Category Archives: Floating Homes

Watch This Spot For Future Developments

I haven’t been sleeping well since the shanty boat bug bit me again. I’ll go to bed and then wake up at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning as 72 year old men are wont to do, but then when I lay down again my mind keeps churning about all the possibilities of  this venture that I can’t get back to sleep. So a half hour, forty-five minutes later I’m up again and roaming around on the computer.

Here’s one of the hurdles I have to overcome…

Where I Am

As you can see by the yellow stick pin where I am and where the boat should be are quite far apart. Not only that, running right smack between those two pins is the continental divide. A mountain chain thousands of feet high!

I have a complete set of plans for a shanty boat called the Brandy Bar


It’s 25 feet long and 10 feet wide. That would make it too wide to put on a trailer and truck over the hills to Almirante where it could be launched. The construction is pretty straight forward. It’s like building a house because everything is right angles and no complex compound curves. It would be pretty simple to simply modify the plans and scale the beam down to 8 feet so it would be trailerable.

Another problem is cost. Even scrimping on things like interior design and not counting such essentials as navigation lights, anchors with their chain and rode, regular lighting, cooking facilities, etc., etc., the bare hull would cost around $4K!

Then we get into construction problems themselves. 1) The best source for marine plywood is over there in Bocas del Toro. I live here in Boquerón. For those of you not familiar with boat building, real marine plywood is expensive stuff. Without getting into a big dissertation about how plywood is made I’ll just say there’s “Marine Ply,’ ‘AB’, ‘BC’ and stuff called ‘CDX.’ The letters all refer to the condition of the outermost ply, and the X means ‘exterior.’ All need to have exterior grade glues so the plies won’t delaminate.  The supplier I know of charges $99.95 for a 3/4″ sheet of the stuff. Tack on Panama’s 7% tax and each sheet come in at $106.95. There are approximately 18 sheets needed to build a Brandy Bar or $1,925.00 worth of plywood! He also carries CDX which costs $54.95 for a 3/4” sheet. That would cut the plywood costs to $1,058.33.

Now all that doesn’t include the framing lumber. There are 21 frames that need to be built with 2X6 inch, pressure treated lumber. Each of the frames requires 14′ of the stuff. An 8′, pressure treated 2X6 costs $14.12 (tax included). Each frame is 3′ high, so the lumber for the framing comes in at about $77.00 whether you’re building with top rated marine ply of CDX.

I was also directed, yesterday, to a place that’s supposed to sell plywood in David. What I’ve seen so far has been disappointing, but I’ll check out the new place in the next few days.

And that’s just what the lumber costs. Add in epoxy resins which are far from cheap and which I haven’t even tried to price out though I did find out about a place in David that sells it, fiberglass mat for protecting the hull against ship worms down here (Columbus abandoned two of his boats here in Panama in 1502 because of ship worms). And so on and so on with expenses.

Another problem arises in the building process. You have to build the damned hull upside down on a kind of large jig to hold the framing in place while you’re putting on the plywood sheeting and glassing it all together.

upside downSo, when it’s all sheeted and the fiberglassing is done you have to do this…

flipping itYou have to turn it over so you can build the cabin. And the flippin’ thing is HEAVY right now. (The last two photos courtesy [though they don’t know it yet] of which is one of the best blogs I’ve read anywhere about the actual building process of a shanty boat. If you’re interested in building one you need to bookmark this site.)

So, the other night I was talking to my surfing friend, David, who lives in Costa Rica but who is thinking about resettling, too, in Bocas, when an idea hit me. . .

From time immemorial boats and ships have been built as a single unit. The keel was laid down, frames were attached to that and planking was added to the frames to complete the hull. Instead of building my 25′ long by 8′ wide hull as a single unit, why couldn’t I build, say, units that were 8’X8′ which would be a lot lighter in weight and them, with epoxy, through-bolt those units together? Sort of like putting Legos® together.  Why not, indeed? I mean they build HUGE ships and aircraft carriers that way, now, don’t they?

