Living on Boats

A family, a couple, and a solo sailor make their homes on boats in Vineyard Haven harbor.

Laura Weisman watches from the galley as her son, Nathaniel, peeks through the porthole aboard their schooner, Perception.
Jaxon White

As you look out into Vineyard Haven harbor, the mammoth ferry Island Home looms over the sloops, catboats, ketches, and schooners bobbing gently at their moorings. The Black Dog tall ships Alabama and Shenandoah stand gallantly off to one side, and in the distance, some other boats, perhaps a motor yacht or two, are moored by the marinas. It is clear that this harbor is a place where people love boats.

A sense of caring seems to be a common value among boat people in general, and for those who live on their boats, this is even more evident – whether they are watching over each other’s vessels, sharing a simple meal, teaching children, or helping maintain their floating homes. They’ve developed a keen grasp of the essentials in life: hard work, good friends, sacrifice, simple pleasures.

The harbor master’s office polices these waters, shepherding the boats and tracking their comings and goings to know which boats are in the harbor and which ones are out. Vineyard Haven’s assistant harbor master John Crocker reports that all 173 moorings are full during July and August. The experts in his office know the condition of each boat, making sure boat owners inspect and repair their moorings so the boats don’t wash ashore or become damaged in storms. They monitor the use of holding tanks and oversee the pump-out boat, so that the harbor does not become polluted. Among many others, they keep watch on the schooner Perception, the sloop Harmony, and the motor yacht Crow Flite.

On Perception, you’ll find the Weismans: Laura, her husband, Jamie, their five-year-old son, Nathaniel, and their Jack Russell terrier named Bird, who loves riding between shore and schooner in their motorized dinghy. Harmony houses Andy Lyon, who can’t remember a year of his life without a boat. Crow Flite is, in the words of owner Seaver Jones, the “floating condo” where he and his wife, Laura MacNeil, make their three-season home. They all share a common way of living life on the water.

The schooner Perception

Cheered by well-wishers throwing flowers, Perception arrived on Martha’s Vineyard in May 2002 after a four-month journey from its former home in New Zealand. The crew – Jamie Weisman, Laura Davies (pre-Weisman), and Tony Nevin – agree that their sail across the South Pacific, past Easter Island, and through the Galapagos and the Panama Canal was the adventure of a lifetime. The sixty-two-foot schooner is a strong boat made of steel. An elegant fore-and-aft-rigged boat, it has two masts that support four-cornered gaff sails, with bright red sail covers.

Each of the three-member crew shared the duties involved in the ambitious sail. They took turns on watch, day and night; each cooked a meal a day; each shared in the baking of bread. Laura describes the culinary preparations: “We started the trip with a small refrigerator, powered by a compressor connected to the engine. We had twelve boxes of twenty-four eggs and some frozen meats. Within our larder were canned and dry foods, flour for homemade bread, and boxed juices and milk. We packed lots of potatoes with onions in dark places....Making the supplies work for us was fun.” At one point she realized how nice it would be to have some greens and spices, so she planted a garden in the dodger atop the deck – in a spot that was sunny yet protected from the salt in the air. “It was wonderful to add basil and parsley to the butter sauces on our pastas,” Laura smiles, “and to have fresh salads too.”

In 2004, Laura and Jamie married, and in 2005 their son was born. Nathaniel has grown out of the car seat formerly bolted to the dodger atop the deck, and he helps with schooner chores. Each May the family prepares to move out of their home on Look Street in Vineyard Haven and onto Perception for the summer months. “It’s like a spring cleaning,” Laura explains. “We must think about necessities, what’s really important to have. Nathaniel gets to choose two toys to take along for the months on the boat. You simplify your life. Everything is a bit harder to do, but it’s worth it.”

When they’re not moored inside the breakwater in Vineyard Haven, Laura and Jamie and Nathaniel may be on a sail to Gloucester or to Provincetown to race or just to celebrate life on the sea with other sailors. Intermittently the family sets sail on longer trips – they’ve traveled to the Azores, Lisbon, Brazil, Madeira, Cape Verde, Trinidad, and the Canary Islands – and shorter trips to Bermuda and Bequia.

“Boat people are unique,” Laura says. “We’re a community. Everyone helps one another. It’s old-fashioned, like the old times. We look for an alternative way to live our lives, be close to others, be more natural. Living this way helps us to continue the idealism of our youth. My best friends are from the world of boats.”

