The cruiser’s search for that plot of gold

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Mel and I moved aboard full time in 1979. Since then we’ve traveled thousands of miles a year, spending 19 winters in the Bahamas and visiting many wonderful places. We’ve had some very tough times and some very good times, but we’ve loved the experience and would start again in a heartbeat.

Some opt to buy a waterfront lot and build a retirement home when their cruising winds down.

As good as it is, we’ve noticed that many cruisers are looking for retirement homes while cruising, and I can’t think of a better way to search. Here, three of our special friends talk about their experiences in their own words. After that I’ll share some of our experiences and yes, some advice from a real estate agent.

“Trawler Phil” Rosch

Phil spent 30 years with a Fortune 50 company in information technology, then another six years in management advisory consulting, concurrently working and cruising full time. All he needed was access to an airport for his consulting engagements around the world. I met Phil while our family was anchored in Newport, R.I. One of our computers, used for home-schooling our daughters, died and we would have been hard-pressed to fix or replace it. Another friend introduced me to Phil, and he got it running like new, refusing to accept a thing except the beginning of a new, long-lasting friendship. He’s lived aboard a Morgan Out Island 51 ketch and a Marine Trader 44 trawler named Curmudgeon, which he’s had for 23 years. Its base, as is that of Phil and his wife, Aven, is now up the Pamlico River in North Carolina, not far from the ICW.

Many cruisers actually live the dream but are continually on the lookout for Plan B, a place to “bury the anchor.” I knew cruising couldn’t last forever, so I was constantly on the lookout for that perfect spot “dirt-side” where I could avoid escalating marina fees and split my time between living ashore, cruising and doing some RVing.

Initially I searched for an “unbuildable” waterfront lot with a deep-water dock. I planned to put up an outbuilding for storage, provide electricity and sewer, and continue living on the boat but with a “cruiser home base.” After way too many trips from Maine to the Bahamas my criteria changed to a “buildable” lot with a deep-water dock because I wanted a lot of workshop space, country living, low taxes and low cost of living. And I figured sweat equity was the best way to lower the unit cost per square foot on a new house.

I think the best strategy for finding that perfect home base is to avoid making it a forced march and search over a period of years. When you drop the hook, look around and ask yourself: Is this a place I’d like to live? If it gets past the sniff test, the next step is research, research and research. Internet access is your most valuable tool.

One of the most common pitfalls is not recognizing that, unlike a cruiser at anchor in an inhospitable area, you can’t just move the house. This means understanding the politics, tax structure, demographics, crime rates, taxpayer input to municipal union pensions, communications and highway access.

Consider an area's climate if you plan on keeping your boat in the water year-round.

For example, if you are considering a home in a gated community, Google “homeowner association problems” and you’ll find 14,600 hits. If everything looks good, the next step is to talk to real estate agents, scan Craigslist and have breakfast with the locals at their favorite diner. Breakfast will tell you if the natives are friendly and will provide a wealth of information about the community.

After 10 years I finally found the perfect spot in Aurora, N.C., where Aven and I built a “hurricane-proof” house ourselves (literally) — 12 feet off the ground, with steel roof and 2-by-6 construction. Curmudgeon, our trawler, lives at the end of a 300-foot dock and has a 1,200-pound hurricane mooring in Bond Creek. We are 40 miles from the Outer Banks via Pamlico Sound and well protected from hurricanes in the creek, which is a fish, crab and shrimp sanctuary with no commercial activity permitted. Bottom line is mission accomplished, and we are looking forward to a major refit of Curmudgeon before we resume part-time cruising.

— “Trawler Phil” Rosch

Michael Tigar

Mike and I met via telephone back in the early 1970s. We were both trial attorneys. I was a bit younger than Mike — and he was much more savvy than me — and I’d call him occasionally for advice about a case. He was always very generous and helpful. At the time we were both on the “liberal” side of the fence. Since then I’ve strayed far — very far — to the other side, but we’ve remained good friends. Mike has been counsel in many high-profile cases, taught in law school and has written several books, including “Fighting Injustice.” We renewed our acquaintance at an Annapolis Sailboat Show in the late ’90s, and he and his wife, Jane, began extensive cruising on a Hunter 420. They now have a Rosborough 246 and still cruise far from their home base in Oriental, N.C.

We’ve lived in a few places by the water and aboard a boat while cruising. Now we’re doing both. Here are some lessons we’ve learned.

