and Robin Urquhart), who pay to stay a few nights and move on. They’re less enamored with people like Daniel Inkersell and the residents of the Dogpatch—folks who take up residence on the water and hold on as long as they can when they can’t find a slip or afford its asking price.

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When Daniel first anchored in the Dogpatch, he heard a funny clink-clink noise pinging off his anchor. At low tide, he shone a searchlight into the murky water and saw that his anchoring line had snagged on a sunken sailboat resting on the coal-blackened bottom of the Dogpatch. Another resident of the Patch estimated that beneath the surface lay hundreds of derelicts, jettisoned by nearby marinas or neglectful owners, farting up fuel and that distinctive gasoline sheen. “The Dogpatch is like this big red dot on everyone’s map,” Vince Huard said. A few years ago, bowing to public pressure, the Canadian government counted all the derelict boats in its western waterways. The Dogpatch had the most with 45 boats, some abandoned but many of which were lived on. Before he took a job as a fisher, Vince worked for a local business that disposed of derelict boats people dumped here. That was how he found the one he lived on in the Patch.

Time is slippery here. Vince guessed that he left the nearby marina to live in the Dogpatch four years earlier. “We all kinda forget the day. And I don’t have a mind for dates,” he said. Certainly, he arrived before the Dogpatch grew into a place the regulars called home. The community evolved at an infinitesimal pace. Sometime in the late ’90s, the first resident of the Dogpatch, a veteran named Paul Coop, arrived, and more soon followed, realizing they could live on the same water as the nearby marina but for free. At first, few stayed permanently. As one boat left, the next took its place. After a while, however, people started to stay. They had to haul their own water and fuel, but that suited the type who dropped anchor in the Patch. They were pensioners, welfare and disability recipients, sailors, and shipyard workers, but all of them were people with more time than money and a commitment to life outside the mainstream.

“Most people think that the water is something that’s supposed to be beautiful, but it’s not.”

Ironically, Ladysmith’s beginnings as a coal-mining town drew in this community and gave birth to what many considered the town’s most pressing problem. At the beginning of the 20th century, workers used to wash coal right next to the present-day Patch. All the toxic black dust they washed off coal—the slack—grew into a thirteen-acre triangular spit. The locals called it Slack Point, and it formed a perfect breakwater against the prevailing winds that swept down the channel in winter. When the coal mine shut down in the 1930s, this protected stretch of coastline housed a log-sorting operation. In the 1980s, the log-sort closed, and the town talked of finally cleaning up the waterfront.

Too many obstacles stood in the way. Environmental remediation costs for the coal-tainted banks were estimated at $27 million. The municipality and the water-lot owner disagreed about who had control over the shore, and the banks of Ladysmith’s harbor sat undeveloped. Townspeople walked their dogs along the coal-black banks of Slack Point. The sea life crept back: writhing nudibranchs, purple starfish, gray Dungeness crabs. In the mid-1990s, abandoned boats began dotting the surface of the water, and people started living on those boats or bringing their own. “I saw that it was safe water, that it was protected,” Bryan Livingstone said when I asked him what brought him to the Patch decades earlier. Before Bryan retired, he made his living chasing down lost logs and bringing them to the still operating log-sort. To him, it made sense for him to live in the Patch, and he is one of its longest residents.

“Most people think that the water is something that’s supposed to be beautiful, but it’s not,” Bryan explained. “Navigable waters are the frontier of a country that interfaces with a thing called the ocean.” Before the 1990s, there weren’t too many other people in the harbor to argue with him. Now Ladysmith wants to integrate its sliver of ocean more directly into the town, just as other cities around the world have done, by turning it into a picturesque destination that draws tourists and earns money. It might want to commodify Ladysmith’s coal-mining, log-sorting heritage, but it doesn’t want people like Bryan, whose way of life references the hardscrabble reality of that history. “I think the whole situation down there needs to be cleaned up,” one local told the Ladysmith Chemainus Chronicle.

According to one persistent rumor in town, the Dogpatch residents row to shore at night to rob the seaside homes. The local paper ran regular front-page stories about the nefarious misdeeds in the Patch: all-night parties, drug dealing, vendettas settled by arson, shouting matches, theft, and, perhaps worst of all, the dumping of bodily waste. At a town hall meeting after the eviction notices went out, an elderly resident complained about the Dogpatch. What happened to their sewage? Why were they allowed to sprawl into the traffic lane? “I don’t have a dog in this fight,” the man insisted. “I just don’t want to see our beautiful harbor ruined.”

