May 2008

Sleeping with the Fishes: Life as a Live-Aboard

Author: Craig Hysell

There are those out there with the sea in their bones. Men and women who live the transient life. Romantic, modern-day nomads who explore the world from hull and helm. Staying in exotic ports of call with names easily mangled by the English tongue.

They spend their lives amongst a cast of colorful rogues, downing cool drinks in turquoise waters. Their hardy vessels rest on the hook (anchor) just offshore. Their skin is tan, their hair is salty and their lips spill forth adventure.

Then reality sets in. And they have to figure out how to pack the contents of their home into 300 square feet of cabin space.

Living aboard a boat is not without a significant, sometimes dangerous, degree of challenge. Romance fades with the first six- to eight-foot sea or toilet malfunction. And it takes a particular type of person to truly enjoy what can often be a cramped, merciless and unrelentingly unpredictable state of affairs.

Mark Nichols, author of The Essentials of Living Aboard A Boat; The Definitive Guide for Liveaboards, places liveaboards into two categories, “cruising” and “non-cruising.” Non-cruisers are primarily located at a slip and leave for short excursions while cruisers are “chronically underway.” Definitions which seem to be as open and broad as the oceans themselves.

Liveaboards are not an exact science. They are retirees and dreamers, smugglers and outlaws. They can be hell bent on adventure or simply wish to leave society behind. They can be rusting deadbeats or sunny-eyed “guppie-kissers.” (sea slang for “tree-huggers”). They can be travel enthusiasts, relationship escape artists or just want to pay less cash for a water view.

But one thing remains steadfast, in broad terms or concise, if one is to have any longevity living on a boat he must be practical, because, on the ocean, facts trump dreams every time.

Boats constantly depreciate. They make noise. They smell of fuel, waste and sea. Condensation is a constant problem. Insulation is nearly non-existent. Clothing and bedding get damp. Stoves usually only have one burner and galleys have practically no refrigeration.

Space is severely limited. Clutter is a safety issue. There is always something to repair; sometimes it’s your very life hinging on ingenious solutions. There is safety gear to consider and marina facilities to mull over—Georgia doesn’t even allow liveaboards past 30 days and South Carolina amended a law in 2006 whereby boats are now “subject to property tax in this state if present for 120 consecutive days or 180 days in the aggregate in a property tax year.”

What about children? The coming storm? Stores of fresh water?

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg… of which one must also possess the knowledge and capability of avoiding when traveling at sea.

Down at the marina, where numerous vessels lie gently at the dock and a steady breeze rings the rigging off the mainmast, a unique person might be residing below decks, doing his or her best to earn passage in life. And telling tales of adventure.

Greg and Kaytee Esser
By Kate Hanzalk

Go to Shelter Cove, past the statue of Neptune, over the Disney bridge, and you will find Kaytee and Greg Esser on their boat, Rachael. Kaytee will likely be painting on the fly bridge—her art studio, where vibrantly colored canvases of oil-painted dogs line the white leather seats. Two easels hold her latest portraits: Sasha, the golden retriever who lives on their dock and Miller, a retriever from the Chesapeake Bay who is deceased. With her impressive collection, it’s easy to overlook the picturesque 360-degree view of the Harbour.

Greg, a man whose most adored possessions (aside from Kaytee and Rachael) are jeans and t-shirts (although occasionally he must don a suit and tie), can be found tinkering with the engines below or listening to slow jazz on XM radio.

Depending on the time of day, the Essers may be entertaining guests in the trunk cabin or preparing something savory in the galley kitchen with their famed crockpot, which puts out aromas known to lure neighbors out of their boats and over to Rachael for dinner. Or, sometimes they’ll venture out on the dingy to their favorite restaurant, The Ocean Grille, where they like to eat and have a glass of wine while looking over the marina.

