Thoughts from Life Aboard a Tiny, Hand-Built, Capsized Houseboat: A Scuttlefish Q&A

by Carolyn Sotka

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After being towed to the marina, Dimitri assesses the damages on his tiny floating home, and concocts an idea on how to get it out of the water. Courtesy of Dimitri Cherny.

In September of last year, I had the pleasure to hang out on, photograph, and write about the tiny, handbuilt houseboat Dimitri Cherny was living aboard in Charleston, South Carolina. For me, it set off fantasies of literally sailing into the sunset, or at least dragging a tiny houseboat around in search of the perfect cove.

Sadly in March of this year, the tiny houseboat capsized and was found face down in the Ashley river. Luckily, Dmitri wasn’t aboard and the boat didn’t sink – so there is hope, and perhaps the best is yet to come.

2 Thoughs from A Tiny Houseboat
Check out the original Scuttlefish feature back in the tiny houseboat’s sunny-side up days. Photo by Carolyn Sotka.

How did you hear that your tiny houseboat had capsized?

A sheriff’s deputy I’d met last summer out on the water gave me a call.

How long was it submerged?

About a week.

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The tiny houseboat is bottoms up on the left hand of photograph. Courtesy of Dimitri Cherny.

Do you know why it capsized?

We had a really windy night and the river current must have been at full speed in one direction with the wind blowing in the other. With enough fouling on the bottom, perhaps the drag was enough for a big gust to knock it over.

What’s the condition of the boat?

Structurally, it’s fine, still solid. But when it rolled over, the refrigerator fell and ripped one of the corrugated steel wall panels and I think the suspended bed ripped another one. Also, the front door and window were torn off. And after a week underwater, the roof made of wafer-board flooring sheets became extremely water-logged.

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Dimitri inspect the tiny houseboat for damages included the destroyed suspended bed. Courtesy of Dimitri Cherny.

Who helped you rescue it and how’d you do it?

The Charleston County Sheriff’s department was very helpful in helping me find it for a couple of days as it slowly drifted downriver. Then the Charleston City Police tied it up to the Bristol marina dock in downtown Charleston, six miles from where it flipped, before it drifted out to sea. A friend loaned me her boat for a few days to tow it back up river. And in the actual flipping over process, a couple other friends and a few interested locals at the landing all helped in one way or another.

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With a little help from his friends, Dimitri ties tiny houseboat to his Mac truck to pull it out of the water. Courtesy of Dimitri Cherny.

What have you learned through your tiny houseboat experience?

I was pleasantly surprised to discover how comfortable I could be in such a tiny space and in such primitive conditions. With a little warm running water, a private space to poop, and a comfortable bed, I was very happy. I really like the idea of living on the water, rent-free and off the grid. Last summer was one of the best I’ve ever had. But I’ve realized that a TINY houseboat is fine for one person but not practical for two. I now have a partner and the two of us could NOT fit together happily in that little space. And the nomadic lifestyle required of living in the river doesn’t appeal to her. Nor does living in a marina. She has an apartment at the edge of the river marsh a couple miles from where my boat is moored again. This life is much simpler and more convenient – but with rent and electricity, much more expensive. I’m thinking about some in-between way of life.

Did this ‘experiment’ spark any new ideas for the future?

I’ve been designing a much bigger sail boat, that would allow a couple to earn a living transporting shipping containers between ports. Kind of like a big-rig truck of the ocean. The trick is getting the boat speed high-enough to match or exceed the container ships, but reduce fuel costs to an absolute minimum, while carrying enough containers to make each journey profitable. Sort of a Fed-Ex for containers. I’m sure there are some containers going between the Caribbean ports that would like to have a more flexible schedule and would be willing to pay extra for that service. It’s a long-term project. Perhaps I’ve watched Pirates of the Caribbean one too many times.

What’s next for the tiny houseboat and you?

I’m not sure yet what I’ll do with the tiny houseboat. My life has changed enough that I don’t foresee ever living on the boat again. Perhaps I’ll take off the walls and replace the roof with just fabric and use it as a weekend party-barge. Some people have suggested I fix it up more, put it in a marina and rent it out. I’m considering a run for Congress again next year (Dimitri ran against Mark Sanford for his South Carolina seat in Congress). Perhaps if I win, I’ll use it as my home on the Potomac. Hmmm.

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I for one am looking forward to seeing the tiny houseboat reincarnated as a party boat or maybe an Air BnB. Photo Courtesy: Dmitri Cherny. 

Any final takeaways?

The big thing I’ve learned here is that housing doesn’t have to be a constant. Living situations change, income situations change, life changes. Housing can change with it. Perhaps tiny houseboats can be part of the mix for those housing changes. I certainly enjoyed that period of my life. But I’m enjoying this one even more.

 

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