Vibrant and full of all the natural wonders the coast has to offer, the Santa Cruz Harbor is a thriving close-knit community. It’s also one filled with neighbors who pull together during challenging times.
Don Lind, 84, pinches off pure Virginia tobacco, stuffs it into his pipe and lights a match. Beyond the curls of smoke he watches kayakers and couples in dinghies glide by outside his port window.
“Everything is alive here,” he says.
It was never a long sought-after dream to live on a boat for Lind. He hadn’t even been out on a boat until he was in his sixties. But, when he finally did go out onto the ocean he knew something was right. He said he got the feeling that he’d been there before. Now when he plays music in the cabin of his 32-foot motorboat, he looks out the window and to the trees on the hillside.
Lind has joined a handful of other people who live on boats and make the Santa Cruz Harbor their home. It’s a Santa Cruz neighborhood on the water and Lind made a lifestyle that keeps his heart young and spirit alive. Be it the lost seamen set adrift or the dedicated old man, who came to love the ocean later in life, they all are in awe of life on the sea.
There are close to 1,000 slips in the Santa Cruz Harbor, 52 of which are live-aboards dispersed in the north and south harbor. It costs a minimum of $511.45 a month to live in the harbor, and that includes the 30-foot slip rate, live-aboard fee and utility fee.
When Lind retired from his work with Santa Cruz County, he decided that he needed something to do every day. “If not, a single male like myself will turn to alcoholism or suicide and I wasn’t in that bag just yet,” he says.
Part of what attracted Lind to the lifestyle was the constant work. On a boat, there is always something to be done. “The initial impetus for me was to have something to do,” he says. “Now I don’t think I’ll ever live in a house for the rest of my life. What are you going to do with a house? You’ll be like a marble rolling around in an empty tin can.”
Lind has lived on his boat, Karma, for five years. He lived on a sailboat for 10 years before that. By then he was in his seventies and learned that sailing was a young man’s life. His sailboat was too narrow and life was a tad too difficult.
Everything seemed a little bit too uncomfortable, so he moved back onto land, or “the hard” as he likes to call it, and into the Palomar Inn, only to realize that that wasn’t right either. So he moved back to the harbor and onto Karma, a wider and more spacious boat.
“There was a maid service (at the hotel) but it wasn’t moving,” Lind says. “There’s something alive in the harbor unlike in a room in a hotel. I pity these old-timers stuck in small apartments in San Francisco with the traffic and the noise.”
The harbor is especially quiet at two and three in the morning when Lind wakes up to work on his novel. “It’s like a graveyard,” he says. “It’s quiet and at the same time it’s alive.”
Monday, Wednesday and Friday Lind takes his routine brisk walk along the harbor to the local coffee shop. He carries an audio recorder with him everywhere he goes in case he gets an inspiration for his novel. At the coffee shop he drinks his yerba mate tea, walks briskly back and spends a few more hours working on the boat. He devotes the rest of his day to his novel.
“You have to have some form of exercise,” he says. “For me it works out perfectly but it took a long time to learn. I’m lucky in the sense of writing because this is the perfect place to do it.”
Leaning back in his armchair Lind pats down the tobacco in his pipe with his forefinger, lights two more matches and puffs. Bunny, a stuffed animal rabbit with a cigarette hanging out of its mouth, sits in the corner and presides over his living room/office/den.
Directly across the harbor, Greg Cotten, a marine biologist in his mid-thirties, remembers the first night he slept aboard his 34-foot sloop in 2003.
“It was a half sleep,” Cotten says. “I woke up periodically but I slept with a smile.”
Today, eight years later, he sips a margarita in the afternoon sun and doesn’t regret a day he’s lived in the harbor, noting that every day is an adventure. “The days don’t just pass by,” he says. “I’m clear that I’m living life.”
Down below, Cotten is in a predicament. He recently was given a new book and now he’s faced with finding a place for it. Another book may have to go so it’ll have a spot on his bookshelf. It’s a decision most people don’t have to make but Cotten lives in such close quarters with his belongings that everything has to have a place.
This sort of fine tuning of live-aboard life comes only with experience. It often takes awhile to learn how to navigate the small space.
