excerpted from Vol.16 - Number 14 of the magazine
Messing about in Boats
Dec. 1, 1998

©Philip C. Bolger

Design #630


A residence 63’l x 10.0' x l’6 overall dimensions,

11’ 3 bridge clearance and 31,000 pounds designed displacement.




So what are we talking about living aboard in MAIB for anyway? Well, just some food for thought rather than the usual myths, misconceptions, prejudices, i.e., "too cold in winter and too hot in summer, you ye got to be well off,it’s crowded aboard and ain’t like home anyway," etc., etc. Most readers live in a house of sorts, paying rent or mortgage, i.e., using significant portions of their budget for comfortable shelter. That money can be used effectively on the water as well, spending it first on a suitable craft, and then on supplies, repairs, fuel, etc. Indeed, depending on where, when, and how you care to live afloat, it may well be the cheapest and least regulated form of "living in comfortable shelter," assuming you actually like your local roots to be not much deeper than the bury of your anchors.

We are not talking here about dedicated mileage eating, cruising under sail or power. We are talking here about the usually overlooked option of moving rather limited distances at a time, under perfect choice of weather conditions, to a place you can either see already a few hundred yards away or can readily scout in a faster runabout carried aboard. We are talking here about "lifting your anchor every two weeks" as a local ordinance! harbormasters may require. We are talking here about living cleanly without discharge, be it in full view of but without annoying property owners ashore, or quietly tucked away in a marsh creek or an oxbow surrounded by nothing but nature. We are talking about the option of "staying around the area" for the full year, within reach of your post box ~ or gently "drifting" up and down the waters with the seasons, covering just a few miles or ten a day. Some formal berths, such as marinas and wharves, are suddenly very affordable in winter when the fair-weather yachties are all gone and ice and snow could make access to the shore unpredictable from day to day if you stayed out in the local bay or backwaters. Or you may already live in/move to a milder region in which a moderate amount of insulation won’t require much of a heating budget during the shorter days.

Between cell phones, photovoltaics, and windmills, working together with affordable huge industrial batteries, modern low electrical consumption radios, TVs and PCs, common availability of gasoline or #2 diesel, propane if you like it aboard, and endless square miles of empty dryout or flooded coastal marshland on the East and Gulf Coasts at least, and equally endless rivers, canals, estuaries, a formally itinerant lifestyle is perfectly possible around the town where your (temporary) job is, with true itinerant intentions unrestricted to last as long as you like it.

After the initial investment of savings, sweat, and some blood in the chosen craft, and a small emergency fund stashed away, onboard living can be pulled off with fixed income or periodic temp jobs to pad your budget a bit. If you can work out of your floating home, the better. But apart from getting supplies, including fuel, hitting formal pump-out stations (instead of going 3-plus miles offshore before pumping out waste), or tying up for repairs impossible afloat and by yourself, contact with people, authorities, and costly support services can be kept at a minimum if so desired. If you are determined and set it up right, you won’t be bothered by property taxes, building codes, snow in the driveway, flooding in the basement, termites in the roof, home improvement junk mail, and missionaries knocking on your door eager to convert you one more time.

You won’t be stuck with intolerable neighbors, nor the advances of the local cable company. You will have other problems, but as a lifestyle choice, they may be part of the experience you like, or at least tolerable side effects. If you want to be rational about any such choices, figure out what you might like better, see how you can get there, and have some reserves/plan to change your mind again eventually. Being aware of your options, the pluses and the minuses, is the rational part of it. The rest is obvious and hopefully fun. Ergo, this discussion of options.

Living aboard with minimal interest in actual miles-per-day-traveled allows equally overlooked opportunities in the choice/design of respective craft. To do this, you certainly would neither need a trust fund to finance the "suede lush life" on a large, complex, and costly power cruiser (or worse, offshore capable auxiliary), nor need to be cooped up in a tiny space with odd ergonomics, Spartan accommodations, surrounded by hardware and hull geometries fit to sail the coast but useless for your purpose. Ergo big budget power and sailing cruisers are off the table, why blow that much money, as should be much less pretentious but often tortured ideas of converting an aged and cheap fiberglass sailboat of moderate size.

