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Liveaboards tough out the cold season

It was 5 degrees in the sun the first day I went to Constitution Marina in Charlestown, Mass. Hand warmers were taped to my camera battery to keep it from dying and my fingers were bearing the brunt of the cold.

The quiet docks at this Massachusetts marina are home to a close-knit community of year-round liveaboards.

I made my way through a maze of giant cocoons of shrink-wrapped boats through which I could make out shadows and outlines of figures going about their day. Illuminated from the inside, they glowed with a warmth that my fingers envied. Several of the wooden doors built into the coverings still had remnants of Christmas decorations.

These boats are home to about 100 year-round residents. With so many people living in Boston's harbors and marinas, it is surprising how few people are aware of their challenging choice of lifestyles.

Growing up on the coast of Maine, I spent fantastic summers aboard a 32-foot sloop with my parents, but childhood has a way of skewing perceptions. I set out to explore and document the liveaboard lifestyle from an adult's perspective, one accustomed to 900-square-foot apartment living.

Boston in February is a time when "freezing outside" is wishful thinking, as freezing point is generally 12 degrees warmer on any given day. I began documenting this residence in February 2010 and continued through the spring, when the cocoons are shed and the seasonal skippers return to the docks.

I photographed the marina three times a week for four months. One doesn't spend that much time skulking around a gated community with a camera without becoming somewhat of a concern. So before I was "Kat" I was "that girl with a camera" and before that ... well, probably just some creep. It's a difficult job as a photographer to introduce yourself as an outsider and hope that people will be accommodating. I was fortunate enough to have met such people.

Larry Stevens was my first contact at Constitution Marina. Just as I would never walk up to an apartment in Boston and knock on the door asking to come in and photograph their home, I would never tap on a porthole and ask the same. Larry was making his way back to his vessel when he saw me with my camera, about to begin my rehearsed introduction and said, "So you want to photograph my boat? Sure, it's this way." And down the dock we went.

Silhouettes moving behind translucent plastic wrap are the norm along the liveaboard docks.

Larry has kept his sailboat in Constitution Marina for years and though he is not a liveaboard, he spends a good part of the winter doing what repairs need to be done and socializing with the other boat owners. We spent the better part of five hours discussing the marina community, life, photography, sailing and looking for the right size Phillips-head screwdriver as he worked on the electrical system.

"So why the camera?" he asked with his head under the console in the wheelhouse. I explained my childhood perspective on life aboard and my interest in seeing another perspective: during winter, as an adult and a full-time resident. He suggested I talk to a neighbor named Nadine.

Nadine Firth is a woman of irony: she is an architect without a house. She has lived in Constitution Marina for eight years - the longest of all the liveaboards at the marina. On an unseasonably warm night, Nadine cooked me dinner in the galley she practically built herself.

Nadine Firth and Tim Robinson stick together and help each other out.

She's also a skilled carpenter and the aft deck of her boat serves as a workshop in the winter where she made the tongue and groove paneling for the galley and head. Nadine offers her workshop and skills to the residents of the marina, sometimes exchanging the use of her table saw for a six-pack. Or, at least, that was the transaction made with Tim Robinson.

He is also known as "Tim from the Peregrine Sea" or "Pequita's Tim" because it is comically common in the marina to refer to families by the dog's name first, followed by the owner's.

I spent a particular cold and rainy April day aboard the Peregrine Sea, the sailing vessel owned by Tim and his wife, Saudra. Both are veterans of the liveaboard lifestyle, having each lived on sailboats in different states before coming to Constitution Marina where they met and married.

After a few hours of talking and photographing, we walked onto the rain-soaked docks, camera in hand, dog trailing us, where Tim promptly slipped and fell.

Standing up laughing, I thought how fortunate Tim was to have not fallen a few inches to his left and into the drink ... something this apartment renter is not used to when walking down her front steps and one of the many differences to living afloat year-round.

My last visit to the marina was a balmy Memorial Day. Boats were uncovered, as were arms and legs in the 70-degree weather. I handed out prints to the people I'd photographed and we kicked off the season with a barbecue, raising glasses as well as mainsails.

Childhood might have romanticized boating for me, but as my adult self took the subway back to my basement apartment in a city where my neighbors know me as "the woman with the dog," I thought back to the marina community.

And I wished they knew me by my dog's name first.

This article originally appeared in Home Waters Sections of the March 2011 issue.