Hakai Magazine

Randy van Eyk has been living on his sailboat for more than three decades, but his lifestyle is becoming harder and harder to maintain as so-called “liveaboards” are no longer welcome in most marinas. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel
Randy van Eyk has been living on his sailboat for more than three decades, but his lifestyle is becoming harder and harder to maintain as so-called “liveaboards” are no longer welcome in most marinas. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

Vancouver’s Other Housing Crisis

Clinging to the liveaboard life in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

Authored by

by Laura Trethewey

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Late in the evening on April 7, 2010, a windstorm slammed into Vancouver, British Columbia, downing power lines, ripping up trees, and washing the sailboat Tuesday Sunrise onto the sands of Kitsilano (“Kits”) Beach. The blue and yellow boat belongs to Randy van Eyk, a 49-year-old carpenter who has lived on board for over three decades. A few hours earlier, the 12-meter cutter was anchored off the beach, with a sweeping view of English Bay and the North Shore mountains. As the boat bucked in the growing waves, the radio predicted a 30-knot storm.

“A little bit roly-poly, a little rough,” thought van Eyk, “but I should be able to handle that.” What arrived instead was a 54-knot westerly—10 knots shy of hurricane-force winds—with waves cresting over two meters. As the water pounded the boat, Tuesday Sunrise’s 45-kilogram anchor bent like a pretzel and loosened from the seafloor. Luckily, van Eyk’s two other anchors held. That is until a 36.5-meter ship anchored nearby collided with his boat and he was forced to cut the final anchors. Tuesday Sunrise swept high onto the sand.

If you ever happen to be on a boat during a storm, remember this: the land is not your friend. Waves send the boat careening into shore, hard ground rises to meet hull, and that’s when a shipwreck happens. Van Eyk knows this, but on the evening of April 7, he had no safe harbor in which to anchor. It’s a situation that many liveaboards—the colloquial term for people who live on boats—are forced to navigate as they find themselves targeted as environmental scourges, prohibited from once accepting marinas, or squeezed by rising moorage rates.

With its milder climate and thousands of kilometers of crooked coastline, the west coast of Canada is the perfect ecosystem for the estimated 2,000 liveaboards who call these waters home. Within this tight-knit community are sailing legends who embody a rugged and free west coast identity. People like M. Wylie Blanchet, author of the bestselling The Curve of Time, who sailed the BC coast with her five young children, and Allen and Shari Farrell, who lived aboard numerous sailboats they built by hand and sailed back and forth from Canada to the Pacific Islands.

Randy van Eyk inside his sailboat Tuesday Sunrise. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

But how many can still access this lifestyle? As Vancouver’s waterfront leaves behind its skid row roots and becomes a pristine playground that also looks great from a condo window, water has acquired a price tag. “We’ve come from a utilitarian relationship to an aesthetic one,” says Andy Yan, acting director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, who studies high real estate prices in Vancouver. “For a long time, people didn’t want to live close to the water, but you certainly see a lot of valuable real estate today on the shoreline.”

Real estate studies over the past 20 years bear this out. A 1997 survey in Point Roberts, Washington—a tiny US peninsula on the BC border—found that a house with an oceanfront view can cost up to 147 percent more than a house without one. A 2010 study in South Carolina pegged the waterfront premium as high as 287 percent. Liveaboards who clutter a waterfront view, or haven’t paid for the privilege, are often sidelined—sometimes with disastrous consequences.

All night, huge breakers rolled out of the darkness and pummeled van Eyk’s boat, washed six meters up on Kits Beach—a popular stretch of sand on the ritzier west side of Vancouver. “It was like being smashed by a giant sledgehammer,” he later recalled in a radio interview. Just before sunrise, the tide retreated and van Eyk stepped ashore to survey the damage. Two other boats were stranded on Kits Beach—eight in total across the bay. Washed up near Tuesday Sunrise was a wrecked trimaran that belonged to van Eyk’s liveaboard pal. Van Eyk changed into a pair of dry socks and took his now-homeless friend for a Lumberjack Slam breakfast of pancakes, eggs, hash browns, and three kinds of meat, at Denny’s diner up the hill. When they returned, the beach had filled with onlookers, media, and government officials. A BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure employee handed van Eyk a notice saying he had 19 days to remove Tuesday Sunrise from the beach. After that, the boat would be deemed a navigational hazard and van Eyk charged for the tow. He began to dig.

