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Landless in Seattle

For some, houseboat living offers the best of both worlds - but it isn't for everyone. By Tom Stockley

in memory of the Stockleys
In memory of Tom & Peggy Stockley

Moving onto a houseboat was something of an experiment for my wife, Peggy, and I. We had a year's lease on a vivid blue Lake Union floating home (with an option to buy), rented our land home and accepted the fact that possessions had to be pared down by half.

Spring was in the air as we carried our belongings down the long dock. Greenery was popping up from window boxes, the ducks and geese were already into their mating rituals and it didn't take long to notice that the water made reflective ripples on the ceiling. Wow.

About two weeks later, as we sat dangling our feet in the water, Peggy turned to me and said, "Do you think you could live here for long?"

"Only the rest of my life," I laughed, but I wasn't kidding.

That year was magical. Everything was new to us. We called one another to the window if a large boat went by or even a kayaker, anything that moved or floated. We giggled when the house rocked slightly from the wake of a passing ship. We couldn't get over the fact that we were surrounded by water with a backdrop of the city skyline.

Spring soon turned into summer and we began spending most of our spare time on the back deck-when we weren't jumping off and floating about in the channel between the next dock and us. We came to know our neighbors, an interesting lot including an elderly lady who had lived on the lake for decades, a university professor, a gardener, a young law student and a silvery-haired woman who seemed to be going off to Greece a lot.

We obtained a little rowboat and paddled ourselves about the city lake, exploring a hidden and fascinating, side of urban life. Huge NOAA ships dwarfed our little craft as we glided by. From the water, we peeked into the windows of our often-eccentric floating neighbors, including an intriguing man who lived aboard an old tug filled with books. The fishing and crab boats that slumbered during the off-season added a certain salty character. We spent so much time in the rowboat that one neighbor called us "the owl and the pussycat."

Fall brought soft morning mists and a still, reflective quality to the lake, turning its surface to shimmering pewter. We noticed the arrival of migratory birds that joined the year-round duck and goose population - little black coots with their low clucking sounds, alert grebes diving for some unseen dinner.

Winter came to the lake and we decided to try out the funny antique wood-burning stove (a 1921 Sears model, we later learned.) We felt as cozy as waterbugs in our floating nest.

That was when we made plans to sell our land home and exercise the option to buy the floating one. Some 13 years have passed since then and we haven't regretted our decision once.

SOMETHING SHOULD BE admitted right now: Peggy and I are hopeless romantics about houseboats. We're absolutely incurable. We happen to think that it helps to have a little romance in your soul when it comes to this floating lifestyle. A certain degree of goofiness doesn't hurt either.

If a brilliant sunset beyond the Aurora Bridge is more important to you than promptly washing up the dinner dishes, if a bright billowing spinnaker against a blue sky during the Tuesday Duck Dodge races makes you linger at the edge of the dock longer than you should, if you'd rather tune into the gentle lapping of water against the dock than to the TV, you're a candidate.

But a houseboat is not for everyone. And it's a good thing, too, as there are only 482 in Seattle and there's no moorage allotted for more.

Over the years we learned that spring and summer bring a parade of folks on the dock who proclaim their belief that they, too, are destined to live afloat. We politely answer all their questions because, 13 years ago, we were like them.

The same questions invariable come:
  "Is it damp?" they ask. No; in fact, because of the air circulation beneath the house, it's quite dry.
  "Do you rock?" We should hope.
  "Is it safe?" Statistically, the crime rate around houseboats is among the lowest in the city.
  "Have you ever fallen in?" Of course, clothes and all. Everybody does, sooner or later.
  "How often do the logs have to be replaced?" Never; most older homes are built on first-growth cedar, which is quite seaworthy.

Within a few minutes we can tell whether they are potential houseboaters. If they ask about such details as crime, where to park their three cars, space for things like a darkroom and/or likely expansion plans, we know they're not.

Another common-and not unreasonable-question we are often asked is, "What are the negatives of living on a houseboat?" Peggy and I look at each other then, because none come to mind immediately. We are better with the positives. But we scratch out heads and think. OK, you have to carry the groceries down the long dock in the rain sometimes. Parking is terrible. Although we have a small lot, it's often filled. Many mornings we wander about the neighborhood wondering where we left the car the night before.

The older traditional houseboats such as ours are, by their very nature, small. We have 1,000 square feet, which is considered fairly large. There's a little storage space and we share one closet (a walk-in, but tiny). There's an old saying among houseboaters that if you buy a new pair of shoes you throw the old pair away.

BUT THESE THINGS seem trivial when compared to the reasons we continue to live in a floating house on Lake Union: the sense of community, the views, the serenity of living on the water, the neighbors, having a rowboat out the back door, everything that is apparent to the eye. And there are other factors that took a little longer to attract our collective psyche.

First, there's history here. We're not just some flotsam and jetsam, but a community established more than 100 years ago when Seattle's first water dweller rafted some logs together and built a shanty atop.

Generations since have been lured by the siren song. Loggers came and went, replaced by bohemian folks, than starving artists and poets. A 1946 Life magazine article that I uncovered recently described a houseboat as a great in-city place to live, one you could pick up for about $6,000. Nowadays, floating homes - when you can find them - cost about $150,000 to $800,000, including moorage.

Peggy and I first knew the floating community while attending the University of Washington, when it was a place where poor students rented housing for a song. We partied there and the water frequently washed indoors when too many gathered on one side of the house. A little later, in the 1960s and '70s, houseboats were "discovered". Many, like ours, were remodeled about that time. (An old-timer once told us that our place had been a floating brothel during Prohibition.)
In his fine history, Seattle's Unsinkable Houseboats, Howard Droker wrote: "Wobblies, and the bored children of the rich, university students and drunks, artists and bootleggers - low lift and high society - have populated the sometimes tempestuous, sometimes tenuous, but always colorful century of houseboat history.
There's one more thing we love about houseboating. I think it's called the rhythm of nature. It's a closeness to things - all things and everything. I don't think we have ever been so aware of the weather, the direction of the wind, the air and water temperatures, clouds that go by, that moment when summer slips into autumn. People who dwell on the water are like that.
"Land is a nice place to visit," Jim Jessup, a longtime houseboater, once told me, "but I wouldn't want to live there."

    - Originally printed in Seattle Magizine in August 1995.

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