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Living aboard in the nation’s capital

The community of liveaboards at Washington, D.C.'s Gangplank Marina is a diverse and tight-knit group.

Lodging after college? With the normal optimism of a 22-year-old graduate, Greg Bernard expected his girlfriend would play host. She had other ideas, though. So, a humbled Bernard returned to his parents’ home in the Washington, D.C., area to crash in his old room.

“The first time that my dad came in and informed me it was trash night, the wheels started to turn,” Bernard says. He didn’t want to throw away money renting, but he didn’t have the down payment or income for a house and he wasn’t big on condominiums. “I didn’t have a lot of options,” he recalls.

Then family friends suggested life on a houseboat, so he visited the Gangplank Marina on the Potomac River, a couple of blocks off the Washington Mall.

“As soon as I opened the door and walked inside [a houseboat there], I said: ‘I can do this,’ ” Bernard says. That was in 2003. He has taken his own trash out from his floating home within sight of the Washington Monument ever since.

One hundred boats in this marina in Southwest Washington have full-time residents who share that view. They also share cherry blossoms in spring and occasional river ice in the winter. Their lives ashore are as varied as those of the residents in any community: professionals, programmers and politicians, retirees and recent graduates season the mix. They live on houseboats and houses built on small barges, on aft-cabin powerboats and offshore sailboats. Despite their differences, however, they appear to share one thought: That this is the closest-knit community in the nation’s capital.

“Living in an apartment, I knew maybe a couple of my neighbors,” says Russ Roberts, 45, a sailor who lives aboard a 42-foot Cheoy Lee sloop and is a manager in the Federal Aviation Administration. “Living at the Gangplank, I know people on almost every dock.”

“When I first moved aboard, there was a guy who sold Vietnamese lanterns in eastern markets and then there were congressional aides,” says Diane Pennessi, 48, who manages a federal contract for the American Psychiatric Association. She knows the marina population still has that range, although “I only just once in a while find [out] what people do. One guy does printing for the Supreme Court and [is] a big collector of doo-wop music.”

“I don’t know anybody’s last names and I don’t know what they do,” says Carole Collins, a retired editor and writer who has lived in her houseboat, This Side Up, on F-Dock near Pennessi’s houseboat, for 24 years. “But I know about their boat!”

The Gangplank’s docks are reached through locked iron gates in a fence that runs along the tree-shaded bank of the Washington Channel of the Potomac. Across the channel, to the west, are Haines Point and a golf course. Downstream are Fort McNair and the Navy War College. Upstream, beyond the Capital Yacht Club’s docks, is a fish market where the fresh catch — local and exotic — is displayed on awning-shaded beds of crushed ice in stands built on barges that hug the bank. It is walking distance from the Gangplank to shopping and the subway, and only blocks to the offices where many of the marina folk work.

And for many, like the young graduate, Bernard, the price is right. A slip rental of about $700 a month is a fraction of an apartment rental ashore. Of course, you need to have bought a boat for the slip, but even here there are ways to economize. Bernard learned how.

“The first week I replaced one of the heads, so that was not fun,” he says. He called a friend for “moral support,” ripped out the old one and installed the new, with the help of neighbors. “The community’s great,” he says.

“It’s very similar [to motorcycle riding] in a sense that you get a [good] day, you go out riding and there’s nothing like it. And then you’ll get caught in a rainstorm. You take the good with the bad. When it’s all said and done, it’s not 50-50. It’s 80-20 [with] 20 when the roof is leaking. Sitting in my hammock on the roof or fishing off the back are things you can’t do in the city.”

If Bernard was a novice at boat repairs when he moved aboard, his neighbors, Bryce Tugwell, 38, and Naomi Ward, 35, were visionaries. They saw a gourmet kitchen in place of their houseboat’s galley — with its three-quarter-size refrigerator, sink, stove and 18 inches of counter space. Tugwell, a former shop teacher with a degree in sculpture, tore out the interior and rebuilt it in aromatic cedar, with a propane stove, expanded counters, and full refrigerator and freezer space. During the rebuild the couple has spent about $1,000 a month on materials. When they are done, their slip fee and boat mortgage combined will be $750 a month.

