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Photo by Alexis Courtney
Chip and Pam Wright dock their houseboat, JustWright, at River’s Rest Marina and Resort in Charles City County.
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Photo by Alexis Courtney
Eddie Gurley and Sonja Raymond aboard the Megalodon
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Photo by Alexis Courtney
Gurley’s dog Rusty takes it easy inside.
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The boat’s sleeping quarters
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River's Rest Marina
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Photo by Alexis Courtney
“Everybody says it’s a big money pit; I have not found that.” — Chip Wright
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Photo by Alexis Courtney
“I plan to stay on the water until I fall in and drown or can’t tie a knot.” — Christine Salyer
You’re never at rest on a river, and that’s just fine with Eddie Gurley.
He lives in a houseboat on the James River. Most of the time, his yard is a floating dock at the Jordan Point Yacht Haven, a fancy name for a down-home marina on a spit of land at the southern foot of the Benjamin Harrison Bridge east of Hopewell. Gurley’s boat and its neighbors offer an eastern view of an expanse of unspoiled river that shimmers in the warm sun of early June. It’s a welcome contrast and seemingly a world away from what lies upriver, massive chemical plants and other facilities that make up the industrial iconography straddling the southern riverbank below Hopewell. On this side of the embankment, they’re hidden from view behind the state Route 156 roadbed.
Out on his boat, you’re in constant movement, courtesy of the unceasing interplay of current, tides, wind and waves. It’s a soothing sensation for Gurley, who spent long hours along the James and Chickahominy rivers while growing up in Varina. An Eagle Scout, he taught water skills and served as a lifeguard at scout camps, then later served a stint in the Navy.
“The water has always had a calling for me,” he says.
Gurley moved from a house on the Chickahominy full-time onto a boat in February, and he has had no regrets. “I like floating,” he says. “I like the feel of floating. I feel unnatural on land. I laugh and tell people I get landsick.”
In the boating community, Gurley and others who make their home on the water full-time are known as liveaboards. In Virginia, they’re more commonly found in Hampton Roads and near the Chesapeake Bay, but in the Richmond area, they’re a rarity. Many marinas here discourage or outright ban full-time occupants. In an informal check of facilities in the metro area, there seem to be no more than a couple dozen liveaboards scattered about the various marinas.
There are everyday joes to millionaires on the water, and their living quarters reflect the differences, ranging from luxury yachts to home-built oddities known as shantyboats. Most of the liveaboard quarters in the Richmond area fall somewhere in between.
Although some boaters and facility operators think full-time life on a boat is prohibited in Virginia, there’s no state law against the practice, according to Ron Messina, a spokesman for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the agency that regulates boating. The number of boat dwellers isn’t tracked by any agency.
If liveaboards were part of a religious community, their patron saint would be Jimmy Buffett. They’re like expatriates of the Conch Republic, living a life that they describe as a permanent vacation. There’s a sense of camaraderie, a close-knit community built on a shared experience.
Pam and Chip Wright, who live on the Chickahominy River in Charles City County, are evangelists of a sort for liveaboardism. They say it’s hard to be in a bad mood on the water. “It’s like they’re all on vacation, forever,” Pam says. “It’s just like everybody wants to see everybody happy.”
These floating neighborhoods are generally quiet during the week, but things can get rowdy; that’s part of the lifestyle. Christine Salyer, another liveaboard at the marina where the Wrights dock, says a marina is like any other neighborhood and has its annoyances. For instance, in a subdivision, you might have a neighbor who cuts the grass at 7 a.m. on a Sunday. In the marina, she had a neighbor who was entertaining late into the night one recent weekend. Salyer just joined in the festivities.
“If you can’t beat them, join them,” she says.
There are other annoyances, too: Quarters are cramped, even in a yacht or houseboat. It’s akin to living in an efficiency apartment without closets or convenience. It’s claustrophobic for one person and unbelievably intimate for two, so you’d best be best friends if you want to survive.
You also have to contend with pervasive dampness; it’s a major excursion anytime you need groceries or supplies; you have to learn how to become a handyman and mechanic or face going broke from unending maintenance and repairs; and you have to be constantly prepared for hazards that rarely occur to you when you live on land, like losing your cellphone or tools to the river’s bottom, or life-threatening situations like slipping and falling into freezing water. Weather is a constant concern: In an instant, you can be overtaken and overwhelmed by the elements.
“I like the feel of floating. I feel unnatural on land. I laugh and tell people I get landsick.” — Eddie Gurley
Gurley says that just as the boat is never still, so, too, his mind is always active aboard his craft. Are the ropes properly tied, is the ventilation working properly? Is everything safe?
“[There’s] a heightened sense of awareness that never leaves you,” he says. “You never totally let go.”
And yet liveaboards would have no other life.
A SAILOR AND HIS SALTY DOGS
Gurley is the third owner of his boat. Megalodon is his craft’s name, christened by a class of third-graders in Connecticut, students of one of the craft’s previous owners. Megalodon was a monstrous maritime predator, an extinct species of shark that was 50 to 75 feet long, or about a third bigger than Gurley’s boat.