A community you have visited with your boat looks different when you live there. Take the time to investigate social, cultural, spiritual and commercial activity. Is this a place where you will feel welcome and where you will find things to do? Get into conversations at the marina, read the local paper and listen to the local radio. Have coffee in the gathering places. Consider renting a place for a year to give yourselves a chance to check things out. Family or friends in the area not only are a special inducement but also a source of good information.

Do you want to live along the ICW?

Then go online at Trulia.com and Zillow.com (and similar sites) and look at patterns of real estate prices and economic activity. You need to see market trends. Look at the local transportation system. We discarded the idea of living in Jacksonville, Fla., when we saw the daily traffic problems. On the other hand, Vero Beach, Fla., has a wonderful local transit system, and we had that community on our list for a while. Look at the development plans that are being made in your chosen community. Some coastal real estate development is thoughtful and well-planned. Some is not.

Find a buyer’s broker, somebody who under local law will represent only your interests. In this real estate market — with short sales, foreclosures and volatile prices — having somebody by your side whom you can trust is indispensable. When the discussions get serious, consider consulting a local real estate lawyer with a good reputation. The consultation is worth the money.

We were headed for closing on our place in Oriental, and our lawyer found that the neighbor and his bank had encumbered a part of our land with a mortgage lien — just a silly mistake made in the hurly-burly of recent real estate financing activity, but we were glad the lawyer was there to help.

Investigate potential ownership issues of different types of real estate. For example, a condominium board, homeowners’ association or similar entity can have financial and governance problems. Investigate. Read the basic documents and have your lawyer check them out. Talk to the neighbors about how the organization works. We considered buying a condo unit in Florida until we got a look at the financials and talked to a few people about the problems they were having.

This year, we moved to Oriental. We have kept our boat here for several years, so we had a community of friends from which to build. Our house sits on Smith Creek — a mile by kayak from the town center and 3 miles by road. The town has 900 people and 2,700 boats within the town limits. It sits on the Pamlico Sound. There are families who go back generations, and there are those who have arrived more recently. They all make this a delightful community with cultural, intellectual and social diversity. Hurricane Irene hit Oriental and Pamlico County hard. The caring community response said volumes about the area. We have been welcomed.

— Michael Tigar

Varoujan “Pops” Karentz

Pops, a corporate executive with Raytheon Co., was a sailor for most of his life. After retiring, he and his wife, Rose, were liveaboard cruisers for 20 years in six different boats, including a 31-foot Southern Cross cutter, a 50-foot fantail trawler and, lastly, a 48-foot South African-built motorsailer. They sailed the East Coast for 15 years and annually sailed to the Bahamas and back from Jamestown, R.I. We met them in Rhode Island when we were in need of a mooring for a while. Pops had one and didn’t hesitate to let us use it. Our friendship grew over the years to include their son, Chris, and his family, who live in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Pops has written several books, including “Beavertail Light Station” and his latest, “The Life Savers,” about the nine U.S. Life Saving stations along the Rhode Island coast during the mid- to late 1800s.

Their cruising days ended in 2007 after Rose, affected by osteoporosis, had a knee and a hip replacement. Pops was fearful of a lurching sea fracturing more bones and decreed sailing days to be over.

Before retiring we knew we were going cruising for some indefinite period, but we also realized we needed a home base and, even more important, that our cruising days someday would come to an end. Therefore, part of our planning was to find a permanent retirement home in a community close to the sea. That community had to satisfy our personal interests with an active, high quality of life for our senior years and also keep us near salt water, which we dearly loved.

How about a condo on the water?

We had lived in Massachusetts for 35 years and sailed out of Boston Harbor and Marion on Buzzards Bay, but I am a native Rhode Islander who grew up on Narragansett Bay and probably ran aground on most every shoal and hit a lot of rocks during my early years. It was home.

We zeroed in on the island of Conanicut (Jamestown) sitting in the middle of lower Narragansett Bay primarily because of four boatyards, a marine hardware store unsurpassed for the boatbuilder or boat owner, a protected mooring field in Dutch Harbor and absolutely beautiful views from any location. The community is very possessive, with each new resident determined that he or she should be the last person allowed to move onto the island.

Along with sailboats, day sailing and weekend cruising grounds came regattas and the ambience of Newport, plus community activities to fill any interest, from art associations to historic preservation, music, drama, bicycling, fishing and a library that was the center of meetings, lectures, events and town politics.

