Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Marina Upgrade Rant

Looking into the future at Port of Everett. Empty, rotting docks.

Eleven years ago I bought my first sailboat. You might remember that 11 years ago things were going pretty well, large scale terrorist attacks aside. The economy was still working, and people had this crazy thing called disposable income. The middle class seemed to exist, even, which is a remarkable thing to consider these days.

The robust middle class meant that a lot more people did things like buy a boat. And the boats these people bought were relatively affordable and manageable, like the ubiquitous Catalina 30, still the most common sailing vessel in the US. Walk down any public marina dock with 30 foot slips and every third boat will be a Catalina 30, statistically speaking.

Every third boat on the dock is a Catalina 30. And likely it hasn't been sailed in years.

All of those mid-size sailboats, along with the cabin cruisers and family fishing boats, jammed marinas all throughout the Puget Sound. Waiting lists for moorage were years long in every marina even remotely near the city. People bought cheap boats with transferable moorage just to get a space. It was crazy. So crazy that I found myself with a boat and nowhere to put it. So crazy that after an 8 month wait I finally got notice that a space had opened up in Everett and I had 3 days to put a boat in the slip before I lost my spot on the list. 3 days. In February. 3 cold, short winter days to move a boat from Anacortes to Everett. Adventure ensued. But that's a different story.

With the marina jam packed and boaters filling waiting lists, the Port of Everett embarked on a foolishly ambitious plan to expand their marina (which was already the largest public marina on the west coast). They built a new boat basin for larger yachts, upgraded their boat yard facilities, and laid out plans for a massive retail village and condominium community. They tried to court the wealthy boat owner, and in the process started ignoring the middle class boat owner.

Then the economy tanked. It took a while to catch up to the boating community, but it did. And when it did, the Catalina 30 owners (and their equivalent) took it in the shorts. That reasonable $300 a month moorage fee was suddenly not so reasonable, especially if you were still paying off the note on the boat itself. When there was still a waiting list, the port aggressively seized and auctioned off derelict and abandoned vessels. There was a period of a year or so where several boats a month were sold at auction, and I suspect some of them were pretty amazing deals. There aren't any auctions these days.

The port quickly burned through their waiting list. Soon there were a few 25 foot slips available. Then some 28 foot spaces opened up. Then the 30 foot waitlist was down to nothing. Before long, the small to midsize docks were half empty. The well-kept vessels moved to the two desirable docks (which the port remodeled during the boom years as part of their abandoned plan to update the whole marina).

Rotting, neglected, and soon to be on the bottom of the ocean. Make an offer.
With no waitlist pressure, the Port of Everett stopped policing derelict vessels. They stopped monitoring seaworthiness and completely abandoned their own rules regarding vessel maintenance. Now every third boat is still a Catalina 30, but every second boat is a rotting, moldy, tattered mess. Moss covers canvas, rotten sails flap in the wind, broken halyards bang and clang on neglected rigs. What was once no doubt a nice little 24 foot Thunderbird has weeds growing off the toe rail like some sort of science experiment. Live-aboards, no doubt pushed out of homes as jobs disappeared, ballooned. And with live-aboards comes junk. A typical live aboard vessel looks like the nautical version of a Dust Bowl family truck, piled high with their worldly possessions as they make the exodus to California. And now the port is stuck. If they evict the rule breakers there is no one in line to take the spot and pay the fee. So as long as you pay your moorage on time every month, it's a free for all. (I suspect with the automatic debit system the port uses to collect moorage fees, a high percentage of the derelict vessel owners don't even know they are still paying.)

Don't let the fancy tarp fool you. Under that there is a really shitty boat.

So when Peponi was ready to splash last fall there were no worries about finding a place to keep her. We had our choice of slips in Everett (and could have put her in Port Townsend, Seattle, Anacortes, or just about anywhere else we wanted). Very few marinas had wait lists anymore, especially not for boats under 30 feet.

