Life at sea suits these SLO County residents — and the rent isn't bad, either

They’re a loving family of 4 — and their home is a sailboat near Avila Beach

CC Rider lives with his wife and two daughters on a boat in Port San Luis near Avila Beach, California. He bought the $30,000 sailboat after the stock market crash of 2008, and settled in SLO County nearly six years ago.
Up Next
CC Rider lives with his wife and two daughters on a boat in Port San Luis near Avila Beach, California. He bought the $30,000 sailboat after the stock market crash of 2008, and settled in SLO County nearly six years ago.

CC Rider and his wife Anne lived at a Palm Springs country club before the stock market crash of 2008 forced them to re-evaluate their life.

“We can’t afford to do this," Rider told his wife back then. "I said, 'You want to be poor here or poor at the beach?’ We decided on the beach,” Rider said.

So the Riders sold most of their belongings and bought their 30-foot 1979 S2 sailboat "Tiki" for $30,000 and moved aboard with their two young daughters. They sailed up the coast from San Diego and eventually settled in Port San Luis about six years ago.

"It’s kind of like our own little island," Rider said.

As housing prices rise to record highs across the state, Rider and his family are part of a growing number of people who are seeking alternative housing in an effort to own a small piece of the California Dream.

One way to do that? Uproot from the land and live on the water.

Morro Bay livaboard113159.JPG
Spencer Waterman, a young professional who works in San Luis Obispo, lives part time on his 34-foot sailboat in the Morro Bay Harbor. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A cheaper housing option

When the aptly named Spencer Waterman returned from a recent monthlong vacation, he had some unwanted guests waiting for him at home.

In the area right above his kitchen, a Pacific gull was hanging out in a newly built nest. And judging from the bird poop scattered nearby, the gull decided to have a few friends over.

Barking sea lions, rough waters, and now, a sea gull home invasion.

Such is life for Waterman since he started living on a sailboat in the Morro Bay Harbor.

Two years ago Waterman was living with two younger roommates in a San Luis Obispo apartment and paying $850 a month for a room, but he was growing tired of the roommate lifestyle.

As the dirty dishes and other typical roommate issues piled up, he knew he needed to get out. So Waterman, a Cal Poly graduate who works at a water engineering firm in San Luis Obispo, started looking for other options.

“If I was going to get a place by myself in SLO, if I was lucky maybe I could get a place by myself for $900. Realistically it would be upwards of $1,000,” said Waterman, 30.

His estimates were dead on.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the fair market rent — a gross rent estimate that includes the base rent, as well as any essential utilities that the tenant would be responsible for paying — for a studio in SLO County is $971 and $1,107 for a one-bedroom. Waterman said that kind of rent payment wouldn’t allow him to save much money to accomplish his long-term goal of owning a home on the Central Coast.

That’s when he started looking for non-traditional housing alternatives. A sailboat turned out to be the perfect fit.

Morro Bay livaboard113130.JPG
Spencer Waterman, a young professional who works in San Luis Obispo, lives part time on his 34-foot sailboat in the Morro Bay Harbor. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

As wages continue to stagnate across the country and the California housing crisis seems to worsen by the month, young SLO County professionals like Waterman don't have much of a choice if they want to avoid roommates, save for a home, and stay close to jobs.

In May, the median home price for California set a new record, and SLO County houses sold for even more. San Luis Obispo County homes sold for a median price of $638,660, a 12 percent increase over the May 2017 figure. And local rents aren’t much better. To afford a one-bedroom in SLO County, renters would need to earn at least $44,280 a year.

When Waterman crunched the numbers using his current salary, he found it would take about 10 years of saving as a renter to have enough for a down payment on a house.

“There was no way I could do it unless I got married and she could contribute,” said Waterman.

But, he estimated that if he bought a sailboat for around $25,000 and lived on it instead of renting an apartment, he would cut his saving time in half and wouldn't have to depend on the possibility of marrying into a second income.

Waterman bought a 34-foot 1984 Sabre sailboat in March 2016 from a family friend for $45,000 — opting to exceed his original budget for something that would retain value and do better on the open ocean — and hooked up to a mooring in the Morro Bay Harbor managed by Morro Bay Marina.

His monthly expenses now include a $295 mooring fee and a $600-a-month boat payment. Other fees include $1,000 a year for insurance, a county property tax for 1 percent of the boat’s appraised value and other expenses like boat cleaning.

On his morning commute, he uses a small boat to motor across the harbor to the shore where he parks his car, dodging otters and sea lions along the way. For the most part, he showers and uses the bathroom facilities at the Morro Bay Marina.

On board his boat, a 280-watt solar panel gives him all the energy he needs to power lights and a tablet to watch Netflix when he gets home from work. An on-board tank ensures he has fresh running water.

Waterman said he now splits his time between his girlfriend’s home in San Luis Obispo and the boat, where he sleeps three nights a week.

While his expenses are about the same as they would have been had he moved into a one-bedroom apartment, he takes comfort in the fact that his money his going toward something tangible and fun of his own and not someone else’s mortgage.

And while he didn't have much nautical experience when he got the boat, he's learned how to sail along the way and has even floated the idea of traveling down the coast to a new city like San Diego, where his company has an office.