We were fortunate to find a three-room waterfront summer cottage 40 feet above high water on a postage-stamp-size piece of property on the rocky Beavertail peninsula overlooking the East Passage of Narragansett Bay, where 95 percent of all marine traffic passes by. The biannual Newport Bermuda Race starts a third of a mile off our deck. It was a sailor’s dream location, where we tore down the cottage and built a two-story house.

Our retirement involvements consist of docent activities in marine museums, historical projects/sites, a maritime tall ship project, lighthouse preservation and the community garden club.

It may be that when the time comes to sell your boat you can afford a second home from the proceeds. Traveling south each year, we revisited waterfront communities many times and purposely would evaluate those that looked attractive. In our case we selected a community filled with combinations of ex-cruisers and active cruisers. It was by chance that a cruising friend who, after living aboard for a number of years, sold his boat and settled in Vero Beach, Fla., and called and told me the house next door was for sale.

The location is a mecca of sailors who still wanted warm sun, blue sky and the smell of salt air. There are so many that an organization with no officers, no newsletter and no meetings meets informally weekly and hosts unprompted social events where dozens of sailors collect and fraternize, spinning their delightful sea stories of yesteryear. We call ourselves “CLODs” — cruisers living on dirt. We talk boats and sailing, and we welcome seasonal cruisers migrating back and forth down the inland waterway. While a different community than Jamestown, it has its own flavor of drawing ex-sailors because of amenities and its location on tropical Indian River Lagoon. It is low-key with no high-rises, free beaches, free launch ramps, senior living and many Florida professional entertainment choices.

It was this group of ex-cruisers and sailors who recognized there was no youth sailing organization and, with the cooperation of the city of Vero Beach, created and operate a non-profit facility where youth — both boys and girls, along with their parents — now build, learn to sail and race wooden Optimist dinghies.

If you want to continue your life and associate yourself with boating, look at the communities where there are many boats. This simple strategy keeps you meeting savvy people and guarantees you will meet sailors you know from past cruises. That’s part of the fun when you age. We both will soon be 85 years of age. Meeting old friends and enjoying company and a drink with the guy who helped you repair your leaky dinghy or outboard 18 years ago is wonderful. “Wow,” you say, but it won’t likely happen if you’re not living near a boating community.

Obviously health-related issues are No. 1. Once past 65 the aches and pains, along with body parts wearing out or failing completely, are paramount. Nearby and readily available heath care becomes highly desirable. Weigh that need equally, along with your other desires.

Want to keep your boat in the water year-round?

Retiring near other family members is not only desirable but also has many benefits. The reasons are numerous, but trying to balance the remainder of your life in a fair and considerate way to enjoy your senior years and stay in contact with your loved ones is not always easy.

Giving up the cruising life does open up new doors. It provides involvement in organizational activities missed because you were never in one place, be it church, clubs, associations, etc. You experienced hundreds or even thousands of “hellos” and “goodbyes,” but you never were a participating member. You never were home. Retirement brings closure. You finally can say “been there, done that, time to do something else.” That also is something to look forward to.

Don’t go off cruising without some plan in place on how and where you’re going to live when the boating experience comes to an end. Whether it’s health, disaster, “done that” or just plain “I have had enough,” it will come, and you’ll need to have planned. Securing your future retirement is just as important as your cruising or liveaboard plans. Fall in love with the location where you want to retire before you’re ready to buy. It will probably be the last place you will ever live. You will miss the water, and you will miss the sea, so be prepared to pay extra for the last days of your life.

­— Varoujan “Pops” Karentz

Tom and Mel

We have lived and cruised aboard probably longer than most and for many years had no place to live except the boat. We were very happy with this, and I sometimes kidded my friends ashore, calling them “dirt dwellers.” But I’m a country boy as well as a seaman. I love forest and field (as long as there aren’t too many people there), though not nearly as much as I love the sea. And, as surrealistic as it seems, I always had a sense of my mortality. I also had a sense of mechanical mortality, necessitating huge projects. So about the time we moved aboard we bought some land on the water and built a dock. It was a time when land like this was relatively cheap. It’s in a secure deep-water creek that I know well.

While we seldom visited, it was comforting to know that it was there. In the fall, as we headed down the coast, we’d stop at the dock and go up into the woods with our daughters and build campfires and tell stories. Having a safe haven is a good plan for the present and future of your cruising. When our friends later began settling down, we built a small house, although we continued our journeys.

