Six years ago, Michael Sullivan lived in a comfortable brownstone in Boston’s South End. It was a nice place to rent, but he was pushing 30 and wanted a home of his own.
He took a second job, bartending on weekends, but most Boston homes remained out of his price range, and he did not want to live in the suburbs. He had given up when, browsing Craigslist, he saw an ad for a 55-foot houseboat in Charlestown, which he went to tour.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “It had three bedrooms, 1½ bathrooms, and a rooftop deck overlooking the sea. It’s one of the city’s best-kept secrets.”
Now, he fears he may lose it all. As legal wrangling intensifies between the state and the marina’s owner over decaying piers, boat owners have become pawns in a fight they did not choose, and many believe they will soon be evicted.
Martin Oliner, the marina’s owner, lent credibility to that fear last week, when he sent letters to boat owners at Piers 6 and 8 of the Shipyard Quarters Marina ordering an immediate eviction. Through his lawyers, he said this was the only way to abide by an injunction, filed earlier this month by Attorney General Martha Coakley, requiring him to repair the rotting piers, with their rusted steel pilings and collapsing wooden beams.
Boat owners were granted a small reprieve Thursday when Suffolk County Judge Elizabeth Fahey halted the eviction, which would have left 112 boats — among those, about 30 houseboats — without a home. Still, Sullivan and his neighbors worry eviction remains imminent and have continued to search, frantically, for new piers to dock their boats. Another hearing is set for Monday.
Sullivan does not want to leave. The 36-year-old yoga instructor was first drawn to the marina by a sense of adventure — “It takes guts to live on the sea,” he said — but over the years fell in love with everyday life on the water: the joys of backyard fishing, the rocking of the waves, and the eclectic houseboat neighbors who care for each other like family.
Those who live on the pier share a common language. They speak of the stillness of the water, the hush of the docks. They believe the best life is a life in motion, and that the motion of the sea is the best way to fall asleep. They know how to catch a striped bass in the harbor and have it cleaned, filleted, and on a grill in less than seven minutes.
They agree you have to be a little quirky to seek a life on a boat, but this is what binds them.
Jim Shattuck, 42, a six-year resident of the houseboat Travesty, said the marina neighborhood is a quaint relic from a time when neighbors waved to each other on the streets, kept their doors unlocked, and invited each other to barbecues and block parties. Every night, someone will be cooking something on a grill, he said, and neighbors congregate on the docks, sipping beer and swapping stories.
They are connected by a sense of communal ownership, Shattuck said. When someone leaves on vacation, everyone watches over his boat. No one left when Hurricane Sandy hit last October. Instead, they ventured out into the rain, checking that boats were lashed tightly to the pier.
“The worst part of what’s happening is that it’s breaking up an extended family,” said Shattuck, who works as an IT developer in Boston. “In 2010, when my brother got married, he held his wedding right here on the docks, and all my neighbors were there with me.”
Fifteen-year resident Jon Dolence said the pier is the perfect place to live: close enough to the city for it to be accessible, and far enough away that the docks feel hidden. It is also reasonably priced: Residents pay for their own boats, with docking fees of about $150 per foot each season, or about $15,000 a year. Dolence also rents out a house boat and two yachts — “bed & breakfasts” — to those looking for a getaway.
“You can take a ferry or bus into town, and feel the pulse of the city,” he said. “But when you’ve had your fill of dining and shopping, you can come back here to the peace and quiet.”
Life on the pier is a constant surprise, he said. Sometimes, in the winter, he sees seals flip onto the dock to warm themselves. Last summer, a mother duck laid a batch of eggs in his window boxes. It returned to hatch more this year.
Dolence wakes up at 5 a.m. every day to watch the sunrise and still marvels at the yellows and purples and reds that glisten on the water. At night, he sits on the docks, watching the city lights sparkle in the distance.
The serenity of the pier was disrupted Friday afternoon, one day after the eviction was halted, replaced by a sense of urgency. Shattuck and Sullivan, alongside two other neighbors, Lawrence McGinnis, 67, and Betty Lindsey, 62, stood near the front of the docks and wondered aloud where they would move.
Not many marinas are willing to take house boats, they had found, especially this late in the season, and now they were in the uncomfortable position of looking at spots that might not fit all their friends. Many had not been sleeping, or were too anxious to concentrate on work or daily tasks.
What was happening to them, they said, was no different than if a suburban neighborhood were suddenly displaced. Sullivan said he just redid the ceiling in the front of his boat — with 260-year-old wood from a barn in New Hampshire — and is gearing up for more renovations. If he is evicted, he said he may have to give up his boat for good.
Back in his own boat, Shattuck contemplated what he would do if he could not find a new home on the water.
“Plan Z would be to pull out of the water and find an apartment on land,” he said. “It would be the end of a great chapter of our lives.”