Since third grade, Steve Virello had dreamed of living a sailor’s life at sea.
More than 60 years later, his plan to navigate a Fisher 37 motorsailer north from Sausalito to the Puget Sound was interrupted just before Halloween, when he put in to Crescent City for repairs and maintenance.
While moored here, he was listening to National Public Radio, one of his few lifelines to the outside world, and learned of last week’s approaching bomb cyclone. Time to batten down the hatches.
“I had to tie my neighbor up, too, rig a spare line. He lives in Grants Pass. Comes over to his boat on the weekends. I was afraid he was going to break loose and go slamming into the dock next to him,” Virello said.
“With those kinds of winds, you can’t actually move a boat. You can stop it, prevent something worse from happening, put spare lines on it. I could see what was coming. I put two extra lines on it.
“I’m glad I did. It was slamming into its berth, keeling over like this (holding his hand at a 45-degree angle), the winds just, whoof, knocking it over.
“Of course, I didn’t sleep much that night,” Virello added.
He said he thought that the worst of the storm, with gusts approaching 70 miles per hour, hit Crescent City between 5 and 7 p.m. The lights went out at 6:30 p.m. “The whole harbor went black.
“When the lights went out, I just gave up. You can’t see a damn thing. When the lights go out, so do the electric heaters,” which he’s relying on until he rebuilds his boat’s electrical system. “Well, better get the long underwear on. Gonna be a cold night.”
Virello said that going on 73 years old, he doesn’t mind being cold. “You can dress for that. What I can’t stand is hot weather. That’s one of the reasons I’m moving out of the San Francisco area. It’s too hot.”
Virello purchased the King Fish (he’s plans to change the boat’s name to something more to his liking) with the intention of sailing north to Washington with his high school buddy, also named Steve. The two Steves planned to visit the Port Townsend area, or maybe further north to Blaine.
“But the boat had so many mechanical problems,” he said, “and took so long to fix. Instead of leaving at the end of August, we didn’t get out here until almost Halloween.
“By the time we got to Crescent City, we realized it was too late to go north. Nobody does that this time of year. You’ve got everything against you. So, I said, ‘Well, I’m going to winter in Crescent City.’
“Once I got here, I found out how nice a place it is and how friendly everybody is, and what a different feeling it is from the San Francisco area, which is so noisy, crowded, expensive, hot and too much traffic.
“This feels pretty damn good to me. I’m not going anywhere for a while.”
Virello has lived most of his life in Sausalito, much of it on a boat. Ironically, Fox News last week aired a story on residents living rent-free aboard boats because they couldn’t afford to rent on land in Sausalito. Virello said Fox got only part of the story right.
“You don’t have people who can’t afford an apartment suddenly anchoring out in Richardson Bay. A lot have drug problems, meth users. Some are straight shooters, sure. They live there because they don’t want to be bothered to live on land, it’s free,” he said. “But it’s different having a boat that is capable of weathering an anchor situation.
“Every winter when we have a bad storm, like we had here, half the boats would have been demolished and dragged away, smashed into someone else.”
Virello said that with the housing crunch in the Bay Area, “You have a young couple who can’t afford $6,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment who say, ‘Gee, honey, why don’t we get a boat and live on it?’ Well, that just explodes the whole marina problem for all the real boaters who are already there.
“Now, the marina owners are going, ‘Hey, we can cash in on this.’ So they’re charging an extra $500 a month if you live aboard, on top of the rent. It was a real incentive to get the hell out of there.”
Virello, now living off his Social Security check, was self-employed for 21 years as a tugboat captain hauling disabled vessels around San Francisco Bay. He said he likes what he’s found in Crescent City Harbor.
“Not only have I enjoyed living on boats, it’s affordable. I couldn’t rent a house around here on my retirement. The rent here in the harbor, because I gave them six months in advance, is $256 a month. If I give them a year in advance, it is $210 a month.”
That said, “I might have to get a gym membership so I can go get a nice, warm shower in the dead of winter.”
Meantime, his days here are filled living out the acronym BOAT … breaking out another thousand dollars, always working on the next project. He’s replacing the King Fish’s plumbing system, installing a much simpler composting toilet. Next, he’ll install some sort of heating system, diesel or kerosene, which he can fire up when the power goes out.
“I’ve made a lot of trips to Ace Hardware since I’ve been here. Fortunately, it’s the best hardware store I’ve seen in a while. They’re so helpful and friendly,” Virello said.
As for the harbor’s management, “Sometimes a marina can be a lowlife trailer park if they’re not managed properly,” Virello said. So, he appreciates how the Crescent City district has invested in the harbor by upgrading it following the 2011 tsunami.
“If you do have people living aboard, you want someone who is experienced, not just because it’s cheap. After being in the tugboat business for 21 years, and living a lot longer before that, you kind of know what to watch for.
“If I’m here, I can take care of my own boat. But you might also have to take care of someone else’s boat. That’s the value of having people here, taking care of someone else,” he said.
“Whether I move north is to be seen. I figure I’ll be here a couple years. As long as everything is harmonious.”