When Home Has a Mast And an Anchor

THE questions were predictable: Is that your boat? Do you live aboard? What's it like in the winter? So predictable, in fact, that one bachelor neighbor put up a sign: ``Yes, it's my boat. Yes, I live aboard. If you're female and single, come visit me and see what it's like in the winter.''

For 12 years I lived on a boat in the heart of Washington, D.C., a highly visible but little-known neighborhood. In spring, cherry blossoms drop from Tidal Basin trees upstream and drift around our boats in pink swirls. In summer, we came home from work, shedding pincord jackets and shoes, five minutes away from a cruise up the Potomac to an anchorage near the Kennedy Center.

In fall, while normal people watched the Redskins on TV, we did the best cruising of the year with Canada geese overhead and summer hotshots gone from the river. But winter holds its special place for boat dwellers. We hibernated on our cozy boats, held impromptu potluck suppers, plotted suspense novels, pored over brightly colored boat catalogs like gardeners over seed catalogs, lay in bed on weekend mornings watching dancing reflections of sun on water, and bundled up to see the first snow flicker past the dock lights to hiss into the channel.

WE were extraordinarily close to nature. Our homes were like turtle shells, mobile yet large enough to contain us comfortably. Boat living is environmentally aware living. We husbanded resources. Most of us had 30 amps or 50 amps of electricity, and didn't own space-consuming, electricity-consuming appliances. We had enough clothes to dress decently, but we couldn't spare closet space for mistakes or things we would wear only once or twice a year. We used water carefully, turning off the tap once we wet our toothbrushes, showering efficiently (an 8- or 12-gallon hot water heater doesn't allow a long soak). We planned simple menus because our stoves and refrigerators were small and we didn't have much storage. We tended to be tidy and clean, because it was safe, and safety was one of our overwhelming concerns.

We feared two things above all else - a splash on a wintry night, and the cry of ``Fire!'' Cold water can kill quickly, and docks are slippery and dark in winter.

One cold predawn morning the cry, ``Fire on D-Dock!'' woke us abruptly. Immediately boat horns blared. Our VHF radios were always tuned to Channel 16's river traffic, and we could hear a neighbor call for John Glenn, the fireboat. Everyone threw on clothing hastily, grabbed fire extinguishers. Footsteps pounded down the ice-slick dock. Our commodore's wooden boat was blazing, and he stood on the dock, stunned and naked.

Flames crackled through the overhead, chomped through the fly bridge. Someone gave him a wool jacket. Someone else gave him pants, socks. His boat was too far gone to save, but nearby boats holding hundreds of gallons of fuel were potential bombs. With no apparent effort to organize, neighbors formed teams and swiftly moved boats out of slips into the fairway, dipped up water to cool boats with winterized engines that couldn't be started. The commodore lost everything. Everything else was saved.

The diversity of our neighborhood surprised visitors. We spanned a wide age group, income levels, educational and cultural backgrounds, lifestyles, careers. Our only common interest was boats, and they ranged from a 25-foot sailboat occupied by a semiretired nurse, to houseboats - some barely functional, one designer-decorated in mauve and aqua with overhead mirrors - to 65-foot, triple-deck, four-stateroom yachts. I enthrall my women friends with tales of brawny bachelors bending over my balky V-8 engines.

WE cared about one another. When Evie and her boyfriend broke up we commiserated. When Captain Kitty, the big yellow cat, died, we flew the yacht-club flag at half-mast. We lived through Becky's adolescence, through Richard's preteen grumbling about how none of the kids in his class had to fish firewood out of the river and chop it (embarrassing!) in front of all the tourists. His boat had a woodstove. We watched him grow from an agile 10-year-old monkey who shimmied up the mast of his home to a six-foot-five football star who no longer fit into his bunk or his parents' boat.

There's not much physical privacy with a neighbor 15 feet on either side, and a community-wide interest in whose footsteps are leaving which boat at three in the morning. And yet emotional privacy was total, if you wanted it. When you needed companionship you could walk the docks at any time of day or night, drop into a boat for a talk.

When you wanted to be alone you drew your curtains and no one intruded. Sunday mornings someone would go off the dock for Sunday papers and drop one on your deck.

We had rituals. A race on New Year's Eve to see whose was the first boat on the river to start the new season. Dock caroling on Christmas Eve. Watching the Fourth of July fireworks over the Washington Monument with appreciative blasts on our horns. Raft-ups down river on summer evenings when music from the restaurants got too loud. We knew the captains on the sternwheeler Cherry Blossom and the cruise ship Dandy and talked to them on our VHF radios. The Cherry Blossom shrilled its whistle when it passed our dock, and one time a half dozen of us did a leggy can-can at the end of the dock for its passengers' benefit.

Enormous transient yachts arrived and we, superior in our permanent-resident status, welcomed these boats, with dinghies the size of our homes, and greeted the crew, socialized with them, let them use our telephones, and went through their trash when they left. Glorious floral bouquets, tablecloths, hand towels, china, all these resulted from going through the trash of Malcomb Forbes' ``Highlander,'' the ``Enterprise,'' the ``Imperator,'' and Trump's ``Princess.''

AS in most small towns, the yacht club had its own politics. Normally friendly neighbors broke into factions as election approached, supporting one or the other person for next year's commodore. And, as in most small towns, when election results are in, we went back to living our small town way, supporting one another, gossiping, sanding, painting, varnishing, oiling our boats, and believing there is no other way to live.

We tended to be a partying community. Any excuse could lead to a celebration. A business trip to North Carolina yielded 12 pounds of barbecued pork - and a dock party. A visit from my mother - dock party. A wedding celebration. The first springlike day. The first snow. We didn't have much room to entertain on boats, but people who couldn't fit onto one boat spilled out onto another.

Our homes were four blocks from the Smithsonian, a short walk to the White House, the grocery store was within walking distance, some of the city's best restaurants line the promenade before us, we were near the subway, a taxi ride downtown is less than three dollars, and most of us walked to work.

Work meant government offices for some, exciting political jobs for others, speechwriting for a person you read about in the Washington Post, lobbying jobs, free-lance jobs. Mike, a cartoonist, used his boat as a studio. John wheeled and dealed with pharmaceutical contracts on his boat. Don was an expert witness who traveled all over the United States to testify on automobile safety. Bob was an IRS agent, white-collar crime. Dick was a PhD economist; his neighbor and best friend Red ran a transmission repair shop.

When we passed through the gate onto the dock, we left the real world behind, to live a perennial fantasy. And if we ever had a complaint with a neighbor, we'd start up the engines, let go the lines, and steam up the Potomac River to a place the hotshots didn't know about, around the bend and out of sight of the Washington Monument next to a waterfall that tumbles down an overgrown cliff with no trace or sound of human intrusion.

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