If they can build something as big as an aircraft carrier in sections and, essentially, bolt the pieces together why couldn’t I do the same thing with something so simple as a shanty boat?

So, naturally, this set me off in other sleepless wanderings around the internet. I found a TON of stuff. From Viet Nam there was this:,   And this: Plus a bunch more, but you get the idea.

Four Puddle Duck Racers bolted together would make a 16’X8′ hull. Six of them and you’ve got a 24X8. Four of them with a deck covering the top of each one, and joined with spanning  members floored over and you’ve got yourself the pontoons and platform for a pretty large floating home.

And here, too, you don’t have to build it all at once. You can build something large enough (or small enough) to give you a place to live in while you construct further modules. My uncle Dick and his wife Helen lived in the basement of their house in Cincinnati, Ohio while they were building the big house. My secret heros, Jim Kimball and Jay Viola (not to mention their wives who worked just as hard as they did, though in the States) built a fabulous Eco Resort, Tranquilo Bay ( on the island of Bastimentos  in Bocas del Toro, Panama, piece by piece, and they lived in a TENT on a rickety dock when they started the venture. You really SHOULD read this story, it’s absolutely inspiring about what guts and determination can accomplish… I had the good fortune to spend a couple of hours with Jim Kimball a few years ago when I was making my first exploratory trips to Panama and it would be hard to find a nicer person  willing to sit down with a total stranger for a couple of hours and discuss the stranger’s crackpot ideas of building a shanty boat.

So, there you have it. I’m sure there will be many more sleepless nights ahead because of this nonsense. My birthday is only a couple of weeks away. I think this year I’m going to gift myself with some power tools. I’ll show you when I get them.





Filed under boats, Boqueron Panama, Floating Homes, homemade boats, Houseboat, Living Abroad, Living in Panama, Living off the grid, Living Small, Minimalist Cruising, PDR Racer, Puddle Duck Goose, Puddle Duck Racer, Retirement, Retirement Abroad, sailboats, Shanty boat, Shantyboat Living, Small Houses, Small Sailboats

The Ultimate Slacker’s Boat!!!

Murray Stevens instantly became my hero when he designed and built this —

Once again, another fine find from reading:


Filed under boats, Floating Homes, Houseboat, Living off the grid, Living Small, Microcruising, Minimalist Cruising, Shanty boat, Shantyboat Living, Small boat cruising

Floating Homes In Panama

When I first considered retiring to Panama I thought I’d like to build a houseboat/shantyboat and spend my so-called “Golden Years” in the Bocas del Toro archipelago on the Caribbean side of the country. It’s an island-studded, enchanted place. For a lot of reasons I’m not going to get into here I ended up living nearly 3,000 feet above sea level on the Pacific side, instead.

While my original plan hasn’t been completely abandoned it is definitely on hold, but every month I look forward to the newest edition of the Bocas Breeze for all kinds of great articles about what’s going on over on the other side of the continental divide.

In the latest edition I saw this ad:

Naturally I couldn’t resist finding out more. These are a LONG way from being shantyboats but they’re certainly cool.

This is their top-of-the-line model. It’s 20′ wide X 40′ long, 3 levels, 2 bed/2bath:

The smallest is 16X20,-1 studio style bedroom, Living room, Kitchen

They’re building a floating restaurant and other facilities only minutes away from Bocas Town by boat.

If you’re interested in a cool concept in a little piece of paradise you really need to check it out.

Oh, yeah, Bocas del Toro is BELOW the hurricane belt to that’s something you don’t have to worry about.


Filed under Floating Homes, Houseboat, Retirement Abroad, Uncategorized

Water, Water, Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink

Water, as everyone knows, is absolutely essential to life. Articles say that anywhere from between 50 to 70 percent of the human body is made up of water (I guess the variable is how fat one is). And a person can go anywhere from between eight to fourteen days without any before they die, and fat people can actually go longer without it than can someone who is skinny and out of shape.