Morro Bay livaboard112892.JPG
The Morro Bay Harbor has about 130 moorings for boats. David Middlecamp

How to live on a boat

There are only two places in SLO County where people are permitted to live on their boats — Port San Luis and the Morro Bay Harbor.

Morro Bay has 50 live-aboard permits available, but as of last week only 34 had been issued.

That’s rare. It’s hard to find a marina on the coast of California that doesn’t have a live-aboard permit waiting list.

The Pier 39 Marina in San Francisco, one of the least affordable cities in the United States, stopped accepting liveaboard applications in October 2015 due to the huge wait list. There are live-aboard permits available at the Santa Barbara Harbor, but only people who already own boats inside the harbor can get them. No new slips have been available for years.

“We have definitely seen an increase in live-aboard inquiries,” said Becka Kelly, Morro Bay Harbor Patrol supervisor. “It’s a very popular daydream, but it’s a totally different reality. Weather is not conducive here all the time, among other things. It just gets old.”

The Morro Bay Harbor has about 130 moorings, but about 50 are privately owned and most others are owned by groups like the Morro Bay Marina and the Morro Bay Yacht Club. So just because people can get a permit doesn't mean they can find an available slip or mooring.

For anyone wanting to live on the water, they'll first need a $184 permit allowing them to occupy their boat for at least four days or four nights a week. They'll also need to pass an $88 live-aboard inspection to ensure the boast is in working order and has a holding tank for waste, among other conditions. Privately owned moorings sometimes hit the open market for between $20,000 and $30,000.

Still, there are some who simply love the lifestyle.

Lynn Meissen, 75, stands aboard the "Guayacan", a 43-foot sailboat that she has made her home since 1979, as it undergoes routine maintenance at the Port San Luis Harbor. Travis Gibson tgibson@thetribunenews.com

Lynn Meissen has lived on her boat in Morro Bay for 24 years. She's been a full-time live-aboard since 1979, when she and her husband commissioned the building of a 43-foot schooner designed by naval architect John Alden and set sail from Guatemala.

She's sailed the "Guayacan" all over — from the Caribbean to Europe. For Meissen, 75, it was never about saving money, it was always a love of sailing and the open water.

"I moved out of my house, a two-story four-bedroom house on a lake. The move to a boat was sort of natural to me. It suited me," said Meissen who worked as a nurse in San Luis Obispo before retiring nine years ago.

She still likes to take her boat out from time to time to race against fellow Morro Bay Yacht Club members. As a member, she gets a discounted rate on one of the 25 moorings owned by the Yacht Club.

Meissen said she loves living on the water in Morro Bay and plans to do so as long as she's physically able.

Living near Waterman and Meissen is Wade (he wasn't available to give his last name), who’s in his late 20s. He lives on his boat part of the year and travels to Alaska to work on a fishing boat the rest of the year. There's also Connor Crowe, a Cal Poly student and volunteer firefighter profiled by Mustang News, who started living on a boat in a slip in Morro Bay last year.

"We are always thankful to have live-aboards," Kelly said. "They are always helpful and are our eyes and ears on the water."

Boat Living PSL033.JPG
CC Rider lives with his wife and daughter on the "Tiki," a 30-sailboat moored in the Port San Luis Harbor.

Mom, Dad, two kids and a cat

CC Rider, the father who lives on a boat in Port San Luis with his family, is 58 years old and works as an artist and handyman while his wife works at a local shop.

After navigating difficult sailing conditions around Point Conception six years ago, they arrived in Port San Luis and purchased a mooring for about $5,000. They lived rent-free until the Port San Luis Harbor District implemented a $250 live-aboard fee on Jan. 1.

Unlike Morro Bay, Port San Luis doesn't have much protection from the open ocean, a likely explanation for why they are the only people now living on a boat there. The harbor does have four more live-aboard slots available, Port San Luis Harbor manager Andrea Lueker said. Eventually, Lueker believes, all five will be taken.

"It takes a certain type of person to live there. It's a different lifestyle," Lueker said.

Rider said living on a boat was a natural transition for him.

"I tell old friends I'm living on a boat and they say, 'Yeah, I could see that,'" Rider said.

Boat Living PSL048.JPG
The quarters may be tight, but CC Rider, his wife and daughter have made it a cozy home living on their boat in the Port San Luis Harbor.

But there are challenges.

During the winter swells, the family heads ashore to stay at a campgrounds or hotel.

And getting his teenage daughter to school in the morning is a journey. Rider wakes up at 5:45 a.m. on school mornings, motors 10 minutes to the dock, hops in a car and drives his 13-year-old daughter Gidget to the bus stop at Avila Pier.

After sleeping in the "V" berth (the area in the front of the cabin) with her sister for six years, the Riders' oldest daughter Catalina recently left the boat after she graduated from San Luis Obispo High School. She will enroll at Cuesta College this fall.

"I think the whole experience has toughened them up. They are ready for anything life can throw at them," Rider said.

While he is considering moving to the Morro Bay Harbor, Rider says he's loves being apart of the Avila Beach community. And while he admits living in such close quarters with three other people and a cat is challenging for all of them, he doesn't think he'll live on land full time anytime soon.

"Some of it sucks, and some of it is really cool," Rider said. "I never planned to live out on the open ocean like this, and I can't believe my wife will do it. I am lucky about that."