At 43 feet long with a 14-foot beam, Rachael is an Ocean Alexander, a trawler, twin trunk cabin. Unlike sailboats, the ceilings in the cabin are quite high, six-feet-six-inches tall, and a dozen windows give way to loads of natural light. Among its many amenities, the boat boasts two comfortable bedrooms, two full bathrooms and two flat-screen TVs that are rarely watched.

The couple semi-retired five years ago and moved from their condo on the Ashley River in Charleston to live on Rachael. At the time, Kaytee knew very little about boats, but this was Greg’s hobby and she was ready for the adventure.

Like the select few on Hilton Head Island who have chosen to live on their boats, the Essers see themselves as part of a larger “boat culture,” a society that has lifted the weighty anchor of excessive materialism in order to bask in the ease and simplicity of life aquatic.

“Watching the dolphins playing, watching the sunsets—you see the world from such a different perspective altogether that it’s worthwhile,” said Kaytee.

Name: Kaytee Esser
Age: 54
Occupation: Artist
Birthdate: 10/53

Name: Greg Esser
Age: 60
Occupation: Consultant
Birthdate: 05/47

Q. How long have you lived on a boat?
A. Five years

Q. What is the name of your boat?
A. Rachael

Q. Where is your boat docked?
A. Shelter Cove

Q. What is the best part of living on a boat?
A. The freedom. The less stuff you have, the more freedom you have. That is our mantra.

Q. What is your least favorite part about living on a boat:
A. Nothing. We thought we would live on a boat for a year to try it. That should give you some idea that it’s working because we are now at five years.

Q. How many years do you foresee yourself living on a boat?
A. Five to ten. We can move off if we want, but we’re not anxious to do that.

Q. Do you have cable or satellite?
A. Cable

Q. Do you have a pet?
A. Einstein, the boat cat.

Q. What do you do when a storm is headed our way?
A. Shelter Cove is “shelter cove” for a reason—because of the way it is designed and tree-lined. We don’t have to do much of anything.

Q. What other ports of call have you been docked in for extended periods of
A. Skull Creek and before that Port Royal. So we’ve been creeping further South. We don’t like cold weather. We have spent time in all Southern states.

Q. How often do you take your boat out on the water?
A. We try to get out at least once a month and just tool around. We’ll do overnights in several anchorages like the Cooper River.

*Q. * What are your hobbies?
A. Greg: I gave up all my hobbies. I left them all on shore so my hobby is pretty much the boat.
A. Kaytee: The boat is enough of a hobby. There are two big engines beneath you and they require attention. And any boat owner will tell you that if you live on a boat it becomes your project.

Q. Do you decorate your boat for Christmas?
A. Of course. Christmas is big time, because there are a lot of boats [at Shelter Cove] that do and some attend boat parades.

Q. Boat horror story?
A. An engine died on Cape Fear River. Someone was dredging and their nylon rope got wrapped around one propeller and totally stopped the engine. So here we are, Cape Fear River, with 45-knot winds and didn’t have total control of the boat. This was a mess, especially on the first day we owned her!

Jaime Glynn
By Whitney Farmer

For an outdoorsy type of guy, there’s no better place to live than, well, outdoors. And Jaime Glynn is definitely the outdoor type. He spends much of his free time mountain biking and fishing and loves the solitary vibe of boat-living—likely because he became accustomed to water life while growing up in Upstate New York.

“My parents had a boat. I spent weekends on Lake George growing up,” Glynn said.

Aquatic life would catch up with Glynn again years later. Although he has only been on his current boat for about two years, it’s the second time he has claimed the sea as his residence.

When Glynn was 28 years old, he lived on a boat for five years before he sold it and moved back on land. Now that he’s settled into his current boat in Shelter Cove Harbour, he has a pretty ideal set-up. Only a few short minutes’ walk to his job as executive chef at the Kingfisher, living in the harbour has provided him with his own built-in society.

“I have friends who live in the harbour,” Glynn said. “It’s like a community within a community.”