There’s nothing fearsome about this craft though: It’s just home for Gurley and his girlfriend, Sonja Raymond, and his dogs, rescue pups Hank and Rusty.
The craft, made by Pearson Motor Yachts, dates from the 1980s. What’s unusual about this craft, Gurley says, is that it has a houseboat top on a powerboat bottom, so it’s more seaworthy than most houseboats. It was No. 11 of 11 made, he says, and comes with a manual written mostly by hand.
So far, Gurley’s furthest trip was an excursion to Tangier Island, but Megalodon in a previous life made what’s known as The Great Loop, a circumnavigation of the Eastern United States via various waterways that include the Intracoastal Waterway, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.
For short trips just for fun, they head out on the river on their dinghy, dubbed D’udder boat. Rusty and Hank enjoy excursions out on the dinghy as much as they do. Sometimes, they take the small craft upriver, cut off the motor and just drift past the marina, enjoying the afternoon.
They try to take Megoladon out once a week. “It hurts a boat to sit,” he says. “We’ll go further, then longer, until maybe we don’t go back.”
White House Catering owner David Napier has been a river denizen for 30-plus years.
While a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, he and some friends lived in a log cabin off the James River near the Civil War era Fort Brady. He was still in his 20s and working as a night manager in a downtown restaurant when he helped a friend fix up a boat and caught the water bug.
Close to the log cabin was the Richmond Yacht Basin, a marina down a steep embankment on the James River off Hoke Brady Road across from Hatcher Island. The opportunity to buy a boat of his own came up, and he jumped at the chance.
“I said ‘yes’ before I thought about it,” he says. “I was living in a log cabin anyway, so it [wasn’t] a big jump.”
Napier adds, “I wasn’t scared. With what I knew about boats, which was nothing, I probably should have thought more about it.”
Life on a boat appeals to him for several reasons.
He’d grown up on a dairy farm in Bedford, so the outdoors had always been part of his life. He also likes the solitude that boat living offers, but because the Yacht Basin is just a 20-minute commute to his Shockoe Bottom business, he’s close enough to socialize.
“I couldn’t just live here and not go to town.”
Napier’s crafts are modest. His first boat was the Sylvy, a 1964 Duracraft. His newer boat, new being relative, is the Synovia, and dates from 1974.
The Synovia is relatively open and comfortable now, but at first it was little more than a rotten hulk over an engine. He’s been working on it, slowly rebuilding and fixing it up, for at least 13 years. It’s now river-worthy, and Napier takes it out for small catering events and for thank-you cruises for some customers. “It’s a nice place to come sit and relax,” he says.
Besides developing mechanical and handyman skills, he’s learned more than he ever cared to know first-hand about the weather.
The Sylvy had a close call when Hurricane Isabel visited Richmond in 2003 and the tidal surge generated by that storm held her underwater. She survived, but Napier has only taken her out once since.
The boat repairs took a back seat after another unwelcome visitor the following year, the remnants of Hurricane Gaston, flooded Shockoe Bottom and Napier’s business. That took precedence, and boat work continued over six years.
There are other water hazards, too: One winter day, Napier fell into the river when the water was so cold, it instantly induced a headache. He now avoids walking the dock when it’s frozen.
THE WRIGHT CHOICE
For Chip and Pam Wright, few things are more perfect than life on the water. That feeling is reflected in the name of their boat, Just Wright, a 54-foot Sea Ray that they bought last year. It’s docked in the outermost slip at River’s Rest Marina & Resort on an expanse of the Chickahominy River in Charles City County that provides the Wrights with an over-the-water sunrise to enjoy with a cup of coffee on their boat’s swim platform.
They love the lifestyle so much that they sold their home in Mechanicsville and now commute to work (she has a 44-minute drive to her office at Nabisco in Henrico County; he travels extensively for Whitlock). “We sold the lawn mower and everything, and ended up selling the house,” he says.
“It’s literally no work at all, not like a home,” she says.
Chip already was on the road most weekdays, but Pam decided to take the plunge last year. They’ve been living on the water three years. He’d come home for weekends and they’d spend time on their old boat, the Damn Wright, a 33-foot Wellcraft.
They use a dinghy for short jaunts along the Chickahominy, but they take the Just Wright out as well, including excursions to Norfolk and Portsmouth for a harbor festival over Memorial Day, and to Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay.
The Just Wright has two bedrooms, two baths, a full shower and a generator so they can run the refrigerator and heater or air conditioner. It has, says Pam, “all the comforts of home” — a washer and dryer, state-of-the-art sound system, cellphones, internet connectivity for their laptops, a PlayStation 4 and a large, flat-panel television. But the main attraction is, of course, outside.
The Wrights regularly play host to friends and family. They took their grandchildren on an adventure along the river for Memorial Day, helping them dig up treasures they’d buried on sandbars along the way.
