Tucked between two high-rise condominiums, about 50 boats bob lazily at Pier 3 marina on the Delaware River.
About 20 of them are also homes to their captains, who head out to work as scientists, professors, salespeople, or students each morning and return to the vessel each night.
"It's the best deal in Philadelphia," said Mark MacGlaughlin, 62, a retired truck driver who lives on his boat, Second Refuge. Seven years ago he got towed into Pier 3 when his boat broke down en route to the Jersey Shore. He never left.
"I've got Philadelphia right behind me," he said. "I can walk into the city whenever I want. And it beats living on land."
For as little as $200 a month, boat owners can rent slip space to live in one of the city's priciest zip codes, just blocks from Old City's restaurants and bars and a few nautical maneuvers away from the open water. All tenants at Pier 3 also are required to provide a permanent land address.
Of course, one has to buy a boat, which, depending on length and type, can range from a few thousand dollars to several hundred thousand dollars, plus the cost of ongoing upkeep. Boats in Pier 3 run the gamut, said George Polgar, who co-manages the marina. They range from a $5,000 worn-down speedboat to a half-million-dollar new fishing sport boat "with a tuna tower, twin 440-horsepower Volvo engine, and enough electronic sub-surface tracking gear to make The Hunt for Red October look like child's play."
In past years, the marina has attracted some people seeking cheap rent, without much interest in boating. Now, as waterfront property on the Delaware continues to develop, managers at Pier 3 are trying to make the marina more of a social sporting club, clearing out abandoned vessels and luring in young professionals, retirees, and serious boaters from around the country with upgraded amenities and the draw of Philadelphia as backyard.
"The owners struggled for some years because it got to be a place where it was just people living on boats, not a boating community," said Polgar, who along with his wife, Tyler Anne Ward, owns a boat in the marina. "In the last year, the profile has really changed."
Ward is the marina's longest-running tenant and now one of its managers. When she docked here in 1992, it was more of a social pier, heavily populated with divorcees who gave up their homes and moved onto boats.
"It was the hottest marina," Polgar said. "It should have been a situation comedy, this incredible collection of unattached guys. It was like a club scene."
Polgar and Ward have brought in several people from out of state recently to repopulate the marina, which took a hit during the recession.
Claire McKellar and Kevin Russell were living in Washington and had their boat docked in the Chesapeake Bay, before they moved in May to Philadelphia. Now they live on their 34-foot sailboat, facing the Ben Franklin Bridge.
McKellar, a neurobiologist who commutes (by car) to her job at Princeton each day, grew up boating with her family on Lake Huron. While in graduate school at Harvard, she mentioned to Russell the idea of living on a boat full time.
"I said to Kevin, 'We should do something in our lives that isn't just working 18 hours a day.' … I was just kidding, but I said, 'We could just give up our apartment and live on a boat,' " McKellar said.
Russell loved the idea. The couple paid $40,000 for a 34-foot, 1989 Catalina sailboat in 2003 and first docked it in Boston Harbor that year.
The key to living in a space smaller than most living rooms is to get rid of anything superfluous. Russell is a talented cook whose closet-size kitchen specialties include poached salmon and Jamaican lentil curry stew. He downsized from a full kitchen of equipment to two knives and two pots.
Both purged their closets. "I have five pairs of pants and three sweaters," McKellar said.
They've even adjusted some of their hobbies. McKellar loves to play piano and drums but took up flute so she could have an instrument on-board. Russell, similarly, traded in his guitar for a ukulele.
Certain sentimental objects that couldn't fit below deck are stowed in a storage container.
When a barge passes by in the busy Delaware, the boat rocks back and forth with enough sway to knock over a glass of water. Snowstorms can be tough, but their space heaters are powerful. In Boston, the couple wrapped their boat in plastic to better insulate it from the cold.
They have high-speed internet, hot water, and air-conditioning. There's a built-in waste tank, though they mostly use the marina facilities — full bathrooms with showers and laundry.
They keep tidy so when an urge to go sailing arises, they're "in shipshape," McKellar said. The boat can sleep up to seven people on two queen beds and convertible benches and tables.
The Delaware near Philadelphia doesn't have the recreational offerings or sailing destinations the couple had when docked on the Chesapeake, but the trade-off, Russell said, is living in a tight-knit community in the heart of a big city.
Their neighbors include a Penn medical student, an ecologist, a naval architect, and a software engineer. There's an Airbnb houseboat renting for $250 per weekend that brings in transient visitors.
"We love the communities and the interesting and eclectic people you meet. It's that small-town feel in the middle of a big city," Russell said. "You might have different politics or backgrounds, but at the end of the day you can always bring it back to boating."
Right now, the marina has about 15 slips vacant. During the recession, only about 50 percent of the marina was occupied, and several boats were abandoned by owners who couldn't make payments. Some boats are still sitting there rusting, overstuffed with left-behind belongings. It costs about $100 per foot to tow away a boat. "You can't exactly throw it out on the curb," Polgar said.
In February, an older man died aboard the houseboat where he had been living. It sat empty for several months and then sank, Polgar said. A bunch of boaters on the marina banded together to pull it back up.
That sailor solidarity is evident today in periodic BBQs and docktails. Ed Brown, who co-owns the pier, said he's seen a more community vibe lately. Brown recently upgraded bathroom facilities and landscaping around the docks.
Up and down the river, Philadelphia's piers have become popular opportunities for reuse. Race Street Pier hosts daily free yoga classes. Spruce Street Harbor Park's beer garden and Festival Pier's concert offerings draw huge crowds. The Delaware River Waterfront is turning Cherry Street Pier (municipal Pier 9) into a public art and market space.
North of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, four piers sold last year to the Durst Organization, which plans to build waterfront rentals on a 5.8-acre plot. The purchase includes Dave & Buster's and Morgan's Pier, though it will be a while before construction starts. Morgan's Pier lease has 15 years left on it.
Durst also owns the marina at Pier 12, which has slips for 145 boats, though "live-aboards" are not allowed. Durst spokesperson Jordan Barowitz said it's unclear at this point whether the marina will be affected by the development.
Brown said he had no plans to sell or significantly alter the Pier 3 marina. Brown also developed the condos that tower over the docks.
"It's supposed to be like their backyard," Brown said. "It's an attraction to look out your window and see the boats."
From down on her boat, McKellar feels as if she got the better bargain.