Liquid Asset: Israel's Marinas Provide a Good Life at Low Cost for a Select Few

A dearth of rules and regulations made it all possible. Meanwhile, a black market for mooring spots has developed amid soaring demand

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Boats crowd the mooring at the Tel Aviv marina, October 17, 2020.
Boats crowd the mooring at the Tel Aviv marina, October 17, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Gili Melnitcki
Gili Melnitcki

Waking up every morning right on the water, living a five-minute walk from the heart of Tel Aviv, no mortgage to pay and the option of moving your home lock, stock and barrel to another idyllic location, without packing.

Sound like a dream? This is what life looks like for 110 privileged people living almost undisturbed on their boats smack in the middle of Israel’s most desirable locations – marinas in Tel Aviv, its wealthy northern suburb of Herzliya and the port in Jaffa. A few dozen people live the same life in Ashdod, Haifa and Ashkelon.

“We believe in the simple life: good energy, healthy food, physical activity and a lot of love,” says Shiri, a marina resident who asked that her full name not be disclosed. “We’re preparing our small yacht before setting out to fulfill our dream of sailing together around the world.”

On a website she shares with her partner, which is linked to active Facebook pages and Instagram accounts, the two document their trips and snapshots of life on a yacht in the Tel Aviv marina. It shows them lighting an improvised hanukkiah made with bottles and sand collected on the beach; a 3-year-old girl skilled in handling the boat’s helm; father and daughter asleep in the small living area on deck; a compact work area decorated with photos of the places they have visited.

When they feel like it, they take their bikes to a nearby park. Life looks good on a floating house.

The Gordon pool, in the foreground, and the Tel Aviv marina, July 7, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

How much does this lifestyle cost? Water and electricity are provided by the marina cheaply – 70 agorot (21 cents) for one kilowatt-hour of electricity and 50 liters (13.2 gallons) of water. Mooring fees start at 1,000 shekels ($295) a month for a small yacht, plus insurance, maintenance expenses and license fees. Overall, that works out to less than rental or mortgage costs for a 3.5-room apartment, car payments, property taxes and utilities.

Such low-cost luxury is made possible by the absence of much legislation or regulation. Surprisingly, laws regulating the use of moorages were first passed only in 2010 and only because of growing environmental concerns about the marinas.

“When I first arrived here in 2007, there was total neglect, with fences blocking the marina, people living inside containers, environmental hazards as well as the occasional questionable boat where you didn’t want to know what was happening inside,” relates Ofer Dubnov, who manages the Tel Aviv marina on behalf of the Atarim Group, the municipal corporation administering the city’s waterfront. “In the ‘90s, with the development of boating, bigger boats started anchoring here, some of the giant yachts, others with nothing but a jacuzzi and colored lights instead of an engine.”

Low priority

The marina wasn’t high on the city’s or government’s list of priorities, which allowed the phenomenon of living on boats to develop and flourish. “This was very convenient for some boat owners; they even got free electricity and water, with low anchorage fees in a prime location,” Dubnov says.

A turning point came in the early 2000s, during the first term of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. According to Dubnov, it was Huldai who recognized the beachfront as a municipal resource and allocated substantial money to develop, rehabilitate and upgrade the promenade and transform the old ports into attractions. In 2008, he turned his attention to the marina, allocating 60 million shekels over the next three years to add mooring spots at floating docks, strengthen the breakwater and develop the adjacent area. At the same time, regulations were introduced requiring boats in the marina to be seaworthy and insured.

Tel Aviv marinaCredit: Ofer Vaknin

These regulations led to 120 junk vessels being removed and a general improvement in the ones that anchored there. Whether intentionally or due to pressure from vested interests, there has never been any rule prohibiting using the marina as a place of residence.

“The wording of our contracts with boat owners regarding their anchorage doesn’t forbid anyone from living on their boat, even though it’s something I’ve been trying to combat,” says Dubnov. “I know exactly who lives here – it’s about 40 boats. I don’t have a problem with someone coming here for the weekend. Some people stay longer. We have a gentleman’s agreement. They don’t open a balcony on their boat, have a celebration or cause a disturbance, and I don’t make their lives difficult. But what do I do when pets scratch another boat? Or when I find out that a boat that’s turned into a tourist attraction, serving as an Airbnb for the night?”

Multiple hats

Dubnov has found himself acting as property manager and maintenance man for a marine residential complex.

“If there’s a power outage due to city maintenance work or some other failure, they call me, not the electricity company. If someone has a complaint about noise and dancing at their neighbor’s boat, they call me,” he complains.

Boats docked in Jaffa port, May 1, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

Dubnov stresses that many of the residents are “good people, driven by good values – protecting the environment as well as abiding by the regulations. In cases of emergency they help take care of the marina.” But the lack of rules not only creates real safety hazards, it gives them real estate on Tel Aviv’s or Herzliya’s waterfront at low cost. Admittedly, the area they live in is smaller than an ordinary apartment and a storm can be harrowing, but there is no competing with the scenery.

One boat owner defends the arrangements, explaining, “Living on a boat in a marina is not due to wheeling and dealing. It’s customary practice around the world. Some of the people who buy boats live on them, and since it’s their property, no one can stop them.”

