What these Hong Kong families love about houseboat living, and why they’ll miss it if evicted from marina
The space, the quiet, the community spirit – families whose boats face eviction from Discovery Bay marina talk about the advantages of a life afloat
Henry and Julie Moreno’s favourite spot on their boat in the Discovery Bay marina is the stern, which faces due west. From there, on a fine day, they can enjoy an unobstructed view of the sunset while sipping a glass of wine.
“We can even watch the fireworks from Disneyland,” says Henry Moreno, 40, a commercial pilot.
Their boat, named Spellbound, also offers plenty of living space for the couple and their three children, aged six, nine and 12, dog and two turtles. At 900 square feet (84 square metres), it’s bigger than many flats in Hong Kong. There’s a bedroom for each child, a spacious living room, two bathrooms, a decent-sized kitchen, and even a well-stocked wine fridge. “We’re French,” Julie Moreno says with a shrug.
“The kids are mostly outside and many of the kids here play together. It’s a great community for them to play outside,” she says, as the two youngest children play on the dock with a cardboard box they have decorated with markers.
The family are not sure how much longer they will be able to maintain their lifestyle. Last Sunday, they were among the hundreds of people who walked from the Discovery Bay Marina Club to the North Plaza in the residential enclave on Lantau Island to protest against developer HKR International’s abrupt announcement last month that berthing permits would be terminated on December 31 to allow for “extensive repair, renovation and maintenance works”.
It was effectively an eviction notice for the 150 to 200 families who live on boats in the marina.
On the march, many Discovery Bay apartment tenants showed solidarity with the boat dwellers’ fight to save their property and preserve a way of life that offers a cost-effective way to enjoy a relatively large living space in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Life on the water is quiet and relaxing, and the marina’s residents feel a sense of community, some say.
Additionally, Discovery Bay is an attractive location for those who fly frequently, given Hong Kong International Airport is just over the hill, and a 25-minute ferry ride away from the Central business district on Hong Kong Island.
The Discovery Bay Marina Club is in a typhoon shelter, so the water is calm; the boats, berthed next to each other and with names such as Rock the Boat, Barracuda, Canton Girl, Mo Man Tai, Sea Dog and Mind the Gap, barely rock.
Nina Schulte-Mattler and Andrew Henderson live aboard Vital Spark. It’s a world away from high-rise Taikoo Shing, where the couple first lived when they moved to Hong Kong from Europe almost 22 years ago.
“I just saw windows outside my window,” Schulte-Mattler recalls.
Later, they moved into a flat in Discovery Bay, where they had two sons and then a daughter. Ten years ago the couple decided to move from land to sea after Schulte-Mattler was inspired by a visit to a friend’s boat.
Henderson, a pilot, initially had reservations, because HKRI can raise fees at any time. He notes that fees have doubled in the past 10 years. He has grown fond of life aboard the 80ft-long vessel.
“I like the peace and quiet, and I like to be outside. The climate is comfortable and the best part is there are no mosquitoes in the marina,” he says. “On my deathbed will I regret the 10 years of being here? No way. I enjoyed … being on this pleasure vessel, with my canoe and paddle boats.”
The couple bought Vital Spark as a shell in 2009, and Schulte-Mattler worked with a company that specialises in boat interiors to fit it out. In all, they spent HK$6.7 million (US$853,000).
The boat has a clean, contemporary look, with lots of storage space in drawers and under the beds. Initially, the two boys roomed together. Now they are 15 and 13, and their large room can easily be modified to make separate bedrooms. There’s even a guest bedroom.
Like all the boats berthed in the marina, it is hooked up to electricity and water supplies, while broadband internet is also an option, and even a telephone landline.
Schulte-Mattler still has fond memories of the time Vital Spark was towed into the Discovery Bay marina.
“The boat was built in Zhuhai [in southern China] and then it was sent to Shau Kei Wan typhoon shelter to be fitted out. When it was all done and ready to be towed here, we had a big party to celebrate,” she recalls. “We had 14 people on board, the maximum number of people [permitted] when it’s moving, and when we docked we had a few more people. We had drinks and pizza.”
Henderson walks us around the dock, where small fish can be seen in the water.
“This place is inadvertently a fish farm because they feed on the algae on the hulls of the boats,” he says. “We’ve also seen turtles and even the odd shark.”
Algae and barnacles are scraped off during maintenance, which is usually carried out every 12 to 18 months, when families must move out for a few days while their boat is taken to a dry-docking facility. Any necessary repairs or renovations are also undertaken during this time.
Luca and Raffaella Morlotti have also been in Hong Kong for 22 years, and moved from a flat in Discovery Bay to their boat 12 years ago.
“Our children needed more space and they would complain, saying their friends lived on boats,” Raffaella explains.
The family finds Discovery Bay convenient because Luca flies on business for three weeks of every month to visit clients around Asia, selling machines to process steel for infrastructure projects.
“After I come home I feel relaxed. It’s a beautiful place,” he says.
Raffaella had been surprised by the spaciousness when she was invited onto her friend’s boat – and by how much cheaper a boat was than a flat the same size. To her, the move was a no-brainer.
They bought their 1,900 square foot boat second-hand for under HK$4 million. The interior is tastefully decorated, the living room having a distinct blue and white nautical theme. Pristine white couches are decorated with blue and white cushions, matched with blue and white Chinese porcelain, and Chinese wooden cabinets that match the floors.
At weekends, the aroma of grilled meat permeates the marina as residents barbecue on deck, the Morlottis say.
Like other residents in the marina the Post spoke to, Paula Tschupp-Lambert says life on board is more peaceful than in a flat, where you often can hear noise made by neighbours.
“It’s incredibly quiet,” she says, even though the next boat is spitting distance away.
Her husband, Ueli, who works in the banknote printing industry, travels frequently for his job, so he also finds being close to the airport a plus. One consideration for boat dwellers is water safety – even their cats have fallen into the water after getting too close to the edge.
“I had our daughter [aged five] learn how to swim at three months. Kids here need to learn how to swim because she’s walking along the dock. There is a chance she may fall in, so she needs to know how to save herself,” Paula says matter-of-factly.
Ueli says that, as a rule, he does not stare at his phone when he walks along the dock – his wife has dropped her phone, sunglasses and other belongings into the water.
There are downsides to living on their boat, Nautilus. The dock area isn’t covered, and when it’s windy, even an umbrella offers scant protection from the elements. “There’s no bus stop nearby and we have to walk … to get to school. We wear raincoats and bring an extra set of clothes to change into. It’s just water,” she says.
Ueli gets a mixed reaction from people when he tells them he lives on a boat.c
“When I told my local friends about staying on a boat, they were surprised and said, ‘Oh you are very brave. Only Vietnamese people and refugees live on a boat’ … But at the same time, when I tell my European friends I live on a boat, they think I live on a yacht, but this is definitely not a yacht,” he says.