Distrust between land- and water-based communities has a long-running history, stretching back to the time of Plato and Aristotle. Throughout history, agrarian societies that lived farther inland were often thought of as safer and honest, where people made their living off hard work and an enterprising spirit. The harbor was where deals were cut and fortunes made or lost, where different races and cultures mixed, and where incoming ships and loose morals spread disease and pestilence. Plato suggested that cities be situated at least fifteen kilometers inland to avoid the inevitable taint of the harbor; Aristotle believed that sailors need not be citizens with voting rights in early Greek democracy.

But something deeper lay behind this age-old division that sparked the town’s dislike: the Dogpatch was rootless, and the people who lived in it couldn’t be held accountable the way they could on land. The Dogpatch liveaboards had antiquated cellphones (when they had them at all) and no mailing addresses. They didn’t pay property tax. Their boats were isolated refuges adrift in a modern world where most of us live highly documented existences with long lines of credit history and updated social feeds. From the transient Romani people in Europe to the “pikey” slurs against Irish travelers, the mainstream often sees nomadic groups without local roots or connections as a threat. Indonesia and the Philippines have since recognized Bajau water dwellers as citizens, but this has come at a cost to the culture’s transient history. They’ve mostly traded their teak houseboats for stilt homes built a few meters above the ocean and live in sedentary communities that have a financial relationship with nearby towns and villages.

It’s hard to argue with a town’s desire for a healthier, more visually appealing waterfront. But I still felt drawn to the boat-dwellers’ perspective. It surprised me that two groups of people who lived parallel lives could see the ocean in such fundamentally different ways. When I heard the town residents complain about the Dogpatch’s lack of sewage treatment or their sprawling boats or their tax avoidance, what I heard was: we can’t trust them. That distrust cut both ways.

A decade earlier, the government of British Columbia made its first attempt to clear out the area and hauled away docks and equipment unannounced. The event still haunted a few Dogpatchers who came home to find their few possessions missing. By most accounts, the Patch cleaned up after that first sweep, and a relative peace took root.

Until the fires started.

During the summer of 2015, a 40-foot boat caught flame in the night. All night, Dogpatchers and Ladysmith’s volunteer search and rescue team, aided by the Coast Guard, worked to keep the flames from spreading to nearby boats. Police deemed the fire “suspicious.” Later that summer, two boats caught fire—one burned to the waterline, and the other was left to drift ashore. The RCMP wondered whether vigilante justice was spreading across the water.

Daniel Inkersell began to spend his days motoring from boat to boat, collecting signatures from people in the Patch. He had written a letter to Ladysmith’s mayor that pleaded for reconciliation and time before the eviction date. Daniel didn’t own a cellphone, so he couldn’t call his neighbors. Communication in the Patch was, well, patchy. The wireless reception was steady, but many of the dozen people who lived there didn’t have cellphones or email accounts. News spread from ship to ship or ship to shore, and the people used the surface of the water as a natural megaphone.

“We are living on the leftovers, the discards. We have, ecologically, a very small footprint.”

Everyone in the Patch was at work on a half-finished project. Daniel labored over his engine. Vince Huard was fixing up a second boat he had salvaged and chained up next to the boat he lived on. Lew McArel repaired a mountain bike in the rain. These projects were a proxy for larger life goals: to earn money, to become self-sufficient, or to simply explore. Living on the water afforded people the time and luxury to learn a new skill. “Part of the reason I bought this boat is not only to refurbish it but to develop myself as well,” Daniel explained. “Experience, the way I see it, is knowledge. When I’m 50, I don’t wanna be this guy who doesn’t have much life experience and is in this shitty job.” For most, the Dogpatch’s appeal wasn’t the free rent; it was the identity.

In the Patch, no one was impressed if you paid for something new. But if you found it and jerry-rigged a solution—now, that was a story. The Dumpsters near the shore acted as an informal trading post. A composting toilet materialized; a few hours later it was gone. One man told another he’d dropped off a TV at the Dumpster but forgotten to include the remote control. “Oh, I picked that TV up,” the other man said. They exchanged the remote control.

When the Dogpatchers heard residents complain about their environmental impact on the water, they pointed out that the town’s wastewater ran downhill to the ocean, an echo of the town’s earliest days when miners washed coal at the shoreline. When it rained, oil drippings from Ladysmith’s streets congregated in a slurry at the shoreline. The town’s treated sewage also went into the ocean, and let out not far from the Dogpatch.

“We in the Patch are not the contaminators,” Bryan Livingstone stressed. “We are living on the leftovers, the discards. We have, ecologically, a very small footprint.” This commitment to reuse and reduction was one of the main points Patchers used to defend their lifestyle. Perhaps if the Dogpatchers contributed more to the local economy, supporting jobs and small businesses with their dollars, it might have created a feeling of exchange and rapport between the two sides. But instead of shopping at the touristy stores along Ladysmith’s First Avenue, the Ladysmith Health Care Auxiliary Thrift Shop was the store of choice for the Patch. One man said he scoped out the firsthand stores on Ladysmith’s main drag to see what he would be wearing in a few years, bought on the cheap from the thrift shop. Lew McArel had no problem with wearing women’s jeans if the zipper was long enough. A few Patchers kept track of where the restaurants and grocery stores off-loaded their goods at the end of the day. At night, they dove into Dumpsters, hauling back bent vegetables, day-old buns, and wooden pallets to burn in their stoves. This might have been what started the rumor in town of Patchers pillaging at night. But these men called themselves “freegans”—a half-truth mixed with a bit of pride—and their gold was crusty cinnamon buns.