Name: Jaime Glynn
Age: 36
Occupation: Executive chef at Kingfisher

Q. How long have you lived on a boat?
A. I had a boat before this one… I was 28. I sold that after five years and had an apartment here. I’ve lived on this one for two years, out of necessity. You might not want to print this, but my girlfriend kicked me out and I moved on my boat.

Q. What’s your boat’s name?
A. Mia Culpa. (My Fault)

Q. Where’s your boat docked?
A. Shelter Cove

Q. What’s the best part of living on a boat?
A. Probably the serenity.

Q. What’s your least favorite thing about living on a boat?
A. When my air goes out and it’s 120 degrees. That happened last Fourth of July.

Q. How many years do you foresee yourself living on a boat?
A. My long term goal is to retire in the Keys. I guess old enough that they have to drag me off to a nursing home.

Q. Do you have cable or satellite?
A. The Marina has both.

Q. Do you have any pets?
A. I have a miniature Pinscher, Mia. She was born when I was on the other boat. She’s 6, I think.

Q. What do you do during storms?
A. This marina is so sheltered that sometimes you don’t even realize it’s raining. The boat doesn’t even move. When I lived in a high-rise apartment you could feel the storms more up there than I do here.

Q. What other ports of call have you been docked in for extended periods of time?
A. I’ve always had my boat here.

Q. How often do you take your boat out on the water?
A. I have a little 13-foot runabout I take out pretty much daily. But this one, I would say one or two times a month I take it out for dinners or a fishing trip.

Q. What are your hobbies?
A. Honestly, just fishing. I like to be outside. I ride my mountain bike a lot.

Q. Do you decorate for Christmas?
A. No.

Q. Boat horror story?
A. I’ve got 50 thousand stories. The worst? I was out about 40-50 miles offshore fishing. It just started to get dark. As I was turning, the steering went out. Then, one engine went out. I had to get back with just a compass because the GPS went out. We ended up in the Savannah shipping channel when I thought we were in Hilton Head.

Fred Gauch
By Kate Hanzalik

Fred Gauch lives a Crosbian life (as in David Crosby minus the addictions). To know him is to know that he is both a musician and a sailor. He resides on his 35-foot ocean-rigged Hunter sailboat in Skull Creek, and many of his days are spent voyaging up and down the East Coast performing with his band, Melody Makers.

“It’s just a nice free lifestyle for me. It’s not for everybody,” Gauch said.

The band has been around since the late ’60s and is widely known for the hit song “Everlasting Love,” which made the Top 10 East Coast Billboard Magazine poll in 1969, and their national hit, “Oreo Party Song.” Their music is a mixture of old time rock and roll, Carolina beach music and a little bit of new country sound. Gauch practices most weekends when he’s not doing gigs at beach music festivals, weddings and corporate functions. But he does have one free weekend a month that he tries to savor. A lot of times his friends will come over and they’ll go sailing and have a few drinks on the boat or maybe a barbeque.

Gauch’s boat, The Princess of Tides, has all of the amenities he needs for entertaining guests and sailing away into the sunset: GPS tracking, autopilot, two berths, a shower, a fully-equipped galley kitchen, a dining area and couch, central heat, and a flat screen TV. Up on deck, there is a rear cockpit with lots of space for gatherings.

“You have to have just what you need to get by,” he said.

Being docked in Skull Creek, Gauch loves the quick access he has to the sound at any time of day. Often, he’ll troll around after dinner and take in the quiet, a “Shadow Captain” in his own right.

Check out Melody Makers at

Name: Fred Gauch
Age: I’ve seen the sunny side of 50
Occupation: Entertainer
Birthday: November 20th

Q. How long have you lived on a boat?
A. Off and on for about 10 years.

Q. What is the name of your boat?
A. Princess of Tides

Q. Where is it docked?
A. Skull Creek

Q. What is the best part of living on a boat?
A. You’re close to nature. Little bit of freedom.

Q. What is your least favorite thing about living on a boat?
A. Maintenance. You definitely have to be somebody who likes to tinker, if you live on a wood boat. But mine is a fiber glass boat, so maintenance isn’t as bad. It’s just like anything, but its more because you are in a saltwater environment that is very aggressive.