Living on the boat is being closer to something you love, Cotten says. He fell in love with the ocean years ago, and now it’s his home. He checks the creatures living on the dock every morning and evening, and loves sharing the ocean with people. Having the boat clearly gives him that opportunity.
The lifestyle’s romantic—the ocean, the elements, the moon on the water, the soothing sounds of the sea lapping against the hull, the slow rocking motion that lulls one to sleep. But it’s not all a fairytale existence. In fact, Lind advises prospective live-aboards to not sell their house until they’ve lived on a boat for at least a year. ”You have to make a lot of compromises,” he hastens to add.
In fact, Cotten doesn’t have a shower on his boat, so he walks to the facilities at the end of the dock. “There’s something very civil and comfortable about having a nice big shower and bathroom and big flat ground to walk on,” he says. He misses a couch and a large kitchen, and, understandably, long stretches of rain can make him antsy.
Harbormaster Chuck Izenstark notes that people who make living on a boat a successful lifestyle do so because it’s their dream and their passion. He says some people looking for slips and boats to live on don’t always know what they’re getting into. “It’s tight, there are rules and neighbors. You’re living in a public place,” Izenstark says.
Some of the rules include such things as no pets and that boats must be seaworthy. When people fail it’s either because they can’t adjust to the lifestyle or they’re looking for affordable living and they find that it’s too expensive. However, requests for live-aboard slips have risen since the economic downturn in 2008.
“When people are struggling to find homes and affordable rentals they’ll turn to the harbor,” Izenstark adds, warning that “it’s an alternative lifestyle and not for everyone.”
But it’s right for Lind, Cotten and Jody Connolly.
Connolly learned to swim in the ocean before swimming in a pool. He grew up sailing and fishing off the rocks in Santa Cruz. When rents on land got too high he figured it was his last refuge at buying something he could actually live in and use so he moved onto a 30-foot motorboat, Trident.
“The boat was a new chapter in my life,” he says. “It’s a beautiful experience waking up on the water, listening to the birds. We’re like a family down there. The harbor has its own world within Santa Cruz.
“Every time I’d drive across the bridge and look down at my boat or got off work and went home to my boat I felt like I was one of the luckiest people in the world,” he adds. “The peace it provides and the community is invaluable. It holds a piece of old Santa Cruz and that’s something I cherish. It hasn’t changed as much over the years.”
Growing up in Santa Cruz, there are people in the harbor he’s known since he was a child. This made it that much harder to leave the harbor when his boat sank three months ago when the tsunami that hit the harbor.
A Tight-knit Community Faces a Day To Remember
In addition to their boats and the ocean, it’s that old Santa Cruz sense of community that people have fallen in love with. The community in the harbor is like no other. Cotten has a Buddha lounge, another boat owner always cooks, someone else has any tool you could ever need. Cotten also hosts sail-in movie nights for his neighbors where he projects movies on his mainsail. A few weeks ago they watched a couple episodes of Gilligan’s Island.
“Someone will make popcorn, someone else cookies,” he adds.
He has also learned that owning a boat instantly connects you to other boaters in a way that landlubbers don’t understand.
U-Dock, where Cotten, Lind and Connolly used to live just three months ago, was a special place. It was a neighborhood and everyone looked out for each other. “We all complemented each other,” Cotten says. “It’s a wonderful little collection of personalities that have happened to come together in a particularly sweet way.”
But that was washed away when the tsunami rolled through the mouth of the harbor on March 11 this year.
“It was like a battlefield,” Lind says.
Lind’s swim step was ripped off his boat that day. He found it later in a junk pile at the other end of the harbor. “It was a day of chaos.”
Lind was woken up at 5 a.m. by his son who lives in Nevada but he didn’t notice anything unusual so he went to breakfast at Jeffrey’s Restaurant. Harbormaster Izenstark, however, had heeded the tsunami warning and had arrived at the harbor at 1:30 a.m. to begin implementing an evacuation plan. He’d had the job as harbormaster less than a year and a half but had worked in the harbor for 20 years.
“When I got to work it started to look like it was going to have an impact,” Izenstark notes. “We didn’t know what to expect.”
Between 5 and 6 a.m. he began calling live-aboards, waking them up. “People had a window of opportunity to take their boat out of the harbor or leave the boat in the slip and evacuate (the dock),” he says. Some people did start up their boats and go out to sea but the majority stayed. “The best place for the boats was outside and the best place for people was inland but at some point the docks had to be closed.”