People on land, at least in developed countries, take clean, potable, accessable water for granted. And we’re lucky, millions of people don’t have the water we take for granted and tens of thousands worldwide die each year because they don’t have it. More children, worldwide, die from the lack of clean water than those who die from AIDS and malaria COMBINED. But this is about access to water aboard a boat.

When you’re tied up at a dock in a marina water is similar to what it was when you were living ashore. Turn a knob and the water flows. You just have to hook up a hose from the dock to your boat.

What happens after you’ve cast off? At first you will depend on the water stored in your boat’s tanks and what you have brought aboard in containers. After that you can either make your own water with a reverse osmosis watermaker which is 1)expensive to purchase 2) a hassle to maintian 3) probably going to break down at some point which brings us to the most accurate definition of “cruising” ever: “Cruising is repairing equipment with inadequate tools and access to parts in exotic locations.”

OR, you can do what people have been doing since the dawn of time: collect and store rain water.


Don’t get me wrong. Watermakers certainly have their niche, and there are valid reasons someone might want to invest in one.

  1. As an emergency water supply. What happens in the unlikely event that your tanks spring a leak or get contaminated? Neither ever happened to me in all my years of professional and pleasure boating. BUT, I did have one incident when an inexperienced deck hand topped off the fuel tanks with the water hose, not paying attention to which deck fill he was opening. It’s also possible that a water tank could be contaminated with undrinkable water and you aren’t able to purify it. A hand operated model may also be a good thousand dollar investment for a ditch bag for long-distance cruisers in case they have to take to their last-chance of survival raft and could well save their lives. But that group of boater is a tiny minority of people who own and use boats.
  2. Reduce weight. A gallon of fresh water weighs 8.34 lbs, so, with a topped-off 50 gallon water tank that means you’re lugging around an additional 417 pounds.
  3. Extended range of travel. You don’t have to plan your cruise around stops to replenish your water supply.
  4. Save money in foreign ports. Available potable water in many foreign ports is limited even to their own inhabitants and if you want to fill your tanks from their precious water reserves you’re going to have to pay for it just like you have to pay for filling your fuel tanks.
  5. Provide a safe water supply on board. In many parts of the world safe, potable water is unavailable. If you’re able to make your own you won’t ruin your adventure with parasite-related illness.

But all this comes with a hefty price tag. Checking the West Marine on-line catalog the watermakers they offer range from $1,999.00 to $6,887.00.

An alternative, if you’re handy, is to build your own. You need a high-pressure pump capable of at least 1,000 psi, 3,000 psi is better. Then you have to buy the membrane that filters the water, the wiring and tubing, etc., etc. A Google search of “build your own watermaker came up with 8,170 hits, so there’s a lot of information out there if you’re so inclined.

If you have a watermaker you also have to have a power supply to run it, either 12 or 24 volt dc power or 120 or 240 volt ac power. All this presents another problem. There is one site I saw that is supposed to be able to make up to 72 gallons of water by dragging a special unit with a propeller behind your boat while underway and can be adapted to hand operation if you have to ditch the sinking mother ship. I offer this URL because I think the concept is interesting:

Collecting Rainwater

Harvesting rainwater has been going on since man lived in caves and a time-honored method of filling the water tanks at sea. People living a shore-based life have had cisterns for the containment of rainwater worldwide and is currently enjoying a reviva ldue to the inherent quality of rainwater and an interest in reducing consumption of treated water.

Rainwater is valued for its purity and softness. It has a nearly neutral pH, and is free from disinfection by-products, salts, minerals, and other natural and man-made contaminants. Plants thrive under irrigation with stored rainwater.
Appliances last longer when free from the corrosive or scale effects of hard water. Users with potable systems prefer
the superior taste and cleansing properties of rainwater.

There is archeological evidence that the concept of harvesting rainwater in China may date back 6,000 years. Ruins of cisterns built as early as 2,000 BC for storing runoff from hillsides for agriculture and domestic purposes are still standing in Israel today.

