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Toronto family feels most at home on the water, where they live year-round

Family members Mariza Gaspar, Isaac Fernato, four-year-old Vasco and rescue dog Daisy relax on their boat in downtown Toronto.Photography by Carolina Andrade/The Globe and Mail

It’s Saturday afternoon in downtown Toronto and Mariza Gaspar and Isaac Fernato are cutting windows into the shrink wrap that envelops their home, a vintage 1967 48-foot steel Chris Craft Roamer with wood superstructure docked at a marina near the CN Tower. The couple, along with their four-year-old son, Vasco and rescue dog, Daisy, have been living on their boat year round since the spring of 2018.

Aside from being an alternative to high rent prices and an out-of-reach housing market for young professionals, they feel most at home on the water. Ms. Gaspar and Mr. Fernato met in 2014 working as a service staff and engineer on Canada’s largest passenger sailboat, 200-foot schooner and tall ship the Empire Sandy, which happens to be docked around the corner from their current residence. They both come from nautical backgrounds, working on and travelling with various ships over the past 10 years and more.

Isaac Fernato works on his family boat on a Saturday afternoon.

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In 2015 they took the plunge of owning their first boat, a 31-foot sailboat that they renovated and treated as a summer home for a few seasons, living in a Toronto apartment in the off-season.

They found out about Ms. Gaspar’s pregnancy while sailing out on the lake one day. They would give their son his first taste of the nautical lifestyle at three months old, which would be followed by moving with him onto the boat that they now call home when he turned 1.

They bought the boat in Fort Erie in 2018 and have been the slowly renovating it while living seasonally between Toronto Island and downtown Toronto.

The young family spends late spring to early fall on Toronto Island, moving around and spending the majority of their days outside. Come November, they migrate to a berth in downtown Toronto and install shrink wrap over a wooden frame built on top of the boat in order to insulate their home until the worst of the weather has passed in spring.

“ ‘Oh, that’s some nice shrink wrap!’ is something I never would have guessed I’d be saying or caring about in my life,” Ms. Gaspar says in admiring a neighbor’s seamless shrink-wrap installation.

A handmade wooden frame and shrink wrap provide insultation for the winter season to keep the family warm and protected from Toronto's harshest conditions on the water.

They use electric heaters and have installed backup diesel heaters that they have yet to need. By now, Ms. Gaspar and Mr. Fernato have found their rhythm, becoming proficient in winterizing their boat and keeping very warm throughout the harshest of conditions. But it didn’t always come easy. During their first winter spent living aboard, their bubbler, used to prevent ice build up by continuously moving water around the base of the boat, failed on them. Thick ice formed quickly and attached to the hull of their boat, causing their home to tilt. The family was faced with an obstacle that only a chainsaw could remedy; Mr. Fernato picked up the tool, walked onto the ice wearing a floatation suit and began cutting, sending chunks of ice out into the water.

He laughs, remembering the local reaction to his unconventional methods.

“Our neighbors yelled, ‘You can’t do that!’ But I had no other choice. How was I supposed to get rid of this ice?”

The boat is equipped with a full-size fridge, stove, barbecue, espresso machine, washer, two bathrooms, a tub, two bedrooms, a salon lounge and combined living room and kitchen.

Four-year-old Vasco sits on his top bunk enjoying quiet time in his room aboard the family boat. Carolina Andrade / The Globe and MailCarolina Andrade/The Globe and Mail

For this family, maintaining a strong sense of community on the water is a key to a comfortable life as boaters. While a neighbor walks by with an infant in a stroller, another one on a scooter and more walking their dogs, Mr. Fernato points out the people whom they have come to know as family, helping hands and inspiring friends. Ms. Gaspar jokes about the weekly meal gathering that their little family partake in.

“We call it Spaghetti Wednesdays – each boat takes a turn in making a pasta dish for the group. Sometimes it’s 10 people or more. It started on a Wednesday but can fall on any day of the week!”

A neighbour motors by Gaspar and Fernato's family home in their dinghy in the late afternoon on a Saturday.

Spaghetti Wednesday fell this week on a Saturday, and they were cooking what they dubbed a Surf N Turf Fettucini on a single burner. Ten boating friends would be joining them, all of whom they have met in the waters that surround Toronto Island.

Resourcefulness is key when it comes to tight quarters, and Ms. Gaspar admits that cooking on a single-burner stove is a challenge, but it can be fun and rewarding. The boat is equipped with a full-size fridge, stove, barbecue, espresso machine, washer, two bathrooms, a tub, two bedrooms, a salon lounge and combined living room and kitchen.

The boat slightly rocks from side to side, but Ms. Gaspar says that they no longer notice the movement. The family owns a motorcycle, a motorized self-balancing board and bikes to commute for any necessities such as groceries. They spend their free time at a local park, the Music Garden, which is effectively their backyard. There is a nearby playground for their son and the skating rink at Harbourfront in winter.

“We wanted to create a lifestyle in which our family could live in the city but our child has all the benefits of what it can be to grow up in the country,” Ms. Gaspar says. “We are constantly surrounded by nature and spend most of our time outdoors. We get to move our boat as we please. We have beaches just metres away from us. We cook many of our meals by campfire. Our son runs barefoot all summer!”

“Living on a boat makes you very aware of your surroundings, what you bring into your space and what you consume in terms of energy.”

“Everyone is always helping each other out. It’s very much a lend some sugar, open door policy. I wanted [Vasco] to grow up in a community where he would feel safe, loved.”