Knoxville's Boat People

An almost subversively nautical subculture lives on the water, whether they sleep there or not

The pleasant Sunday-afternoon breeze disappoints Todd Weir.

"Those are just thermals," he says. Pointing out over the broad, expanse of water as it flashes with sunlight, he says, "That's just chop. I don't think we'll see any racing today."

The Concord Yacht Club is one of East Tennessee's most unlikely settings, a bit of Honolulu on Northshore Drive: a marina with long docks adorned only with tall-masted sailboats, 100 or more of them. Some are putting in anyway, including a junior team of the Sea Scouts, and catching what winds there are. From here you can see several miles of Fort Loudoun Lake, where a couple dozen motorboats moan back and forth. Weir explains that you can see good wind in the color of the water, and he doesn't see enough of it today to make a respectable race. He's been watching this lake for half a century; his mom was a swimming instructor, his dad a champion sailor. A sturdy man in his 50s with sandy hair and a graying Van Dyke, he's wearing sandals and quaffing Diet Dew in a Norris Dam coozie, and talking about why he lives in a boat.

Weir spends more time on the water than on land. He has piloted boats professionally in the Caribbean, and tries to get back there at least once a year. Owner of a boat-refurbishing company, he's much in demand, with appointments four months out. For the better part of 21 years, he has lived on a houseboat moored in a Watts Bar marina.

Surely one of the biggest surprises of first encountering Knoxville is that this peculiar place, 400 miles from the nearest seashore, and 1,600 miles upstream from any briny water, offers an abundance of marinas. Within an hour's drive of Knoxville are about 20 of them. The smaller marinas offer around 100 boat slips, the largest more than 400, not counting dry storage. Most marinas seem to have people living at them, for practical purposes, whether openly or not.

Some say the population of boat dwellers is declining, others suspect maybe it's rising, but no one knows for sure. There's no census of full-time boat residents. Some are furtive about where they sleep, admitting they suspect there's some law or policy forbidding it. Regardless of any probably unenforceable policies, it seems clear that hundreds of East Tennesseans live, full time, on boats. They're known as "liveaboards."

A couple of liveaboards asked that we not quote them directly, under the assumption their lifestyle may conflict with federal law, county law, or marina policy. Some suspect they're technically squatting, property-tax free, on an especially expensive federal project.

"It's a gray area," says one almost full-time houseboater, in a tone that suggests maybe he likes gray. Even representatives of the same marinas have differing opinions about how okay it is for someone to live full time in a houseboat. Some marinas do ban, or at least discourage, liveaboards.

Tennessee Valley Authority has not specific policy either approving or prohibiting houseboat living, says spokesman Travis Brickey, adding, "This is an issue which TVA will likely review in the future." The reservoirs are expressly there for recreation, and houseboating is a form of recreation. On the other hand, boat homes—houses built on pontoons and anchored permanently in one place, as is the case in some sections of Norris Lake—is either an extreme example of houseboating, or a different issue altogether. "That's a sticky wicket," says Brickey. Officially, "TVA is actively reviewing the floating houses issue, and developing a management plan."

***

Weir seems to know what he's doing, and doesn't mind talking about it. His home of choice is 1981 50-foot Gibson houseboat.

In fact, he lives on a boat with his whole family, his wife and, due to a family circumstance, her two grandchildren, ages 4 and 6. "The grandkids love it," he says. "Both are able to swim. They're water bugs. Little kids, raising them around the water, it's the best thing you can do for a kid."

His street address is the marina's; the kids are zoned for Roane County schools. When he and his wife first gained custody of the grandchildren, Weir tried life as a landlubber, and didn't care for it. The sound of traffic was too annoying to get used to. So he practically rebuilt his boat with a $30,000 remodel to make it a 561-square-foot family home, with maple walls, cedar closets, and a water-source heat pump that he says is more efficient than most houses. It's most often moored at Blue Springs Marina in Watts Bar, but he gets around some, much of it in connection with his work rehabbing boats, much of it to the outside. A full hull treatment will last about seven years, he says, but then it needs to be done again. His jokes come without a wink. "I'm in boat cosmetics," he says. "I'm a cosmetologist. Boats are named after females."

Never mind lawn maintenance. On a boat, he says, "Your yard always looks nice. And if you don't like your neighborhood, it's a quick fix. You can change it."