One of the best things about rainwater is that it’s FREE, and a collection system can be very inexpensive to install on your boat. When I was cruising on Nancy Dawson I only brought water from shore on two occasions in my nine-month trip. The rest came from the sky.

The first time I collected water on board was in Belize heading north from Belize City to Ambergris Caye. The wind stopped and the water came down so hard and heavy that it cut visibility to less than a hundred yards. I’ve been in fog banks were I could see farther. After it had rained for about five minutes in a deluge that Noah never had to deal with I felt that whatever salt and dirt might be on the sails had been washed off I raised the topping lift a bit and the water ran off the goose neck. I put a cup down to collect a bit of water and tasted it and it was sweet and clean. It was raining so hard and fast that I filled five of the gallon jugs I had aboard in about 15 minutes.

A couple of weeks later I stopped for a day at Caye Chapel where I filled my main tank with their water and headed south towards Guatemala. I had been thinking about how I would capture more rain water since that first experience. Standing in the rain to get the water off the goose neck didn’t seem like a practical exercise and I needed some system that wouldn’t require me to either get soaking wet or to put on my foul weather gear.

The deck fill for my water tank was on the port side just forward of the cockpit. I built a small dam from the cabin towards the toe rail and from the toe rail inboard leaving about a three inch gap so water could run the whole length of the deck and out the scuppers aft. I fashioned  the dam out with epoxy stick, something no boat should ever leave the dock without having several on board. They are a two part putty, one part wrapped around the other. They’re about six inches long and an inch thick. You simply break off the amount you need and knead the two different colored parts together until it’s a single color and them mold it around whatever you want to build or repair. Besides building the dam I used it to stop a persist ant leak in a through-hull fitting and to repair a broken part on my windvane self-steering. If I hadn’t had the putty I would have had to hand steer for about a thousand miles. After the stuff hardens it can be tapped to accept machine screws and the stuff hardens under water, too.

Anyway, I built the dam so that each section had a small groove where I could insert a small piece of wood when I wanted to utilize the dam for water collection but would otherwise remain open. From then on when it would start raining I would wait for a while for the rain to wash off the deck, open the deck fill and insert the piece of wood to close the dam and the rain water would drain into my tank. It worked like a charm.

Here are several other solutions that can be used for collecting this nectar from the Gods:

All this, of course, is grist for the mill for when I build my shanty boat, and since I’ll be living on the hook most of the time it will be a requirement. How feasible is it in Bocas del Toro? Well, I did some research on rainfall in the area and this is what I found:

Rainfall in Bocas del Toro, Panama
Month Mean Total Rainfall Mean Total Rainfall Mean Number of
(mm) (Inches) Rain Days
January 123.9 4.88 16.6
February 266.1 10.48 14.6
March 83.8 3.30 14.8
April 369.1 14.53 15.2
May 178.3 7.02 16.7
June 259 10.2 17.9
July 420.1 16.54 20.9
August 440.7 17.35 18.4
September 311.2 12.25 15.8
October 150.5 5.93 16.4
November 291.7 11.48 17
December 563.6 22.19 20
Total 3,458 136.15
That’s 11.35 FEET of water a year
This information came from the World Weather Information Service
Climatological information is based on monthly averages for the 30-year period 1971-2000.
Mean number of rain days = Mean number of days with at least 0.1 mm of rain.

With almost eleven and a half feet or rain falling in the area every year I think keeping dry will be more of a problem than keeping the water tanks full.

“All the water that ever was, still is today.  All the water that evaporates today the same amount also falls. The tears we cry could be the same ones Jesus wept”..Unattributed

POST SCRIPT: Ken, a regular reader of my blog and who contributes welcomed comments left a comment on this post and referenced the discharge of gray and black water from boats. You can read my reply, but I couldn’t upload a photo in the comments section so here goes.

