But being a winter liveaboard is not for everyone.
On November 23, 2014, Danica Brown was rounding the corner of the Leslie Street Spit in her 29-foot 1991 Cruisers 2970 Esprit—a boat she took a loan out to buy two years earlier. The waves on Lake Ontario were rough that day, about eight feet high, she says. Her boat smacked against the water after every wave, making it sound like the hull was going to crack in half. “I totally thought I was going down,” says the 27-year-old former latte-art instructor. Inside the boat’s cabin her television was rolling around, her records were falling onto the floor and her cabinets were swinging open from the crashing of the waves. “My body was in total shock.”
Her tumultuous journey was part of the annual migration that she and 87 other Toronto boaters make when the season changes. Winter “liveaboards” bring their boats from summer locations around Toronto Island to winter spots at nearby Marina Quay West and Marina Four, where Brown’s boat will be docked until the spring thaw. There, they live on Toronto’s frozen water through winter—sub-zero temperatures. Biting winds be damned.
There are year-round challenges to living on a boat, such as the logistics of occupying a small, cramped space (picture vacuum-packing most of your clothing) and having to constantly monitor equipment (if a seacock breaks, your boat’s going to start to sink). In summer, plenty of boaters are willing to face these nuisances—perhaps because close quarters are alleviated with outdoor barbecues and the vibrant boater community situated on Centre Island. Brown calls the warmer days “adult summer camp.” But winter is a different story.
Showering, for instance, can be unpleasant in winter. Many boaters don’t have showers inside their cabins; the shower room at Marina Four is about 50 feet from Brown’s boat. When it’s freezing outside, “you cart half your stuff over to the bathrooms in a backpack,” she says, petting one of her two cats. “Or you just go, shower, run your butt back and then get warm in here.”
Electricity isn’t always a given onboard, either. If a power outage happens, or if a breaker stops working, “you basically just wave goodbye to the heat.”
This marks the fourth year of living on the water for liveaboards Elizabeth and Steven Rose. “Most think we’re rather eccentric, or that we own a boat because we have to, because we can’t afford a house or apartment.”
But, contrary to popular belief, it isn’t cheap to live on a boat. Docking fees are about $1,000 dollars a month—and boats are a depreciating asset, more like a car than a house. Elizabeth and Steven had a five-bedroom home in Scarborough before they chose to sell their house and take off down the St. Lawrence to the Bahamas in 2012. When they got back, “we really had no desire to expand into a house or condo.”
Boating is “not about the simple life,” says Elizabeth. “Not in the least. Because living aboard is not a simple thing. And a boat is not a simple thing. It’s quite arduous.”
Some winter liveaboards are “dead-keen sailors,” says Elizabeth. Others are planning cruises, and some are simply doing it because they enjoy the lifestyle.
“We feel like we’re in the heart of the city, but we live a different life than condo-dwellers,” says Steven. The couple is in the process of planning another trip south.
Wintering is not for everyone, but the people that do it wouldn’t live any other way. “There has to be a real passion behind why you’re doing it,” Danica Brown says. “I love my boat. I come into it at the end of the day, and there’s something about coming into a really small, cozy, warm space that’s just mine.”
Photos by Megan Marrelli.