What should be on the table for this particular purpose would be a craft with limited but reliable mechanics, with an easy to maintain and stout shape able to live upright on the mud in tidal waters, all quite obvious points. But it also has to more or less look like a boat! If the neighbors ashore dislike your craft, the accessible universe shrinks immediately, all the way to the harbormaster sending you packing for good, with the Coast Guard lurking outside to get you trying to head out of the harbor with your "thing." It has to resemble a real boat! You can not risk looking like a squatter, notwithstanding the fact that you actually are sort of. Thus, no shantyboats, pretty Belinda hideaway, and other provocations to nautical sensitivities. They will go after you, no matter how great that turret with the PVC-pipe matches the Navy surplus gray outhouse on that balcony. This all depends on the local situation, of course. But if you want to move eventually, be it with the seasons or just to get away from some local pirates, you’d better offer a more palatable appearance to the world outside then a shack on a converted oil barge, the upside-down schoolbus idea, or that outboard powered barrel in which you’ve lead a cozy, beechwood aged existence. What then remains on the table are conversions of lifeboats, bought at auction and rationalized to leave off stuff that may matter on the high seas loaded to the gills with panic stricken Loveboaters, but is now in the way. What remains on the table are using existing powerboat hulls, insurance write-offs with the unnecessaries removed such as once gold-plated but now dead systems, including humungous engines, and upgraded in appearance and tankage capacities, for instance, as necessary. What remains on the table, and perhaps overall, realistically, the most economical approach of all, is the option of building fresh a very simple shape to whatever size, equip it for extended periods of relative autonomy within range of the local TV station or beyond, make it look reasonably good with stock affordable house paint in nautical color coordination surrounded by tastefully applied moldings, necessary nautical deck hardware and some unnecessary doodads thrown in "for cutes," with boat(s) on deck, a mast with proper flag protocol, and friendly crew demeanor, and see whether anyone will actually take offense. A halfway decent looking craft in good repair can anchor off gold coasts without the private gunboat being sent out after it. In this issue and the next we present two options along this philosophy of live-aboard craft. One is long, lean, and shallow, the other wider, shorter, and deeper. Their big structures are stout, simple, and fast to build. Their power plants are relatively cheap and undemanding for the use intended. Layouts are quite generous for living afloat, with minimal built-in furniture/joiner work rapid to arrange and rearrange to suit tastes and needs. As residences without holes underwater, they should not flood, require no lawn care, and can move out of beautiful but exposed locations to temporarily hide out in the marshes from really nasty weather, and offer the opportunity of perpetually changing views out of the favorite window.

Illinois (our drawing board name; the boat has not been built so far) was designed for a Chicago man who wanted an affordable Florida houseboat. He intended to build her himself and she was designed to be assembled from diagrams on the plans, a giant "instant boat" using a minimum of tools, but some rather large rental equipment, and time. If constructed all solid ply as proposed, vs. ply-foam-ply laminate in places, she needs on the order of 450 4x8 sheets of 1/2" plywood. The effort is comparable to building a small house, the foundation on which she’s erected being the 5-1/2" thick center bottom. Once assembled, that bottom, and her whole structure, are strong and stiff enough to lie on comparatively rough bottoms so that she can be moored in places not fit for either conventional boats or most raft type houseboats. The 18" draft opens up mooring possibilities now vacant, be it up the tidal creek or behind the sandbar. Her style was intended to avoid the usual protests by owners of shore property in the vicinity of such places. They will fight hard, and usually successfully, against intrusion on their views of house type houseboats, but often actually welcome the presence of a yacht, especially if she goes away occasionally. This craft is a reasonably convincing representation of a large power cruiser of 1920’s vintage. Given a good finish, attractive small craft, and a knowledgeable display of flags, she’s an interesting addition to the scene rather than a threat of an accumulation of floating shacks.

