Liveaboard Finds His Roots on Solid Ground: Ashore

By Josh Karpf

My floor, after sixteen years of rocking, tilting, and shifting about, is finally still. After an entire adolescence afloat, sharing a 46-foot Chris-Craft Aquahome with my family and two feuding pets, I find myself in my first solo home, slowly unpacking my past. Ashore.

Sixteen years. I'm glad they've ended. It's not that boats can't have advantages, especially for a childless couple with no growing pains. Better to float on Walden Pond than to build a shack beside it. My parents had two children, and their decision to raise a family on the water made good business sense since they ran a marina in New Rochelle, New York, and didn't have to pay for slip space. Without rent or land taxes, they were able to save money to send me to college.

But in my pre-college years I began to hate our houseboat. It made good business sense, but did it make family sense? Saying "I live on a boat" always got me automatic awe, but should it have? Was the mythology of adventure surrounding liveaboard life fully deserved?

"That's so amazing! On a boat! Where do you go?" Yes, where? We had no restless journeys. With its owners' jobs on land, the boat never left the dock. Nor were day trips possible, for good reason. "Hey, Mom, can I take the home out for a spin?" Picture a parent standing at the pier, cart lightly laden with the few supplies an onboard refrigerator can hold, finding only a watery hole while I sped through the harbor with all our possessions.

So scratch sailing gypsies. And back-to-nature didn't apply to us too often. It was awkward. Large windows offered fresh, cool, blustery breezes -- but who wants to live in a gazebo all day long? Yet close the windows and we'd have the Karpf Terrarium, with passers-by tapping on the glass.

The openness confined us. There was no casual lounging. Once out of bed -- a coffinlike bunk so cramped I could not sit up even to read -- I had to jump into street clothes or face adding a personal dimension to the exhibit. Blanket the windows with blinds, and we had privacy at the cost of overstating a shoebox-shaped living space, broken only by paper-thin bulkheads and even thinner doors.

Insuring privacy from the outside world did nothing for privacy within. Take breathing: Day and night I could hear my whole family breathe, and they could hear me. I grew to be a bit paranoid. No sound escaped others' notice. The combing of hair, the chewing of food, the gentle scratch of a pencil -- all were mutually monitored, and we lived a lie by pretending to ignore such noises. Where could I go for privacy? Common streets and public events. To be alone I joined the anonymity of the crowd, where thousands could see me but none could hear me inhale.

Don't get me wrong. I liked the water lapping against the hull as I slept. But I did not like the clanking of the water, shower, and bilge pumps, or the head's [toilet's] imploding vacuum, all located close to my head and going off at any time. I enjoyed the bright stars overhead, unblocked by neighboring houses, but I did not enjoy the dimness of 12-volt bulbs struggling to brighten nook-and-cranny living space.

For college I fled to Oberlin, Ohio, 600 miles away and thoroughly inland. The campus creek was charted as a navigable river but I let that slide: It was only six inches deep. I discovered the cooling magic of musty cellars, the sweet decay of attics, and the warm glow of the fireplace. Lawns were meadows. Of course, not all houses have cellars, fireplaces and lawns. But I found that all can enjoy bright interior lighting, and none suffer from noisy pumping underfoot. And they offer amenities that are unlikely on the water unless you're Donald Trump.

Ashore, I no longer bruised my elbows in marine shower stalls. I could enjoy my books instead of packing them in boxes to succumb to mold and mites. Best of all, for the first time in my life I had the privacy and the space to entertain friends and play host.

I drank deep in the glory of terra firma. Still intoxicated after graduation, I left the boat as soon as possible. Returning had been barely tolerable.

Today, my new studio apartment in Brooklyn is well-lit, has solid walls, and there's more hot water than I'll ever need.

I've bidden boats goodbye. No storm ever bothered me. It was 10,000 little waves that forced me to flee the water. Admittedly, my apartment is near the shore. Sometimes I stand at the seawall and watch the yachts ply the New York Harbor Narrows. But I am on solid ground, and I intend to stay there for good.

Published by Soundings magazine. Incidentally, my parents were at first good-humored about my "Portnoy's Complaint." But Soundings chose to print that issue in vast quantities for an annual national boat show. They gave away thousands of free copies. My parents run a yacht club, and for months suffered calls from clients who asked, "Er, that article . . . was that your son?"
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