Ever since I was a minnow growing up at the Jersey Shore in Springsteen’s old stomping grounds, I fantasized about living on a boat.
When I worked in TV news in L.A. and lived in a box of a studio apartment next to a marina, I adored my living quarters, tiny as they were. But I envied the folks living on boats just across the way. Looked a little draconian, but how divine to be living in waterworld 24/7.
The dream continued with stints aboard a floating house in a DC marina, a yacht across the street from the L.A. marina and a river houseboat in Paris.
The last two were courtesy of Airbnb, the company I use exclusively around the world. You may have heard of them. They’ve been in scrapes with cities like San Francisco and NYC because of their business model.
Airbnb members can choose to rent out everything from a treehouse to a boat to a camper to a private room to an entire house. At often a fraction of the cost of a hotel. I love the idea. It’s a chance to stay in real homes in real neighborhoods with real people.
It saves money, and in the case of renters, can be a lifesaver for them, too. I’ve had hosts tell me if it weren’t for Airbnb income, they’d be out on the street. A win-win, as far as I’m concerned.
But in some places, it’s more than frowned upon. For instance, folks who are merely renting themselves aren’t supposed to be renting out their space without their landlords’ permission.
It’s also a no-no in co-ops and many condo communities where “strangers” are not allowed.
But everywhere else apparently is fine. Things work on a review system, and renters and guests alike really strive for good reviews. Reputation is everything on Airbnb, and participants place a lot of stock on those reviews.
I’d had nothing but good luck. Until recently.
I was looking for something on Airbnb at the last minute, since I decided to go back to St. Petersburg, Florida, to check out something in the latest installment of my search for a condo to call my own — CondoQuest — I call it.
Hours before my flight, I found a yacht for rent. At $60 a night. It had one good review (believe me, that’s better than nothing) and the price was right. I only needed something for two nights. It looked OK, at least from the pictures.
I emailed the owner, and he seemed very agreeable and eager to accommodate me at the last minute.
Had no problem with me arriving late at night. Said the boat’s Internet worked great, which was important because I need reliable Internet for my journalism job, which I planned on doing per usual while I was there.
(I’m fortunate enough to have a job that I can do anywhere in the world — and have — as long as there’s working Internet.)
Since my trip was going to be short (I was only going to check out one property) I didn’t rent a car this time.
The taxi driver dropped me off and gave me his card in case I needed his services again.
The boat was deserted. The owner had emailed me later that night that he wouldn’t be there, and hid the key somewhere in the stern. (I confess all the times I’ve been sailing, I only had a vague idea what the stern was.)
It was a little disconcerting getting onto the boat with suitcase in the dark, but this klutzy landlubber managed.
There was a fan running, but the air seemed to be barely moving.
No matter. Top priority was a working Internet. I called the boat owner for instructions because I couldn’t waste time. It was almost 11 pm, and work was only hours away.
In the course of the conversation, I noticed the fan wasn’t making a dent in the air. (I later noticed that the listing said the place was air-conditioned, but that ship had apparently sailed, so to speak.)
It’s a bit hot in here, I said. Open up the hatches, he said. Still no Internet; the password wasn’t working. He’d get back to me.
Again, severely challenged in all things nautical, I wasn’t sure where the hatches were, let alone how to open them. I was thrilled that I managed to hoist them open. A screen fell off one in the process. I wasn’t going to hunt for it in the dark.
I was hoping things would cool down. Nope. Air was still soup. Meanwhile, what looked like a cockroach the size of a cat was strutting its stuff on a counter in the bedroom. It ran away before I could clobber it. Ewww. I closed the bedroom door, never to return.
Trying to keep my cool, I started texting the owner furiously.
There’s a bug here, I texted. Message back: There are no bugs there. It must have flown in. Put the hatch screens in.
(Even if I could have done that properly, I noticed part of the roof was already open to the elements and there was no way to cover it up.)
Then a smell like ammonia. Part of being on a boat, I guessed. I traced it far as the bathroom. Big mistake opening the door.
Inside: Looked nice, but reeking of the smell of a thousand cats letting loose in a litter box. Wouldn’t be using that room either.
No Internet; buggy boat; bathroom from hell. I called the taxi driver. He said to call back in 20 minutes.
That gave me some time to reason with my panicked self. I had nowhere to go and it was close to midnight.
I called the owner. Told him I didn’t want to to leave, but I’d have to because I needed working Internet, for starters. He was very nice, said being on the boat was a bit like camping. (What?)
He was sorry, he wasn’t even in town, and he would refund the money I’d shelled out for two nights. In the course of the conversation, we got the Internet working.
That made me relent a bit. Rather than trying to score another place, I resolved to make do, since I was on a tight budget and it was so late. Like camping, I reminded myself.
What is that smell? I asked politely. I have allergies (borderline asthma), and they’re acting up. (I take allergy medicine but didn’t think to bring an inhaler because didn’t think I’d need it.)
He said something about a problem with some kind of pump and said yeah, this boat’s not the best place if you’ve got allergies. He also advised me not to use the bathroom and use the common bathrooms and showers at the marina dock. Not the best at this late date, but …
Like camping. I fell asleep on the couch (which I’d covered with a towel — blech), the fan almost on top of me.
Next morning, things looked a little nicer in the daylight. At first.
Until I felt the smarting welts of a couple mosquitoes who’d laid claim to me. I fended off another trying to dive-bomb. Squish. Blood. Eek.
I texted the owner; still trying to be cooperative. Told him about the mosquitoes. Asked if he had any insect repellent. (Wish I’d thought to pack leftovers from a round-the-world trip to some heavy-duty tropics that weren’t nearly this bad.)
There are no mosquitoes in the marina, he said. No word about the insect repellent. Told him I had proof there were.
The kitchen sink was another delight. Something else to avoid. As was the fridge, which leaked when I opened it. At the same time, I was noticeably more congested from the stench.
I had written to Airbnb in a panic the night before, after their emergency number for real emergencies, like if you’re in immediate danger, was tied up. They got back to me and apologized profusely.
I told them that I’d told the owner I would stick out the next night, figuring I’d be away all day, and I could just sleep there again. But they said I didn’t have to put myself through that and they would refund my money if I wanted to find another place.
I finished up my work and cleared out in a flash.
Shame, because the marina actually looked very nice. Double shame because another boat owner there told me there was no excuse for the deplorable conditions on the boat. Even if I wasn’t paying top dollar.
I did find something else, on dry land.
With the coupon Airbnb graciously gave me, the second place cost $10. And it was so civilized. As Airbnb lodging usually is.
I take it Airbnb gave the boat owner a dressing down, because I noticed in his listing he now recommends bypassing his digs if you’ve got allergies. And still tells prospective guests it’s like camping …
Believe me, while Airbnb is reasonably priced, it’s never supposed to be like camping.
Why he won’t just get rid of the smell is something I don’t know. And I don’t care.
Update: The listing for this boat appears to be gone from the Airbnb site.
Hope you’re able to breathe a little better now that you’re off the mosquito-infested, a-cockroach-the-size of-a-Buick-ridden, don’t-touch-the-the bathroom … yacht.
Thanks for sharing your story. I’ve always wanted to try Airbnb, and from the looks of things, they responded beautifully to your situation. That’s a good sign.
Thanks much, Valerie. You’re right. This was one bad experience in more than a dozen around the world. And they did handle it beautifully.