In any case, says the boat owner, who asked not to be identified, only a few dozen people are living aboard modest boats, usually in crowded conditions. Seven years ago, Israel imposed a tax on imported yachts, defining a yacht as a boat with sleeping quarters. “If that’s the criterion for paying taxes, you can’t then prevent someone using a boat as a dwelling,” he concludes.

Using boats as a permanent dwelling highlights the broader issue of plans to add five more marinas along Israel’s shoreline. Based on waiting lists for central Israel and Haifa alone, there will be a shortage of 2,000 mooring spots for yachts and cruising vessels by 2029. The sparse existing supply has led to a black market for spots by boat owners trying to bypass the long waiting lists.

Ashkelon marinaCredit: Eyal Toueg

“The system works like this: You find someone who wants to sell their boat, usually some piece of junk that’s barely used,” explains Y. “They sell you the boat along with the mooring rights. After the transaction, the new buyer replaces the old boat with a new one. Thus, you have people buying a boat worth 70,000 shekels for double that price, since the value of the mooring spot is part of the price of a larger and newer boat.”

According to Y., marina contracts stipulate that as long as the renter has a boat and pays mooring fees, the spot is his. If he sells his boat, the rights are transferred to the new owners in coordination with the marina management. In some cases, the former owner even becomes a partner of the buyer, holding a symbolic 1% share of the new boat, to prevent any hiccups in the transfer process.

Boat owners can make profits of tens of thousands of shekels transferring their mooring rights, with the marina management a knowingly silent partner.

Dubnov denies that the marina is complicit. “I’ve got no control over this horse trading,” he says. “After all, who determines the price of a boat? The seller. He sets a price and if he finds a buyer, it’s sold. What they do with the price is not my concern, I’m not part of it. I’m not a boat trader or appraiser, nor am I the police. When they come to me with a sale, I only check who the buyer is and what his payment record is. I ensure he’s a skipper who is going to sail with it and not live aboard the boat. The vendor doesn’t sell the location, I’m the one who approves the transfer of rights. I allow a new person in if the old one relinquishes his mooring rights.”

Herzliya marinaCredit: Tal Cohen

Not all marinas are managed this way. In Haifa’s Kishon anchorage, waiting lists are published on the marina website, with people identified by a letter and number, not by name. The Jaffa marina, in contrast, has no website in which one can see the fee structure, contracts or waiting lists.

Dubnov shows us a list for May 2019, arguing that “publishing names is an invasion of privacy and an infringement of property rights, and commercial companies will have a field day with that. The list in Haifa consists of letters, and no one knows what they represent. It’s not serious and it shouldn’t be published.

Orderly process

“I was appointed to manage a marina and the Transportation Ministry gave me a certificate – trust me that I work according to these lists, and understand that when one boat vacates its place I go to that list,” he says. “It’s been about one boat a year, at best, since 2016. With the new law that imposes heavy taxes on luxury items, yacht owners have moved to Cyprus and Greece.”

A yoga session near the Tel Aviv marina, July 20, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Nevertheless, it seems that the Tel Aviv marina is making an effort to allow new boats to anchor and entertain guests, by crowding docks to more than full capacity. Dubnov says he has retained a firm, called Pick a Pier, owned by Idan Cohen, a former assistant to the marina’s manager, to ensure full use of vacant spots. Cohen recognized that marina overcrowding was a global problem and launched a pilot version of his system in the port of Tel Aviv. He now provides his services in 10 European countries.

“When we studied this issue, we realized that no one is rushing to build new marinas around the world. Instead, they prefer to make things more efficient and smarter without encouraging further construction on the waterfront. That’s why we offered a service that makes marina management more efficient, using technology. When a boat leaves for two months, instead of leaving an empty space, another boat moves in,” he explains.

Cohen is also a founder of a non-profit group to develop technology for the sailing world while encouraging green services that form the basis of new and advanced marinas, as well as producing energy from the sea.

Boating is big business and promises to grow bigger in the years ahead, he says. The global market is worth about $100 billion, encompassing 30 million boats and 30,000 marinas, he says. The industry is rapidly expanding and presents enormous financial potential for port cities which have marinas that cater to tourists and water sports.

People visit an outdoor shopping area at the marina in Ashkelon, Israel, March 16, 2020.Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

“They have to anchor somewhere and there’s nowhere to go. It’s not only the private market that can make profits – so can the municipalities and the tax authorities in Israel. Port cities around the world, such as Cape Town, have turned their marinas into attractions, with food markets, music and cultural events, galleries, bars and restaurants,” Cohen explains.

In that vein, a plan that the Tel Aviv marina proposed, together with architect Avner Yashar, would have lowered the adjacent street level to the level of the marina, allowing access and a full use of building rights in the area. However, the proposal was blocked and an alternative one is now making its way through approvals as part of a larger plan for Atarim Square.

“Many countries have identified the potential of the boating world and are leveraging it so as to provide a good alternative for diverse activities that were taken away from the public,” says Cohen “This should happen in Israel, too. Boating is part of the local culture and a significant source of revenues in the national economy. Moreover, it’s an alternative and green mode of transportation between countries.”

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