Monday, September 15, 2014

A Shantyboat Q and A

As a preparatory to publishing our first set of plans so you guys can build your own version of Floating Empire, we thought we’d do a Q and A of some of the questions we’ve been asked about building and living on our Shanty.

Q:  Why did you do this?

A:  There are a number of answers for this one:  First, as an experiment.  In a world of crashing economies, a growing gap between rich and poor, the destruction of pensions and the safety net, and rising sea levels, the options for poor and working and retired folks are getting rather few.  We realized from readings in the Tiny House movement and our own hippie pasts that this might be an option for a decent life for folks.  On a personal level, we’re both artists (Morgainne is a visual artist, I’m a writer and playwright), and collapsing our expenses meant that we could make art full time rather than saying “would you like fries with that” repeatedly just to make ends meet.

Q:  What design sources did you use?

A:  Ob Cit, the Tiny House movement gave us tons of ideas, including,, and others. gave us some great perspectives on what the life would be like, and what would be involved in getting there.  DIY sites like contributed numerous ideas about how to make some of these things work.  We drew a lot from historical re enactment (we’ve both done that) and wonderful video resources like those posted by Jas Townsend and Son on youtube.  We’ve drawn also from Vardo design, the ubiquitous gypsy wagons of the 19th century.

Q:  How much did it cost?

A:  Somewhere in the neighborhood of $4000-$5000 US.  This does not include transportation.  We could do it for quite a bit less now with the experience we have.

Q:  How long did it take to build?

A:  On one level we’re still building it, still making mods and upgrades.  The basic construction took about three months with both of us working jobs during most of that period.

Q:  Don’t you get in each other’s way?

A:  Sometimes.  We did in our house as well.  As with anything, you get used rapidly to using the space.

Q:  What do you do for entertainment?

A:  Lots of things.  We read, we listen to the radio.  We make art. We watch movies and videos. We love to cook.  We write things like this.  We socialize with our neighbors in the marina .  Over and above that, the river and nature provides an infinitely interesting array of things to watch, learn from, and chat about.  

Q:  What do you do about internet?  Do you have it?

A:  Yes, we have net access.  Most marinas have WIFI as part of the package.  Ours doesn’t at the moment, so we tether a cell phone for our basic access.  If we have a particularly large up or download, we do it at the library or when we do laundry (our local laundromat has, surprisingly, the fastest public WIFI we’ve found.  Go figure) 

Q:  How do you wash dishes?

A:  We have a pitcher pump that pulls up river water.  We wash in that, then rinse the dishes in a separate tub with some bleach to disinfect.  It’s proven no hardship at all, and we are REALLY good at dirtying dishes.

Q:  How do you get power?

A:  We have solar panels, deep cycle batteries, and an inverter.  This takes care of most of our power needs (lighting, charging, computer, radio, etc).  We do use shore power at the moment for our refrigerator (it was putting a bit too much stress on our system), but when we add another panel and two batteries, we’ll be able to shut that off.

Q:  What about air conditioning?

A:  We don’t have it.  There have only been a few days this summer that got uncomfortably hot.  By and large, its cool on the water in summer, and we generally have a nice breeze.  Neither of us was raised with A/C, and for the most part, we don’t miss it.

Q:  What about heat?

A:  There are a couple of answers to that one too.  We have several large Kirkman lanterns that we’ll use this winter.  Aside from providing light, they put out about 1200 BTU apiece of heat.  We have a hearth on the boat, and can have a small fire if need be.  We also have shore power and can hook up a small heater if we have to.  In general, though, this is a small space, and we’re insulated.  This will be our first winter living aboard on the water, so we’ll give you a full report, but we really don’t anticipate it being a problem.

Q:  I could never live in a place that small.

A:  It’s not that small.  Look at this this way:  I don’t take up any more space in a 4000 square foot house than I do in a phone booth.  We have everything we need.  We’ve pared away unusable spaces (think about it, your house has lots of em).  It really hasn’t been a problem.  Having lived here a while, I really can’t imagine needing much more room.  What would I do with it?  Store more stuff?  I don’t NEED more stuff.

Q:  Don’t you miss your things?

A:  We brought with us those things that were immediately important to us.  We stuck family memorabilia and the like in storage.  The rest of it, we didn’t need.  If you haven’t looked at something in two years, you probably won’t miss it now.

Q:  Do you have a car?

A:  Yes, a 14 year old, 50mpg, 3 cylinder Metro.  We’re trying to figure out how to live without it as most  of our shopping is in easy walking/bicycle distance.

Q:  How about storms?

A:  It gets a bit noisy from heavy rain, and winds can move the boat around a bit at anchor or in the slip, but aside from that, they really aren’t a problem.

Q:  What will you do when a hurricane comes?

A:  First of all, that happens very seldom in any one place.  I know.  I grew up on the Gulf coast, and we evacuated precisely twice in my entire young life. Most boat insurance (ours included) comes with coverage to haul out and tie down the boat in case of a heavy storm, or we can simply take the boat further upriver (as it is, we’re about as upriver as anyone can get).

Q:  What do you eat?

A:  Lots. We’re former restaurant owners, we both cook, we eat well.  Check out our blog on cooking in small spaces,

Q:  How about laundry?

