Living Aboard in New Orleans

Published: March/April 2005
Living Aboard magazine

Yeah sure, everyone’s heard of Bourbon St., but for me, a life-long resident of New Orleans, the epicenter of the city is in West End on the other side of the floodwall running along Lake Marina Ave. In a city surrounded by water and resting nearly eight feet below sea-level, that’s home to three yacht clubs including the second oldest club in the country, has three major marinas with plans for another 700+ slips and has one of the most laissez-faire attitudes in the world, it should surprise no one that New Orleans is one of the few remaining liveaboard friendly cities in the country. And consequently, it has a very active liveaboard population that can rival the French Quarter for its characters.

I first discovered this world around eight years ago when I began crewing on an old Morgan 34’. Walking out onto the pier for any Wednesday night race, there was always some damn parrot squawking, the smell of a grill or a crawfish boil, Elvis on a stereo and ten or so people milling around one pier over. For a few years, I was clueless… I now know what it’s all about. Liveaboards. New Orleans Liveaboards.

These liveaboards are all mostly natives of New Orleans and southern Louisiana, and who, when asked what was the strongest draw for them to move out onto their boat, answered nearly unanimously… Independence and individuality.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, there were close to 25 people hanging out on the pier or sitting in Jazz Fest style fold-up chairs cooled by several Cajun air-conditioners. Some of the large dock boxes assigned to each slip were converted to food service and bars, while Elvis and Buffett wafted from a powerboat’s home stereo speakers. The talk is of boats, life and what Captain Al puts in his ‘dirty burgers’ as the sun slowly drops behind the nearby boathouses. Steve Breaux, a retired New Orleans Police Officer and his wife Corey somewhat jokingly respond to the question of what’s the mentality to being a liveaboard, “1st grade” and the pier party envy that’s been happening. “Years ago the focal point for socializing was Pier 5. These days it’s our pier. We’re sitting out here every Sunday grilling with our neighbors.”

And the neighbors are what make this place interesting. Put a grizzled retired ship Captain, a French Quarter caricature artist, an Alabama expatriate doctoral student, a hair stylist, a pilot, a couple of offshore oil workers and a lawyer together with several condo dwelling liveaboard wannabes throw in some crawfish, some spice, Breaux’s daiquiris, stir and you’ve got a typical Saturday night.

It’s not simply linear parties either. Besides the random lake raft-ups, the late-night bar sessions at the Hong Kong, the 50+ boat Wednesday Night Racing and weekend regattas, and the Mardi Gras and Christmas Boat Parades, there are 12 restaurants, five bars, two yacht clubs, a bed & breakfast, a grocery store, a Blockbuster, a park, a tennis club, and a 15 net volleyball club within a four block area of West End; and to boot, the French Quarter is only a 15 minute drive away.

Gary, a thirtish year-old pilot for a small airline who moved onto his boat seven months ago, states, “Boat people are different. I moved from an apartment on Magazine St., sold all of my furniture, most of my material things. Surprisingly it wasn’t important. It was really all clutter. Out here it’s more social. Atmosphere. Boats. People.”

Harris McFerrin, a doctoral student at Tulane who’s been living aboard for nearly three years, agrees. “We know everyone out here. There’s a lot of camaraderie. It’s great. We can take the boat out anytime we’d like. We’re outside in the environment, it’s inexpensive and eco-friendly.”

Ron Mobley, a hairstylist, lived and worked in the Quarter for 25 years until he finally decided that he wanted “something totally different. I had a desire to be more in control of my lifestyle. I gave away most of my antiques to my children, bought a sailboat, and now I’m approaching my one year anniversary. I have no regrets. It’s not a place to raise a family, but this is a middle-class neighborhood. On any given day I can walk off of my boat wearing a tuxedo, a suit or a t-shirt and shorts.”

Gary adds, “You have to be able to handle the space constraints though. It’s definitely not for everyone.”

“It’s a rustic, nomadic lifestyle and we all have a tan way before Jazz Fest,” replies Mobley.

And interestingly, not one of them living aboard their boat in the year 2000 was counted in the U.S. Census.

Their neighborhood is actually closer to a gated community since they live behind the hurricane protection walls of the Lakefront and have 24-hour security on site, provided by the Orleans Levee Board. These guards have even become part of the culture. While performing their duties, nearly all have developed a rapport with the residents. It has become a true example of community policing. On their off hours it’s not surprising to find the guards, sometimes with their wives, visiting with whatever liveaboard has set up his deck chairs and grill that afternoon.

Now truth be told, it’s not as manic as it may seem. I’ve personally sat for over an hour watching a mallard family paddle around in the marina, and don’t forget, untie a few lines there’s a 630 square mile lake (actually more of a tidal lagoon) a short Mardi Gras bead throw away.

The shores of Lake Pontchartrain are great for exploration and with a mean depth of 10 – 16 feet there are no difficulties to experience anything from piney woods to cypress kneed swamps. Incredibly quaint little towns with docking facilities populate the north shore, and transit down through Lake Borgne and the Rigolets, the Gulf of Mexico beckons with the scenic Gulf Islands National Seashore dotted with several historic Spanish forts situated right off the Louisiana and Mississippi coast.

Transients are welcome and can generally reserve a slip on the same day as arrival and are charged only 31 cents a foot a day at the Municipal Yacht Harbor. They can even rent Vespas at the nearby Dock Restaurant. Slip fees generally range from $300 – $600 a quarter, depending on the length of the boat with an additional $100 a month liveaboard fee charged by the marinas.

The New Orleans liveaboards, generally live up to the mantra of New Orleans, “Laissez le bon temps roulez”(Let The Good Times Roll), but become frustrated when they hear talk about other cities, such as Seattle, using access issues in order to crack down on liveaboards. To them this type of thinking is hilarious. Nearly all of them become visibly frustrated with the lack of activity on a large number of boats in the marinas. From each of their own boats, they can, without hesitation, point out a few mildew-ridden sail and powerboats of all sizes and dollar values that haven’t moved in years, let alone be visited by an owner. For them, and to any casual observer, it is a true waste.

To them, these are the real people hogging access. The Orleans Marina, run by the state, has a slip waiting list of over four years. The New Orleans run Municipal Harbor, the largest with 485 slips, has a waiting list of over a year and a half. Feasibility studies have been completed researching the expansion, much needed reconstruction and the dredging of Municipal Harbor, which would add 300 slips to the marina while utilizing the existing space, but no real action has been taken to move it forward. The liveaboards are equally frustrated by the lack of progress for the nearby Bucktown marina development

But they all shrug this off and the activities on the piers go on. A man in the market for sailboats wanders around, checking out the for sale signs. Captain Al’s caged parrot squawks. Several liveaboards work on the constant tinkering that is part of life on the water, and Harris and Spencer relax on the deck of their sailboat having a cocktail before going to dinner in the Quarter.

Outside the hurricane protection wall, the traffic for the volleyball courts at Coconut Beach begins to pick up along with the nightly business for all of West End’s restaurants and bars. These people drive by what they probably think of as a marina, not realizing there’s a whole little neighborhood going on in there.