Boat, boathouse, houseboat, house…

So… One of my frequent blog visitors (and someday I’ll figure out who she is in Real Life and I’m sure I’ll be embarrassed as hell that I haven’t put name and LJ-handle together sooner) mentioned that to most people who don’t hang out near boats, there’s no differentiation between “boat” and “houseboat” if someone lives on it. For a boater, there’s a huge difference and for those in Seattle there’s a vital one.

See… a few years ago, a woman who worked for the State of Washington’s Department of Natural Resources attempted to use her position to eradicate what she called “floating trailer trash”: liveaboard boaters. In the ensuing kerfuffle the difference between a liveaboard’s boat and a houseboat, between a boat and a “floating home”, and what a houseboat really was became ridiculously important. The DNR lady claimed that anyone living on the water in any kind of “boat”–and that included houseboats–was doing so illegally, abusing the public trust while making unfair use of public resources, and dirtying the environment–not to mention ruining the view of the people who owned houses on hills overlooking the water. Oh yeah, and not paying their fair share, since they were “homeowners” but not paying property taxes (she apparently didn’t understand that people who rent slips pay the property taxes as part of their rent.) You can see how it all got really nutty really fast.

At the root was a 1984 law that restricted the use of Washington’s waters to “water dependent uses.” That makes sense in a circular way. Originally the law was put in place so businesses wouldn’t hog up the waterfronts and lakes with structures that didn’t need to be there, making life harder on the the critters that live in the water, and risking lots of extra pollution from activities that had no business being on the water, like paint factories and restaurants, and in one case a gym–who wants to work out on a heaving, floating floor anyhow? The lady in question, then-Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher, claimed that living aboard your boat wasn’t a “water dependent use.” She felt that people shouldn’t be allowed to live on boats at all in the state of Washington, that “residence,” as she put it, was something you should do on land (this would make it easier for taxes to be properly collected from the “fat cats” who were living at the state’s expense on public waters, she claimed.) The response from most boaters–whether they lived on board or not–was that the Land Commissioner didn’t have the right to tell boaters how they could use their boats so long as the boats themselves were safe and clean and lived up to all the other laws about boats, boating, water safety, ecology, and use of public waters. There was also come confusion about how boaters could be both “trailer trash” and “fat cats” as the same time. Eventually Ms. Belcher was voted out and the new Lands Commissioner added a clarification and codicil to the law stating that boats were boats and were therefore “water dependent” even if someone lived on them.

And what about the houseboats? Well… they aren’t boats. Most houseboats are actually barges (with houses on top) under the law in Washington. They’re still a water dependent use (even if Ms. Belcher didn’t think so) since barges aren’t much good out of the water, but not within the laws that pertain to boats and boating safety, since they can’t move under their own power. They’re also classed as “floating homes” and are subject to a bunch of laws about housing and safety that don’t apply to boats that can move around on their own. Some folks sometimes refer to them as “house barges,” instead (but let’s be honest and admit that sounds a lot less romantic–who’d have fallen in love with Tom Hanks if he lived on a barge in Seattle?)

But some houseboats are boats too, further confusing the issue. A house on a barge has a bunch of interesting laws it has to comply with and taxes that must be paid based on the fact that it can’t move on its own and it can’t exceed certain dimensions (for the sake of moving through navigable waterways like our lock system.) It has to be towed or pushed. To get around the boat/barge problem, a few clever houseboat builders have built real houseboats by adding an engine and steering system to their floating homes. The houseboat can now move under its own power and navigate the waters of Washington without the help of a tugboat. They still look like cottages on a barge most of the time, but they can move to their next berth on their own.

That’s the big difference–and the one that counts to most boaters: houseboats aren’t meant to move around regularly; boats are. Houseboats, be they unpowered or powered, rarely go anywhere. They don’t have the bits and bobs that go along with traveling for the sake of travel. They aren’t vehicles of any kind. They’re houses that float. They have a lot of boat-things about their construction, like marine-style toilets and holding tanks for sewage and graywater, electrical hookups instead of power mains, waterproofing, deck cleats, hulls, keels, and flotation systems. Those that move on their own have navigation lights. But structurally, they are houses that float and you’ll never see a houseboat racing across the Sound under a fine wind or broaching through the waves against a storm. At least we all hope not.

Boats, on the other hand, are designed to move across the surface of the water from point to point. But even if they don’t, movement is what they are designed for. It’s the difference in design and intended use that makes a boat different from a houseboat. And a houseboat different from a boat house–even though a boat house floats–and a floating house different from one that doesn’t.

I like houseboats just fine–I wouldn’t mind living in a houseboat under the right circumstances–but I don’t live on one now. I live on a sailboat. Unlike a friend of ours who used to live on a houseboat, I can–if I clean up my room first–take my home out for a spin around the bay, or up to Vancouver on vacation, or across the channel to visit someone on the other side.

Our sailboat isn’t very warm in the winter and it’s a bit damp most of the time–this is Seattle after all. My work space is the same 18′ x 8′ as my dining space and my entertaining space and my flaking-out-and-relaxing space (the bunk and head are forward in the bow and I don’t count them with the “main salon” living space in this.) If this were a houseboat, I’d probably have a lot more room–maybe even an office of my own–but I’d be even less likely to take my home out for a sail.

So I live on a boat and not on a houseboat or a floating home or a barge. It’s not always perfect, but I’m usually happy with it. Unless the weather is very rough. Or angry Lands Commissioners are seeking re-election.


About Kat Richardson

Writer, editor, eccentric pain in the tail, bestselling author of the Greywalker novels.
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2 Responses to Boat, boathouse, houseboat, house…

  1. Elaine says:

    Hah! Very good argument and precise definitions. Love it! I laughed out loud at this part:
    … and you’ll never see a houseboat racing across the Sound under a fine wind or broaching through the waves against a storm. At least we all hope not.

    I had a vision of storm driven barges crashing through the waves keeling over with laundry flying and women clinging to the outside. Now that I type it, it doesn’t seem funny but I think it’s funny in a cartoon sort of way.

    Anyway, interesting. Every time I read about your houseboat experiences I imagine myself on one here on the James. I’m so glad you share.

  2. It has a Roald Dahl sort of imagery to it: the brave little cottage on pontoons or a raft leaping through the briney.

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