Category Archives: Shantyboat Living

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

Everyone Has A Dream – You Need To Live Yours NOW!

Everyone has a dream. Some want to sail around the world. Others might want to pack up and live off the land in some wilderness area. Back to the earth. Buy an RV and see the USA. Who knows? But everyone has a dream yet most of them are never fulfilled. Why? Well Sterling Hayden pretty much nailed it in his book Wanderer when he wrote:

“‘I’ve always wanted to sail to the South Seas, but I can’t afford it,’ [so many people say]. What (they) can’t afford is not to go.  They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of ‘security.’  And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine–and before we know it our lives are gone.

“What does a man need–really need?  A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in–and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment.  That’s all–in the material sense. And we know it.  But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention from the sheer idiocy of the charade.

“The years thunder by.  The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience.  Before we know it the tomb is sealed.”

Before you go any further with this post stop and reread that quote again and thing about how it applies to you and those around you. That quote had such an impact on me it changed my entire life. The power of words can do that to a person.

When I read that quote I wrote it down in my journal and in one form or another I’ve carried it around with me for the past forty one years. It was in 1971. I was working as the assistant public relations director of the largest non-profit hospital in the second most populace county in the State of Florida at the time. It wasn’t that I didn’t like my job. I did. Sorta. But the whole time I was doing it, and being impaled on my own free lance writing magazine articles, I was reading all the boating magazines and dreaming about being on a boat and sailing off to distant shores. And it hit me that 1) I was never going to have enough money to buy the boat I wanted to accomplish that dream. 2) I wasn’t willing to do what it took to make the kind of money it would take to accomplish that dream and 3) If you ARE willing to do what it takes to make that kind of money then you don’t have the time to be out sailing around in the first place until you’re probably too old to do it.

Everyone’s dream in their teens and early twenties or thirties has a young person pulling it off. Not someone who’s carrying around three stents in their arteries, taking pills twice a day to keep their blood pressure in check and whose fingers are gnarled from arthritis.

At about the same time as I read Wanderer I also read Viking’s Wake by Richard MacCullagh that contained a life-changing quote:

“And the bright horizon calls!  Many a thing will keep till the world’s work is done, and youth is only a memory.  When the old enchanter came to my door laden with dreams, I reached out with both hands.  For I knew that he would not be lured with the gold that I might later offer, when age had come upon me.”

I scaled my dreams way down from flashy boats that graced the pages of the yachting publications way down to one where I’d get a set of pontoons, perch a pickup camper insert on it and take off on the Intracoastal Waterway and perhaps do what is known as “The Great Loop” a water route that circles the eastern half of the United States.  But the reality of the situation was that I didn’t even have enough money to accomplish that. So when my wife and I parted company in the Great $16.25 Divorce ( I quit my job, got a job as a deckhand on a dinner cruise boat which led me to obtaining a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton license and living out many of my dreams including doing the “Great Loop” in 1974/75, a dozen trips up and down the Intracoastal Waterway, living on the French Riviera and the Costa del Sol for three years and sailing across the Atlantic Ocean on other people’s boats and getting paid to do it, too. I eventually bought my own small sailboat and did a single-handed trip (another dream) from Fort Lauderdale to Mexico, Belize and the Rio Dulce in Guatemala and back.

Recently I found some YouTube videos by someone who calls himself “Skipperfound.”He’s a guy who’s living his dreams. He sort of adapted my pontoon and camper shell idea with plans for taking the boat from Ludington, Michigan down to the Florida Keys. He has over 124 YouTube videos of this trip and other adventures: the conversion of a bus (he sold the boat in Panama City, Florida) and his travels in it, and building a tiny house. This video shows the early stages of the construction of the boat.

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Naturally when someone is doing something as offbeat as Skipperfound it attracts attention. Sometimes people doing the out of the ordinary get interviewed by newspapers along the way. Here he is explaining his reasons for doing what he does. I don’t know if he ever read Sterling Hayden of Richard MacCullagh or not, but he’s sure taken their advise to heart.

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Finally thereis a quote from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany:

“If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.”



Filed under boats, cruising, homemade boats, Houseboat, Shanty boat, Shantyboat Living, Small boat cruising

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

Shantyboat Living

Back in the mid 1980s I bought a shantyboat that was tied up to a tree on a river on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Essentially it was little more than a shack on pontoons. The pontoons had been made out of oil well casing and were about 35 feet overall and the boat had a 12 foot beam. An old 25 hp Johnson outboard pushed it along at a sedate pace. I only moved it three times. Once from where I found it down to the Gulf Outlet Marina on Bayou Bienvenue in Chalmette, and once too and from the boat yard I worked at to do some repairs when the starboard pontoon developed a leak. I lived on the boat for almost two and a half years but after losing my fifth job in three years (in 1986 the official unemployment rate in the New Orleans area was 18%!) I put a For Sale sign on it and left three weeks later.