The sloop Harmony

For Andy Lyon, life aboard his boat is an invitation to adventure. With one mast and two sails, the sloop is easy to handle and reflects the rudimentary lifestyle Andy has chosen. When temperatures get cold or the fog rolls in, he fills his wood-burning stove with wood picked up from beaches around the world. His sloop, Harmony, is his year-round home. “I can’t afford both a boat and an apartment,” he admits, “so I choose the boat. For the past twenty years, I’ve rarely lived ashore except for a night or two in the most severe winter weather. I haven’t owned a car since 1989 – no car insurance to pay. Instead, I save every penny I earn to support my sailing life.”

Harmony, thirty-five feet long with a Marconi sail, was built in New Bedford in 1938. Andy has owned it for twenty-four years. “I’ve replaced every part,” he says. “That’s part of owning a boat.” Andy now builds and restores other wooden boats, and does whatever work or bartering he needs to survive and to maintain his life on his boat. His sloop has three bunks. When at a mooring, he sleeps near the bow; when at sea, he moves to a bunk fitted with a weatherboard, a wooden plank on the open side that keeps him from rolling out of bed when the sea gets rough.

Andy’s lifestyle has little in common with those who sail into a marina, plug in their gadgets, and live as though they are in a luxury apartment. “I don’t do it for happy hours and deck parties,” he explains. “I do it because I love the life on a boat, the solitary life, the adventures. That’s how many of the boat people in Vineyard Haven feel.”

Solo, Andy sails from Vineyard Haven to Newfoundland every summer, to out-of-the-way, rural areas – some that are uninhabited. He loves to sail within the fiords that he describes as “another world.” He also sails to Bermuda, the Bahamas, Central America. In Guatemala, he navigates the Rio Dulce, where long ago the Spanish hid their treasure-laden ships from pirates.

With a pressure cooker and a one-burner alcohol stove, Andy cooks meals of rice and beans, potatoes, onions, pasta, and an occasional fish. He has no refrigerator. “Wherever in the world I am, whether in the jungles of South America or at the French island of St. Pierre off Newfoundland, I come home every night. I eat out of a pot in the galley, listen to the news on shortwave radio, and sleep soundly,” he explains. “The best part of living on my sloop is that my home is always with me.”

The motor yacht Crow Flite

Seaver Jones bought Crow Flite in Florida in 2001. He inherited his love of boats from his parents and grandparents as a youth on Oyster Bay, Long Island. “In their day, every boat was a wooden boat,” he says. As an adult, Seaver pursued mainstream jobs, became a contractor, and “made lots of money,” he says. “But I wasn’t happy. The water kept drawing me away from the conventional pathways.” En route to the Vineyard, Seaver invited his seafaring parents to cruise with him on his new boat from Florida, up the Intercoastal Waterway, to New York City. “I photographed my mother in front of the Twin Towers....They were gone two weeks later,” he remembers.

Crow Flite is forty-four feet long and thirteen feet wide, and includes three staterooms, two bathrooms, hot water, and a washer-dryer. “It’s a yacht,” he says proudly, “but I don’t live on a yacht budget.” He tells of all the bartering boat people do to help each other. In 2009 Crow Flite was hauled up at the Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway, where various friends assisted with repairs. “I do the same for them when they need it,” Seaver says. “That’s how boat people are all over the world. We’re a people who love community.”

In Vineyard Haven, Seaver serves as a volunteer fireman. He also runs a launch in the harbor, providing taxi service for boaters who come ashore for dinner. He often travels to Cuttyhunk to visit childhood friends there.

Seaver and his wife, Laura MacNeil, explain that water conservation is critical in the boat world. “The two of us consume a hundred gallons of water per week,” he says. “Most Americans individually consume a hundred gallons of water per day.”

“Water is at a premium,” says Laura. “We turn off the water when we’re sudsing our hair in the shower. I drink only water, no other beverages, so drinking water is important. We watch our limits. We’re very careful.”

Seaver and Laura are proud of their recycling and conservation efforts. “We care about the water,” Laura explains. “We pick up trash in the harbor. We help when people are in trouble. We recycle ashore every Wednesday, separating our paper and plastics, and hauling a five-gallon bucket of trash there each week.”

“Laura will ride her bike across the Island,” Seaver says, “to buy a biodegradable product. We’re very eco-friendly.”

Seaver owns a small ranch in South America, in an agricultural region of Patagonia, where he and Laura spend the two winter months of January and February. “I live with two economies,” he says. “Whatever I make in Patagonia, I reinvest there; whatever I make on Martha’s Vineyard, I reinvest here. I care deeply about each place. I move a lot,” Seaver says, “but if I ever give up Crow Flite and move back to the land, with a handmade wooden fishing boat of course, I’ll always remember the values I learned living on the sea.”