Who among us real boaters has never yearned for a getaway cottage overlooking a bay, ocean, lake, river, creek, cove or even a mere goldfish pond? A simple kind of weekend hunting cabin with a wood cookstove to knock down a chill, some oil and kerosene lamps to set a mood, a padded rocking chair, and a comfy bunk with a bedroll would do nicely.
Even better than a grounded dirt shack would be a mobile bungalow that also floats. Primarily intended for idling in isolation, this versatile rig could be trailered to choice nautical sites as an engineless efficiency of wood, not an aluminum or vinyl-sided box with wheels destined for crowded, touristy trailer parks. If you’re bored with one gunkhole, just tow it to another and hang it on a mooring in skinny water. Build it with graceful, curved lines to disguise any inherent boxiness, install a few opening portholes and a couple of window flower boxes, and paint the interior a bright and cheerful canary yellow. (No faux window shutters, please.)
Joe Fernon, 65, of Annapolis, created such an escape for himself that is now his full-time liveaboard home. Lilypad is quite modern with a 12VDC fridge, mini-marine air-conditioner, fans, composting head, Force 10 propane stove for heating and cooking, a microwave, television and LED lighting. Power is provided by a rooftop solar panel, a bank of 12-volt marine batteries and a quiet 2,000-watt Honda generator.
Fernon’s insulated “shantyboat” is of plywood construction, and the custom windows and sliding doors are from The Home Depot. He used West System materials to fiberglass over a plywood “Garvey” hull that is styled somewhat along the lines of the Barnegat Sneakbox but is flat-bottomed and blunt-bowed, curving gently front to rear. The cost of the materials was about $15,000, he says. Asked whether he would build another shantyboat for a customer, he shakes his head. “No, no, no. Not for a million dollars.”
A part-time salesperson at Fawcett Boat Supplies in town, Fernon prefers to call his new home a “shantyboat,” not a houseboat, although he has a trailer if long distance calls and he gets the urge to move it about. After 18 months and 1,200 hours in building Lilypad under a shelter from professional plans, he launched in late summer from a public ramp in Spa Creek. Rafting his 15-foot Jericho Bay lobster skiff (which he also built) along Lilypad’s starboard hip, Fernon propelled his rig through the water with a 20-hp Honda 4-stroke.
His youngest son Scott kept on eye on things from inside the shantyboat as they exited Annapolis harbor and made their somewhat choppy trip to a secluded cove not far away where they had laid a Bahamian mooring set with two Bruce anchors. “I prefer not to disclose the location for a number of reasons,” Fernon says. “I’m doing nothing illegal, and I have access to a private launching ramp and on-shore shower facilities. I’m a lone bachelor liveaboard who maintains a small footprint and makes no demands on anyone. Fellow boaters who come across Lilypad seem to think she’s rather cute and are not upset by our appearance in this neck of the woods.”
Lilypad is tucked away in a tiny, shallow hurricane hole of a cove in a peaceful woodland setting. There are no shorefront residents to complain about their waterfront view being obstructed, although this pretty hut only adds to the charm of the seldom-visited cove.
The only touch of oddness is Fernon’s next-door neighbor — Joe’s Therapy, his classic and well-kept Sailmaster 22C built in Holland in 1962. Covered with a boom tent, she is securely rafted alongside with spring lines and fenders.
For 15 years Fernon was a “sleepaboard” in that fiberglass sloop. He was moored in an Annapolis creek for a decade and was on the hard in a marina storage lot for the past five years. The small cruiser was jam-packed with his possessions, and he barely had room to squeeze into a quarter-berth cave to sleep. “People often asked me, ‘Do you live in that thing?’ I said no, I only sleep in that thing.” Going down from 22 feet to 20 feet of shantyboat might not sound like expanding one’s nautical horizons, but now he can actually walk around, with 6 feet, 3 inches of headroom.
A long-divorced father of four, this friendly, boat-loving fellow is no anti-social hermit. He is socially outgoing (and loves to dance, ladies!). He has eight grandchildren ranging in age from 3 months to 10 years, and staying in close touch with them was part of the inspiration for the shantyboat, which all children love. “The older ones are excited to camp out with grandpa,” he says, “but I’m a noisy snorer, so they could sleep in the covered cockpit of my Sailmaster or in the cabin, where I would not be a disturbance. I limit the number of guests to two. Next summer we could crab, fish, sail or just mess about in a 12-foot dinghy I have been finishing in my rental garage workshop.”
Fernon car-tops a 25-pound, 10-foot pirogue (a flat-bottomed, double-ended Cajun canoe he also built) to commute to Lilypad. But his newest vessel is mainly to transport visitors to his first “permanent” residence in 15 years. “I will hang it on davits and can also sail it about the creek for recreation,” he explained during my visit in mid-September. “My Bohemian way of life on the water is simple and uncomplicated, although it may appear somewhat peculiar to non-boating types — or even to fellow boaters, for that matter.”
Five years of climbing a ladder to reach his land-bound sleeping quarters made him long for a berth on the water. “I was looking for an improvement in my living conditions and came across a story by Harry Bryan on building a shantyboat in the January/February 2012 issue of WoodenBoat Magazine. Immediately, I figured this might work for luring my grandchildren to visit and to treat myself a little better, too, in this somewhat offbeat life I prefer,” he says. He bought a set of plans from Bryan and started the project in March 2012.
Bryan built the 130-square-foot cabin featured in WoodenBoat with a stable, barge-like hull for Benjamin Guy. It has a beam of 8 feet, 5 inches, which makes it legal for highway trailering, although it has pretty much stayed anchored on a river in Massachusetts since it was launched in June 2011. Construction lasted from October 2010 to May 2011 and the final cost, including a Wheelbarrow tender, was $75,000.
Guy reported that the “houseboat concept” was a hard sell to their friends. “When I explained that we were not building a glass and aluminum Redneck Yacht Club houseboat but a real wooden shantyboat, first impressions were replaced by visions of Huck Finn’s father retreating for a three-day binge aground on a muddy bank below Cairo, Illinois,” he wrote.
This all changed once visitors stepped on board, and “to our surprise, friends who have deep misgivings about even the most benign marine adventures seem perfectly comfortable aboard,” he says. Non-boaters were relieved to know that this boat will not tip, they will not get wet or have to worry about getting seasick, and they will not be burdened to understand mysterious commands from an enraged skipper, he adds.
Fernon designed his own interior, with a single berth and a chest of drawers at the forward end, which offers a water view and a sliding window with a wooden slat “awning” for shade and a perch for fishing. A television hangs on one wall, and the mini-A/C unit is above the bed.
Midships is the compositing head with a privacy curtain. A dinette is to starboard, across from the galley with a concealed fridge, sink and a two-burner stove, and propane heater. The aft deck is shaded by roll-up curtains. There is enough space on the aft deck for the generator and a “pondering chair” for Fernon to ponder his return to life on the hook.
The silence of Lilypad Cove is contagious, and visitors may find themselves lowering their voices and whispering to fit in better among the sounds of wildlife. Nearby is a small private marina, and beyond the mouth of what can be a busy creek on weekends the middle Chesapeake Bay beckons in all its wonderment.
Fernon is mild by nature and not given to flowery outbursts describing his cozy, romantic setting in a floating shanty of storybook character. “I leave that to writers,” he laughs — his wild, gray hair blowing in the breeze.
Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.
November 2013 issue