They take great pleasure in watching their guests enjoy the boat. It’s a far cry from the days when they’d just go home after work and spend evenings on a couch in front of the television.
“It’s made our life,” Chip says. “We just felt like we were rotting away.”
There are casualties, however. Chip lost one iPhone to the river; he’s bought a life jacket of sorts for his new phone — a waterproof case that floats.
The Wrights say that for cruising, fuel costs have been relatively inexpensive, like gas for a car. They keep their costs contained by traveling at a leisurely pace. “The ride is half the pleasure,” Chip says.
He also saves money by performing small maintenance chores on his own, like changing the oil. But then there are also incidentals. The Wrights have had new carpeting installed. There’s an insurance cost, about $1,000 a year, but they say it’s cheaper than the costs incurred in owning and maintaining a conventional house, overall.
“This house is paid off in five years, and it’s cheaper than a house payment,” Chip says. “Everybody says it’s a big money pit; I have not found that.”
THE CARIBBEAN QUEEN
Salyer has lived on the water for three years, but she and her late husband, James, spent most of their spare time on their boat prior to that move. She still owns her house in Chester, but her children live there now.
“We came down here and never left,” she says. “We were spending so much time on it, we said, ‘This is kind of silly. Why don’t we just live down here permanently?’ ”
Her boat is the Caribbean Queen, as in the Billy Ocean hit from the 1980s. It’s a 45-foot Bayliner, equipped with everything from a trash compactor to a flat-screen television, and she’s sailed it as far south as Bald Head Island in North Carolina and as far north as Baltimore’s inner harbor.
“It’s got everything you need for living aboard,” she says. “She’s been a good one.”
Even on a craft this large, it’s close quarters, and you learn to downsize your life. Salyer notes that she packs her clothes each season into vacuum-compressed plastic bags. The décor is Spartan, just two plants. She puts them and any wine bottles into the sink before she sets sail, and she’s ready to go.
“I didn’t really need that stuff anyway,” she says.
Self-sufficiency is a necessity for life on the water, unless you have deep pockets. Salyer acquired mechanical skills through her 30 years working in the family’s automotive repair business, and she’s learned about woodworking by necessity.
Charlie Brown, the owner and operator of the River’s Rest Marina and a longtime friend and boat neighbor of the Salyers, says there’s more maintenance involved in owning a boat than a home: You have to haul it from the water every couple of years for maintenance and to paint it.
“If you have a boat and it’s a primary residence, it’s not that expensive,” he says. “If you have a house and a boat, it’s expensive.”
There are dangers, too.
Brown describes boating excursions with the Salyers when waves grew so rough that they could see the bottom of the bay and they had to bend their knees and hold onto something just to stand.
He and the Salyers also had an intimate encounter with Isabel. They decided to ride the storm out on their crafts at Anchor Point Marina in Hopewell for that storm, and had to deal with the wind and the surge, adjusting the ropes to keep the boat stable and not sink. Brown says they were working in chest-deep water, but there was little choice after the decision was made to stay and ride it out.
“That was pretty intense,” says Salyer.
It’s a lifestyle that can literally kill you, but for the liveaboards, there’s more bliss than trouble to be found on the water. Part of its appeal is the solitude, the hypnotic slight movement of the current and waves, enjoying a cup of coffee while watching the sunrise over the river; and the zen-like appeal of being one with nature.
At River’s Rest on the Chickahominy, there are bald eagles upriver and down, and deer that come out in a meadow just upriver. The gentle rocking of the current at night “puts me right out,” says Pam Wright.
Salyer loves the sunrises, and enjoys having a space for gardening by the marina.
“It’s the best of both,” she says.
And then there’s fishing. There are bass, crappie, bream, rockfish, pickerel, herring, perch, shad and massive catfish. Pam Wright has a photo on her phone of a 75-pound monster catfish that was hauled in to the marina for weighing recently.
The Wrights have no desire to return to a house. Retirement will come in six years or so, and they plan to celebrate with a cruise that will take them around Florida to Louisiana. The Just Wright will be their retirement home, says Pam.
Salyer also has no plans to abandon the liveaboard life. “I plan to stay on the water until I fall in and drown or can’t tie a knot,” she says.
Napier notes that you learn a lot about yourself on a boat. It’s absolutely empty, but then you notice the birds, the breeze, the rocking of the boat beneath you. He cites Heracles, who wrote that everything flows and nothing stays.
“You’re right in the middle of it. It’s therapy,” he says.
How many other places near a city can you have a bald eagle for a neighbor, or watch turkeys slowly amble across your path as you’re driving home?
“This is part of the river people in Richmond don’t know exists,” says Napier.
Napier says having the boat, having the security of knowing he’s got a roof over his head no matter what, has given him the luxury of taking risks in his business he might not have tried out otherwise. But he’s also considering buying a house. Well, maybe not a house; that’s too much space and he’s not cut out to cut grass, he says, so maybe a condo.
“It will be a change.”
But don’t expect him to give up the slip.
“The houseboat is always going to be my little getaway,” he says.