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Liveaboards fear ‘extinction’

Dave Ullin stands on the tugboat he calls home in Eagle Habor; he pledges not to sign on to a new moorage plan. - Jim Bryant photo
Dave Ullin stands on the tugboat he calls home in Eagle Habor; he pledges not to sign on to a new moorage plan.
— image credit: Jim Bryant photo

Harbor-dwellers defend their lifestyle as state mandates begin to encroach.

There aren’t too many people on Bainbridge Island with a handshake like Dave Ullin’s.

His hands are thick, massive and worn from years of hammering boats together on the Duwamish River, salvaging logs on the Alaskan coast and, for the last 20 years, living a spartan life aboard his old gray tugboat in Eagle Harbor.

Without faucets, plumbing, light bulbs or a refrigerator, Ullin spends much of his time hauling water, wood, potatoes, soup bones and bundles of winter kale he grows in a friend’s garden.

When he’s not meeting his own needs, he repairs sailboats for acquaintances, pumps out swamped hulls for strangers or helps school kids move heavy stones.

All this work has built a man of imposing stature, but the bear-paw, sandpaper handshake he offers to parting guests is often tempered with a quote by Margaret Mead, Gandhi or Rilke.

“The future speaks ruthlessly through you,” he said from the bow of his tug, reciting a century-old line from the German poet.

Ullin and the 20 or so people living in the open waters of Eagle Harbor have listened intently for years to the state government speak of a future devoid of their free floating lifestyle.

In 2000, the Department of Natural Resources moved to ban all “non-water-dependent” uses in areas under the agency’s jurisdiction. On the verge of evicting liveaboards from their homes, the state softened its position in 2002, allowing local governments to designate “open water marinas” that permit liveaboards to anchor in open water.

The City of Bainbridge Island is the first jurisdiction to attempt an open water marina – an area about nine acres in size in the center of the harbor – with its proposed Eagle Harbor Anchoring and Mooring Plan. The plan’s goal is to preserve the island’s liveaboard community, said Harbormaster Tami Allen.

“Other cities are watching what we do,” she said. “We may lead the way toward preserving other communities.”

But the plan comes with a bevy of new regulations and fees that liveaboards have long avoided. The plan would confine liveaboards and transient vessels to a zone between the outer harbor and Stetson Point, while charging as much as $190 a month.

Liveaboards have been the most vocal opponents of the plan, but the new regulations would also impact long-term, unoccupied boats that account for about half of the estimated 70 vessels anchored or moored in the harbor.

Allen and the Harbor Commission will host a public meeting on the draft plan Tuesday at the Bainbridge Commons to gather input and discuss possible changes before the final draft is submitted to the City Council.

While Allen views the plan as the best compromise within the confines of state mandates, some liveaboards are determined to fight on.

“They’re attempting to seize waters in the public trust and rent it back to us,” said liveaboard Alan Cangiamila, as he charged his laptop computer from an outlet at the Waterfront Park dock.

Like Ullin, Cangiamila values the simplicity and freedom of his anchored-out lifestyle. His dinghy was loaded with kindling to fuel the cook stove on his hand-built sailboat.

He has been anchored in Eagle Harbor since 1988 but has lived aboard sea-going vessels for almost 30 years. In that time, he’s become well versed in maritime law, tracing his right to anchor in Eagle Harbor to the roots of the U.S. Constitution.

“The reason we have a constitution is because Virginia and Maryland couldn’t agree on who has the authority over the rules of navigation on the Potomac River,” he said. “You can’t have every podunk village having its own rules of navigation. That’s why the Constitution puts (the rules) under federal jurisdiction.”

Cangiamila has pledged to assert his rights in court.

“I’ll get the state on the public trust issue and the feds on the constitutional issues,” he said.

Ullin also has vowed not to sign on to the plan.

“It’s my duty not to sign,” he said. “I have the freedom to not be forced against my will. I will not compromise my principles to appease ignorance. I won’t follow the herd to extinction.”

Sea vs. land

Many liveaboards see the new regulations as a first step toward the death of a way of life that is intimately connected with the environment and focused on basic needs.

“I wake up every morning to this,” liveaboard Amelia Sericova said as she looked east over the expanse of Puget Sound. “I see the harbor seal in the morning and I feed the family of geese every night at 5:30. I’ve watched the little ones grow up.”

