A new wave of living: houseboat dwellers in the UAE

Waking up every morning to a view of turquoise water lapping at a marina’s edge sounds like an unaffordable dream. But living on a boat can be more cost-effective than renting an apartment in the UAE, and a small but increasing number of expats are embracing the idea of life on the water.

“I see a lot more people contemplating buying a boat to live on,” says Erwin Bamps, chief executive of Ajman-based yacht builders Gulf Craft. “There are now possibilities to park your boat all around the Emirates, and it’s become an interesting proposition for people who like luxury. Increasingly, we see queries for ever-larger yachts for that purpose.”

Bamps says that it used to be single people enquiring about buying yacht-homes, but now more couples are too. “There are a lot more parking possibilities these days, and with the opening of the Dubai Canal, that opens up new conversations. Marinas in the UAE used to be located far away from the centre of communities, but if you look at Dubai Marina and Yas Marina, that’s no longer the case.”

He says floating homes suit residents who are here long term and willing to put down a hefty initial investment for long-term savings on rent. However, there are practicalities that often put off potential buyers, such as arranging work visas without having an apartment or villa as an address, or the lack of space. “I think it’s viable though,” says Bamps. “The community of people who have taken the plunge will start to educate others that there are ways around the problems.”

Way to save money

There’s a striking wooden houseboat moored at Yas Marina that has a history older than any of the buildings on Yas Island. The 14-berth boat, fondly known as Rashika, is inhabited by British safety officer David Evans. But Rashika’s story began 35 years ago when she was crafted in Sharjah and bought by former navy officer David Penson, who sold her for Dh457,000 in 1984 to Evans’ father. He lived on the boat for many years at a marina in Jebel Ali, with Evans’ stepmother, two stepsisters, half-sister, half-brother and their maid.

Evans pays Dh35,000 a year for the berth, which includes access during Grand Prix week (it’s 50 per cent cheaper for those who vacate the spot during the F1 period). Evans’ housing allowance is Dh120,000, so he saves Dh85,000 a year. “Having the extra cash is certainly handy,” he admits. “I’ve got a mortgage in the United Kingdom and one in ­Cyprus, so the money goes on that.”

With Evans’ family now in the UK and United States, he has been living on the boat by himself. “My wife was supposed to be coming out here [from the UK] in 2015, but didn’t, partly because you can’t have Tawtheeq on the boat, so I can’t put her on my residence visa. It’s a floating villa, I told them.”

Evans admits that life on board can get sweaty in the summer months. ­“September is just about bearable,” he says. “My cat doesn’t like it either. My central AC had a fault, and buying a split-unit AC worked out cheaper than repairing it. But my cabin is the other end of the boat to the AC, so by the time the air gets down there, it’s not that cold.”

Joseph Ramos, a 34-year-old aircraft mechanic from Florida who also lives on a boat at Yas Marina, agrees with Evans. He had been renting a villa in Al ­Ghadeer for Dh70,000 a year, before buying his 16-metre sailing boat last January for Dh650,000.

“It’s an investment,” he says. “I really enjoy it most of the time. But sometimes it sucks. Like, when my air-conditioning pump went out for a week in the middle of the summer, it was unbearably hot. There’s no insulation so during the daytime, the outside of the boat gets hot and transfers heat to the inside.”

Going clutter-free

As chief executive of the business facilitation company Naseba, founder of the Global WIL Economic Forum (a women’s empowerment summit held annually in the UAE) and co-author of Game Changers – How Women in the Arab World Are Changing the Rules and Shaping the Future, Sophie Le Ray is one of the top businesswomen in Dubai. She’s also a boat girl at heart. Fourteen years ago, she and husband Scott Ragsdale, chairman of ­Naseba, lived on a 47-footer in the south of France.

“It was the happiest time of my life,” she recalls. “We’d been living in London, and when we returned to France, we didn’t have a place of our own, but we had this boat and decided to live on that with our big dog and our daughter.”

For Le Ray, the beauty of boat living is learning to let go of things. “Even if you have a big boat, it’s never as comfortable as a house, so you have to learn what’s really important for you, and get rid of the clutter.”

Evans agrees that the lack of space can be a downside for many, but this can also be an advantage. “You can’t do too much shopping, so it stops you from being too materialistic.”

After 18 months of life on the water, Le Ray and her husband sold the boat to fund Naseba – “otherwise I’d still be living on it now,” she says.

Le Ray says that her husband has been trying to convince her to live on a boat in Dubai. “I don’t know, because it’s hot,” she says. “But I’m considering it because it was truly the best moment of my life. There are few other people living on boats, so it’s a very tight community. I loved the peacefulness, waking up in the morning.”

Life in perspective

British-Italian Thomas Rebollini says the worst day of his life was when he had to say goodbye to his yacht, which he had called home for two years. “I got rid of it because I had to move to Dubai,” he says.

After buying the yacht for Dh400,000 in 2011, Rebollini had it moored in Al Bateen. He admits that the motion of the sea took some getting used to. “For the first two weeks, when I got to the office, it looked like my desk was moving from left to right. My brain had to adjust to being on a boat in the evenings and in the office in the daytime.”

Rebollini says colleagues couldn’t understand how he could live on a floating vessel. “They especially didn’t understand how I could take it out for charters with friends – they thought it was like moving house every weekend.”

These days, Rebollini’s job involves encouraging others to spend time on the water – he’s now head of finance, sales and marketing for Jalboot Marine ­Network, Abu Dhabi’s only scheduled water ferry.

He feels that the experience of living on a boat has made him a more dynamic person. “I got used to taking larger risks and looking at life in perspective.”


Published: February 22, 2017 04:00 AM


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