BENICIA -- When Theron Jones' family decided to move from Winters to Benicia, they cruised their 32-foot boat through the Delta from Discovery Bay, intending to live aboard it temporarily while house hunting.
Their long-term plans changed, however, when the idea of living on the water won them over.
"(My wife and I) found ourselves sitting on the back deck one night ... a beautiful evening, sun going down, enjoying a glass of wine, and we both looked at each other and thought, 'What are we doing? This is wonderful! We love this life!' " said Jones, 47, who works for the Benicia Parks and Community Services Department.
"We talked it over for quite a bit, and we looked at our long-term goals, and one thing we wanted to do was retire and travel on the boat," he added.
The Joneses, who upgraded to a 58-foot Hatteras yacht in 2012, are part of a tight-knit community of people living aboard boats at the Benicia marina. The diverse -- if not offbeat -- group includes artists, musicians, retired professionals, doctors, bartenders, sales people and more.
They fall into distinct categories: some enjoy living "off the grid," others just want to save money on waterfront housing. Some are avid boaters, others never leave the harbor. Some come from affluence, while others are just scraping by.
Despite their differences, their unconventional lifestyle draws them together.
"It's tight-knit," said 60-year-old Lisa Coop, who's lived aboard a houseboat with her cats Wally and Pete for about four years. Her cats can be seen roaming the docks and hunting lizards and mice along the shoreline.
"We all know each other," Coop said. "I know if something happened to me ... if I were scared or something ... there's five guys I could call who live in this area who would be here in a minute."
Coop, who tends bar at the Benicia Yacht Club, enjoys getting to know her neighbors. She also throws parties on her boat, which has a large upper deck.
"It's just a diverse group that lives on their boats, for all sorts of reasons," said Coop, who holds an MBA and has partial ownership in a brew pub in Layton, Utah. "They're saving money, or flying under the radar ... or there's people who are just boaters."
Coop never takes her boat out. It's been in the marina since late 2009, when she had it shipped from Lake Mead, outside Las Vegas.
"I don't even know anything about boats," said Coop, whose children gave her a hat that says "Doctator." "I don't know how to start them, I don't know how to take them anywhere. But I just decided this is right for me."
The number of live-aboards fluctuates. The marina allows only 32 of its 320 births to be occupied by people living on their boats, and some stay longer than others.
"It's an alternative lifestyle," said Jimmy Carretta, 53. Like Coop, he bought a boat to live on after a divorce. "It just gives you a little more freedom to go," he says.
Carretta, a sales manager at a Chrysler dealership in Richmond, recently moved his 50-foot yacht from the Glen Cove harbor to Benicia. He's been a live-aboard for about seven months and has no immediate plans to move back onto dry land.
"I lived on a boat when I was in my late teens," Carretta said. "My dad had a boat (at the Loch Lomond Marina in San Rafael), and I enjoyed it."
'Economical' way to go
His decision to return to that lifestyle was in part financially motivated.
"It was probably one of the more economical ways to go as opposed to buying a house ... and still be mobile after a divorce," said Carretta, who previously resided in Benicia's Southampton neighborhood.
Terry Parks, 69, has owned boats for years. A former teacher and retired businessman, he said he moved aboard after the economy tanked, and he lost millions in equity in homes in Santa Cruz County.
"I spent half my time on the boat anyway," said Parks, who shares a 53-foot yacht with his dog Buddy, a 6-year-old English springer spaniel.
"Every time you step on a boat, you leave the rat race behind," Parks added. "And boats have a lot more imagination and potential than houses. Houses are boxes for storing people. I can go anywhere on the West Coast to live ... anyplace I want ... and that's a great advantage."
Baby on board
Others are about to start a family. Emily Thompson and her boyfriend, Elan Laporte, are expecting a baby in May, and they have no plans to move off the 41-foot sailboat they call home.
"My biggest worry is actually two things," said Thompson, 35. "Me being big before the baby's born, wobbling onto the boat, and when the time comes for gifts, not having a lot of space."
But she's keeping an open mind, adding she's enjoyed her less-materialistic way of life.
"It will be an experience," said Thompson, an administrative assistant for an insurance company and Arts Benicia's children's program coordinator. "I have friends in Ventura whose daughter raised children on a sailboat."
When Jones' family moved into the marina six years ago, his daughter was entering her junior year of high school. After living on a ranch, adjusting to life aboard a boat wasn't easy -- especially for a teenager, she said.
"Going from a three-bedroom house to a one-bedroom boat is pretty difficult for a 16-year-old," said Danielle Jones, now 20. "It's pretty much a lifestyle change. But getting the larger boat was about as equal to, if not better than, a small apartment.
"I mean, it's a lot different than, you know, having your own space," she added. "At the time, the boat was so small I didn't even have a door. It was a curtain. So, I mean, it's one of those things where you have to be really close to the people you're with. Luckily, my parents are more friends, and we get along really well. But it was really different. I liked it; it was just odd at first."
The novelty of her unusual home was a hit with her friends at Benicia High School.
"My friends thought it was amazing," she said. "They were always saying, 'Can we go to the boat? Can we go to the boat?' "
"We were always the house where their friends hung out, played Xbox and had a good time," her father said. "It was a natural transition for them to come over and hang out at the boat with us. In fact, a lot of them went on our Fourth of July trip" to Venice Island in the Delta.