Someone whose house is firmly aground doesn’t know the experience of living afloat unless at some point they’ve abandoned the shore and sailed across oceans, day after day, weeks between landfall. Living afloat has an intimacy and an immediacy missing ashore, a contradictory sense of shelter and exposure much like a mollusk inhabiting its shell in the turbulent tidal zone.
A houseboat is alive in a way not possible for something fixed to concrete foundations. It dances in the rising wind and strains against its moorings in a storm. It feels the pull of the sun and moon and the centrifugal force of the turning earth. Life afloat is about life in motion—the isolated impact of the wake from a passing boat or the riotous force of a winter storm. A boat is a thing that moves even if it moves only in place. The floor of a houseboat may not be as lively as the pitching deck of a boat in a seaway but more than one resident has unexpectedly fallen ass over tea kettle because their assumption of immobility proved mistaken.
The certainty of the unmoving earth is something we take for granted since childhood. Every motion we make, every step we take is dependent upon the simple premise that ground won’t rise or fall beneath our feet. In those moments when our expectations are undone and the earth moves we find even the simple act of walking impossible.
A sailor—or the resident of a houseboat—surrenders that assumption of stability. The deck beneath their feet is continuously moving, whether a barely perceptible tremor or energetic enough to create a tempest in a coffee cup. The perception of motion is always present, asleep or awake, a kinetic awareness that orientates them in space. It’s the reason sailors stagger ashore after a long ocean passage, lurching down the street from one handhold to the next. Their bodies have learned to live in constant, unpredictable motion.
The experience of fluidity has ramifications like ripples radiating from a stone dropped in still water. I suspect it removes some of the certainty so characteristic of the middle class. Maybe houseboats attract a bohemian type or maybe it makes them. The truth is all of us are walking on water, we just don’t know it.
Houseboats are wonderfully eccentric, neither one thing nor another, wholly belonging neither to the sea or the shore. Like a foreign embassy, they are sovereign soil transposed on another country. They are the shore afloat, an impossible transposition of land and water. Heart and soul, they are anomaly harboring communities of eccentrics.
They are floating shells, exteriors weathered and roughened but the inside worn smooth by intimacy and the passage of life through chambered cells. Unlike houses anchored to the soil, houseboats can’t afford the luxury of space, the extravagant waste of empty rooms piled one on top another like packing crates. Every inch must be economized, every corner rounded, everything secured. Even a well found house ashore isn’t built to be buffeted by waves, corroded by salt water, or encrusted by barnacles.
Houseboats by preference and construction are ephemeral creations. There are houses hundreds of years old but no houseboats. Nor are they built with the stubborn sturdiness of a wooden boat intended to survive the casual violence of the open ocean, passage after passage. They are vulnerable to hazards both common and uncommon to houses ashore—fire and flood, foundering, parting their moorings, grounding, collision, tsunamis, disdain, envy and bigotry. They are marginal creations that inhabit the edge, a characteristic that is both their strength and weakness.
There were once over 2,000 houseboats on the Seattle waterfront, Lake Union and Lake Washington. Now there are less than 500 sequestered in waterfront ghettos on Lake Union. Their vulnerabilities are less relevant to the decline than the rancor of homeowners who look down upon the ramshackle communities from the Seattle hills and complain about property values, sewage, lawlessness, tax evasion, and moral turpitude. The floating communities have always attracted both derision and envy, the envy of the bourgeois for the bohemian. There’s nothing more rancorous than success.
The houseboat ghettos have created a sense of embattled community. Nothing defines a community more clearly than the struggle to survive against land developers, city commissioners, zoning authorities and citizen committees. The community is further defined by narrow docks that thread together individual homes and anchor them to shore. Walking the dock each day, passing within a few feet of your neighbors’ kitchen or bedroom windows, living in such close proximity doesn’t allow the anonymity of a middle class suburb. When you know your neighbors’ name and the visible details of their lives it’s harder to ignore their distress when their house begins listing or breaks free of its moorings and drifts across the bay.