He adds, "I can spend the rest of my life living on a houseboat."

His step-grandchildren are among the youngest liveaboards in the area. At 76, Gracie Smith isn't necessarily the oldest. She's moored at Louisville Landing Marina, one of the more secluded marinas, in Lackey Cove, where old stone piers of a forgotten bridge make an interesting ruin. Her boat, a 70-foot Sumerset, is called Home. The name is deliberately preemptive. "My kids threatened to put me in a home," she says, "so I called it the Home."

She has no sunburn, no obvious tattoos, and there's nothing about her that would suggest she'd be out of place at a church bake sale. She and her husband moved here about nine years ago, and after his death, she remained as a widow. She likes the amenities. She uses nautical terms; her boat includes two staterooms, a salon, a head, and all the comforts of home, even a washer-dryer. "I could not rent an apartment" for what she pays to maintain her houseboat, she says. Her three kids—she also has grandchildren and great-grandchildren—once worried about her. "They've adjusted to it, now." As for her old friends, she says, "Sometimes they think I'm crazy, other times they envy me."

Asked what the best part of it is, she says, "Waking up in the morning, as I did this morning, and watching the fog come across the lake."

Louisville Harbormaster Mike Fenton, a portly, jovial fellow who's fielding cell-phone calls by the minute, many of them customers calling to have their boats ready by the end of the work day. He answers them all, betraying a bit of New Hampshire in his accent even after 40 years in East Tennessee. Louisville, he says, is "just about in the middle of the lake—25 river miles to Knoxville, 25 river miles to Ft. Loudoun Dam." He says it's there mainly to serve recreational boaters, skiers, wakeboarders, pontoon boaters. They no longer allow new liveaboards, but Fenton says Smith and three other residents are grandfathered in.

She's not budging any time soon. "I want to live here long enough to be great-grandfathered," she says. A lot of marina owners are leery of liveaboards and their legal iffiness, but Fenton says they come with some advantages, as unpaid night watchmen. Anyone trespassing on docks may be in for some trouble. "Gracie, here, will shoot you," he says.

The glimmer in her eye suggests maybe he's not exaggerating much. "Well, I'd call somebody," she says.

She leaves her boat moored most of the time, bringing the Home out only about four times a year, for Boomsday or football games. She doesn't need to leave to find a party. The Dockside Grill, with covered and uncovered decks, is a beer-battered oysters sort of place, where there's karaoke on Fridays and a band on Saturdays. "Weekends are a party," Smith says. "It's a festive place to be. There's never a dull moment. Except in January and February." There's less waterskiing then, and the place can get pretty lonesome.

Fenton adds, "the wind, when it blows across the water, it chills you to the bone."

She has some surprising DNA for a riverboat dweller. Her great-grandfather, George Carney, was among the 30 percent who survived the biggest riverboat disaster in history, the Sultana, which exploded in the Mississippi in 1865, killing 1,600. The worst disaster they've experienced in her years at Louisville was some dock damage after a windstorm last year.

Smith is a kid compared to "Captain" Charles Seivers and his wife of 62 years, Edna. They're 92 and 88, respectively. They don't sail nearly as much as they used to, but drive to Concord Marina every few days to check in on their 55-foot houseboat, the Jubilee IV. Of the boat life, she says, "I don't think anything compares with it. There's something about being afloat on the water." They've often fished with trotlines, and just overnight, while they're sleeping aboard, caught so many crappie they gave away 50-60 fish.

"The people on the water seem to be a different personality," she says. "If you see someone in trouble, or something doesn't seem exactly right, you're always anxious to help."

She says she's never really lived aboard—unless you count some interstate trips, like when they bought their current boat in the '70s and sailed it here from Indiana—and the month they used to spend on it every summer in Watts Bar. She likes her washing machine too much to want to live on a houseboat permanently. But they spent hundreds of 48-hour weekends aboard. The Seivers bought their first houseboat, a craft manufactured by an almost-forgotten boat builder in downtown Knoxville, around 1961, and became early and vocal advocates for Concord Marina, pleading to a then-skeptical county government to maintain the ramshackle county-park property better. At the time, Concord was run by a retired couple, a Mr. and Mrs. Flick, who would sometimes cook meals for hungry boaters.