A:  We go to the laundry about every week and a half, use their WIFI, and do the wash.  To be honest, you’ll use fewer clothes on the boat (most of summer, I live in a bathing suit or an old pair of jeans).  Many if not most Marinas have their own laundry room.  If living on the hook, there’s always hand wash.

Q:  What is the thing you like least about living on the boat?

A:  Boy, I’m stuck.  Whatever problems I have on the boat, I also had on land.  I think, for me, the maintenance can be a bit of a pain, but mostly because I just finished BUILDING the thing and I’m kinda done with construction for the moment.

Q:  What is the thing you like most about living on the boat?

A:  The freedom, the peace, the proximity to nature, the lack of expense, the fact that I don’t have to have three other jobs just to live here. . . .

Q:  Do you have a pet?

A:  We have an elderly cat.  She seems to really like the boat.

Q:  How does the membrane roof work?   Does it leak?

A:  Not at all.  It can be a bit loud in heavy rain, but its ironclad waterproof…..I wish I could say that for my window builds.

Q:  Do you travel around a lot?

A:  No.  Unlike motorized houseboats, Shantyboats tend to stay in one place for a bit.  We like it here, fortunately.  We lucked out in finding Middle River Landing when we did.  If we stop liking it, we’ll move, but probably not until then.

Q:  Is it dangerous living there?  Do you have guns?

A:  This crops up in cruising forums periodically, and its DUMB.  Sorry.  Marinas are, largely, tight knit communities, many of them (including this one) gated at night.  It takes you about a week to know everyone’s boat and who belongs there and who doesn’t.  Most are safer than any neighborhood, apartment complex, or trailer park.  What am I gonna shoot?  I’d blow a hole in my boat, my neighbor’s boat, and the one next to that, boats being lightly built structures by and large.  Fear is dumb.  If this was a dangerous place, I’d just go elsewhere.

Q:  I would love to do this, but I have (children, a job, a dog, a cat, an elderly relative, a hangnail, a fear of seagulls, an overdue library book. . .etc etc etc)

A:  Change can be scary, and you can always find excuses to stay where you are, living just as you are, and never do anything outside the box.  People of all ilks live on boats:  people with happy, healthy kids, elderly relatives, pets, potted plants, cancer, dandruff, debts, phobias, whatever. . . .all live happily on the water.  If you try it and don’t like it, you can always sell the boat, take grandma’s china out of storage, and move back on land.  Life goes on.  No harm, no foul, but you won’t have spent an entire life wondering “what if?”

Q:  Was this a good decision?

A:  Moving aboard was one of the best decisions we’ve made in our entire lives.  I wish we’d done it decades ago.


  1. Love your blog, I stumbled across it,about a month ago, while researching shanty boats. Actually just looking at them. I read August to the date, then decided I wanted to experience the adventure as you had lived it,and started from the beginning. You are now bookmarked in my faves :-). I was excited to see, in a recent post, the Lisa B. Good design,which is the design I have downloaded and plan to build as a weekender. I live in Florida and we have many beautiful rivers here. I have wanted to live on the water, have the lifestyle, for many years. Unfortunately for that dream, I am married to a hoarder, and I also am a bit of a pack-rat myself. ... I was wondering if you had found a place to winter your floating oasis, since I believe you mentioned earlier that it wasn't an option to stay where you are. I hope you are successful with that. I know very little about coastal weather in that part of the country,except that I think the temps are brutal. (ha ha) Fla boy all my life. That being said, I will close, wishing the both of you,and your cat, peace,happiness and dry feet. I am a fan of your blog and check in about once a week. Thanks again for keeping us all on the edge of our seats for new posts.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Rustyfingers. We'll be publishing plans to build a streamlined version of Floating Empire shortly, as soon as I can get the PDF together. As a Floridian originally meself, I sympathize with fear of the cold. I'm married to a Wisconsinite and we have periodic thermostat wars (my blood congeals below about 64 degrees :) ) Thanks for checking in, and please keep touch.


  3. So glad I happened upon your blog. I am in the process of transitioning from owning a house to live aboard and relish all info I can find! We've (my 15-yr-old son and I) gone from a 1200 sq ft house to a rented 29' camper and are selling the house. Once sold we will transition again . . I am comparing sailboats and shanty boats . . any thoughts?

    1. MANY thoughts :)...There are, to my mind, two mitigating considerations. The first is, of course, money. Boats can be dirt cheap or wildly expensive. At the end and beginning of boating season, there are often sailboats and cabin cruisers available for cheap--some literally for free--afloat and intact and just in need of a bit of tlc. It rather depends on how much work you're willing to do, how much capital you have, and how happy you are with either sails or messing with engines. Shantyboats are far less in evidence, tending to be built by their inhabitants (ours cost us less than $5000, but that's us). The second question is: how much traveling do you want to do? Shantyboats and floating homes don't travel, or don't travel much. That gives you a neighborhood, a base of operations, and neighbors and friends and local hangouts and everything that goes with that. Cruisers--sail and motor--can travel, can seek out new experiences or spend part of the season one place and part in another. It just depends on the life you'd like to lead. Either way, the life on the water is a wonderful one, and I can't imagine you'll be unhappy with the choice once you give it a chance. If you've any questions, drop us a note and we'll happily help if we can. Mungo (at