Life in Salt: Dimitri Cherny. Thoughts from a Tiny Houseboat – Off the Grid and On the Water
by Carolyn Sotka
Cherny’s tiny houseboat is 17 ft. long by 8 ft. wide and moored in the Ashley River in Charleston, SC.
Photo: Carolyn Sotka
The full moon lit the sky and the stars winked in unison. Reflections off the late summer waves provided the backdrop. It was a perfect night for a skinny dip. With not a soul in sight, Dimitri Cherny climbed to the roof of his tiny houseboat, stripped down and dove in.
Usually, one would have to pay millions for access to such a secluded waterfront. But Cherny didn’t pay much, in fact – close to nothing. With the tiny house craze spreading across the vast lands of the U.S., he has taken the idea to the coastal waterways of South Carolina.
Cherny’s tiny houseboat is built upon a 20 ft. Crestliner pontoon. Beginning with a bare deck, he built up the walls using corrugated steel and lined with polyethylene sheeting to water and windproof the walls of the vessel.
The tiny houseboat walls are interspersed with plywood for both a visual aesthetic but also as a
placeholder for future windows. Photo: Carolyn Sotka
Cherny’s story unfolds like many other Americans faced with a recession that clearly wasn’t going anywhere, and a forced downsize in housing. Until the bubble broke in 2008, the average house size was well over 2000 square feet. Prior to the recession, Cherny worked as a general contractor on the seacoast of New Hampshire. His previous house was 3500 square feet, and he built it with sustainability in mind, using passive solar heating, ground coupling, and airtight insulation.
Despite these conservation measures, he too would be unable to afford his inflated mortgage and recalls, “I lost my job, my house, and was one of those people who got slammed hard and never really recovered,” he says.
His road to the tiny houseboat began, literally, on the road. After losing everything, the only job he could get was as a truck driver. For a year and half he lived out of his truck– with duffle bags strung up in the cab and a fold-up bike to get around when not driving the semi.
In his ‘cab-house’ he got used to living small and later moved to Charleston, where outdoor year-round living was feasible. Using his building and engineer skills, combined with a solid sense as a tinkerer, Cherny began to build his tiny houseboat in the fall of 2013. He moved aboard in June of 2014.
“I’ve always like to hang things from the ceiling”, says Cherny, which comes in handy where everything from life vests to bed sheets are hung from the rafters. Even the bed/couch hangs from ceiling and can be lowered and put up via a pulley system.
His intention was to have a living rooftop with over 1,000 lbs. of dirt for a garden. He says, “I mean, how cool would it be just to reach up to your roof and grab some cilantro or lettuce”. To hold that amount of weight, he needed enough buoyancy to keep the houseboat afloat, so the entire axis of the boat is filled with 55-gallon containers for water, and sewage for when he eventually outfits the boat with a flush toilet (currently, he employs the ‘bag it and dumpster it’ method.)
The roof’s water container lasts about two weeks and provides for solar-heated showers and dishwashing. He has two 50-watt solar panels but plans to bring it up to 400-watts to run more appliances such as a mini fridge.
To date, Cherny’s total investment in the tiny houseboat has been around six thousand dollars, including his $30.00 per year ‘rent’ that covers boat registration and taxes. Unlike many tiny houses that seem to be facing more and more obstacles, his houseboat is perfectly legal, as long as it is moored out of the main channel and follows USCG and South Carolina safety and sanitation regulations. With fall approaching, the next addition will be a propane heater.
Other than a minor infraction with his mooring light not being Coast Guard approved, Cherny is becoming regular fixture and curiosity at the W.O. Thomas, Jr. marina. He has had a couple of run-in though with rogue characters.
A few days after Cherny moved in, he found a disheveled man sleeping in his bed. After rousing and shooing him out, he later discovered that his trespasser had stolen 15 gallons of fuel. The SC Department of Natural Resources patrol had been watching this particular suspect, who was known for stealing from moored boats. The officer staked him out by hiding in the bushes near the marina and eventually arrested the vagrant boat-squatter.
Also, Cherny’s had his kayak stolen. But other than that, life on the water as been smooth sailing.
After his beat up kayak was stolen, “I don’t know why anyone would want it but if they need it that bad they can have it”. Instead his ‘commuter’ canoe is on loan from the author.
This is not the first time Cherny has chosen an unconventional path. Working as everything from a software engineer to general contractor to truck driver, his sights are set on a new goal. Running against U.S. congressman Mark Sanford as a write-in and independent candidate. Most people know Sanford as the governor who used ‘hiking on Appalachian Trail’ as an excuse to cover his tryst in Argentina and who continues to publicly air his personal life as if he was on reality TV.
Until the mid-term election, Cherny is focused on campaigning and making his tiny houseboat livable through winter. If he doesn’t win the race, Cherny wants to direct his efforts towards manufacturing tiny houseboats. An IKEA-like version that is a bit larger, more polished and modernized, on the order of $30,000 to purchase.
For now, this ‘exercise in simple living’ has been a success. The tiny-dwelling movement offers so many different opportunities and experiences. Whether you are in it to save money, live more sustainability, for movability, or for freedom and self-reliance – this movement is redefining and changing the psyche of what we call ‘home’.