Q. How long do you foresee yourself living on a boat?
A. As long as I can handle the pressure.

Q. Do you have cable or a satellite?
A. Satellite dish. You have to be tied up to the dock to use it.

Q. Do you have a pet?
A. No pets.

Q. What do you do when a storm is headed our way?
A. Just batten down and ride it out.

Q. How often do you take your boat out on the water?
A. Try to take it out every weekend, sailing in the sounds, offshore.

Q. What are your hobbies?
A. Guitar and lead singer in Melody Makers. The band has been together 40 years. Had some hits out in the ’60s and have just been able to keep it up.

Q. Do you decorate your boat for Christmas?
A. Yes! Most assuredly.

Q. Boat horror story?
A. I’ve run aground a few times—never been aground when I couldn’t get out of it, but sailing with friends, they had a real exciting adventure trying to get unstuck. Ridden out a couple of the hurricanes that passed us offshore and stayed on the boat during storms at the marina. Normally the foul weather and everything that you have in your daily life, it’s just like anything, you stay on it.

John Barlow and Jana Saidl
By Craig Hysell

He plays rugby. She’s a black belt in karate. Their pit bull has a neck the size of an offensive lineman. But thirty-four-year-old John Barlow, Jana (pronounced Yana) Saidl and Elvis the dog are some of the friendliest creatures you could ever meet.

Something happened for John after 9/11. His work in New York had begun to feel disconnected, cutthroat, soulless. In the next few years that followed, Manhattan began to feel more like a prison than an opportunity. Boating became John and Jana’s escape. “We started hanging around people that just wanted to have a barbecue and drink,” said John. His eyes go distant for a moment at the memory. He smiles.

Although they knew The City didn’t feel like home anymore, it took John and Jana several years to decide where they wanted to live. They took their time, cruising up and down both sides of the U.S. by boat and car, searching for that perfect place. Jana was also a top level concierge in New York and John had his own business to think about. There was a lot to give up. And there was a lot to gain.

In the fall of 2006, John and Jana finally arrived on Hilton Head Island. Today they own Lowcountry Liquor & Spirits, a successful package store in Bluffton. Their 38-ft. Bayliner, American Courage—A Tribute To 9/11, rests quietly, almost proudly, in Skull Creek Marina. And John feels like he has a soul again.

“When you live on a boat, you have to simplify things. You tend to get rid of all your clutter,” he said, the metaphorical connotations whispering through the boat like the night breeze. “This is like Utopia. This is home.”

Elvis, comfortably asleep, couldn’t agree more.

Q. How long have you lived on your boat?
A. Two years.

Q. What’s the best part about living on a boat?
A. You can pick up and leave whenever you choose; being outside, being on the water; feeling like you’re always on vacation; in our lifestyle, nudity is accepted… [Laughs]

Q. What’s your least favorite thing about living on a boat?
A. Limited space. [A little under 400 square feet in John and Jana’s case.]

Q. How many years do you foresee yourself living on a boat?
A. Two or three more years.

Q. Do you have cable or a satellite?
A. Satellite.

Q. What do you do when a storm is headed your way?
A. Drink and watch scary movies.

Q. How often do you take your boat out on the water?
A. Once or twice a month.

Q. Do you decorate your boat for Christmas?
A. Yes!

Q. Boat horror story?
A. The Chicken Head Story. Jana was below decks making a sandwich in the galley when the boat hit a sandbar that had shifted over the winter doing nearly 17 knots. The contents of the refrigerator exploded into the galley from the impact. A frozen chicken that was sitting in the freezer gave Jana a good sized knot on the head. She decided to make a drink instead of a sandwich after that.

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