All Ashore

Sunny Bute just wants to live on his boat

Illustration by Ashley MacKenzie
Illustration by Ashley MacKenzie

Blue skies, twenty degrees, eight knots of wind: it’s the end of a perfect sailing day at the Shelter Island Marina and Boatyard, in Richmond, British Columbia, and Sunny Bute, a thirty-four-year-old shipwright, is just getting off work. “The yard is divided into two groups,” he explains, his flip-flops sucking the pavement as he walks past rows of boats perched on stands. Near the front entrance of the yard are the realists, whose multimillion-dollar yachts and commercial fishing vessels are repaired and back on the water within a month. At the back are the dreamers—hobbyists whose crafts are smaller and scruffier and might stay in the yard for years at a time. The front has a not-so-secret nickname for the back: the Field of Dreams.

Shelter Island is unique on the West Coast. It has the sort of floating docks that are standard issue at marinas, but it also boasts a massive mobile crane that can lift ships as heavy as 220 metric tons out of the water and lower them into the nine-hectare yard. The work stalls are marked in yellow paint on the pavement, evoking a parking lot for beached boats. Rent is by the foot, and fees range from $400 to $3,000 a month. For an extra $160, you can live on your vessel while you repair it. There are showers and washrooms in the main building, as well as a café and hardware store.

Living aboard your boat was once a vibrant, if eccentric, mode of existence in BC. Motley gatherings of houseboats, barges, and sailboats sprang up in marinas friendly to live-aboards or dropped anchor in sheltered bays. A community could house a dozen or a hundred people: working-class families, pensioners, artists, retired fishermen, and anyone else with an individualistic streak and a love for the water. But today, threatened by stricter environmental standards and rising real estate prices, live-aboard communities are in decline. A captain might wait years for a berth in Vancouver to become available. Those who can’t wait have few options. They can work out an under-the-table arrangement with the wharfinger or stay surreptitiously. They can sell the craft or sail away in search of a slip—a rentable space where a vessel can be moored. Shelter Island is one of the few remaining places where people can legally live aboard; the only problem is that it happens to be onshore. According to the marina, about half the people working on their boats live in the yard. A few seem to have settled permanently, even though the marina officially caps stays at three months.

Compared to the all-business front yard, where hacksaws and pressure washers drown out conversation, the Field of Dreams is peaceful. A golden retriever trots past. A shirtless man rides by on a bicycle. The sound of a plucked guitar floats through the air. Bute, Sailor Jerry–style tattoos peeking out from under his work clothes, assesses a wooden boat. Its hull is checkered with holes; the owner has cut out rotten chunks as if from an overripe banana. “They’re doing it all wrong,” Bute says. “You can’t take out small sections. Everything has got to overlap on a wooden boat. Those overlaps give it strength. If you have all these butt seams and you get a big wave, that one seam of weakness will crack.” He straightens to his full height—six feet, four inches—and juts a hip dramatically to the left, imitating how a wave would knock him out of alignment.

This is Bute’s professional opinion. He works at Commodore’s Boats, in the front yard, where he’s in the middle of a $300,000 rebuild for a client. Couldn’t Bute just tell the banana-boat owner he was making a mistake? “You know how you can’t say anything bad about a guy’s wife? ” Bute asks. “Well, that boat is like the guy’s wife.”

Until recently, Bute could have been mistaken for one of the dreamers here in the back yard. “When I bought a wood-hull sailboat, I was all, next summer, next summer, one year—that’s all it’s going to take me,” he says. “Next thing I knew it was five years.” Finally, last weekend, he set Huckleberry’s Revenge on the ocean for the first time, sailing it to Bowen Island, off the coast of West Vancouver. He still lives onboard, at a nearby marina.

Bute spies a man wearing a Popeye baseball cap and holding a half-smoked cigar. “This your boat? ” he asks. The man introduces himself—Michael Voskamp, sixty—and his craft, a wooden Japanese fishing vessel he bought through Craigslist for $3,000. Four months ago, the crane lifted it out of the water and set it down in a work stall that Voskamp shares with two others. He couldn’t decide on a name for it, or on a firm plan for how to fix it. “I change my mind every five minutes,” he says. A former oysterman, Voskamp is now semi-retired and free to spend all day on repairs. During the week, he often sleeps in the boat. Portside, he has a toaster oven and a hot plate next to his tools.

“You hear that noise over there? ” Voskamp asks. The two men pause to listen to the sound of a running hose two stalls down. “That’s buddy wetting his hull and wetting his hull all summer long. It’s driving me nuts. When you take a boat out of the water, you have to put it right back in so that it doesn’t dry out too fast. But he’s trying to keep his hull wet, wet, wet—all the time.”

“It’s a waste,” Bute says. Voskamp puffs his cigar and gets back to work. Bute walks to the front yard, where his truck is parked. He has to get home to Huckleberry’s Revenge and feed his cats.

This appeared in the May 2015 issue.

Laura Trethewey
Laura Trethewey (@ltrethew) is the author of The Deepest Map: The High-Stakes Race to Chart the World’s Oceans and The Imperilled Ocean: Human Stories from a Changing Sea.