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Man calls 14-foot canoe on Boston Harbor his home

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Steven Senne / AP

Michael Richard Smith pilots his canoe in Boston Harbor, in Boston, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. The 49-year-old Maine native said Tuesday that he’s been paddling the waters of metro Boston since at least late summer with all of his possessions aboard a 14-foot, 40-year-old aluminum canoe that he patches with duct tape when necessary.

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Michael Richard Smith lights a cigarette while speaking with members of the media on a wharf in Boston Harbor, in Boston, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. The 49-year-old Maine native said Tuesday that he’s been paddling the waters of metro Boston since at least late summer with all of his possessions aboard a 14-foot, 40-year-old aluminum canoe that he patches with duct tape when necessary.

BOSTON — Michael Richard Smith is a man without a fixed address, someone who leaves it to the wind and tide in Boston Harbor to help decide where he'll dream from night to night.

With his possessions packed in a 14-foot canoe, the wiry, mustachioed man paddles to small offshore docks after dark to pitch his tent and sleep. He wears his brown locks long and tucks a pink silk rose into the brim of his canvas explorer hat.

The 49-year-old's salty lifestyle is a means of survival, but Smith detests the word "homeless" and describes himself as just another "fellow citizen."

Smith said this week that he's been bunking down in metro Boston waters for about two months now. Authorities said that they're keeping an eye on the unconventional camper, but that he isn't breaking any laws.

When necessary, the Maine native uses duct tape to patch his 40-year-old aluminum canoe. Smith said he feels most secure when he sleeps in the harbor and lists his biggest worries as the wakes of fast ferries and drunken boaters.

"It's about as safe as I could be," said Smith, who has also camped on at least one inner harbor island. "Anybody who would want to hurt me or take my things, they have to have a boat. And boat people stick together."

The Coast Guard spotted Smith a few days ago and said that while the mariner has been moving around, he hasn't moored anyplace where he's a threat to security or his own safety.

"What it really seems like is he's trying to figure out whether it's feasible to live out there," Coast Guard Lt. Joe Klinker said Tuesday.

The agency will take action if Smith enters a security zone, Klinker said, but so far he has stuck to recreational areas.

"It's not a major concern for the Coast Guard right now," Klinker said. "A lot of people who don't have a place, live by the water. But on the water is unique."

On Monday night, Smith tied up and slept on a floating dock about 100 yards offshore from the New England Aquarium.

The Boston Police Department's harbor unit has offered him city services, but he declined, police spokeswoman Cheryl Fiandaca said Tuesday. Smith did accept a new life vest with reflectors and a whistle, she said. Police also told him not to operate his canoe at night because it doesn't have lights.

Smith said he spent about a year camping farther north in Massachusetts before his sister helped him get his canoe to Boston's Seaport District. He put the vessel named the Alice Williams in the water behind the InterContinental Hotel, the same neighborhood where Red Sox baseball team owner John Henry has been known to dock his 164-foot yacht, the Iroquois.

The name of Smith's canoe is a tribute to the family of Roger Williams, because he said he admires the freedom-loving principles of the founder of Rhode Island. He used the name of Williams' mother because, he said, women need more recognition.

Smith said he has spent years trying to advocate for better public schools and has passed on a newsletter he's written on the topic to politicians, including Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. Smith said that he thinks about public policy as he is paddling through the harbor and that living on the water has taught him balance, patience and fortitude.

He dresses in layers to stay warm, but also doesn't seem to mind that colder weather will be coming as winter arrives.

Smith plans to sleep out in Boston Harbor all winter and prefers to concentrate on the beauty of his surroundings rather than the bareness of his accommodations.

Before sunup Tuesday, Smith saw a shooting star skitter across the New England sky and said later he made a wish meant for all people, no matter where they bed down at night.

"I wished self-esteem for all of us," he said.

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