Izenstark feels it was a hard decision to make.
You see in the past few years there had been two other tsunamis. Neither caused very much damage, if they were even felt at all. It was this past experience that placated any worries. But this tsunami was different. In years past the harbor has had to deal with tsunami advisories but never a tsunami warning.
When Lind returned from breakfast at the restaurant, he parked his car, got his keys out to open the U-Dock gate and saw that his house was gone.
“My boat was gone, the dock was gone, all my possessions,” he says. “The tsunami rolled up the channel, under the bridges and then ‘wammo’ into U-Dock. She took the whole hit.”
For many people their boat was their dream and many people lost that dream entirely. Fourteen boats sank that day and well over 100 boats were damaged. Harbor officials closed off the perimeter to traffic, shut down 13 local businesses at the beach and evacuated the docks as best they could.
Then at 8:15 a.m. the first fierce waves began.
“It looked like a rushing river, but it would run in both directions,” Izenstark recalls. “It was a mass of water moving at speed.”
People stood on the hillside and Murray Street bridge looking down at the scene. Connolly says he watched a little water come in and then it started sucking out. “I could see the front of the harbor was two feet lower than the back harbor. The water was dropping one foot a second. I heard the pilings dropping. I knew it was going to be a big one.”
The second surge was twice as big. The dock broke free and Connolly’s boat, still attached to the dock, began drifting out into the water. He was “in a panic.” A hydro-hoist in front of this boat flipped a fishing boat under the dock and the dock began to split.
Within 45 minutes his boat, Trident, had sunk.
“My boat ended up getting sucked up against another sailboat and capsized on the port side,” Conno lly shares. “I think from the point the boat sank I went into a state of shock.”
Lind notes that 100 people were standing on the shore watching the destruction of the boats and that he felt “totally helpless.”
He remembers saying, “Fight, Karma.” But Karma was out in the harbor towing a piece of dock. “Pilings were like trees wiggling in the water, they were so loose.”
A boat came up and rose behind Karma and smashed down on it, ripping off its swim step. Then Karma did the same, rearing up like a horse and crashing down on another boat.
Lind was convinced the hull would split.
When a smaller wave pushed Karma back to shore, Lind and Cotten and a few others grabbed it, tied it off quickly and Lind leapt aboard to save his computer with all his work.
It was hard to keep people from going back to the docks and checking on their boats between surges, Izenstark said. Two people ended up falling into the water but no one was seriously hurt.
“It was difficult, we finally had to put locks on the gates that no one had a key to but us,” he says.
Izenstark recalls that the surges lasted for 10 hours and escalated halfway through—they ranged from two feet to six feet. Many agencies came to assist and before county communications arrived, Izenstark says it was hard to direct all the people to where they needed to be and find out what their needs were. “The thing I wasn’t quite prepared for was the communication process between all the agencies. I am appreciative for the help from all the agencies that day. We owe the community a huge debt of appreciation.”
Tsunami Takes Its Toll
Another challenge was tracking down all the boat owners in the harbor before the tsunami began to hit. But a tsunami originating in Japan will give the West Coast the most amount of warning time it will ever have. If there’s an earthquake anywhere else closer it will give the Santa Cruz harbor far less time to prepare.
U-Dock was the only dock that was completely destroyed, and now the structural integrity of 90 percent of the rest of the harbor needs rebuilding. End-ties need repair; more than 100 pilings need replacing, wiring and plumbing needs replacing.
Izenstark says there’s an estimated $28.5 million worth of damage and FEMA is expected to reimburse 94 percent of that. But because the harbor doesn’t rely on tax dollars and is completely self-sustaining they will have to find the other 6 percent from somewhere else. The harbor is governed by a commission and uses no tax dollars.
At the moment, there are more boats than slips and Izenstark believes that means one thing: if a boat wants to come into the harbor for a night, the harbor can’t accommodate them.
“We’re losing revenue every day,” he says.
When they begin rebuilding the docks they will have to evacuate some people and there will be some reshuffling of boats. He says they may have to raise all slip fees to make up lost revenue.