A steady stream of passing beachgoers saw this wiry man—in aviators, weather-beaten brogues, and a leather jacket—shoveling out his boat, and offered to help. As they dug, van Eyk told the story of how he found himself stranded on shore.

When van Eyk was in grade nine, he read Dove by Robin Lee Graham, who sailed around the world at 16 years old. Inspired, van Eyk quit high school and went to the docks in downtown Vancouver, looking for guidance from local mariners: “I said I want to learn about boats. Do you want to hire me to work on your boat? Sand, clean, paint, whatever.” For van Eyk, living on a boat was a means to an end. “It was wanderlust,” he says. “It’s a big ocean out there; I want to go out there, exploring, traveling.”

At 18, van Eyk purchased the hull of what would become Tuesday Sunrise using money he saved up from painting jobs. On November 14, 1988, he set the boat in the ocean for the first time and started his new life on the water. He was 22 years old. Over the coming decades, he would explore the Strait of Georgia, an expansive body of water between the mainland of Canada and Vancouver Island, picking up carpentry jobs when he needed the cash, living the dream as long as it lasted.

Randy van Eyk, itinerant sailor, has enjoyed a liveaboard life for most of his adult years. For him, living on land is unthinkable. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

In 1987, Canada’s federal government began to dismantle the public wharves that underpinned the life van Eyk hoped to lead. Public wharves, then operated by Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), used to run like car-camping spots in a government park. Boats pulled in; mariners paid a fee for electricity, water, and washrooms; and the money went toward maintaining the dock and its amenities. But throughout the late 1980s and early ’90s, this system deteriorated as the two departments narrowed their mandates to commercial shipping and fishing. Whatever didn’t fit into those parameters was divested to local or volunteer groups that often barred residing on a boat full-time. Today, that process is nearly complete; less than one percent of former DFO wharves allow liveaboards.

“I’ve been kicked out of Nanaimo, Saltspring, Sidney. I got pushed out of the private marina at Horseshoe Bay,” says van Eyk, listing off popular ports along BC’s coast. “I’ve lost track; definitely more than a dozen times.” A weathered photo album inside Tuesday Sunrise gives a glimpse into his liveaboard life: sun-baked people goofing around on boats, grinning on the deck, posing for the camera before setting out to sail the misty seascape of the northeast Pacific. Van Eyk has paid for his devotion to living aboard in isolation. “I was part of the community. I knew people. And then my life gets severed,” he says.

DFO says that its wharves were never designed to berth liveaboard boats. But, seeing as these wharves did house liveaboards for decades, it’s more likely that they wanted to cut the workforce that managed the docks. Volunteer-run harbor authorities made this possible. Every year, aging volunteers contribute CAN $4.3-million in unpaid work. Fatigue is rampant and many of the caretakers worry that no one will look after the docks once they give up the mantle.

Randy van Eyk peruses a photo album with images of his friends and the various places he’s lived aboard his sailboat. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

The end of government-run liveaboard slips was a big first step toward delegitimizing living on a boat. It removed a swath of slips from the shoreline, drove up demand at private marinas, and crowded the already packed provincial and municipal docks. Today, there are 120 official liveaboard boat slips left in the city of Vancouver—all with wait lists, some a decade long. (Some of these slips are also used for float homes.) This in a city of over half a million people, where demand for slips is always high and grows higher when the Canadian dollar bottoms out and American boats migrate north.

“Transient moorage competes with liveaboard moorage,” explains Cameron Gray, a former City of Vancouver project manager who oversaw the development of False Creek, a downtown Vancouver inlet where many of the last liveaboard slips remain. “Transient moorage is more profitable, in particular moorage for high-end boats. Millionaires don’t live on their boats, they just need a place to park them.”

Along the sleek walkways of Coal Harbour in Vancouver’s West End, there are many of these blinding-white super yachts that no one lives on. “In the ’70s and ’80s, Coal Harbour had a different look,” remembers Judy Ross, a real estate agent who specializes in liveaboard accommodations, both boats and float homes. “There were boat sheds there and funky homes,” she says. One of the most notable was the floating bright-blue peanut-shaped home of Frank Ogden, also known as Dr. Tomorrow, a renowned futurist and author who passed away in 2012.

