Friday, June 19, 2015

A Year On The Water: A Summary

June 15, 2015 marks a kind of a watershed moment for us here aboard Floating Empire.  As of that date, we will have been living on the water for a full year, through four seasons of weather, light, and  change.  It's been an amazing year, and I thought we should take the opportunity to summarize said year, the changes that we've made, the changes through which we've been, things we'd have done differently if we'd only known, and what we have in mind for the future.

Initial Expectations

There were a whole host of factors that went into the initial decision to build Floating Empire.  We had a love of the water.  We were fascinated by the Tiny House movement and what it could mean for the American consumer culture of "more is not enough."   I had set up during the previous year a part of the site called the "Center for Bypassed Technologies," exploring devices, concepts, and ways of doing that had fallen by the wayside because of the growth of cheap energy, which led to some really fascinating discussions on alternative ways of making things work.  We were interested in lowering our environmental footprint, and in greater self sufficiency.

Then, too, we were artists.  We realized that, if the massive outgo of rent, utilities, transportation, and other associated bills could be collapsed, then we could live to make art, without having to have other full time employment or to bypass worthwhile or interesting artistic endeavors simply because they were unlikely to provide short term income. 

Frankly, the stress of living what was essentially a dual life, one of a working stiff and one of an artist, was killing.  You wind up too exhausted to do either very well, and the attendant lousy diet, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, and utter lack of any social life can have some serious health consequences.

So we determined to build the vessel, with the idea of moving aboard her and living a far simpler, energy-lite lifestyle.

Initial Designs

Our initial designs were informed by Tiny Homes, by ideas on the Yahoo Vardoshavora group, and our own knowledge of boats in general.  Of course, our initial designs were grandiose (as in "you can't put the helipad next to the pony stables, the noise will upset them" grandiose), but after a bit, we realized that we would actually have to BUILD the damn thing, and begin to be more reasonable.

Our initial designs looked somewhat like this, only a bit larger.

The design we finally arrived at was a floating tiny home, resting on recycled 55 gallon drums, and utilizing solar power for most of it's power needs.  We hammered on the design for the better part of a year, lining up materials, researching equipment, and in general waiting for the weather.  In late March of 2014, we finally started the build, as is documented in our blog.  After months of construction, wrestling with weather and occasionally lousy lumber, we completed the boat in early June of 2014 and transported the vessel to the water on the 13th, reattached our floatation, and splashed Floating Empire on the 14th. 

When It went in the water, I said I only wanted two things:  1) That it floats and 2) that it does so UPRIGHT.

And that it did.


There were a few of our systems, and some of our assumptions, that have simply not worked out, and that, for various reasons, we have been unable or unwilling to address.  Chief among these is the simple seaworthiness of the vessel.  Most of the barrel barges we studied were happily cruising rivers and lakes, and we thought we would be joining them in various gunkholing explorations.  The problem with that is:  the Chesapeake is ROUGH, and the local propensity for massively overpowered speedboats of considerable draft means that the lower part of Middle River itself becomes a bit of a mixing bowl.  While it floats with uncanny stability in calm waters, our tall, somewhat awkward structure with high wind resistance and zero freeboard is simply unsuited for rough seas.  I really think our electric paddlewheel would have worked.  It's brief functional foray propelled the boat far more strongly than I would have expected.  Unfortunately, the mounts for the driveshaft were inadequate, and as we had to get out of the marina where we launched (as it was we were at Baltimore Boat Center far longer than we'd intended or than they wanted), we were forced to scrap the paddlewheel and utilize a couple of electric trolling motors, which proved woefully inadequate for a vessel of that windage (as a small note, I think a leeboard would have helped immensely, and should we have to do another such move, I would first add one). 
The Chesapeake does NOT usually look like this, folks.

On reaching the calm waters of the upper reaches of Middle River, we realized that we were likely going nowhere, that the boat would be a floating home, and little more. 

Dealing with the tides through the winter has been an issue.  Driven by the north wind, low tides here in the river can be REALLY low, making getting on and off the boat difficult and on occasion impossible.  We built a set of stairs on the bow to facilitate getting up to the dock on difficult days.

A few other systems proved less than successful, but in ways that we can easily ameliorate over the next year.  Our solar power system is fine for our needs, but the battery storage is inadequate, and we need to fix that in order to be fully off grid with our refrigeration.  Our gonzo sliding cabinet doors in the Galley, while functional, are rather difficult to mess with and need to be rebuilt with a bit more care.  Our windows and glazing, done rather at the last minute, need a serious rethink as we go into another fall and winter season. 

And Wild Successes

All of that being said, this is an incredibly comfortable and pleasant space in which to live.  With the loft spaces, we have about 220 square feet (about 20.5 sq meters), slightly more than most tiny homes.  With the aft studio, the forward galley and dining space, the sleeping loft and the forward loft lounge area, there are plenty of places to get away from each other, places for quiet contemplation or doing artwork.  The multitude of windows (especially the large one in the sleeping loft) makes for great ventilation and an almost constant breeze in summer.  Couple that with the facilities of the Marina, outdoor tables and chairs, an indoor lounge (okay, they're still working on that) and restrooms, you have quite a bit of space in which to roam.

