Andrew Buckley: Life At Sea

The last thing I expected to find on a warm October day in Washington, D.C. was a Maine lobsterman. Or, rather, a statue of one.

It was a brilliant, warm, breezy day. Rains from a couple days before had churned up the Potomac, resulting in the light rust mud color of the water, along with all manner of branches and leaves scattered across and under the surface.

Having never been to the newly renovated District Wharf in the long-neglected Southwest quarter, I was having a look around before White House cameraman Jim Long picked me up. What had once been an area that attracted me because it was tucked just south of downtown Washington and the National Mall, yet pretty much forgotten, has recently become a serious waterfront destination and pedestrian hot spot.

High end coffee shops, hotels, condos, restaurants, offices and shops face the docks that had been the capital’s long-lived but little-known working waterfront. I learned about this after I got up from one of the many Adirondack chairs surrounding a fire pit and walked down Wharf Street to Market Square. That’s where I found a statue of a man who looked like someone from my family’s home movies from Orleans in the '50s.

Kneeling down, huge hands pegging a lobster’s claws. The Maine Lobsterman memorial. Only when I read the historical marker nearby did I realize I was a block from the Maine Avenue Fish Market – the nation’s oldest open-air fish market. Completed in 1939, the statue was moved down here in the late '50s from money collected by Camp Fire Girls of Cundy’s Harbor, Maine. It was like meeting an old friend in this distant, unfamiliar locale.

Back up the waterfront, I came across another plaque at the head of a pier. Overlooking a collection of boats of various sizes, it described the houseboats that served government workers after World War II, and the community of liveaboards that has remained since. Even after the renovations of the District Wharf, mooring space was guaranteed to all who had been there prior.

Jim arrived in his Port Townsend skiff, assembled in a garage from a kit, so clean and pretty and polished. After tying off, we walked down to a seafood place for lunch, and I realized he has also gone to American University. Over a couple of shrimp po-boys I said it never occurred to me that one could live year-round on the water here in DC.

When I saw the dock rates, it was clearly a viable alternative to the exorbitant housing market. Jim said his wife and he had been considering it for themselves as a way to have a place closer to his work instead of the horrific commutes around the region.

That’s something that stuck with me, long after Jim took me out on the Potomac, navigating around the floating debris fields, past Reagan Airport and down to Alexandria. It’s easy to think about living aboard a boat on days like this. But more, I was thinking about that single community – the largest in a single marina on the East Coast – that will still exist, and yet is most likely unable to grow to meet demand.

I’ve now begun to wonder about how that could happen in Chatham. Oh, I don’t mean a docked community of marinas spread along the shores of the Mill Pond or Stage Harbor. We are still dealing with the ban on liveaboards here in Chatham. Or so I thought. A zoning interpretation without an explicit authority is really what there is keeping people from having a place to stay five months of the year.

The people who chose to live aboard their boats in DC had jobs but no housing options in postwar DC. We are facing that same problem here, with not just a wild disparity between local wages and local home prices, but because of the mismatch between the housing stock and the people needing to put themselves somewhere. Modest homes are being tricked out for weekly rentals or torn down to maximize the footprint for an opulent vacation home.

Yet we have so much water here. People have moorings for their whalers and skiffs. We cannot solve our housing challenges through offshoring people. But as a tool in the box, we can make it easier for residents who simply need a place to sleep during the summer.

As a commercial shellfisherman, the only real concern is the potential for contamination from marine septic systems. Inspections can handle this. Easily and by self-financing. Residents here are no less uncaring of our waters than the waterfront estates that pour pesticides and fertilizers on their lawns. Perhaps more so.

So perhaps a dozen families could do this, perhaps two dozen. Put a larger boat on a mooring and row out to it at night, back to shore and off to work in the morning. April through October. Not for everyone. It’s achievable, with little real downside. Except that it could end up right in front of the mansions of the people who wield inordinate influence here. Those who have, as much as anyone, caused and benefited from our current demographic diversity disaster.

But the point is, realistically, we already have a liveaboard option – a more affordable option for some. We have chosen, as a community, to instead send the message that this is forbidden. That it is impractical. That maybe you shouldn’t.

We but need to demonstrate the will to say no, this door is open, and here is how you can come through. There is space for you here.