I enjoyed that boat. Actually, owning that boat kept me in Louisiana for a couple of years longer than I should have stayed there.

Houseboat trimmed

In 1985 when I got laid off at the boat yard I was only eligible for $55 a week in unemployment. When I found that out my next stop was to the Food Stamp Office. (Hey! For all of you who would say you’d never stoop so low…well, you’ve never been there. And when the official unemployment rate is 18% the real rate is closer to 25% so there are no jobs around and you sort of get accustomed to eating on a regular basis.) I received $80 a month in food stamps. My dock rent was $97 a month and I paid the minimum amount demanded to have electrical hookup which was $7 a month so my first two weeks of unemployment left me with $6 in my pocket. You can do the rest of the math and see that I was supposed to survive on less than $30 a week. When your income is restricted to less than $30 a week and you have no savings, you aren’t able to pick up and move away to somewhere where your prospects might be better.

So, how was I able to survive? Well, I lived on a houseboat on the water. At the first of each month when I received my food stamps I’d go to Schwegmann’s Supermarket and buy my staples, rice, beans, ground beef, etc. Next I’d pass by Little Red’s Fish Market. They sold heads-on, unsorted shrimp for $1 a pound and they accepted food stamps. I’d buy five pounds of shrimp each month. (Now, I only did this for a little more than three months and then the yard got busy again and I went back to work.)

Out of that five pounds of shrimp there’d be enough big sized shrimp to make up one decent meal. On my birthday that July of 1985 I literally didn’t have a dollar bill to my name, but I had shrimp newburg for supper which is pretty good for a broke guy. Anyway, what I would do after I’d picked out the big shrimp was to divide the remaining shrimp into four piles and freeze them. Now, since I wasn’t working and there was no work to be had, I’d take one of those piles of shrimp and sit out on the back of my shantyboat and fish. I’d catch croakers, speckled sea trout and the occasional red fish. I’d fillet them up and pop them in the freezer. I’d then put the heads, guts and filleted bodies into the six commercial crab traps I’d bought well before I’d been laid off. I’d string the traps along the dock and let them soak overnight. The next day they’d be filled with delicious blue crabs and I’d spend the day cooking and picking crabs. My refrigerator rarely had less than a couple of pounds of picked crab meat.

When you hauled up the traps there were sometimes a pair of crabs “doubled up.” A male and a female getting ready to do the big nasty. The only time a female crab is able to mate is when she molts, comes out of her shell, and the male crab is holding on to her ready to get his jollys as well as protecting her until her new shell starts to harden. You knock him off her and plop her in a five gallon bucket of seawater and wait for her to come out of her shell. When she does, you take her out of the water and pop her in the fridge where she’ll stay, nice and soft for several days until you’re ready to cook her up and eat her.

It’s against the law to take egg-bearing female crabs (lobsters, too) but since she hadn’t mated there were no eggs and she was legal. However, if all you take are females you eventually hurt the breeding population. But how do you know when a male crab is ready to molt? Crabbers know how to read the signs on the rear swimming legs of a crab and can tell. There’s an excellent description of how this is done in the book Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay by William W. Warner and available on and other book sellers.

I never was able to figure out this esoteric art of discovering when male crabs were going to molt, but an old Cajun I got to know when I was working out on Breton Island in the Kerr-McGee oil field told me how to do it. You see, the female has nothing to worry about because the male crab is going to protect her when she’s in that vulnerable “soft” state. But the male crab has to hide somewhere to protect himself.

What you do is to gather a bunch of willow branches. And they have to be willow branches. Others won’t work. You take three or four branches and bundle them together and lay them along the edge of the bayou. The ready to molt males seek out these branches to hide in, so you “run” them a couple of times a day like lobstermen and crab fishermen do with their traps. I’d hop in my dinghy and row down Bayou Bienvenue, pick up the bundles and shake them into the bottom of the boat. The crabs that fell out were invariably males and I’d go back to my shanty and pop each one into an individual five gallon bucket of water and wait for the inevitable to happen.

So, in addition to a freezer full of fresh fish fillets and a pound or two of picked lump crab meat I’d often have a half dozen or so soft shell crabs in my fridge as well. When you’re eating as good as I did it dulls your incentive to move.


Filed under Shanty boat, Shantyboat Living