I’ve slept in cardboard boxes, vans and trucks. Now I live with my three dogs in a 25-foot sailboat in Humber Bay

I’ve slept in cardboard boxes, vans and trucks. Now I live with my three dogs in a 25-foot sailboat in Humber Bay

Tate Hill has lived in cars, vans and boats with his dogs over the last 20 years, travelling around Canada and doing odd jobs. Recently, a group of neighbours in Mimico helped raise $12,000 for him to rent a marina space in Toronto. Here, he describes what it’s like to live on a 25-foot boat.  

As told to Dave Zarum

“I was raised in foster care in Toronto, and I’ve been fending for myself ever since. Growing up, I suffered from epilepsy and had seizures every day. The condition still affects me, and occasionally I forget things. But sometimes forgetting things makes it easier to get through life.

“I’ve travelled across Canada for the past 15 years. I’ve slept in camper vans, trucks, you name it. For a while, I was sleeping in an old Dodge Caravan, which I parked in Walmart and Canadian Tire parking lots. I drove everywhere, finding little jobs so I could fuel up, buy food and keep moving on. I spent time out west, in B.C. and Fort McMurray, doing some roofing.

“I’ve had dogs ever since I was 20. They’ve come with me wherever I go. My first dog was a rottweiler named Angel. Once, my car broke down near Medicine Hat, and some guys helped me with my car and let me and Angel stay at their place. One of them told me, ‘If you’re going to Fort Mac, one dog isn’t enough to protect you.’ So I got more dogs. I ended up with three, and I’ve had three dogs ever since. Right now, I have Holly (I call her Holly Jolly because I got her last Christmas); Patches, who I got on my birthday about five years ago; and Prince, who I rescued off of Kijiji about seven years ago. They’re the most important part in my life, and I take pride in caring for them.

“Twelve years ago, when I was in Fort Mac, I had a bad fall, and I’ve been living on disability ever since. I moved back to Toronto a few years ago, and I used my disability cheque to buy a 14-foot sailboat. Since then, I’ve been slowly upsizing my boat to be big and safe enough to travel across the ocean. Any ocean. I just want to go places and help people. My dream is to have enough money to sail south, where hurricanes have destroyed homes, and to help rebuild them in exchange for food. I want to continue to see this world, see the good things we have and help as many people as I can.

“I ended up trading my first boat for a Matilda 20 sailboat. But one week later—on Canada Day, no less—I lost the keel while out on the water. I put the boat up for sale, sold it quickly for $1,200 and, two years ago, I upgraded to my current boat, a 25-footer that cost $2,000. I bought it from someone in Toronto, who let me pay half up front and the rest later.  When I got the boat, it was named Food for Thought. I renamed it Little Dog Darn Boat. It had been on land for a while, and the white paint was chipped. So I painted the hull bright red.

“Since earlier this year, I’ve kept my boat anchored in Humber Bay. Every morning I wake up and get on a little dinghy motorboat with my dogs. We go to shore and I take them for a walk. We go every morning, rain or shine. Sometimes if it’s raining, we’re all soaking wet by the time we get back to the boat. The dogs are good sailors. They know how to move when the boat is rocking. The way I see it, every time we get out on the water it’s practice for when the four of us set sail on our adventure around the world.

“Some days, I go to Lakeshore and Windermere, where I try to make people smile in exchange for money to feed my dogs. I hold funny signs; I don’t beg. I used to hold a sign that said “I’m single, 416-XOX-XOXO.” I don’t want to have to rely on others. But I’m still on disability and living off the streets, barely making it through.

“At the end of the day, I’m happy to come back home. It’s just a gorgeous, beautiful boat. I’ve slept in bushes in minus-40-degree weather. I’ve slept on cardboard boxes and in vans. The water is 100 times better than the road. I feel so much safer in my boat. The dogs and I keep each other warm.

“I’ve decorated the boat a bit. I have a nice, fancy paddle with an eagle and wolf painted by an Indigenous artist. I have an old Popeye doll. When it gets cold I use a small heater—I’m very careful and only use smokeless fluid. I want to keep my dogs safe. Sometimes at night I play a DVD on my old laptop. When I was living in parking lots, I would sometimes get movies from the bins. You know, three for $5. I’ve built up quite a collection. Of course by now I’ve seen all the movies 10 times over.

“Recently, I met some new friends, and everything changed for me. Evan is a fellow sailor who saw a picture of me and the dogs on the boat on a Mimico community Facebook page in late November. We met that day, and he checked to make sure my equipment was working. He told me, “Tate, sailors look out for sailors.” We had a long chat. He posted my story on Facebook that day, about my boat and my dream of saving up enough to travel the world with my dogs. The support has been incredible. People have been donating food and supplies to help me and my dogs. I can’t believe it. My new friend Melanie—a dog walker I see every day—set up a GoFundMe for me. So far, it’s raised more than $11,000 to help me pay for a spot to dock my boat at the marina for the winter, and to help take care of my dogs. It’s completely changed my life.

“Now I have the money for docking. Next I need to find a space. I’ve been trying all year, going around to every marina I can find and asking for a spot. They tell me my boat’s too small. Or it’s too old. Or some other reason. A friend of mine runs a funeral parlour and offered me work. If I can find a spot at a marina, I can safely leave my dogs in the boat during the day and go to my job. If not, I’ll still be able to get an apartment for the four of us until things warm up and we can get back in the water.

“I don’t want to rely on the kindness of others. I never asked for this support. But I’m so grateful for these new friends and their generosity. I’m going to look for every chance I get to pay it forward. To be honest, I’ve never felt what I’m feeling right now. The other night, my chest and arms were shaking. I called Evan. ‘I don’t know what this is,’ I said. ‘Are you sure you’re not freezing cold?’ Evan asked me. I told him, ‘No, I think this is happiness.’

“Now I’m going to start looking forward in life. Thinking about tomorrow. And the next day. And the next week. I’ve never really lived my life like that.”