Some townspeople admired the Dogpatch’s tenacity. “I personally consider most of the liveaboards to be the stewards of the Dogpatch,” read one letter to the editor of a local magazine. “And I say: Let them stay.” Ladysmith’s mayor, Aaron Stone, also seemed sympathetic. He wanted to find a way to accommodate the Patchers. His main goal was to remove an abandoned 108-foot trawler called Viki Lyne II from the Patch.

Ladysmith’s local newspaper often published stories about the Viki Lyne II. “Why is this boat still in our harbor?” asked one headline on the front page of the Ladysmith Chemainus Chronicle above a picture of the rusted-out trawler. In the summer of 2015, about a month before the fires started, an abandoned sailboat had sunk in the Patch, leaving a slick of oil and children’s toys bobbing on the surface. The Viki Lyne II had thirteen thousand liters of oil in her guts. Over two hundred townspeople showed up at a rally in the Dogpatch held, coincidentally, the morning after the boathouse fire. Over two hundred townspeople showed up. They kayaked through the harbor or stood on Slack Point, waving hand-printed signs begging the federal government to remove the Patch’s most notorious vessel.

Occasionally Daniel went on board the Viki Lyne II to secure her ropes before a storm—and to shop. He had removed sheets of Plexiglas and spools of rope to use on his boat. The Patch’s scourge also doubled as its hardware store for the residents. Pigeon shit splattered her cabin walls, and rust crept up the exposed rebar. Underfoot lay broken glass, empty pop bottles, bent nails, and soft moss that sprouted between the wooden planks. Roosting birds fluttered toward a hole in the roof of the wheelhouse. Daniel once crossed paths with someone carting out a barrel of steel scraps to use for an anchor. If the town moved the Viki Lyne II, the people in the Patch would lose a valuable source of building materials. More importantly, they saw the removal as a threat to their way of life.

The relative freedom of maritime laws also unfortunately allows lawbreaking, especially environmental crimes like the dumping of the Viki Lyne II. Recycling a boat can be expensive. It’s easier and cheaper for an owner to scrape off the serial number and ditch it in the water at night. After the financial crisis of 2008, boats that owners could no longer afford to keep or recycle responsibly began cluttering waterways and coastlines across North America. The Coast Guard should remove the abandoned boats, but too many derelicts stretch the public purse too far. Unless a wreck is blocking navigation or actively spilling oil, the government directs its attention and budget elsewhere.

In 2012, a concerned local first reported the Viki Lyne II to the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard commissioned a survey of the Viki Lyne II to find out whether or not she was leaking oil. The report found that she contained thousands of liters of oil and her sinking was “imminent.” The Coast Guard still declined to remove the trawler.

If the Viki Lyne II sank, it could directly affect the fortunes of Ladysmith. Thirteen thousand liters of oil could spread to four nearby oyster farms, to First Nations lands, and to the Ladysmith Maritime Society docks, where people pay to live on their boats—newly renovated and a stark contrast to the Patch’s disorder next door. “The liability is tremendous,” said Rod Smith, the Ladysmith Maritime Society’s marina’s managing director. “The suspicion is that the only thing holding the hull together is the marine growth.” People in the Patch vociferously denied this. Look at the spray paint on Viki Lyne’s hull marking the waterline, they said. The water hadn’t moved, so how could she be sinking?

Daniel collected 35 signatures from full- and part-time Dogpatchers, as well as a few people who lived at the neighboring marina but hung out in the Patch. Reluctantly, he signed the letter as chairperson of the newly formed Ladysmith Harbour Community and mailed it to town hall. Not long after, Dogpatchers who owned cellphones began to pass him media requests when they crossed paths on the water. He decided it was time to buy a phone.

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imperiled ocean

From The Imperiled Ocean by Laura Trethewey. Used with the permission of Pegasus Books. Copyright © 2019 by Laura Trethewey.

Laura Trethewey
Laura Trethewey
Laura Trethewey is an ocean journalist and the senior writer and editor at Ocean.org, a multi-media story-telling site run by the Vancouver Aquarium. She has been published in Smithsonian Magazine, Courier International, The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Hakai Magazine, and Canadian Geographic. She lives in Vancouver and this is her first book.





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