She is actually little if any more difficult or expensive to build than many of the shacks, and likely easier to maintain, aside from her mobility. The mobility is real, if limited. Her main engine was specified to be a 45hp Honda four-stroke outboard motor. Today it would be a Yamaha T-50 high-thrust on account of its bigger propeller. Two of them would actually give her some legs to stride along and stop with some authority. Other drive options are clearly possible, as long as the budget does not get busted, her layout compromised, your maintenance schedule does not mushroom, and she is not turned into a bonified I full-fledged cruiser after all. Then you’ll start nit-picking about her unsophisticated headsea behavior, her marina length, etc., etc.

There is not much data on how fast such a hull will go with such a power plant. The resistance is practically all wetted surface, and the displacement speed of a hull this long is 10.6 knots. Perhaps two large-prop SOs will get her near that in riverine or ICW smooth water. The hull is extremely narrow and shallow for its length and weight, and she will be faster than most people would expect of her simple shape and construction. For most of her speed range, she’ll make no wake whatever. At any rate, if pushed and called for, she should be able to get around faster than most sailing cruisers.

With her reasonable range of stability, a good weather report would be a prerequisite to a passage over to the Bahamas, as with her shallow lower units this far aft she would be likely to lose power in certain length waves if her stern cannot hold the flow. She could, of course, be given more and deeper power and would not be very inefficient up to 15 knots or more, but the cost to outfit and run her would jump in a lot higher proportion than the added speed. That kind of boating was not the point of this houseboat anyway.

For maneuvering, she has a bilgeboard amidships to allow the shallow hull to be swung without skidding and to mitigate blowing away in a beam wind, wherever there’s depth enough to lower it. For finer maneuvering, she carries a bow thruster in the form of a 9.9/l5hp outboard motor in a well in her bow, mounted facing aft. This has numerous advantages over the usual bow thruster:

  1. It lifts clear of the water when not in use, saving drag. corrosion, and electrolysis. The hole in the hull is faired over by a swinging gate which is held open by the propeller race and closes by its own buoyancy and the water running under the hull.
  2. It gives much better thrust than the usual feeble tunnel-mounted thruster and is not limited in how long it can be used at a time as many thrusters are.
  3. It is directional through a 90° arc, too bad outboard motors can not swing 90° or more each way, but a 45° thrust forward can be combined with a 450 thrust on the main engine aft to move the boat straight sidewise or at an angle ahead or astern. Very pretty maneuvering should be possible, even in quite strong winds since she does not actually have very much wind resistance. She’s low-sided and has little top hamper by current standards.
  4. The bow motor can serve as backup power in case of main engine failure. She even could proceed backwards, very slowly and not against much wind or sea, but for an indefinite distance...

On deck, the off-center deckhouse leaves a good passage fore and aft on her main deck with high and stiff railings. There’s space for a powerful and fast tender to make anchoring off reasonably convenient. In fact, Illinois’s stability would allow heavier larger craft to be hoisted up her sides.

The large afterdeck with its fixed awning makes a pleasant place to set up chairs in good weather, while the deckhouse windows are low enough to give a seated view in bad weather, as well as a good view in all directions from the helm. The bilgeboard and the bow motor can be operated from inside the deckhouse. There’s a large cargo hatch for lowering bulky objects and supplies into the cabin, and a bow well for anchor work. We would replace the 45-pound anchor shown with 2x75 pound for hurricane duty, plus a power capstan. Below we tried to keep the furniture as cheap and flexible as possible. The 14’ x 9’ living room would have portable chairs and tables with lanyards to secure them if, by any chance, rough water is expected. Of course, with her midsection she won’t roll as, for instance, a traditional round bilge Trumpy would.

There is a generous galley with a large top-opening refrigerator or ice box, stairs to the deckhouse with a shore-grade tread and riser, a king-sized bed with ample sitting headroom under the deckhouse and two ports to look out by rising on an elbow, one large washroom fit to double as a darkroom, with a 200-gallon holding tank to stretch the pump-out intervals, and a small forecastle for visits from the grandchildren. Not a bad place to live for people with quiet tastes. The underlying principles of both that type of liveaboard philosophy and the matching structure and overall layout stand up in larger and smaller sizes.

Plans for #630 Illinois on six sheets are $400,

available from Phil Bolger & Friends, 29 Ferry St., Gloucester, MA 01930, fax 978-282-1349.