Some of the systems in the boat have worked exceptionally well.  We've covered these systems at much greater depth in the blog, but I thought I'd list them just to summarize.

The Galley has been a particular success.  The counterspace has proven adequate, and, especially with the addition of the kerosene stove and oven, we've been able to crank out some spectacular meals without getting too much in one another's way.  Our simple pitcher pump, pulling river water for washing and using bleach for disinfection, has proven convenient, simple, and effective.
If you lack the battery storage you need, it doesn't matter HOW many of these things you have.

The composting toilet, too, has worked perfectly.  I watch other boat owners scrambling to deal with, pump out, and repair complex, smelly, backwater systems.  We dump this thing about once a week in winter, it never smells, it has nothing to break. . . .I will never put any other kind of toilet system in a boat or cabin.

Despite being a bit light in the storage department, our 200W solar system from has proven ideal for our needs, running interior lights, radio, TV, charging electronics, and allowing us to run power tools and kitchen appliances with relative ease.  At present, we lack the storage to run our fridge full time, having only 210 AH in the stack.  We'll be amending that this month, adding an additional 70 AH,  and should be totally off grid by August.

Once the Marina got reliable WiFi working, our computer and FireStick have provided us with a wealth of entertainment, movies, and research abilities (including work on our blogs).  Really, there is nothing that we could have done at our former abode that we can't do here.

Though it took us a bit to learn how to use it properly, the Kerosene heater has worked well, keeping us toasty warm though the winter.  On the very coldest weeks, we are still using a bit less than 5 gallons of Kero a week for heating, cooking, and some lamp illumination.  In summer, with only cooking in use, a single gallon lasts us weeks.  We're looking into biokerosene alternatives, but for the moment, this is working just fine (though, from pouring and dealing with the stuff, I do occasionally smell like….well….kerosene.)

…And some Wonderful Surprises. . .

Four things over this last year have leapt out at us as wonderful surprises of adopting this lifestyle.
We've come to love living here.

First, of course, is the Marina itself.  Marinas--properly run ones like this one, anyway--are communities, like small, functioning villages in and of themselves.  I knew this, I think, from growing up in Florida, but living here has really put us in the thick of all that, and it's been a joy.  The Marina brings together folks from all walks of life, people we would probably never, ever have met or socialized with otherwise.  Starting from a core of liveaboards, the Marina community extends from hardcore boaters and watermen to casual recreational boaters, all brought together by a love of boating and the water.  We have met some wonderful friends here, and the mutual support and aid offered by the community here at Middle River Marina, happily fostered by the owners of the place, has been of huge help to us, as we hope to have been of help to others here.

Second, engaging with the community at large has been really satisfying.  We began here as strangers with limited transportation and little knowledge of the area.  A bit of exploring and some dedicated interaction later, we are now known by name by grocers and wine merchants, marine contractors and restauranteurs and fellow boaters.  It's amazing, but all you have to do, in this increasingly isolated society, is to TALK to folks, and they generally respond.

Third, our financial assumptions regarding living aboard have, ultimately, proven mostly valid.  Moving aboard has, indeed, allowed us to live very, very comfortably on an extremely small income and with a very small footprint on the earth, and to do our respective writing and artwork as we'd intended.

Last but far from least is the River itself.  We are so close to the beating urban heart of Baltimore, yet here on the river, we are immersed in wildlife.  Bald Eagles cruise the waterway during winter, Ospreys and Great Herons during the summer months, large catfish and carp feed and contest between the boat hulls.  Geese and ducks routinely patrol the marina, forage the lawn, and now are bringing their goslings and ducklings in tow.  Its massively entertaining.  Ofttimes, in good weather, we can sit up on the hard beneath the trees and watch dozens of interactions between birds and fish and animals and people. It's the ultimate in nature programming, sans ads, and the image quality is quite a bit better than cable.

And For The Future. . . .

First of all, I can't imagine going back to the way we were living before, back to the space and the clutter and the need to generate large amounts of income just to maintain a home and a car and all the rest.  This life is ever so much more peaceful and, truth be told, productive than what we were doing before. 

We will continue the living aboard experiment for at least another year.  As I write this, we are still making improvements:  creating a screen and storm window arrangement for the front door, rescreening the loft window, rebuilding the hearth to accommodate the rather higher burner on the kerosene stove. . . .

In the longer term, we want to be able to apply and share the things we've learned with this enterprise.  We will continue with this and our other blogs about life on the water, Onboard Cooking and Life, Art, Water.  We also created, through the Grindlebone collective, a project called Grindlebone Village to explore the establishment of a low impact tiny home community and educational and festival space, and we'll continue as we live here on the river, writing and keeping you informed about changes, ideas, things that worked, things that didn't, and things we wish we'd done.

I'm so glad that living here isn't one of the "things we wished we'd done."

Mungo and Morgainne


  1. I've really enjoyed the sharing of your life on the water. Where I live in Oregon, there are no marinas like yours. The only one remotely close to where I work is too small for even a small live aboard. Thank you for your often and well written blogs (not to mention your wit).

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Jarm, and for your inputs as we've written this blog. Always happy to hear from you.

    Maybe you should find someone with waterfront and see if you can make a private arrangement for a private dock. Works on the Eastern Shore here.

    Regardless, many thanks. We're having a blast doing this.