Sericova moved to Eagle Harbor in her 25-foot sailboat about a year ago. Anchoring in the harbor keeps her living costs low, allowing her to persue a degree in filmmaking at the University of Washington. She plans to submit portions of her current class project, a documentary about her fellow liveaboards, to the Celluloid Bainbridge film fest in February.

Jeff Anderson, who has lived for almost five years in a two-story houseboat anchored on the harbor’s south side, was also attracted to the beauty and simplicity of a life at sea.

“It’s soothing and more down-to-earth,” he said. “I don’t think I’d live any other way.”

Powered with solar panels and lit with antique oil lanterns, Anderson said the small home he shares with his girlfriend and her two teenage sons is part of a closely knit community with similar values.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie built up between us boaters,” he said. Anderson and his girlfriend organize an annual Thanksgiving dinner for liveaboards, cooking a full-size turkey in their gas oven – a rare appliance in the harbor.

Sericova says she feels watched over by her fellow liveaboards who regularly offer aid and advice. Cangiamila recently rescued her sailboat when it broke free during a windstorm.

“I was something kind of rare when I came out here: young and a woman,” she said. “Everyone was asking if they could help me. Now I feel like I have six grandfathers and fathers.”

But not everyone who shares the harbor feels a part of the liveaboard family.

Mary Lou Vibrans moved off the island last summer in large part because of harassment she says she received from liveaboards.

“I couldn’t stand it anymore,” she said from her new Poulsbo-area home. “I’ve been cussed out so many times by liveaboards. They called me words I won’t repeat.”

Vibrans also says she witnessed drunkenness, littering and domestic abuse from nearby vessels. On one occasion, she said, a liveaboard threatened her family from his boat while brandishing a knife.

The methods in which liveaboards dispose of waste has also caused some land-dwellers to turn their noses from their water-bound neighbors.

While most say they haul their waste in buckets, dumping them in portable toilets at Waterfront Park, some residents contend the harbor is being treated as a boat-side toilet.

“Every morning at breakfast we’d watch a fellow dump his night soil into the bay,” Vibrans said. “This stuff washes up on our beach.”

In response to complaints, Allen conducted water quality tests in Eagle Harbor, sampling from eight locations in the summer and fall. Samples taken in June and July show fecal bacteria levels well below the amount considered unhealthy by state regulations.

Samples taken in October after a heavy rain showed a dramatic spike in fecal bacteria levels but within the permissible limits. Allen says the wet weather increase was due not from liveaboards but from land-based runoff.

Some shore residents and boat owners also contend liveaboards are crowding the harbor and are often unwelcoming to guest boaters.

“This is a fabulous town and people want to visit it,” said Eagle Harbor resident Kari Wright. “But if you’re a boater, you don’t want to go away for the weekend to a place crowded with a bunch of derelict vessels with blue tarps, with people who are rude and are maybe drunk.”

Wright says she’s watched the number of short-term visiting vessels dwindle during the 16 years she’s lived at the harbor’s shore. She believes a more welcoming harbor could boost the local economy.

“Healthy businesses help offset the taxes residents pay, making it better for the rest of us,” she said.

Wright believes consolidating liveaboard and unoccupied vessels in a designated area could open the harbor to more users. But she is skeptical about the impact of monthly fees.

“The bottom line is: If you make if expensive to live here, you’re going to get rid of the people you’re trying to protect,” she said. “It’s going to be Yuppyville out there.”

Wright suggests the city purchase a marina and offer it to liveaboards as an affordable housing option.

While Allen’s initial estimate for monthly liveaboard rates ranged around $190, she now foresees the city charging about $40 for a bare-bones package to cover costs imposed by the DNR, waste disposal and administrative fees. Some Harbor Commission members, though, say it is likely to be much higher, citing a 1998 estimate of $246 for monthly fees.

Most liveaboards maintain a low-cost lifestyle and are anxiously waiting for the commission to settle on a fee.

Sericova, who depends on student financial aid, says anything above a $150 per month to live in the harbor would hit hard.

Ullin says he plans to track the draft’s progress and monthly rates. But in the end, he says, he’ll stick to his principles and continue to live as he always has.

“Never mind how finely crafted the regulations are – what is offensive to the water people is that some land people assume the power to impose their view of lifestyle on us,” Ullin said. “I came from a homemade, do-it-yourself background tied together by generosity.

“I would like to see all neighborhoods do more for themselves and ask government for less. Every neighborhood doesn’t have to be standardized.”

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