Home afloat: Baltimore residents enjoy living aboard

On a hot summer day at Baltimore Marine Centers' Harborview marina, boats gently bob up and down in their slips, the lines clanking dully against tall-masted sailboats like Eric Isselhardt's 43-foot Beneteau.

For Isselhardt, 55, the sailboat is his home, the marina his neighborhood. Since 2010, he has lived onboard with his 10-year-old daughter, Maddie, and their German shepherd, Zeno, in a 60-foot slip with spectacular views of the Inner Harbor. And he's not the only one literally living on the water.


Across the harbor at Lighthouse Point marina in Canton, Bob Flynn, 54, lives aboard a 57-foot motor yacht. He's among a community of 28 boaters at the marina who call their vessels home year-round.

These full-time boat residents are called liveaboards, and they reside on all manner of vessels, such as sailboats or houseboats (the latter fully functional boats with a houselike appearance). They love life at sea, but the transition from terra firma comes with a steep learning curve.


"Five years ago, I never had any experience sailing a large boat," said Isselhardt, who grew up sailing much smaller craft in Montauk, on New York's Long Island.

But in 2010, the Calvert Education executive decided he wanted his daughter to grow up with an understanding of what is important in life and what it means to leave a carbon footprint. Isselhardt, who is divorced, thought he could teach her those lessons in a nontraditional home.

"Living aboard is a very deliberate choice," said Isselhardt, who bought his sailboat for $230,000. "You have to be aware of your available resources [such as] water usage, electrical consumption and waste elimination."

Before they traded their backyard for a boat slip, he and Maddie, who lives with her father during summers, weekends and holidays, spent two months making note of everything they touched in their house each day. The process gave them an idea of what was important for daily use, such as cookware, linens and bath towels, and what had only emotional attachment. Non-necessities went to a storage unit.

Life aboard suits them, said Isselhardt, who rents his boat slip for $7,500 a year, plus a $1,400 liveaboard fee. Neither he nor Maddie sees the 285-square-foot cabin as the whole of their living space. There's 60 square feet in the cockpit and another 30 on the deck. They spend time and dine frequently in the cockpit, on the foredeck and on the dock.

The two often head to a nearby parking lot to leave for shopping trips and spend time at the pool operated by the marina. Maddie has her own little sailboat for short trips around the piers.

Below deck, their living space is like "a little modern apartment," Isselhardt said. Every bit of space has a use. There are two heads — in layman's terms, bathrooms — and two staterooms separated by a living area with a table and a small galley, or kitchen. Cabinets and overhead compartments are plentiful. The cabin is heated and air-conditioned.

Outdoors, the marina has a tropical feel, and a soft breeze always seems to be blowing. At night, city lights twinkle, and the glow of the Domino Sugars sign is an ever-present and assuring night light.


The marina is a close-knit community, where everyone knows and looks out for one another, Isselhardt said. Maddie is the unofficial dog walker for the boaters. It feels like a neighborhood, especially in the summer, when more people are out and about and the living is cheaper. In winter, it takes three electric heaters to keep warm, the cost of which can go from $40 per month to more than $500 in February and March for electricity.

"This past winter, we shrink-wrapped the boat from stem to stern," Isselhardt said. "That enabled us to use the cockpit for most of the winter."

In five years, Isselhardt has never regretted his choice to live aboard. His advice to those considering a life on the waves is simple:

"Think about how you value your possessions and what is important to you," he said. "Living on a sailboat is a wonderfully adventurous life, but it does require decisions every day that affect [its] quality."

Flynn, an attorney and general counsel for Signature Title, knows all too well the decisions facing the liveaboard.

In 2008, he and his now-ex-wife, together with another couple, purchased a used Symbol 557 motor yacht from a friend for $200,000. The original owner wanted to sell it because of an exhaust leak that damaged the engine room, and it was unclear how much it would cost to repair.


His friends asked out of the deal and Flynn agreed. Though the yacht was appraised for $650,000, he said, it would end up costing Flynn slightly more than $50,000 to make it seaworthy.

"While it was a great deal in 2008, I am paying for prior sins," he wrote in an email. "The exhaust leaks ultimately caused one engine to wear prematurely, and I have to have it rebuilt now at a significant cost."

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Used boats do not come with warranties — if something breaks, repairs come at the owner's expense. Isselhardt recommends that prospective owners hire a certified marine surveyor — not unlike a home inspector — to examine every inch of a boat before buying.

Flynn became a permanent liveaboard in November 2012 after splitting from his wife.

He chose to anchor at Baltimore Marine Centers' Lighthouse Point marina in Canton, where he pays close to $10,000 in annual marina fees, plus an additional $100 yearly liveaboard fee. In return, the marina offers gated security, water delivery year-round, free haul-outs to check the bottom of the boat, and gym and pool memberships.

Flynn's 57-foot fiberglass motor yacht offers roughly 850 square feet of living space on the main deck, 400 square feet on the lower deck, where there are three staterooms and two heads, and 225 square feet on the flybridge.


The boat's interior construction is primarily cherry wood and, like Isselhardt's sailboat, has no wasted space. The aft deck opens onto a living area with a leather couch and footrest. Across from those pieces, two occasional chairs are separated by a round cherry table. This space, a kitchen and a pilot house are all lined with windows.

Like Isselhardt across the harbor, Flynn appreciates the strong sense of community at the marina, especially how the liveaboard residents look out for one another. And he, too, has no regrets about his decision to live aboard his motor yacht.

"I can always move back to land," he said. "But how many people wish they had lived on a boat at some point in their lives?"