Ken, this is common in the Bocas del Toro area as well as in the San Blas archipelago, and it’s NOT a phone booth built out over the water.bocas-outhouse


Filed under boats, Floating Homes, Houseboat, Living off the grid, Shanty boat

Houseboat vs Shanty Boat vs Floating Home

I love living on the water. I’ve done so on a 65′ motor yacht, an 85′ sailboat a 26′ sailboat and my 35′ houseboat which should more accurately be labeled a “Shanty boat.”

To continue with this theme we need to clarify a few terms: houseboat, shanty boat and floating home.

Let’s start with “floating home.”  In general these are larger living spaces on the water and are minimally mobile other than vertically with the tide. Some of these can be considered “McMansions” on the water and some can be extremely artistically creative. Holland is one of the world’s leaders in floating homes and the Pacific Northwest has a decades-long history of this genre of living on the water.

These are what I would consider to be within the McMansion category:


Here’s a bit smaller floating home on Lake Erie




In this one below you can see why it would not be easy to move around and would undoubtedly require hiring a commercial tugboat in order to do so which would cost big bucks. But then if you were able to afford such a structure you’d most likely have the wherewithal to hire a tug.


In British Columbia there is even a floating home specific community:


On a more sensible scale there is Berklely Engineering’s Cape Codder at 24’X10′ that I think is pretty neat but certainly wouldn’t be buildable on a small budget.




Houseboats, by my definition, are self-propelled craft that are meant to be moved from one location to another. Most often they are used as vacation home and are designed for use in sheltered waters rather than the open ocean or other bodies of water that can get rough. Quite often they simply look like RVs on the water rather than a more conventional boat.



Strictly from an aesthetic point of view I’m not a fan of this type of craft. But not all boats that I would classify as houseboats are cheesy by any means. In Somerset, KY, hometown of my good friend Mark who has made comments on other post in this blog, is the manufacturer of some awesome houseboats, some over 100′ long and many cost more than most houses.

Here’s a photo of the living room of a Somerset houseboat…


This sure isn’t “slumming it”

More difficult to pin down are what would be called “Shanty Boats.” These are mostly home made and strictly intended for use on sheltered waters. My boat, pictured above, was basically a shack on pontoons and though mine was 35′ most shanty boats are on the small side, 16 to 24 feet. Back in the 40s and 50s they were often marketed as inexpensive summer get aways and magazines like Popular Mechanics offered plans for them.

coolwater1coolwater2coolwater3Phil Bolger is a designer of some very original, and many people think ugly boats, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder…


Back in the late 70s one of my favorite boating magazines was Small Boat Journal. This design by Thomas A. MacNaughton caught my attention and has lingered with me all these years. It’s called Evening Song. He had designed and build a nifty 18′ tug boat called Bantam and wrote:

“In our original article on Bantam we casually mentioned toward the end that it would be fun to have a houseboat barge to go with her. We felt it would be a lot of fun to live aboard the barge and push it down the Intracoastal Waterway of the East Coast. We hadn’t thought of this as more than a fun idea but immediately we started getting all sorts of letters demanding plans for the barge! After all, what else do you want to do with a tug so much as push and pull something around? This presented something of a challenge, as we had never known anyone to design a houseboat barge before, per se, so we had to come up with something completely new. The result was Evening Song. The combination of the tug and the barge clearly struck another cord, as we’ve sold a lot of both plans. This time it didn’t surprise us. The image of the tug and barge traveling together in the Intracoastal Waterway, or of the barge anchored in a secluded creek while the tug comes and goes with guests and provisions, is about as idyllic as it gets. Evening Song contains a whole lot of space in a reasonable compromise between camp-like and boat-like accommodations. She comes complete with two “porches” where one can sit with the dog and the shotgun waiting for the ducks, or just watch the world go by.

“There’s also a lot of “roof” space adaptable to lounging, solar panels, rainwater catchment, etc. Construction is about as simple as it could be, being epoxy and plywood throughout, with a lot of right angles mixed in with the curves of the sheer and bottom.”



Quite frankly I’m a fan of shanty boats both becaue of their funkieness and the fact that they’re usually rather inexpensive to build.

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Filed under boats, Floating Homes, Houseboat, Shanty boat