But Connolly says the harbor and the City of Santa Cruz need to be tsunami ready, pointing out a requirement for better communication between emergency service organizations and the public. Specifically, ports and harbors need to have an earthquake/tsunami emergency response communication system in place like emergency lights and sirens, 911 callback for harbor residents and workers, and displayed signs with evacuation routes and information.
Beyond that, residents need to have an emergency evacuation plan in place for themselves and their family. Additionally, he encourages people to call and email local leaders and local and state offices of Emergency Services to let them know Santa Cruz and Monterey need to be Tsunami Ready Certified by NOAA’s Tsunami Ready Program.
Next time a tsunami hits, Connolly says, he’ll just take the boat out.
“I was relying on media and my own past experience (with the two previous milder tsunamis), which disarmed me,” Connolly says. “I follow my instincts.”
He’s now looking for another boat and hopes to move back to the harbor come fall. Interestingly enough, he left everything on the boat including two computers, 12 years’ worth of business records, seven years of photos, jet skis, skateboards, surfboards, fishing gear.
“It’s only until you need something do you realize it’s gone,” Connolly muses.
Connolly stayed in hotels for weeks after the tsunami.
He’s gotten land-sick a few times—he’d get dizzy and lose his balance. He’s also had to adjust to people and traffic.
“It’s extremely noisy,” he said. “Now that I’ve lived on water I wouldn’t change it for the world. The harbor to me is a sanctuary.”
Lind says, “You have to be ready when you live on a boat. The sea is boss; you don’t argue with it, it does what it wants. We sure got a demonstration of that.”
Moving back onto the water five years ago was the best thing Lind could do at the time, and despite the destruction of the tsunami, the community of the Santa Cruz harbor has not faltered.
Lind continues to plays bongos every Saturday morning with the Sons of the Beach at the mouth of the harbor, as he has done every Saturday for the past 10 years.
He taps out the tobacco into an ashtray and scrapes out the rest with a knife. Folks drift past his window on paddleboards.
“There’s always something going on; there’s a constant stream of people,” he says. “It’s more interesting than a hotel room window.”
Similarly, Cotten says he couldn’t see himself living on land.
“This, to me, is exciting and beautiful,” he says. “When I think about moving back on shore, it pales in comparison.”
Help For The Harbor
Santa Cruz Tsunami Relief Fund
•The Santa Cruz Tsunami Relief Fund is an organization of Santa Cruz Harbor residents and boat owners formed to provide a transparent and accountable structure for individuals or groups who wish to make donations to support Santa Cruz County residents, boat owners or business owners who were financially harmed by the tsunami on March 11 in Santa Cruz.
All donations are tax deductible. Donations should be made payable to:
The Walnut Avenue Women’s Center: Tsunami Relief Fund, 303 Walnut Ave., Santa Cruz, CA, 95060.
One hundred percent of donations will be dispersed to those most severely affected by the tsunami.
For more information on how to donate, get involved or apply for funds contact: Greg Cotten email@example.com.
Santa Cruz Harbor Relief Fund
On July 17, Custom Culinary Concepts and the Walnut Avenue Women’s Center will team up to throw a fundraiser for the Santa Cruz Harbor Relief Fund.
Jake Gandolfo, who recently gained fame appearing on the competitive cooking show MasterChef with Gordon Ramsay, will be bringing his oversized, charismatic personality and his catering company, Custom Culinary Concepts, to the Santa Cruz Harbor to cook up an amazing New England-style Clam Bake. The fundraiser will be a fun-filled day of music, food, silent auction, and libations fueled by the Seabright Brewery.
An estimated $.70 to the dollar will go to the Santa Cruz Harbor Relief Fund. Tickets available at santacruzclambake.eventbrite.com.
It’s “The Gypsy Family Boat” and this gang treasures it.
Steve Case cooking a cod fish
The aftermath of the March tsunami had powerful ripple effects. Damage to some boats, like Jody Connolly’s. left many residents searching for a new home.
Jody Connolly proudly notes the U-dock sticker on his truck.
Greg Cotten “at home” on his boat in the Santa Cruz Harbor.
This shot, taken during the tsunami, is a sobering realization of how vulnerable the harbor can be.
fishing at the harbor
Photo credit: Kelly Vaillancourt