Thursday, February 26, 2009


This one was fun, because I've always had a small obsession with floathomes. After doing this piece, that small obsession blossomed into a large obsession and now I want to move my family on to one.

This was originally published as a cover story for Monday Magazine.

Ups and downs and ups
The unwavering truth of floathome living—it’s great

Laura Fellman’s house shakes as we’re sitting in her living room. She doesn’t notice as I instinctively grip a bit harder the arm of the comfy chair I’m nestled in. She’s lived under these conditions for 16 years; to her these teeny shakes are imperceptible.
She lives in a floathome (commonly and erroneously referred to as houseboats; those are actually the boats you see in lakes that are indeed homes but have a motor). Hers is one of 33 located down at Fisherman’s Wharf, the popular tourist destination known for the always-busy Barb’s Place fish-and-chip joint and those funny floating houses that we locals regard with a lot of curiousity as we stroll past. (Incidentally, 33 is the limit for floathomes down there, so until someone leaves, no one new gets in.)
“I came to Victoria and didn’t really know the town,” says Fellman, when I ask how she ended up living on the water. “I had just rented an apartment. One day a friend asked for a ride to his girlfriend’s place; he’s directing me around, and we ended up at West Bay Marina. As we were pulling in there, I looked around and saw a for-sale sign on a floathome; I went down and knocked on the door, and two weeks later I owned it. And that’s the place you’re sitting in.”
Fellman’s home is noticeably small but not crowded; she admits that the floathome lifestyle dictates the person lives a minimalist life due to the generally smaller size of the homes.
“A lot of people living in a floathome are people who are ready to get rid of the excess in their lives,” she says. “Definitely you have to think twice about what you bring in. You can’t be much of a collector of anything. Some people rent a storage locker somewhere; I don’t do that, I make myself live in this space.”
And although the costs of floathomes vary (a very rough estimate Fellman gives is $200,000-$500,000), one thing seems to be the same across the board: the prices are rising.
“They’re going up and up,” says Fellman. “They vary a lot with the sizes and amenities. This is not an inexpensive way to live. We have a monthly moorage fee that includes an administration fee, then we’re charged by the square foot. That includes water, garbage removal and recycling removal. We pay for our telephones and propane ourselves. We also pay property taxes.”
It’s almost hard to pay attention to our conversation; the sun is shining through the sunroof and the many windows, while the stunning views of the water are distracting, to say the least. We step out onto Fellman’s back porch and serenity washes over me. Any thoughts I had about floathomes not being safe are laid to rest—unlike a normal boat, they are flat-bottomed and they are much heavier than a normal boat. This, no doubt, is the life.
Then come the seaplanes.
“I find sometimes with the airplanes you have to stop your conversation for 14 seconds until it takes off. That’s about how long it takes—we’ve timed it,” she laughs. “The rest of it is pretty interesting—you see all the interesting boats going in and out. But the planes were here first, so you have to learn to live with it.”
I ask Fellman about learning to live with the floathome rocking back and forth during windy times. She says it’s nowhere near as bad as us land-lubbers probably think.
“I’d say that in all the years I’ve been living here, maybe one night a winter I’m awakened by the movement,” she says. “You get used to it. I’ve only once in 16 years had something fall off a shelf, and that was just one item. That’s it.”
It seems a small price to pay for such a beautiful home. But it is a different life on the Wharf; while there’s no cable access for television, people make do with satellite dishes and the internet. Residents need to keep an eye on their floatation devices, so periodically hire a diver to go underneath their home to make sure everything’s as it should be. But the relative simplicity of this life is appealing; the peaceful atmosphere, despite the planes and taxi-boats whipping around, incredible.
Then come the tourists.
“I think most of us vacillate,” says Fellman on the endless stream of rubber-neckers, many of whom are attracted to her home because of the large amount of plants she has on the outside of her boat. “The tenth time somebody asks you the same question that every single tourist has asked you that day, it can get a little tiring. If I’m working outside my house, many tourists will stop and ask questions. On the other hand, they’re interesting, they’re from all over the world, they’re curious; it can get tiring, but it’s nice too. Every now and then I’ll have someone walk right in thinking it’s a business because we have our names on our homes. They think it’s a store. Sometimes I’ll have it locked and I’ll hear someone trying and trying the door,” she laughs.
There are also electrical limitations of living on a floathome, which the residents choose to keep low as one of their (many) contributions to green living. Their water comes in through hoses, which tend to freeze in the winter, and they heat with propane; most residents also cook with propane. Living on a floathome, especially in a busy area like Fisherman’s Wharf, sounds like a lot of work.
“Well, hey, we don’t mow lawns,” says Fellman. “We don’t have to clean out the garage. It’s a trade-off, but it’s not a lot of work. It’s just different.”
Another way the Wharf community is different than your average city block is that it is just that—a community.
“People really look out for each other here,” says Fellman. “We had a really big storm once a few years ago and one of the homes was just hanging by one rope, and everyone was out here at three in the morning, all the floathome owners helping out. When people go away there’s always someone down here willing to look after your place.”
“The people down here are a very eclectic bunch,” she adds. “It’s a very interesting group of people, and there are some very artistic souls down here.”
As we sit on her floathome, which at this point seems to me to be the only reasonable place to live on the face of the Earth, Fellman says this is indeed the life for her, and has been ever since that fateful day 16 years ago.
“I’ve been living this way ever since,” she says, “and I always say they’ll probably take me out in a pine box.”
Of course, it'll probably float.
-Greg Pratt

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