For liveaboards in the Petersburg harbor, the rent is cheap and the water is fine

Pamela Speck on her boat’s back deck in Petersburg’s North Harbor. (Photo by Ari Snider/KFSK)

Throughout Southeast Alaska, many people make their home on boats. So-called “liveaboards” are motivated by a variety of factors: lack of affordable housing, a sense of adventure, or there are those who already work on the water.

Liveaboards are a longstanding part of the Petersburg community. Down in what most people know as Petersburg’s North Harbor, Pamela Speck said she has another name for it.

“I jokingly call it, especially at a really low tide, this is lower Petersburg,” she said. “When you get to the top of the ramp, then you’re in upper Petersburg.”

Speck’s home is actually more house than boat — it’s got a pitched tin roof, windows instead of portholes, and of course the flower pots on the stern deck, which is now essentially a porch. She bought the boat in 1993 while working at one of the canneries. She ended up staying, mainly because it was so cheap compared to shoreside housing.

“People think it’s hard now,” she said, “but back then, you know, you might have gotten an apartment beside (Petersburg bar) Kito’s which was a dump — not saying they’re dumps now — for like a thousand bucks a month or 800 bucks a month. And so it was just an exorbitant price.”

Exorbitant to her, but not uncommon. A one-bedroom apartment in Petersburg in “rough shape” could fetch around $850, according to the Peterbsurg Borough’s 2016 Comprehensive Plan. The plan also found that 36% of renter households were not living in affordable housing.

Speck came to Alaska via Ohio. She said she didn’t expect to stay very long, much less spend more than a quarter of a century in a floating house. But she said this lifestyle grew on her for a lot of reasons.

“It allowed me to pay my student loans off 10 years early,” Speck said. “It allowed me to save money and do investing. It allowed me to also be able to buy some property in Belize and build a house down there.”

Of course, living on a boat isn’t free. She pays for utilities and moorage fees, plus a $60-a-month liveaboard fee charged by the harbormaster’s office. But it’s still cheaper than most rentals in town. And with the savings, she can spend the cold weather months in Central America.

But that makes her an outlier.

Petersburg Harbormaster Glorianne Wollen stands in front of North Harbor before it reopened in May 2014. (Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK)

Petersburg Harbormaster Glorianne Wollen said the dock’s liveaboard community actually grows in the winter.

“We have a few less in the summertime. We rent about 20, maybe 22,” Wollen said. “And then it bumps up to maybe 30, 35 in the winter.”

Her office tracks liveaboards, and she’s not keen to see their numbers grow. That’s so there’s enough room for commercial vessels and boats passing through.

On the other hand, she said it’s nice to have a stable community down on the docks.

“Liveaboards are appreciated by many of the long-term stall holders, because they kinda keep an extra eye on things,” she said. “So there’s a pretty good relationship between liveaboards and the entire community down here in the harbor.”

One of the people keeping an eye on things is Frankie Christensen. He lives year-round on his 34-foot sailboat a few stalls down from Speck. He’s a boat mechanic and has been living in North Harbor for the last three years.

Christensen was attracted to the freedom of life on the water — the affordability doesn’t hurt either.

“Well, I’ll put it do you this way,” he said. “What a lot of people pay in one month, I pay for a year.”

Frankie Christensen at his boat in Petersburg’s North Harbor. (Photo by Ari Snider/KFSK)

His boat’s cabin is compact but spacious for a boat of its size, and the high ceiling allows you to stand comfortably. A big, diesel-powered stove sits in the corner, keeping the place warm.

Christensen said North Harbor is a neighborhood.

“It’s a small little community. Everybody shares everything. We’re always swapping food,” he said. “And I have a lot of boat captains that drop off fish and crab. It’s a very giving community.”

As if on cue, Pamela Speck walked past and told Christensen she’d take his trash up to the dumpster. She was headed up there anyway.

“OK Pamela, thank you!” he called up to her.

“See? People are nice,” Christensen said as Speck walked away. “She’s walking by and taking my garbage for me.”

Both Speck and Christensen said they plan to eventually settle on dry land. Christensen said he’d like to build a little cabin. Speck wants to live in Belize full time. But given Petersburg’s tight housing market, it’s possible that others could soon take their place.

This report is part of CoastAlaska’s Shelter series which examines short- and long-term housing issues across Southeast Alaska.

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