“We feel like we’ve gotten to build our own house on a budget that is so much more reasonable than building a house,” says Tugwell, who is director of Web development for the Jane Goodall Institute. Much of the work was finished in time for Ward, a geneticist, to give birth to their daughter, Fiona, on June 17. Tugwell built a cradle in the stateroom that rocks when the Potomac rocks the boat.

Ed Johnson, who started his life at the Gangplank, as did Bernard — with a “fairly cheap houseboat” — now is in his third vessel, a Carver 38 aft-cabin cruiser that cost $125,000. “It’s somewhat of a fallacy that living aboard a boat is a real cheap alternative,” says Johnson, who lives aboard Gung Ho with a partner and their 135-pound Great Dane, Isabella. So why stay?

“That’s a question I ask myself on a regular basis. I am sort of tied to my job. Whatever I might save living in Annapolis I would suck up in gas driving to work,” says Johnson. “At the Gangplank, I can walk to the grocery store, to the metro, to the Smithsonian. You can easily live in the Gangplank and not have a car. On the Severn River [in Annapolis], you have to have a car.”

To live aboard at the Gangplank, one need not be a boater. “I’m not,” says Collins. “I do sail, but I’m not a natural sailor. I can do what I’m told. I don’t take my boat out anymore because it’s my home and when I did, the books would fall out of their shelves and the dishes would fall out of the cabinets. I just live here. I winterized my engine and just let it rot.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Alex Enders, 28, who went to college on a Naval ROTC scholarship and is now a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security. Enders was raised on the shore of Lake Erie. “I did a lot of sailing as I was growing up on the Great Lakes and around country. I raced Lasers, Flying Juniors and Thistles.” During high school he participated in the high school sailing national championship in San Diego.

Does living at the Gangplank feel like boating? “After three years, I guess you could say it feels more like home than boating. When I go back to the boat, I’m going home. I take my boat [a houseboat called Reckless Abandon] out about once every week, every other week. In that event, I’m boating,” says Enders. “At least 50 percent of the reason I live aboard is for the wonderful community — so many neat, interesting people who do neat things. And we all have something in common. We’re all crazy enough to live on a boat in Washington, D.C.”

Charlotte Drummond, who lives aboard a Carver 32 aft-cabin powerboat, has been a slipholders’ representative at the Gangplank. She arrived on a sailing catamaran after cruising the Bahamas with her husband. Before they met, he had lived at the marina, so upon their return they docked and he went ashore. The marriage failed, but Drummond stayed on board.

“I’d seen a lot of marinas,” says Drummond. “This one was not the prettiest, by far. It’s an urban marina. But for what it is and where it is, it’s still really a good facility. For living right downtown in D.C., it’s a haven.”

Pennessi, who was raised sailing on Chesapeake Bay, agrees that the Gangplank is a refuge. “If someone had asked, ‘Have you been boating in the last year?’ I’d say no, for boating is sailing and a houseboat is just a safe haven. Still, when I come home from work and I walk down the dock and the sun is setting over the Jefferson Memorial, for Pete’s sake — and depending on the time of year there are ducks floating around or coots are floating around. ... I certainly hang out with boaters.”

Living aboard in the nation’s capital, Pennessi says, is better than she expected. “This is the first time that I’ve ever had a fantasy of something that exceeded my expectations of the fantasy,” she says.

Pennessi’s boat is called Sea Change. “It’s taken actually from Shakespeare. It describes the phenomenon of when you lose all perspective of life on the land,” she explains. “That’s what I love about being on boats. It doesn’t matter if I’m on a boat and I never leave the dock. If I’m there for an hour it feels like I’ve taken a weekend away.”

Aboard Sea Change, Pennessi says she is met daily by “little, tiny surprises you just don’t know to expect.” She finds herself “an inch-and-a-half away from the weather. In a house, you’re so insulated from the heat and the cold. When I watch the seasons change living on a boat, I can watch them change in little, tiny increments.”

And every night when she comes home, she says, “I think that I can’t imagine not wanting to do this.”