Female offspring and I spent part of an afternoon walking the many docks in Everett looking for a slip that would work. We had a few criteria in mind when we arrived: port tie, east side of a dock, good turning room. Those criteria soon fell away and we were reduced to looking for a dock that wasn't a piece of crap. When that proved impossible, we reduced ourselves to finding a slip with dock neighbors who appeared to actually care for their boats. No luck there either. We settled on a slip that simply had no neighbors, and for our short time in Everett, we had two slips and a finger pier to ourselves.

Of course the pier itself was uneven and sinking. The concrete surface was cracked and pitted, looking like someone's failed attempt at pouring their own backyard patio with that concrete you get in bags at Home Depot. Most of the lights on the dock were long burned out and never replaced. Moss and mold covered the wooden frames of the dock panels. Bird and dog crap made walking to the boat an adventure.

Still, I was used to Everett. I have fond memories of having a boat there. All of my boating friends and racing competitors are berthed there. I am think we fully expected the decision to stay there or move to Edmonds, which is far closer to home, would be more difficult. But when we quickly rose to the top of the waitlist in Edmonds, there was no hesitation.

I went to the Port of Edmonds and was shown around the various slips I could choose from. The docks were all floating properly! There weren't any rotting boats! No live-aboards with bicycles and barbeques! The mooring cleats were all properly sized and actually secured to the docks. I snapped this picture upon selecting the slip for Peponi.

A proper marina slip.
Of course the boats to either side of us are Catalinas, but that's fine. They are kept up and they even look like they are sailed now and again.

Then I drove to the Port of Everett marina office to terminate our lease. The nice woman behind the counter asked me why I was leaving.

"So are you selling your boat or taking it out of the water?"

"Nope. Moving to another marina."

"Oh. Which one?"


Her smile disappeared and she scowled a little.

"Do you mind if I ask you why you're moving there?"

What followed was a series of things she probably didn't want to hear, probably already knew, and probably has no control over. But she asked. So I told her. And I showed her the series of pictures on my phone, including the one of my new berth in Edmonds. She just sighed. It wasn't the first time she'd heard a similar thing, I'm sure.

I'm not a snob, or maybe I am, and there are definitely benefits to having a boat in a marina like Everett where no one is paying attention to anything - namely you can do anything you want in terms of boat maintenance. I'll miss the boat yard, the marine services (Edmonds has none), the Scuttlebutt brewery, and I'll especially miss the entertainment of watching crappy boat operators bash into the sand bars and guest floats every May on opening day.

Motoring out of the Snohomish River, leaving the Port of Everett behind.
In theory the economy will rebound someday and the middle class will somehow survive whatever the hell is being done to us in Washington D.C. In theory a wait list will emerge again in Everett. But it's hard to imagine they can survive much longer with over 600 vacant slips (out of 2,300 or so) and with so many of the occupied slips housing derelict boats that are one bad hose clamp from the bottom of the ocean. When they should have been contracting and improving services (perhaps even at higher prices) they continued to expand while neglecting the existing infrastructure.

Peponi in her new home.

So the end of this long story is that Peponi is now living in Edmonds, comfortable tucked in between two Catalina 27s, on a dock that is well maintained and clean, with a port staff that actually enforces the rules.

I can even check conditions on the webcam before I head to the boat. 

I am curious to see what happens to all of the Everett waterfront, and I don't envy the job the city and port leaders have ahead of them. From the outside it sure seems like they are sinking, and fast. It's hard to envision all of those empty slips full of boats again, and I can't picture new buildings on the weed-covered land that used to be full of industrial buildings. The most recognizable thing on their waterfront, other than the US Navy aircraft carrier, was the Kimberly Clark paper mill. And even it's gone; a post apocalyptic wasteland has replaced it.

Not that any of this matters to you. But hey, you read this far...and if you need a place to park a rotting Catalina 30, give Everett a call. They have lots of space.