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Meet the Neighbors: The ‘Liveaboards’ of Southwest

by Jennifer Currier — September 22, 2015 at 12:10 pm 0

Gangplank Marina Boat-Homes

Hill Now periodically publishes profiles of locals — from longtime residents to newcomers, from government officials to ordinary folks. Know someone we should feature? Email us at news@hillnow.com.

The sun is setting over the Washington Channel, turning the D.C. sky into a mix of pink and orange. On the water, life is just as vibrant.

A barge covered by two white canopy tents floats at the end of a long dock. More than a dozen locals, their guests and some dogs are milling about and chatting while having dinner and drinks, pot-luck style.

It’s a typical Thursday night for the Gangplank Marina “liveaboards,” who have moved their homes to the water, either in the form of a boat, yacht or barge.

Gangplank is the largest community of liveaboards on the East Coast. The marina has more than 300 boat slips, 94 of which can be occupied by boat-homes.

On Oct. 10, this community will open its doors for boat-home tours to give visitors a chance to experience this unique lifestyle.

“When you’re living in an apartment in the city, you don’t really have any sense of your surroundings,” liveaboard Jess Dankert said. “Here, it’s the complete opposite. You’re completely in tune with your environment and what’s going on outside.”

Many of Gangplank’s liveaboards are couples, like Dankert and her husband Travis Johnson, who moved in within the past decade. A select few of them have spent more than 25 years on the water, while some children and teenagers have spent their entire lives on a boat-home.

“Here’s what everybody needs to remember about us: We’re just normal people,” said Debbie, a solo liveaboard of 14 years who declined to provide her last name due to her work in national defense.

She first got the idea to live on a boat from an teacher she had when she was 22 years old.

“Years later, the house I was renting in Alexandria went up for sale, so I decided I was going to live my dream and buy a boat,” Debbie said. “I did, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Many liveaboards in Gangplank discovered this lifestyle on accident and decided to give it a try. After moving in, they quickly realized life on the docks gave them so much more than a new home.

“It’s the tightest community we’ve ever been in,” liveaboard Gary Blumenthal said. “It’s totally different here because we share a hobby, a special interest, and every day you’re sharing stories and helping one another.”

Gary and his wife, Jeanie, are first-time liveaboards and recent empty-nesters who have spent the last year between their boat-home and their house in Virginia. They both still work, but they hope to sell the house and become “loopers,” or people who travel the Eastern United States strictly by water.

“We have to keep ourselves challenged to make sure we grow even in our older years,” Blumenthal said about the lifestyle change. “At our age, our goal is to learn new things, not to sit in some suburban corner and watch TV all day.”

Life on a boat-home proves to have many daily challenges. Motors break. There’s a constant need for more storage. The boats require regular maintenance. Winters are long, dark and cold, especially when the water in the channel freezes and sewage tanks don’t get pumped out in below-freezing weather.

Still, when weighed against the responsibilities associated with owning a home, Gangplank’s residents choose to stay. They keep busy by regularly holding social events, caring for pets and getting involved with their neighbors outside of Gangplank through their boat-home tours.

The Gangplank liveaboards have made a town of their own inside the busy city and encourage anyone who has even thought about living differently to go for it.

“Take the plunge,” liveaboard Jeanie Blumenthal said. “Don’t get so overwhelmed that you talk yourself out of it. It’s a great place to live.”

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