Alexandria Boaters Reveal the Secrets of Living on the Water

Alexandria Boaters Reveal the Secrets of Living on the Water

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

    Ratty to Mole in Kenneth Grahame's classic novel 'The Wind in the Willows'


Old Town resident Dave Robbins has owned a progression of boats in Alexandria over the last 20 years. Along with his wife and five-year-old daughter, he uses one of his boats for zipping to local restaurants, attending baseball games, swimming around Georgetown, viewing fireworks and sightseeing.

“An essential part of living in Alexandria is the access to the water,” Robbins says. “It’s a really amazing place to boat.”

Robbins is one of many locals onboard with the boating scene, spending hard-earned dollars and precious time on the lifestyle. There’s an old saying about owning a boat; the two best days in a boat owner’s life are the day they buy a boat and the day they sell it. But for boaters like Robbins, the pros far outweigh the cons.

“I really like that as soon as you push off from the dock, you’re on vacation,” he says. “You see nature. There’s no traffic. It’s quieter. You can get away within 20 minutes of deciding that you want to do that. I love that.”

Life on the water has a growing following in the area, with roughly 200,000 registered boaters in Maryland, 2,000 in the DC area and 230,000 in Virginia, according to Hilary Pesarik-Thompson, marketing director for DiMillos’ Yacht Sales.

Why is sea life so popular?

“Some will say the relaxation, others will say the adventure,” Pesarik-Thompson says. “With a boat, you have the ability to move it to different marinas, anchorages, ports and up and down the East Coast and beyond. The possibilities are vast.”

Just Add Water

Seasoned boaters offer valuable advice for those considering joining the ranks of boat owners, whether it’s a dinghy, ski boat or yacht. Safety and education are vital, especially when alcohol is in the mix.

“From what I’ve seen in the water, there’s a lot of sketchy, dangerous things that happen,” says Jerry Lee, skipper and owner of Reflections DC Charters. “Combined with DC’s drinking culture, there’s a lot of dangerous situations that can happen on the river.” this 

Lee suggests pursuing boater education above and beyond what is required in order to be as equipped as possible. Other local boaters offer additional advice: attend boat shows to research models before purchasing and take the ‘About Boating Safely’ course or a similar course, which is a requirement in Virginia. Also, those new to sailing should ensure they can pass vessel checks from the US Coast Guard, consult a depth chart, know local no-wake zones and ramp etiquette.

Montgomery Village, MD residents Jeff and Lauren Brush retired from their jobs at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and bought a 53-foot monohull named Sonnet, which they now live on several months of the year. As sailing novices, they took preparation seriously and enrolled in a full week of classes during winter in the British Virgin Islands to become ship safe.

“It’s a really, really good place to learn,” Jeff says.

Boater Robbins advises to walk the docks in Old Town, chat with boat owners and join boating social media groups to connect with other local boaters.

“It’s a great place for people to ask questions and get honest answers.”

It Won’t Sink Your Wallet

Boating is more possible than one might think. Herndon resident Anthony Harper made boating affordable by selecting a low-maintenance watercraft model and splitting the costs with two good friends. This arrangement has worked out better than any of them could have imagined.

“We purchased a 2015 Bayliner Element XL, which is an 18-foot boat that can accommodate nine adults and is exactly what we wanted,” Harper says. “We agreed to split the cost evenly and share the time in a way that works for all of us. The best part is the cost. Due to our setup, I am able to boat whenever I want for less than $100 a month.”

Ru Toyama co-owns a 25-foot tritoon boat with a friend and Naval Academy classmate, which he docks in Old Town.

“Share the financial load of it — that is what we do, so you can’t beat the boat life with half the costs!” he says.

Boaters say the cost of owning a vessel can be justified when you consider cutting out other purchases, like family vacations to Disneyworld or trips overseas. In fact, sleeping overnight on a boat can save big bucks and offer extravagant amenities.

