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Growing up on the ripples of the water

Published Sep. 1, 2005

She keeps the world tucked in a yellow folder next to her bed. Crammed with homemade maps, drawings, journals and postcards, it's a record of every place she's sailed.

Rio de Janeiro. Barbados. Cancun. St. Lucia. Antigua.

She opened the folder and pulled out an essay she wrote last year.

"It's about turtle nesting in Trinidad."

But some things can't be kept in a file.

"Know what's really cool?" she asked as she swung down from a handrail into the cockpit of the boat. "At night when we're anchored, you can hear the fish eating the barnacles under the boat."

This is the life of Danielle Lemmer, age 12. She lives aboard a 1995, 48-foot, four-bedroom catamaran with her parents, her 7-year-old sister, and Buffy the cat. She may not know the names of the kids on Real World, but she can name just about every species of tropical fish in the South Atlantic.

Living aboard a boat full time is a fantasy for lots of people, but an unusual life for a child. There's untold opportunity for learning and adventure, but there's no denying you're different.

"My friends from school come over and think this is sooooo cool," says Laura Jack, 11, rolling her eyes. "But it's not really. I don't see what they see."

A friend of Danielle's, she lives aboard another boat not far away at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina.

There are about 610 boats anchored at the marina, and people live on about 85 of those vessels _ including nine kids under age 18. At the Dinner Key Marina in Miami, the largest marina in the city and the only one in Miami-Dade County that allows liveaboards, there are 437 boats at anchor.

Of those, about 60 are liveaboards, including about 20 children.

Many liveaboard children go to local schools and do the same things other kids do.

Except when their families decide to leave for a while, they take their homes with them.

Three years ago, Chris and Anna Lemmer sold the restaurant they owned in Cape Town, South Africa, and set out with their daughters to see the world.

They crossed the Atlantic, sailed up the coast of South America and stopped at Rio for two months. From there, they explored the Caribbean and last month, thanks to a broken engine, they ended up here. At slip WL1.

The one with the bikes and scooters parked out front.

From their spot at the end of the dock, they can see the Fine Arts Museum, the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and several other downtown buildings. But they rarely hear the traffic and the sirens.

Out here, the waves slapping against the boats, an occasional gull, and the ever-present sea breeze make the most noise.

The Lemmers didn't need air conditioning until they got to Florida. And still, they rarely use it.

The family bought a used Mazda to do their shopping and run errands. There is a TV on board, but it's used mostly to watch the videos they've seen a dozen times before.

So the kids find other things to do.

They visit with other people who live on the docks, or play on the boat or in the park across the street. In short, they amuse themselves.

"I do get bored once in a while," Danielle said. "And then my mom says, "Read a book.' "

Laura Jack, and another friend, Robert Ratajczak, 10, came aboard for a visit. They also live on boats at the marina, but they spend most of their time here.

For Laura, the drawbacks of this life include a cramped bedroom and boredom, because her family rarely sails anymore.

To someone who has to contend with mowing a lawn, getting stuck in traffic or staring at the same house across the street, however, living on a boat might seem to be the perfect life.

"And it generally is," said Anna Lemmer. "But sometimes, all I want to do is get off this and get into a house."

She misses the permanence and sense of security a house brings. And little things, like long, hot showers.

"What's going to happen to us when we're 70?" she asked. "And I feel guilty for the kids sometimes. They need the room. They want dogs and horses . . . and we can't do that.

"Everywhere we stop, Danielle wants to go horseback riding."

But Mrs. Lemmer is proud of the self-confidence and independence her daughters have acquired.

"The kids are fearless," she said. "And they don't see the bad in people. That scares me.

"But it's more important to let them do something like this. You have to let them go to a point. And I don't want them to be scared of anything.

"I try to shy away from making my kids neurotic."

Money is starting to be a concern, so the family may sell the boat later this year and move to Alaska. Anna, who is a nurse, thinks she can easily find work, and Chris, who delivers sailboats, may get a job on a crab boat. It's dangerous, but it pays well.

When they have enough money saved, and if they feel antsy, they'll probably head out to sea again.

"It's just a huge experience," Mrs. Lemmer smiled as the wind picked up.

"And that's what living is about, isn't it?"