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A Village Afloat: Victoria's fisherman's wharf is home to a unique family of residents

Fisherman’s Wharf is special. Only a short walk to the heart of downtown Victoria, yet, the little village might as well be a thousand miles away from the rest of the world. - Arnold Lim
Fisherman’s Wharf is special. Only a short walk to the heart of downtown Victoria, yet, the little village might as well be a thousand miles away from the rest of the world.
— image credit: Arnold Lim

“It’s a goofy little village,” says Kim Young. “But we love it.” Until recently, Young was the head of the village’s community association, but the title really wasn’t that important. She just loves where she lives, and it’s an understandable love affair.

The fact is that Fisherman’s Wharf is a very special place. It’s only a short walk down a series of scenic trails to the heart of downtown Victoria, yet, even during the hectic summer months, when evening falls and the tourists have wandered off, the little village might as well be a thousand miles away from the rest of the world.

“There’s nowhere else like it,” says Young.

Thirty-three homes and handful of shops make up this community and they are as diverse a collection of dwellings as you can imagine, ranging from impressive three-storey affairs to tiny gingerbread-like cottages — all of them rising and falling with the tides in what is one of the most scenic locations in Victoria.

Call them house boats and you’ll be quickly and a little sternly corrected.

“They are not houseboats; please don’t call them that,” says Young. “Boats have motors or sails. These are floating homes — our homes.”

And as far as the residents of the village are concerned, they are the most wonderful homes one could imagine.

In the mornings, Young can look out her window to see the mist rolling over the still waters of the Inner Harbour. In the distance, boats of all types, from high masted sailing vessels and luxury yachts to working fishing boats, all lie at their berths. They’re arranged in a picture perfect vista, seemingly just for Young’s pleasure.

Floating homes aren’t cheap, to be sure, but Young argues that they are far more economical than many of Victoria’s alternatives.

“They sell in the neighbourhood of $300,000, and there are some moorage fees, but if you were to look at a waterfront condo and the costs associated with one of them, this is still a lot cheaper. And you’d never get this sense of community in any other neighbourhood. We’re like family.”

That’s apparent. When we arrive to get a photo of some of the residents, over a dozen of the villagers come out wearing Santa hats and stuffed reindeer antlers to pose for a picture around the community’s Christmas tree. The cool December breeze does nothing to dampen their smiles. “We’re proud of our community,” laughs Young. “And it shows.”

The village isn’t all homes, of course. There are a few commercial establishments, as well — some restaurants, tour companies, a kayak rental place. It’s December and most of them are closed now, although the Mexican restaurant is still open and a few of the others are open periodically. Most, though, have shuttered their doors until spring. The pirate adventure attraction is closed, for example, but they’ll ‘yo, ho, ho’ their way back to the wharf when sunny spring days draw tourists back to the village.

Tourists . . . Young smiles when asked about the tens of thousands of tourists that visit Fisherman’s Wharf every year. They come to feed the harbour seals that live at the end of Young’s “street”. They come to eat fish and chips. And they come to look at the float homes.

Houseboat GangIt’s true. Fascinated newcomers to the wharf will often stop to pose in front of the eclectic collection of homes that make up the village. Sometimes they even ask if they can come in and look around. Young and her neighbours don’t mind.

“You don’t live here if you don’t like people,” says Janice Mayfield. She’s one of Young’s neighbours and has lived in her floating home with two roommates for the past 5 years. “Our community is a pretty eclectic group, but we have one thing in common. We all like people.”

And, it seems, people like them.

“The people who live here are amazing,” says one tourist. “I’ve never seen people who will invite strangers into their home to look around. It’s unreal.”

Of course, it’s not recommended that you knock on doors and ask for tours. These are people’s homes after all. They do have an open house once a year, however, when people are welcomed to tour homes in return for a small charitable donation.

Interestingly, the village wasn’t always welcomed, or even valued as a community.

Up to around 1990, Fisherman’s Wharf was true to its name and was home to Victoria’s fishing fleet. For several decades following the Second World War, the wharf had been home to a significant number of salmon boats that would tie up, sometimes two or three abreast. They’d sell their catch to Dennis Shellfish (where the Malahat building now stands). The wharf also attracted crabbers and other fishers to the location.

It was during that time that the eclectic collection of live aboard vessels and float homes first started appearing. As the fishing declined, the space assumed by floating homes increased and a village was born.

“Some of the homes back then were a little sketchy,” says John Kula, who has lived at the wharf for years. “Most of them cleared out when they were forced to get insurance,” he explains. “There was no way they could ever be insured.”

Over the years even the better float home owners had to put up with a series of wharfingers (those are wharf managers for all you land-lubbers) who were often less than charitable to the tiny village.

Still, perhaps the most trying period occurred after 2002 when the federal department of transport divested itself of the wharf and turned it over to the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority. According to Fresca Kula, the GVHA viewed the village, not as a community, but as a business.