She recalls the county's attitude was, "We can't spend public money at a marina, because everyone does not own a boat." She responded, "But we're taxpayers. It would be a black-ink item for Knox County, not a drain. I do think it's an asset." It later became Knox County's biggest marina, the now privately managed 420-slip Concord Marina. She says she's "overjoyed" with how it turned out.

Today, Concord Marina, crowned with the Lakeside Tavern--which seems more like a Kingston Pike restaurant than the familiar flip-flops, open-air marina eatery--is posher than most; on a recent weekday, a young man was tending the shrubbery by the office. "Mainly it's a weekend business," says Jim Bisch, the no-nonsense harbormaster. "It starts Friday around noon, when people sneak off work, and goes to Sunday evening."

But Edna Seivers says she knows several people, especially older women, who live on boats. How many live in boats in Knoxville-area marinas? Hundreds?

"I think that's conservative," she says.

***

Fort Loudoun Lake is the most heavily populated lake in Tennessee, and supports more than 1,000 private boat docks. It's obviously more than just marina traffic that supports marina restaurants and gas stations. The more populous shore, alongside Knoxville and Farragut, is the north shore. The south shore, where slip fees are generally cheaper, is sometimes called the "poor side" of the lake, though in terms of houseboat ownership, poverty is a relative thing.

You may hear the more experienced boaters tell stories about another marina that's not on most folks' beaten paths: "International Harbor—there are some real river rats there," says Bisch. It's across the lake at Friendsville. So it's a little surprising when you call this exotic, distant marina, and the guy who answers the phone is sometime banker-philanthropist Bill Arant. He's a little harried, at the moment, about a PVC-pipe issue.

Later on, he fills us in on life at International Harbor. "Everybody just knows everybody else," says Arant, who's enjoying a few months' professional adventure working there. He thinks it's friendlier than most marinas. "It's more laid back, not trying to keep up with the Joneses. It's more of a community. Sometimes I'm kind of blown away—someone will ask me what they can do for me."

We've asked around without finding anyone who knows for certain why it's called International Harbor. Maybe just because, like all TVA lake marinas, it potentially connects to international waters, 1,600 river miles away. "You can go anywhere in the world from here," one boater offers.

It's one of the more peaceful marinas, nearly wake-free. One resident is Steve Harvey, a car salesman and single dad whose only daughter recently moved to Brisbane, Australia. "I don't think she's coming back," he says. He has lived on a 40-foot houseboat since she left, a couple of years now. He has a smaller boat he likes to take to tour the lakes, and put in at his favorite restaurants, all on the water.

"Watching the ducks and fish, it's endless entertainment," he says. "I may be cooking, and invite you over. You may be cooking, and invite me over. What goes around, comes around. It's quite a community atmosphere." Compared to other marinas, he says, "it's more of a laid-back, easygoing kind of place—close-knit, and everybody looks out for each other. It's like talking to your neighbors over the picket fence, except there's no picket fence."

"If you decide you want company, you just walk out onto the dock. If you don't, you just pull the curtains, and you've got privacy."

He keeps in touch with his Australian daughter via a weekly visit on Skype.

What land-dwellers assume are big problems, aren't. Storms are not a big issue, he says. "I'm tied off at four corners." The marina has lightning rods. He feels safe. And it's not as expensive as people assume. Utilities, he says, are easy to deal with, and the slip fee is like. "If a boat's not paid for, it can get pretty expensive. In my situation, I have my boat paid off."

"Some things you have to get used to. Algae grows on the bottom of the boat, and some fish decide they're gonna eat it. It might be 3, 5 in the morning, and it sounds like somebody's in the water banging on the boat with a hammer."

Harvey, a hiker, likes International Harbor's proximity to the Smokies, where he has hiked hundreds of miles. But a houseboat, he says, is "as close as you can get to being outdoors and still having a home. It's a great lifestyle. I don't see myself moving back to my house."

***

Volunteer Landing, one of the area's newest docks, but if you don't count the old wharfs that were there 130 years ago. It's different from all the others. Though only a 10-minute walk from Gay Street, it seems more remote than most marinas, just because you can't see or hear any traffic—at all, not even a marina parking lot.

