The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

The Marina Life

by Christopher Shay

David Godfrey and his wife, Tracey, used to live in an apartment overlooking Discovery Bay. But years of watching boats from their balcony gave them a longing for life on the water—and in 2008, they moved into the 70-foot-long Strangely Brown, docked in a marina on the Gold Coast.

“It’s like you’re on vacation when you’re home,” says Mr. Godfrey, sitting on his boat’s back deck as fish jump behind him.

The Gould family and two friends sit on top of their boat in Aberdeen.

In a city in which 300-square-foot apartments are commonplace, Hong Kong is one of few places where people move onto a boat to gain space. The Godfreys’ boat has 2,500 square feet of interior room plus a 1,000-square-foot roof and 450-square-foot front balcony. By contrast, one of their previous apartments measured 900 square feet.

No wonder so many find the openness of the ocean appealing. The Gold Coast marina is just one of three live-aboard marinas in Hong Kong. There’s one in Aberdeen and another in Discovery Bay—one of the largest live-aboard marinas in the world, with 214 spots designed for live-aboard boats. About 350 households in Hong Kong use a boat as their primary home, estimates Garry Smith, managing director at Saffron Marina, which sells boats, moorings and marina memberships on the secondary market.

A boat, like a car, is generally perceived as a depreciating asset -– but marina berths and swing moorings are not. In Hong Kong there are essentially no open spaces in the marinas for new boats, Mr. Smith says; the only place to purchase one is on the secondary market. Most secondhand live-aboard boats come with places to park one’s boat. Marina berths and swing moorings, where a boat is attached to a buoy instead of land, have become hot commodities — and this won’t change anytime soon, says Mr. Smith: There are currently no plans to build more marinas for large boats.

Hong Kong is one of few places where people can move onto a boat to gain more space. A look at marina living in Aberdeen and Discovery Bay.

Michele Cameron, who owns the boat agency HK Boats and Homes, sold a rare open berth for 2.3 million Hong Kong dollars (US$296,000) in November. She says the price would have been HK$400,000 five years ago, since there were still spots available to buy then. Both Ms. Cameron and Mr. Smith say they’ve never had a client sell a live-aboard boat for less than he paid, thanks to the increasing value of the berths. For Ms. Cameron, that’s 44 boats over five years.

In Hong Kong, buying a boat often means getting more space for one’s dollar than purchasing an apartment. A four-bedroom, 1,600-square-foot boat in Discovery Bay is currently for sale, berth included, for HK$2.9 million—a sum that in the nearby land-based neighborhood buys a 700-square-foot apartment.

There are additional costs of living on a boat, though, including the swing mooring or marina berth, membership in a boat or marina club, insurance (the annual premium is about 1% of the value of the boat), the required government license and the annual hull cleaning and other regular maintenance. The total cost varies depending on the location and size of the berth. In Discovery Bay, the highest total monthly fees including membership and maintenance for most boats is around HK$16,000, more than most buildings’ management fees but a far cry from what rent would be for a similar-size apartment.

Jake Gould, 24, who has lived on a 2,800-square-foot boat in Aberdeen with his parents and two siblings for two years, says boat living has cut housing costs by at least 40%.

“There are huge savings,” he says, though the subject the Goulds can’t stop talking about isn’t the low cost. It’s the lifestyle.

“It’s very relaxed, very tranquil,” says Jake’s mother, Jackie Gould, 55.

There’s guaranteed roof access, says Liat Gould, 22, and a 360-degree view. “You have sunlight all day,” she says. There’s also lots of storage space, a contrast to the closetless state of many Hong Kong homes. Much of it is tucked away in nooks and crannies. Zach Gould, 18, says there are some storage cupboards in his bedroom he didn’t even know existed until he’d been living there for nearly two years.

That’s not to say life on a boat is perfect. There’s upkeep, and if something on board breaks, it can be difficult to find someone willing to fix it, Jackie says. Many local repairmen, she says, simply refuse as a matter of policy to work on a boat. The location might not be ideal either—none of Hong Kong’s live-aboard marinas is close to downtown. The commute from Discovery Bay to Central, for instance, is about half an hour by ferry. For those who don’t have a berth and instead use a swing mooring, there are also the logistics of sailing ashore.

And then there are the water rats. Many boat families have dogs or cats to keep then away; the Goulds have another method. Zach keeps his air gun ready to go, and uses it to pick off  the rats as they climb the ropes to their boat.

Still, as the sun sets over Aberdeen, the Gould family and two friends chat, laugh and prepare to barbecue on the roof. The appeal of boat life is ultimately about the simple comforts. Says Jackie, “Just to sit up on the roof in the evening is glorious.”

Published in the Wall Street Journal Asia on Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010

Also be sure to check out the accompanying slideshow.

Category: Article, Business, Lifestyle

Tagged: ,

Leave a Reply