“It was as though they wanted us out of here. They started raising our moorage fees by huge amounts. To make matters worse, they wouldn’t even talk to us.”

“It all changed when Curtis arrived,” claims Young. “He actually talked to us . . . found out who we were and what we wanted. It all changed.”

The ‘Curtis’ to whom the float home owners speak is Curtis Grad, the president and chief executive officer of the GVHA. When he took the helm in 2011, the relationship between the GVHA and the float home village had degenerated to the point where a court case had been launched by the community, trying to force the GVHA to change the terms of its occupancy at the wharf.

“It was pretty much by chance that I had coffee one day with a float home owner. He seemed to have some legitimate concerns and I thought ‘we owe it to ourselves to try to talk before we go to court’,” says Grad.

And talk they did. Grad talked to virtually everyone in the village and the upshot was a new agreement that has offered long term stability to the community. The one-year-at-a-time leases are history, replaced by a longer term agreement that sets the framework for a strong relationship, long into the future.

“I can’t speak about what happened in the past,” says Grad. “But I come from a background where you look at problems and try to solve them. This agreement acknowledges that the float home community is part of the entire Fisherman’s Wharf tourist experience. These are great people . . . an incredible asset.”

The new agreement has given the village new legitimacy as well as amenities such as parking, postal service, and most importantly, a feeling of inclusion that they never had before.

New LawnSo why are almost a third of the homes currently for sale?

It’s simple,” says Young. “It’s a backlog of folks who have needed to sell for a number of years, but who couldn’t sell in a situation where we didn’t have a long-term agreement. You’d have to have been crazy to buy without knowing if you were going to be able to be here the next year.”

When it’s pointed out that Young herself bought her home without that assurance, she laughs. “I guess I’m a little bit crazy.”

What’s it like living on the water?

“There’s a sense of community here that’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” says Young. “We get together for pot-luck dinners. We have parties . . . we’re friends. Most of all, we help each other here.”

Of course, sometimes the nature of that help can be fairly unique. “When I needed to paint my house a while back I had to get half-a-dozen friends to help me turn the house,” Young laughs. “I released the mooring lines and we’d paint one side at a time from the wharf. When we were done one side, we’d turn the house and paint the next side.”

The mooring lines are really all that secures the homes to the wharf.

“One night Young’s lines got loose and her place started floating away,” recalls Fresca Kula. “It was 3:30 in the morning, but all she had to do was step outside and yell ‘I need help’. In less than a minute there were 10 people on the dock helping to get her secured. That’s the kind of place this is.”

Similarly, the sense of community and mutual assistance makes crime almost unknown in the Village.

“Once, in the middle of the night, a couple of college kids tried to steal a mannequin from one of the homes, recalls Kula. “The owner heard them outside and yelled for help. Those guys never made it to the end of the dock before a bunch of us were out there blocking their way and holding them for police. This is a bad place to try to commit a crime.”

Young laughs. People are real characters here . . . at least some of them.

“We have teachers, artists, insurance brokers, navy folks and a stand- up comedian. The only thing we have in common is that we’re all a little . . .” She searches for the word. “Unique . . . that’s it.”

Unique? It’s hard to argue with the assessment.

There a fellow who has a small 10-inch-square box of grass on his patio deck. He’s posted a ‘keep off the grass sign’ and is looking for a push mower small enough to cut his lawn.

Kula has a mat on her doorstep that reads ‘Go Away!’ It’s a joke, of course. She’s actually a lovely and welcoming person, except when it comes to the giant pacific octopus living under her home. “He has a habit of tugging on my mooring lines, loosening the darned things,” she laughs. “I wish he’d read the mat.”

There’s a yoga group that stretches in the sunshine on the upper deck of one home, while groups of other residents simply get together for a cool drink in the sunshine. As Christmas approaches, the community tree is a gathering point for neighbours who often gather to share a little Christmas cheer.

Susan Leff has MS and is confined to a wheelchair. Still, she and her partner fell in love with the village and moved into a float home a few months ago.

How did they solve the problem of a two story floating home and a wheelchair? They installed “a very cool elevator”, of course.

One home is decorated with a mannequin; another has a stuffed dummy that rests outside the front door to welcome passers–by. One house is decorated with ancient scuba gear while another sports a gaudy bicycle.

Even the more reserved houses tend to be painted in a full spectrum of colours, announcing to the world that they’re happily different and proud of it. And, during the summer months, there are flowers everywhere.

This is Fisherman’s Wharf – a village in the heart of a capital city, and a neighbourhood unlike any you’ve ever seen. And by the way, if you want to live there, a few of the homes are still on the market.

One of them belongs to Fresca Kula. She and her husband have to move for health reasons but she’s not happy about it.

“I’m a tough old bird,” she says. “And I don’t cry for anything. But when I leave here, I’ll cry.” M

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