City Council bans liveaboards at Fairhope Docks

Woodrow “Woody” Goforth decided to retire onboard the 30-foot long sailboat he bought at a salvage auction, gutted and repaired after six long years of work and a lifetime of careers on land in 2015. Racing motorcycles as a young man and living beneath open sails for the past seven years appealed to his free spirit.

“I can get up on any given day and untie my lines and go sailing. If I’m here in Mobile, I can take off and go to Pensacola and spend a couple days on the water over there. I can go to New Orleans,” the 76-year-old said. “There’s a lot of opportunities just to do something on the water.”

But people like him, known to marina managers as “liveaboards,” will have to tie their lines to another dock after the Fairhope City Council amended the rules for the Fairhope Docks at their regular meeting on Monday, Sept. 12.

Councilors voted cityly to amend four of its 34 rules for the-owned marina. These include requiring proof of insurance from slip lease holders each year, limiting overnight or long-term parking to slip holders and their guests on an extended trip, allowing “loopers” or transient boaters to remain on their vessels no longer than 48 hours and prohibiting people from turning their slip in the marina into their permanent homes.

On a phone call on Thursday, Sept. 15, Mayor Sherry Sullivan said she did not think the previous council intended for “liveaboards” to stay at the marina for as long as they have.

“It was something that [the liveaboards] were there when [the city] took that marina over from a former tenant, so they allowed them to stay but they never intended for it to be a long-term thing,” she said.

An ordinance passed in June 2018 grandfathered in existing “liveaboards” when it banned new ones from tying up at the dock. Sullivan’s recent rules amendment takes into account the one “liveaboard” allowed in after that ordinance passed, which she since said to a personnel issue that has been resolved.

The latest resolution gives the seven or eight “liveaboards” currently living at the Fairhope Docks two months to sail out to other harbors.

“This is not something we took lightly, it’s something we have discussed,” Sullivan said. “I know it’s where people live. That’s why we gave them at least 60 days to find somewhere to go. We certainly don’t want anybody living in their car or being homeless or anything like that.”

Born in Memphis and raised in Arkansas, Goforth worked across the country as an ironworker, woodworker and owner of three companies before he went to work on his retirement plan. Years of travel made him fond of Fairhope, and he opened his sails in the city’s direction, serving as the dockmaster at the Fairhope Municipal Pier for five years. Though he never tied his boat to the Fairhope Docks, Goforth called the new rules “childish” because he said none of the people who made the decision ever experienced the lifestyle they voted to ban.

“I disagree with that. If you can’t do what you asked somebody else to do, then you don’t have the right to ask them that,” he said. “I do see their point on some of the issues with ‘liveaboards,’ because there were ‘liveaboards’ around me that I detested, but they weren’t trying to be decent citizens. They were, for the lack of a better word, a lot of losers out there.”

Goforth said the actions of people like that make all “liveaboards” look disreputable in the eyes of dockmasters. “They see an opportunity not to maintain a lot of responsibility. I think they misread what they need to be reading. That’s saying it in their defense. There’s a lot of irresponsible people out there doing what they do,” he explained.

Phone calls to five other marinas around the Mobile Bay in Fairhope, Fort Morgan and in the southern part of Mobile County revealed “liveaboards” do not have many harbors open to them.

In an email to Lagniappe, Tom Steber, who manages the Fort Morgan Marina, replied “liveaboards” are not welcome at his marina because they add liability.

“Had them before: just too many after hours issues,” he wrote.

Sullivan said she thinks the decision will ultimately benefit Fairhope, noting the City is spending more than $300,000 to repair the Fairhope Docks back to full operations from the damage caused by Hurricane Zeta’s landfall in late October 2020.

“Zeta was not declared a disaster here in Baldwin County, so there were no FEMA dollars to help with that, so we are having to go back and re-establish power and upgrade the bulkhead and add some finger piers and different things for repair, “she said.

Electric power should be completely restored within the next three to six months, and the docks should be back to normal by spring.

These improvements are meant to repair the structure and also make it ready to receive more “loopers” or transient boaters who sail from marina to marina up and down the Mobile Bay and around the Gulf of Mexico. Sullivan said a month’s stay at the Fairhope Docks would cost the average “looper” on a 40-foot boat more than $2,000.

Goforth questioned why “loopers” would make the miles-long journey to Fairhope when they can find several marinas in Mobile where they can refuel and have repairs made on their journey.

He sailed over to a marina along Dog River to have work done on his boat’s rudder, the only part of the vessel he did not give much attention to when he bought it. He said he does not know what his destiny is yet, but he does not regret the decision he made to live on the water.

“Living on a boat can be a great life. It can keep you active, and you need something to keep you active,” Goforth said. He could have bought cows and land and stayed active, he joked, but sailing is better.

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