Back then, a slip at Coal Harbour would have cost van Eyk an estimated $145 a month, but the waiting list was already four years long. In the early ’90s, Marathon Realty—the real estate arm of Canadian Pacific Railway that owned Coal Harbour Marina at the time—“decided to clean it up and do, what I call, ‘sanitize’ it,” says Ross. “[There were] pristine, brand-new, all-concrete docks and sewage connections for everyone. But they didn’t want to allow the [liveaboard] people back in.”

High and dry on Kitsilano Beach in September 2015—intentionally this time—Randy van Eyk discusses his plight with passersby. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

The Coal Harbour liveaboards banded together and won a rare legal victory, securing 25-year leases for the moorage of their vessels, but this only maintained the monthly charge for those original owners. As Coal Harbour developed and the boats and float homes changed hands, the cost of moorage rose, as did the price of the homes. “The first float home I sold at Coal Harbour Marina was in 2000. I think it was for $58,000, a little one-bedroom loft,” says Ross. “I’ve sold that home about five times since then.” Its most recent sale, in 2015, closed at $288,000.

Coal Harbour has become the luxury area that Marathon Realty envisioned, but it also has the reputation of being a “zombie neighborhood”—a place where vacationers and investors buy, but don’t actually live. Urban planner Andy Yan studied the census data from Vancouver’s ritziest neighborhoods and discovered that a quarter of Coal Harbour’s condos are not lived in full-time.

When a liveaboard can’t find a slip to rent or afford to buy one, they “sneakaboard.” They hide from dock authorities or work out an arrangement with a friendly wharfinger who lets them sleep on board in exchange for night-watch duties. (Many liveaboards I interviewed asked me to obscure where they lived or declined an interview for fear of ruining an under-the-table deal.) In the past, van Eyk has used some of these same tactics to piece together a patchwork approach to shelter. When he couldn’t find a harbor that would allow him to sleep on his boat, he lived “on the hook.”

Living at anchor is technically free, but life is not easy: one rows a dinghy back and forth to land, locks the boat to the shoreline, hauls water and groceries, and sets anchors that can shift when the wind blows hard. Up and down the coast of British Columbia, liveaboards often stay in protected and picturesque anchorages. Although the right to anchor is protected by its inclusion in one of Canada’s oldest pieces of legislation—the right to navigation—liveaboards are far more likely to avoid hassle the farther they anchor from the big city. Van Eyk, however, was tethered to Vancouver where he had a full-time job as a carpenter and his mother was slowly dying of Alzheimer’s.

With every passing day on Kitsilano Beach, van Eyk shoveled millions of grains of heavy, wet sand. At first, he was optimistic; 19 days seemed like more than enough time to dig out his boat and push it back to water. But as the salt water came in at the end of a long day of digging, he saw how much farther he had to go.

As beautiful as Kitsilano Beach is, van Eyk never wanted to stay in its rocky waters. “If the weather gets nasty, I’m a sitting duck,” he said in a radio interview. He preferred to anchor out in the calm, protected inlet of False Creek in downtown Vancouver, but it had become one of the most contested places in the province to live at anchor.

Liveaboard boats and float homes were once common in downtown Vancouver, but gentrification and out-of-control real estate prices have virtually put an end to that way of life. Here, Randy van Eyk rows across False Creek. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

In the early 2000s, Vancouver City Council invited all stakeholders of False Creek—liveaboard, condo dweller, and dragon boat racer alike—to a series of public meetings on the inlet’s growing congestion. False Creek is a relatively small inlet, only 3,700 meters long and between 150 and 400 meters wide, and plans were in the works for a swath of 13 new condominium towers along the inlet’s north shore. The mega-developer Concord Pacific had an ambitious plan to build one of North America’s largest master-planned communities there, including three new marinas with an estimated 1,000 new boat berths—none with liveaboard slips.