But, as Pops said, love of family is a major life player. We home-schooled our daughters through high school as we traveled and are a very close family. Both of our daughters settled in St. Augustine, Fla., with their husbands, and now our grandchildren. We knew much about that area and knew that we liked it, having been stopping there over many years. Wanting to visit our family and have a place to stay when the boat was elsewhere, we recently bought a condo there. We reiterate the advice given above and have a few comments of our own.

We talk boats and sailing, and we welcome seasonal cruisers migrating back and forth down the inland warerway.

We found that “buyer beware” is a paramount rule for cruisers. It can be bad enough if you’re buying in a community where you already live. You know people, and you are known. You’re familiar with what’s going on. But when you sail into an area and start looking, you’re essentially a rube unless you use common sense, do your homework and get professional help when needed.

As Phil said, the Internet is an important tool. For example, in the St. Johns County (Fla.) Public Records search, we were able to find properties with descriptions and history, owners, prices, tax information, past sales, mortgage history, building codes, recent sales nearby, and legal and community issues. Some planned communities there and elsewhere have associations that are broke, special assessments, pending or potential litigation, encroachment of surrounding development and more. Some have extra “taxes” because the developer couldn’t complete the infrastructure; the locality had to and is recouping from landowners. Others are delightfully stable and fine. Finding property you like is just the beginning. Learn what you’re

really buying into.

If you find a property you think you like, ask to see documentation before proceeding very far. We found attractive developments and asked to see copies of the sales contracts and other documents. We noticed that in some cases the deed only conveyed surface rights, reserving mineral rights, which were defined very broadly, and including water rights. Some may not mind this, but we certainly did. We were told various things that we knew, from common sense, weren’t accurate. And we were expected to sign various documents that upon cursory review were clearly not what we should be signing.

Sign nothing without reading and understanding. Remember that most things should be negotiable. One obvious example is hold-harmless wording. While sometimes this is reasonable under the particular circumstances, often it is clearly not. It’s horrible to read all that verbiage in the documents, but do it anyway. If you are being told something or read something that you don’t understand or that you think is inappropriate, ask a lawyer. It will cost, but it can save you huge headaches and expenses. Michael Tigar, an excellent attorney in his own right, assigned this as high-priority.

Finding a good real estate agent and other relevant professionals can be difficult since you aren’t a “native.” Usually the best sources are what people say in the community, and this highlights the importance of what everyone said above about hanging out and getting to know people. Shop around for agents and conduct interviews. Ask about their specialties, background and experience.

The first one you find may be great. Tigar says it may be better to be lucky than smart. “In 1998 we decided that we wanted to live in Annapolis, preferring it to the Long Island Sound and not yet knowing about the joys and wonders of more Southern parts,” he says. “So we went online and looked at pictures of real estate agents. We chose Julie Gay and called to make an appointment. She quickly asked us what kind of boat we had, what kind we wanted, mast height and draft, did we want ‘waterfront’ or would ‘water privilege’ be enough. In a single day, she found us a house to buy, and a good house it was.

“Well, it turned out that Julie Gay is the widow of one of Annapolis’ most famous sailors — Arnie Gay — for whom the Eastport bridge is named. That same day, I was offered a job, so we could, indeed, buy the house Julie found for us. Later real estate decisions turned out to require more than luck.”

After some false starts, we were fortunate to find Noah Bailey with Re/Max 100 Realty in St. Augustine. He was recommended by several former clients. We found that his father, a retired merchant marine captain (started out with Jacques Cousteau), kept a boat in Camachee Cove Marina, from which we based our search. We spoke to people with whom he had dealt. We learned that he had grown up in the community. This is very helpful, not only as to knowledge of properties but also as to how to get things done.

In prime retirement areas there may be many retirees who have moved in and then begun the “retirement business” of real estate agent. Often it is part time because they’re already retired. Although some of these can be excellent, our preference is people who are in the business full time and have known the turf for a long time. Bailey offers this interesting advice: It’s important to have a realtor who really knows the area, especially since you are not driving around every day.

Also, a good agent will set you up with other competent realtors in other towns and locations who will already have an understanding of the exact things you are looking for. This way, you can have a team of agents who will find you the right property in the right place.

Cruising has so much to offer that, when you begin, it may be hard to imagine ever doing anything else. But using the experience to leisurely search for that plot of gold at the end of the rainbow is yet one more thing that makes it all good.

February 2013 issue