“When we do take the boat places, sometimes there’s a huge financial advantage, like at the Tides [Inn] at Irvington,” boater Matt Hirschmann says, noting hotel rooms during prime season on weekends can cost over $1,000 per night. “It’s an amazingly beautiful resort on the Rappahannock River and if we pull the boat up there, we go to the marina, which is gorgeous. We get all the amenities of the hotel and I think we pay like $100 and something. Sometimes there’s sort of a pseudo economic advantage to being on the boat.”

 A Floating Office

Picture this: instead of working from your fluorescent-illuminated cubicle or makeshift home office in the spare bedroom, set up shop on your own sea vessel, gloriously floating on crystal waters.

“It’s a great change of scenery, especially when the weather is nice!” Toyama says. “I work essentially all remote, so it’s nice to have a different venue to work from.”

Hirschmann and his family have the best of both worlds; a comfortable home in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood, but also a 41-foot Sedan Bridge Cruiser. Avid boaters for over 20 years, the family spends as much time as possible on the water, including working remotely from their vessel, the La Tanya. Hirschmann recalls one particular Zoom meeting he attended from his vessel, while floating in the Long Island Sound.

“I had jumped in the water right before the meeting to wake myself up before the meeting and there were these swans next to me,” he says. “I sit down at the meeting. As far as everybody’s concerned, I’m sitting in an office just like they are, but feeling just so much better.”

Kids Are On Board

Local kids embrace the sailor’s lifestyle as well. Hirschmann says his 12-year-old daughter travels extensively on the boat and often brings her friends. When sailing with children, certain considerations must be taken into account, he says. Climate control is important for babies and life jackets must be worn whenever children are on deck. 

“We went straight from the hospital to our boat for two weeks,” he says. “What I love about it is it brings the family together.”

When boating with children for an extended amount of time, more flexibility is necessary for itineraries, with stops for ice cream, swimming or other activities.

“It’s important to me that she likes boating,” says Robbins, who sails with his five-year-old daughter. “I try to keep it an agreeable experience. We try and make sure we always incorporate something for her.”

Buyer Beware

Sailing has a downside, with some obvious cons.

“You are taking all the complexities of a house and then putting them in a marine environment, with waves that are pounding on it at times,” Hirschmann says. “There’s always little maintenance issues, there’s always challenges and they do cost money if you can’t fix them yourself.”

Robbins notes that three times every summer, he must laboriously take his boat out of the water and clean it from top to bottom.

When Lauren and Jeff Brush purchased 30-year-old Sonnet in the fall of 2017, they spent as much money retrofitting it as they did buying it. Lauren jokes that the word ‘boat’ is an acronym for ‘break out another thousand.’

“It’s much more expensive than we anticipated, but we learned an enormous amount about all the systems on the boat,” Jeff says. “Now, I’m comfortable maintaining all the electronics and rewiring and fixing pumps.”

The good news, according to Hirschmann, is that unexpected expenses pop up less frequently the longer he and his family sail.

“It’s when you have a bunch of deferred maintenance and you buy a boat that never was well taken care of — it’s like endless nightmares,” he says. “We’ve been partially lucky and then learn from seeing others make the mistakes.”

And besides, the benefits of boat ownership far outweigh the drawbacks.

“Some of the negatives do exist, but they pale by comparison with the positives for me,” Hirschmann says.

Unique Benefits

Life on the Potomac comes with extraordinary benefits, according to local boaters. Lee’s company, Reflections DC, offers boating packages to give historic tours for several hours up and down the river. This area, he says, can’t be beaten when it comes to notable facts.

“There’s a lot of history on the water,” Lee says. “There’s history related to the abolitionist movement — that’s something that’s really cool about this area; you don’t get that in say, Florida, where it’s just coastline after coastline.”

Robbins embraces special events with family on his boat, like having a front row seat from their vessel watching fireworks from the Potomac on the Fourth of July.

Boat owner Harper says the best part about boating is the lifetime of memories made with family and friends. “It’s one of the best decisions I ever made,” he says. He’s 

Jeff and Lauren Brush wholeheartedly agree, as they leisurely sail through the Caribbean on their monohull, savoring every second of their retirement. “We’ll never get tired of sunsets,” Lauren says.


story by  DAWN KLAVON
Hey photography by  JONATHAN THORPE
special thanks to: 
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