MANATEE -- Exact numbers are hard to come by, but according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2000 report, about 27,500 Americans chose to call their boats home. Those numbers reportedly grew after 2005 when the Great Recession hit, but there is a flip side to that story.
Jay Mroczek has lived on his boat "Windancer" for the past nine years at Regatta Pointe Marina in Palmetto. Mroczek said he witnessed the opposite trend taking place at the time he chose the liveaboard lifestyle.
"I did see lot of people making a choice between their homes and their boats," said Mroczek. "But what I saw the most was people giving up their boats to save their homes by the droves and all of a sudden you had $900,000 boats selling for $300,000."
Locally, the number of liveaboard spaces is on the upswing after the state last month approved additional slips at another Palmetto marina, Riviera Dunes.
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Mroczek has lived at the Regatta Pointe Marina in Palmetto for the past seven years. He said there is an upward trend in people once again choosing boats over houses, but the reasons vary for most people.
"For me, it was a life change that got me down here from Montana," he said. "I had always come through Florida on vacations, so when I got divorced, I said I'm going to buy a boat and live in Florida. Florida is a good central location for anywhere I want to go. It's been fantastic. It's freedom."
Regatta Pointe has about 330 slips, all of which are liveaboard certified through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. According to Regatta Pointe employee Mike Willmore, there about 90 fulltime residents at the marina. Willmore, a retired U.S. Navy fighter pilot, chose to work at the marina because he used to live the lifestyle and missed the boating community.
"It was a great experience," said Willmore. "If you are willing to put in the effort, there's never a dull moment."
Willmore said he hasn't seen a dramatic uptick in the liveaboard lifestyle, "but it's definitely back on the upswing."
According to state tax records, there are about 18,000 registered boats in Manatee County. Most are not designed for the liveaboard lifestyle, but the largest percentage of registered vessels, about 8,800, are in the 16-25-foot range. Types of vessels vary as much as the reasons people are choosing the lifestyle, but Willmore and Mroczek agree that the common denominator is simply a love for the water.
"You have to be pragmatic and definitely have a sense of humor about things," said Mroczek. "The type of people range from the big corporate types to people who are barely scraping by. If something doesn't work, you have to fix it immediately. Your boat is your home, but it's not a house. When something goes wrong, you can't say, 'Well I can fix this tomorrow or next week.' You have to fix it now."
Bob Pinto has been a liveaboard for the past three years, all of it at Regatta Pointe. The 64-year-old already completed one leg of his three-pronged bucket list after traveling the country on his Harley Davidson for 13 years. He plans to spend seven more on his boat, switch to the RV lifestyle and "then a pine box," said Pinto. "Hopefully, in that order."
While some experts have analyzed the economical side of why people choose the lifestyle, Pinto cautions that it's not necessarily cheaper.
"It's a lot of work," he said. "People think it's a cheaper way to live, but it's not. I bought my boat brand new. I watched it getting built, but it's still very costly to maintain."
Pinto said it's worth it, however, noting that the liveaboard community is like one big family.
"And we have some people raising families on their boats," he said. "Not everyone is retired like me. Some run businesses from their boats, others live on their boats but work on the land. It's not a "Cheeseburger in Paradise' thing. It's still the real world here."
The liveaboard upswing
Twin Dolphin Marina in Bradenton is in the midst of financing a $5 million improvement project, but Cynthia Belfatto said those improvements aren't necessarily to expand the liveaboard capacity, which has remained consistent.
"For now, we like to stay pretty consistent with about 50 liveaboards at our marina," she said. "A lot of marinas have stopped allowing liveaboards so even though it's hard to say whether we are seeing a trend, we stay pretty stable at 50 and that does include a few families."
According to its website, Cove Sound Moorings does not allow liveaboards. Until recently, neither did Riviera Dunes Marina in Palmetto, but on Feb. 11 the marina was approved by the DEP for 55 liveaboard slips. DEP's Shannon Herbo said all liveaboard applications are inspected by the DEP to ensure there are adequate facilities to support the liveaboard lifestyle, including waste pumping. Herbo said there hasn't been a dramatic increase in marinas seeking liveaboard approvals, but the agency is seeing more.
Riviera Dunes Marina declined to discuss their liveaboard plans, but Parrot Cove Marina owner Bob Gertz said his 10 liveaboard slips "are always full up."
Gertz said he is seeing a "huge increase in demand from a lot of people. There are basically two groups of people coming down. One group are the people who can't afford to buy a house on the water, so they buy a nice boat to live on the water. The other group is people who don't have a lot of money and it's a good way to own your own home. I lived on a boat for 12 years. It's a nice, casual lifestyle."
Bradenton Beach Marina is the only other liveaboard marina in Manatee County with 39 total slips. While the marina stays busy, a spokesperson for the marina said few people use it for a liveaboard environment.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter@urbanmark2014.