A Tiny Home That Floats


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Jane Clegg, who is 83, lives on her schooner at the 79th Street Boat Basin in summer; in winter she and her boat move to Weehawken, N.J.

Credit
Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

As far as places to live go, Jane Clegg considers hers nearly perfect.

“I have a beautiful view and no one bothers me — it’s just sometimes hard to get back on,” said Ms. Clegg, who lives aboard a 39-foot schooner docked for much of the year in one of the choppiest, if prettiest spots, at the 79th Street Boat Basin on the Upper West Side.

On a recent afternoon, a light wind was rippling the Hudson River, jostling Ms. Clegg’s schooner such that pens and cups and visitors slid about the cockpit. But she seemed oblivious, moving nimbly around the cabin in search of her outdoor seat cushions.

“Oh, this is nothing,” she said, popping her strawberry-blond head out of the hatch. “Sometimes I roll!”

Ms. Clegg, who is 83, started living on a boat in 1987, at the age of 54. She had been residing in a large rent-regulated studio on 75th Street near Columbus Avenue since the late 1960s, paying just $300 a month. But after new owners bought the building and moved aggressively to vacate it — they even sent a private detective to Albany where she was stage-managing a theater company one winter, she said — she decided a buyout was preferable to being trailed every time she left town. She received $23,000 and a year to leave.

She funneled the money into building her boat, the JFS Salignac, which cost about $90,000, designing a two-masted schooner that she could sail alone and lining it in mahogany — Honduran, as opposed to Brazilian. “I wanted it more red so that it would be cheery,” she said.

Ms. Clegg, who was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, and spent part of her childhood in England, learned to sail in the early ‘50s in Egypt, on the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal Zone, while serving as a wireless operator in the Women’s Royal Naval Service.

But it wasn’t until she began working as a facility manager for ABC production services during the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo that she seriously contemplated living on a boat. On the last night of the games she met a fellow sailer and master shipwright. Making the rounds with a bottle of Champagne, she opened the door to the broadcast center’s engineering room and saw a man seated before a picture of his schooner. They started talking, polished off the Champagne and began a friendship that led, several years later, to their sailing their two schooners in company on the waters around New York (his had white sails, hers tanbark).

Name: Jane Clegg

Age: 83 Occupation: Retired. Formerly a touring stage manager for ballet, opera and theater companies. Later at ABC-TV she rose to manager of production equipment. Rent: $780 a month to dock from May to October at the 79th Street Boat Basin, plus $22 for electricity. From November through April she pays $293 a month for a slip in Weehawken, N.J., plus $28 for electricity and a $50 winter water charge. Her boat’s name: The JFS Salignac — JFS from a publication called “Jane’s Fighting Ships” that lists every warship in the world. Salignac as in the Cognac, “my favorite — I like to take a little drink every now and then,” Ms. Clegg said. How the boat basin has changed: “There used to be some strange characters. Not to say that they aren’t strange now, but more eccentric.” There also were a lot more of them: The total is down to about 30 year-round residents, from 110, Ms. Clegg said. But the Parks Department’s waiting list for a summer slip tops 700. Bathroom facilities: The head has a sink and toilet, powered by foot pedals. Ms. Clegg takes her showers at the dock house. Pets: None currently, though Ms. Clegg moved aboard with a cat and a Lhasa apso-poodle mix. The cat, Sally, hated the boat — “as soon as I started the engine she’d try to jump off.”

“I decided it would be nice to have something permanent,” Ms. Clegg said, insisting that it had never occurred to her that she wouldn’t like living aboard. “It wasn’t living on board that I was worried about. It was where the boat was going to be.”

She first found a slip at a Tarrytown marina, but had to leave in 1987 when the marina was dredged. Luckily, the dockmaster at the 79th Street Boat Basin agreed to give her a spot for the winter at $250 a month. It was poorly sheltered, though — on the outside of the northernmost dock, right next to the icebreakers.

“It’s a good thing I went to an English boarding school,” Ms. Clegg said. “I couldn’t get the heater working.” A neighbor’s nightly dinner invitations to a boat with a functional heater spared her from hypothermia. She remembers trying to get the neighbor’s guinea pig off its heated pad so that she could sit on it herself.

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The boat’s interior, nearly 11 feet wide, is lined with Honduran mahogany.

Credit
Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

These days she has her own electric blanket and pays dockage fees of $4,680 for the summer season, May through October, or $780 a month. Dockage fees run $120 per linear foot in the summer, $105 in the winter, and Ms. Clegg’s schooner is 39 feet length over all. It is 10 feet 8 inches wide, with a nearly 24-foot-long cabin that has ceilings 6 feet 2 inches high.

Despite being offshore from the Upper West Side, Ms. Clegg said she feels like part of the neighborhood. “I do all my shopping between Zabar’s in the north and Fairway in the south,” she said. “You can’t be any more Upper West Side than that.”

Three winters ago, for economy’s sake, she started spending the winter at Lincoln Harbor Yacht Club in Weehawken, N.J., where dockage runs only $45 a foot, bringing the cost down to $293 a month — exclusive of what she spends on boat upkeep.

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The view from Ms. Clegg’s schooner.

Credit
Stephanie Diani for The New York Times

She keeps dock boxes for storage on both sides of the river, which prevent her small space from becoming too cluttered. “I always find it hard to get rid of clothes,” she said, pointing to the V-berth in the bow, where she sleeps, half of which has been given over to storage for her “old, old, treasured clothing.”

When it comes to dining, Ms. Clegg boasts that she is “the foremost practitioner of cooking on the Foreman Grill,” but occasionally uses a kerosene stove.

What the boat lacks in creature comforts is more than made up for in the freedom it affords. “Theoretically, at least, it’s very easy to go sailing,” she said.

“I don’t go out much alone anymore,” she continued. “At my age, I decided it’s not a great idea.” Sailing solo requires a great deal of agility and arm strength, she said, and the Hudson can be unforgiving, with strong currents and wakes. “Though now that I’m retired I could go on longer trips,” she said. “I’m going to see if I can do some exercises and go out by myself.”

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