The Shilshole liveaboard community: ‘demand continues to escalate’

A member of the Future Tides community asked about trends around liveaboards. Drawing on personal experience and Port of Seattle data, here's the current scene

The Shilshole liveaboard community: ‘demand continues to escalate’
Shilshole Bay Marina in Seattle, Wash. (Future Tides/Cara Kuhlman)

I am a liveaboard, someone who makes a boat their primary residence. I’ve lived on my 1994 Catalina 34 sailboat at Shilshole Bay Marina since 2018 and it’s a unique neighborhood with spectacular sunsets.

Tucked behind a breakwall decorated with a serpentine dragon and sword-wielding skeleton, Shilshole Bay Marina is operated by the Port of Seattle and provides moorage to approximately 1600 commercial and recreational boats. A significant portion of these boats are recreational sailboats, many of which will soon be decorated with holiday lights for “Deck the Hulls.”

Other annual traditions include the “Race Your House” regatta hosted by Sloop Tavern Yacht Club and Halloween trick-or-treating for families that live at the marina. A number of local businesses including Dockside Mail, Jibe Cafe, Ballard Kayak and Miri’s at Golden Gardens are owned and operated by liveaboards.

The Shilshole Liveaboard Association has long supported the liveaboard lifestyle and community. The neighborhood group manages the Dock Captain program which selects a liveaboard from each dock to act as a representative. In the past year, a number of fresh faces have joined the board as newer community members become organizers.

Not everyone is aware of the liveaboard lifestyle. I knew about it from my brother, a long time liveaboard in the San Francisco Bay Area. After moving to Seattle, I had a close friend buy a boat and move aboard at Shilshole. She had spent part of her childhood here when her dad was a liveaboard.

Some liveaboards are “lifers” and the bedrock of the marina’s liveaboard community. Others pass through, whether for a few months or a few years, before moving back to land or onto other adventures. Still others liveaboard not because of a passion for boating but because of the lower costs in an increasingly expensive city.

Fall foliage brightens up the trees on the hill east of Shilshole Bay Marina. (Future Tides/Cara Kuhlman)

Not long after I moved onboard I started hearing that the waitlist, which for me had been about a year, had jumped to 5 years or more. Around that same time, The Seattle Times published a feature tying the demand to Seattle’s housing market. At the same time, moorage rates consistently increased year over year and the liveaboard rate (an additional monthly fee) crossed past $100 for the first time.

For example, in July 2018, monthly moorage for a 36’ slip was $470.16 before taxes, electricity usage and liveaboard fees. In July 2021, the rate was $528.12 representing about a 12% increase over a three year period.

While still a more affordable housing option, liveaboard expenses are also subject to the region’s rising cost of living.

Last year, long awaited capital improvements including repaving the parking lot and new restrooms, showers and laundry facilities were completed. These new facilities were a long standing joke among the liveaboard community as the planning, permitting and construction process stretched out over the years.

The old laundry room, one for the whole marina, was a particularly sore subject. While a common gathering place to chat between loads of laundry, it could also become competitive, especially if any machines broke down.

A sailboat on Puget Sound during a July sunset at high tide. (Future Tides/Cara Kuhlman)

Moorage rates did not increase in 2021, presumably due to economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic. That will change in 2022 as the Port of Seattle’s recently approved budget includes a proposed 5% moorage rate increase.

The budget also noted Shilshole Bay Marina’s occupancy rate is at 95%. According to the marina’s website, depending on the size slip requested, that translates into a wait time of 1-2 years for non-liveaboard monthly moorage.

As of October, there were 426 people on the waitlist with 44% requesting liveaboard moorage. Assessing its various lines of business in a preliminary budget, the Port of Seattle wrote that “demand continues to escalate due to extremely high housing costs in the Seattle area.”

The marina currently lists a 5 year wait time for liveaboard slips. Yet, the “official” liveaboards don’t include all marina residents.

In the 2018 Seattle Times article, the Port said it estimated 550-600 people live in the marina, 60-70% more than its maximum liveaboard slip capacity of 350. A Port of Seattle representative confirmed the estimate remains the same in 2021.

Around the docks, I’ve heard anecdotes of long time liveaboards leaving both the marina and Seattle. Maybe they were at a crossroads, ready to raise kids on land or aging out of boating or wanting to be closer to family.

Even as these community members have moved on, new ones have arrived. Shilshole Bay Marina’s liveaboard community remains active and a unique, if somewhat challenging, lifestyle that other Seattleites hope to experience.

This article is the outcome of a reader’s response to the Future Tides’ maritime community survey. Cassidy Patnoe, an attorney and teacher who lives on Whidbey Island, said if he could ask a journalist to investigate one maritime-related issue, it would be trends around liveaboards.

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