But when these public meetings created a new permit that limited anchoring in False Creek, the real target quickly became apparent. The permit created what one liveaboard dubbed the “False Creek shuffle”—time limits that allowed boats two weeks a month in the summer and three weeks a month in winter. At the end of the monthly allowance, boaters had to move along, or face tickets and eventual seizure.

“I think that it is improper that [liveaboards] continue to stay there [and] ignore our standards around pollution and sewage treatment,” former Vancouver councilor Anne Roberts told CBC News in 2005. The False Creek liveaboards pointed out that the city’s approach was no better, releasing massive amounts of sewage into the inlet every time a storm swept into town and backed up the pipes. And anyhow, how would limiting the length of a boat’s stay control dumping?

The following year, the police began to fine boaters who didn’t get the new permit, while Judy Graves, the city’s housing tenancy coordinator at the time, was tasked with finding housing for the 100 or so liveaboards displaced by the decision.

“I hated how the planning department was talking about the liveaboards,” remembers Graves, “that they were taking advantage of the situation, they were trying to get away with something, they were an eyesore. People who lived in very expensive housing in False Creek said, ‘Why should they be allowed to be there, when I’m paying so much to have the same view?”’

The False Creek liveaboards joined forces in a legal challenge of the new rule, arguing that it violated their right to anchor and safe shelter. But two months before the 2010 Olympics, the provincial court sided with the city, ushering in the new permit system with the help of Transport Canada. Since then, two more BC cases have cited the ruling to remove boats from contested waters.

Graves eventually found housing for most of the dozen or so False Creek liveaboards too poor or infirm to search for another anchorage. For a while, she shared listings with the boaters for liveaboard moorage across the province, but “the writing was on the wall. That, essentially, this was the last part of Vancouver that they could live aboard in,” she says.

The rest of the False Creek liveaboards floated away, including van Eyk. He was anchored in the inlet during the last days of the 2010 Olympics. When his permit expired, he weighed anchor and sailed around the corner to the unprotected shores of Kitsilano Beach. Not long after, the windstorm arrived.

Some days, the shoveling went slowly, with Tuesday Sunrise budging only a dozen centimeters. Later, as the beach sloped down to the ocean, the sand gave way and the wooden boat jumped forward a meter a day. On the 18th day, the salvager tasked with towing Tuesday Sunrise predicted that the boat would never float by morning. But that night, van Eyk pushed his boat off its sandy perch and the next day the salvager arrived to find that Tuesday Sunrise had motored away.

Six years later, van Eyk tells this story proudly. But his escape from the authorities on Kitsilano Beach hasn’t fixed anything. He’s continued to anchor in inlets around the Lower Mainland, the greater metropolis surrounding Vancouver. He lived at another marina in nearby Port Coquitlam until the wharfinger kicked him out.

As he approaches his 50th birthday, van Eyk looks like he needs a break. Crow’s feet roost at the corners of his eyes; his skin is papery thin. He smokes about a pack of Player’s Rich every day. He’s nearly deaf in one ear. Liveaboard acquaintances have died, moved back on land, or moved away from a city that no longer wants them. Recently, van Eyk’s mother passed away and he used part of his inheritance for staging a protest at False Creek. He returned to the inlet and hung a handwritten sign off Tuesday Sunrise’s stern: “Please Stop False Creek Genocide,” it read. After overstaying his anchoring permit and receiving two tickets, the City of Vancouver snipped his anchors, towed Tuesday Sunrise, and charged van Eyk $1,500 to reclaim his home.

Fed up with the loss of berths available for liveaboards in False Creek, Randy van Eyk shows his frustration with a protest sign. Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

When I first met van Eyk, two years ago, he seemed aware that using such a loaded and inappropriate term might hurt his cause. “I don’t like using that word,” he told me regretfully. But this past fall, as we walked the shores of False Creek not far from where his boat sat in hock, he seemed more convinced than ever that the genocide was real. He mentions other liveaboards evicted from safe harbor during a storm or those he thinks died from the constant stress of removal. I asked van Eyk why he didn’t give up already and move back on land. The idea was unthinkable.

Randy van Eyk has spent his whole adult life on water and sunk all his money, close to $200,000, into Tuesday Sunrise. He would lose not only his home and most valuable asset, but, most importantly, his dignity as master of a vessel. Without a boat, he’s just another person with nowhere to go.