If I Had a Houseboat


August 14, 2011, Washington, DC: In the early summer of 2001, I arrived in Marin County, California, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, to begin my summer job. The company was based on a narrow stretch of land on the border of Mill Valley and Sausalito, wedged between the freeway and the water's edge. Just behind the building was a row of adorable houseboats, and it was there that I fell head over heels in love with the idea of a floating home.

Imagine my delight then to take a tour of DC's houseboats Saturday at Gangplank Marina.

Nestled on the southwest waterfront, DC's community of floating homes is within spitting distance of the US Capitol. Their existence surprised me when I first learned of it and I was even more surprised to learn this weekend that Gangplank is home to the largest community of liveaboards back East.

Marin's floating homes were the first I'd seen one in person and Saturday's tour rekindled my fascination with this style of living. People who live this way make creative use of small space. Ingenious storage solutions help, but owners also repeatedly speak of their effort to live with less, whether with one shelf of books or a minimal wardrobe. Part of me thinks I could live small like this; another part isn't 100 percent certain. Either way, I was inspired to declutter the moment I got home. Could the rest of us on land live smaller too?

Also compelling is the connection people living aboard feel to the natural world. This is what first drew me in ten years ago: I remember my first excursion paddling between rows of houseboats in Marin's Richardson Bay, taken with the idea that I was essentially meandering down the tiny streets of this community. I remember seeing a young couple enjoying a glass of white wine that afternoon, their legs dangling over the water, their kayaks and bicycles pulled up next to them on the dock, the breathtaking San Francisco skyline across the water. I remember thinking, This is their front yard.

Boat home tour, Gangplank Marina, Washington, DC, Aug. 13, 2011

That struck me again Saturday, but I admit I also had a bit of a reality check. It wasn't the storm that came in fast and hard, drenching us at lunch at Cantina Marina at the end of the dock; that was an adventure. It was learning about the challenges of cold DC winters and the need to walk down the dock to the marina bathroom when a frozen river prevents barges from coming to empty the tank beneath your house, thereby preventing you from flushing the toilet. That's when I think maybe I could do this, but maybe not here. Still, the understanding that there's a direct relationship between one's actions and one's environment was impressive. Everything that goes down the sink or into the trash can is considered. It's a lesson we could take home to the rest of the city.

There was one more thing that got me. Every one we talked to talked about how much they enjoy spending time with their neighbors. Weekly coffees and nights spent on the marina's stationary party barge scratch the surface. Spontaneous invitations to dinner and long conversations meandering by are things we don't do enough of back up the Hill.

Yes, all things considered, I think a small space like this one would suit me well if I had a home that could float. This would suit me just fine if I could pop into our front yard for an evening paddle among neighbors.