Its landmark curiosity is the 1890s city water intake unit, a tall concrete structure typically mistaken for a fort or a bridge pier. It also moors some unusual boats. One that's a sort of grim legend up and down the river system is an antique, a 110-foot cruiser, a ship, really, about 60 years old and rumored to have been owned by Charlton Heston; it's badly decayed on the outside, its plywood rotting, but it has a handsome shape and supposedly boasts vestiges of luxury, like marble sinks. Owners are reportedly considering a seven-figure makeover. Sailors talk about it here and 20 miles away at the Concord Yacht Club.

Volunteer Landing has a reputation for appealing mainly to downtown professionals, but the marina's livelier on a Wednesday morning at 10 than you might expect. A drop-in visit turned up about a dozen people outwardly fiddling with their boats, washing things, fixing things, installing things. One is an affably piratical character named Steve Hicks. A lean fellow with a deep tan and a gray beard, he has earrings in both ears and heavily tattooed arms. "I'm in the water at least three days a week," he says, kayaking. But he doesn't have a boat at the marina. "It's so expensive to keep a boat in the water," he says. He has a boat, a 1956 antique, but it's parked in his front yard on a South Knoxville hilltop. "Just like the Ark," he says. He uses it for a guest house.

Hicks is down here today because he's working on the teak on another antique, Joe Johnson's 1961 Chris Craft. Hicks is an artist, a woodcarver—his exhibit of Mayan funeral masks should open at the Emporium next week—but he's in the water because he loves it. Originally from California's Marina Del Rey, he grew up near the water and can't stay away from it for long. "When I'm working, I think how am I going to get back to the water. When I'm on the water, I think, I need to get back to work. Working on boats is a mixture of both. I can work here five or six days, and pay my bills for the month.

"Like anything else, you've got to do it because you love it," he says.

Allen Tate runs the French Market on Gay Street. His small cabin cruiser, a Chris Craft, isn't big enough to live comfortably on, but he gets other people to run the popular crepe shop so he can spend more time down here. He hasn't yet gotten used to how cool it is. He points out a long-necked cormorant swimming a few yards away. "You'd never know you're downtown, all this lushness," he says. On the shore is a green jungle where, if you look closely, you can spot an occasional jogger padding along the greenway. "The only time it's noisy is when the train goes by."

You might assume the boats floating quietly, with nobody busy around them, are empty. But you never really know. There's no driveway and no car to suggest whether anyone's home.

If you want to find out if somebody's aboard, you don't knock on the boat's door, you bang on the gunwales. When Tate bangs on the side of one houseboat, a cheerful bearded fellow of middle age sticks his head out. "Sorry, I have to feed my dogs," he says. "And be sure the big one doesn't eat the little one's food." The fellow, who prefers we not use his name for professional reasons, abides on a fairly luxurious houseboat with big flat-screen TVs and gas grills.

"We're social people," he says. Every weekend he invites people over. "Boat rules," he says, then defines them. "Come when you want to. Leave when you're ready to leave." Some guests who come to a Friday dinner party don't make it off the boat until the following Sunday evening.

But there's a limit, even in boat rules. Some landlubbers' assumptions get on his nerves, especially when they're young and noisy late at night at neighboring boats. "Some people come down to a boat, think it's a free-for-all. ‘We're going to a boat! It's party time!' Look, it's a community. This isn't Spring Break, Daytona Beach, 1985."

***

Todd Weir, one of the most experienced houseboatmen across seven lakes, is no ambassador for the laid-back boat life so many houseboat people espouse. He doesn't drink, for one thing, and his experience suggests the carefree image of life on a boat requires some sleight of hand; boats require maintenance, and boat maintenance is often more urgent than home maintenance. If there's a leak, either in the hull or the plumbing, boats tend to sink. "You don't have to be smart to own a boat," Weir says. An improperly maintained boat can rapidly become a very expensive problem. He cites one example of a boat that sank due to lack of an extension cord to recharge the bilge pump.

Weir has so much work he says he's scheduled full time four months out. He often works 16-hour days. Some of the people who hire him as a nautical cosmetologist may be relaxing on a Sunday afternoon. But after the sailboat-race disappointment, faced with an unexpectedly free perfect afternoon, the first thing Weir thinks about is getting on his cell phone and scheduling appointments to look at clients' boats later in the afternoon. He says he wants to be sure those water bugs he's raising have money for college.