Filmmaker Mike Donis found an unexpected downtown living solution with cheap rent, great neighbours, and one heck of a waterfront view.
We Live Here unlocks the stories behind some of Toronto’s most unique, quirky, and all-out weird homes, the people who live in them, and the people who live with them.
Yes, Mike Donis is a 27-year-old Toronto filmmaker who has been living year-round on Obsession—his 35-foot-long, 13-foot-wide boat—since September 2010. And yes, he has heard that song.
“Every single time I go somewhere and people ask me where I live, I say ‘I’m near the water at Queens Quay and Bathurst.’ And they ask the intersection, and I say, ‘No, I’m on the water in a boat.’ Then they go ‘You’re on a boat? I’m on a boat! I’m on a boat!'”
Donis was sitting on an old ’70s couch inside Obsession‘s entertaining area/kitchen/TV room, throwing his arms up and deepening his voice to recite the lyrics of the granddaddy of viral videos: “I’m on a Boat,” by The Lonely Island and T-Pain. “That’s exactly what happens every single time,” he said.
But a quick tour around Obsession (it doesn’t take much time) reveals a living space that has nothing in common with the pristine white yachts so often associated with the boating life. Climbing down several steep steps from the deck into the cabin brings us into the main living space. Towards the back is a bedroom and bathroom, and closer to the front of the boat is a guest room that’s more of a storage space at the moment, filled with what Donis calls “garbage.” He hopes to turn it into something useful.
And Donis isn’t permanently dressed in a black-and-white tuxedo, or designer creased Bermuda shorts. As he gives Torontoist the grand tour around his 34-year-old barge, he wears a pair of jeans and a casual red button-down shirt. The word that comes to mind is “humble.”
“Because millionaires have them, I assumed they were a million bucks. I didn’t know that if you get a Millennium Falcon like this, you can actually get one for a reasonable price,” Donis said. He found the boat on Kijiji. “It’s more comparable to buying a car than to buying a house, if you’re not buying a new boat.”
A few years ago, Donis was living in Scarborough, but hoping to move into the city for work. In 2010, when he visited an uncle who was spending the winter living on a friend’s boat, he realized he had found a solution. He contacted the people at Marina Quay West, bought the boat, and made the move.
“You could live downtown, that was what kind of sealed the deal. At the time, outside of the upfront cost, the monthly fee was less than what I would pay in rent. Even outside of the cool factor and the adventure factor and just being different, it was actually cost-effective,” he said. “So I thought, ‘Hey, let’s do this.'”
Now docked at 539 Queen’s Quay West, the boat is just southeast of Fort York and just north of the Island Airport. It’s surrounded by a glass wall of condo buildings on one side and Lake Ontario on the other. It has an unblockable view of the CN Tower. You could argue that Donis scored a pretty prime location for only about $600 to $750 a month (this season, docking fees are $72 per square foot per six-month-period). In the summer, the neighbourhood buzzes with festivals, outdoor movies, and runners and rollerbladers galore. But in the marina, it’s even livelier.
“It’s a good thing that I’m young and energetic because I don’t know how some of the old guys do it. But they party a lot,” Donis said with a laugh. “In the summertime, you have a lot of people who are only coming for fun. The only time that they’re here is to party all the time. They’re not here for necessarily any other purpose.”
Donis, too, has had his fair share of parties (he once fit about 25 people inside the boat). And despite the marina being chock-a-block with wealthy vacationers or their teenage children during the summertime, the season is still his favourite part of being a boater.
“You can go anywhere you want. I haven’t gone anywhere very far yet, but the fact that you can—it puts you in a different mindset,” he said. In fact, the longest trip Donis has ever taken with his boat was the first one, from the Scarborough Bluffs to his first marina downtown. It took about four hours, because it was his first time solo at the wheel. But it did result in some primo Facebook photos. “And just the environment here, it’s like going to the cottage or going camping or something like that, but it’s every day,” he said
But on the wintry January morning Torontoist visited Donis’ home on Pier 3, the atmosphere was much different. The marina, half-full with boats covered in shiny white tarps, was desolate. It looked like a nearly finished pack of Dentyne Ice. And the only thing close to summertime tunes was the beginner violinist–like creaking of the docks moving in the waves. Burly bearded boaters strolled to the main water facility to refill their jugs, since the water supply is cut off to the slips during the colder season. They gruffly greeted each other in passing. Donis says there is a certain rustic type of personality that chooses to hunker in a boat year-round. Still, there’s a sense of community.
“I’m closer with these people than any other neighbours I’ve had. When I moved here, everyone was quick to give me tips and pointers. ‘Oh, here’s how to shrinkwrap your boat, here’s a smarter kind of heater to get, here’s what you should do to your engines in the wintertime.’ There’s a bit of a camaraderie,” he said. “I’m right downtown, Spadina’s a block away, but I’m in a small town.”
Which isn’t to say that leaving steady ground for a home on the lake is entirely easy. Donis has to deal with noise that travels across water, the occasional storm (luckily, he doesn’t get seasick), having to shower on land in the winter, and a lack of space. “It forces you to be very, very efficient with what you have,” he said. Still, he doesn’t see himself abandoning ship anytime soon.
“I don’t think there’s anything really tough about living on a boat, it’s just something you have to adapt to. In the future when we have flying cars, we’ll think back and wonder ‘Oh, how did we ever manage?’ You just do,” he said. “And it’s cool. They wrote a song about it for a reason.”
Hat-tip to the Toronto International Boat Show for bringing this to our attention. The show runs from January 12 to 20 at the Direct Energy Centre.