Tag Archives: Shantyboat Living

Un-rueful C’est La Vie (That’s Life)

Polly The World’s Most Mellow Pit Bull, from next door, stops by daily to say hello and get some pats. Sometimes she just comes down to loll around on the gangplank in the sun for a while. That’s life here in The Swamp off the Saint Johns River in Central Florida…

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Resist The Urge

I don’t know if it’s a universal trait or not, but people in the United States have long believed that “Bigger is Better.” “Size Matters.” I want to scream, “No it isn’t!” and “No it doesn’t!”

On the other side of the coin you have dumbest phrase of ALL TIME in “Less is More.”  I can’t tell you how much this makes my back teeth ache. NO IT’S NOT!!! MORE is MORE! Less, by its very definition isn’t as much so it CAN’T be more! Now less can sometimes be BETTER than more but Less is NEVER more.

One of the most often asked boating questions is “What size boat do I need to go cruising?” Well, if you pay attention to the boating and cruising magazines whose life blood is the advertising income they receive from boat manufacturers and equipment manufacturers. Your life is in imminent danger the moment you leave the dock in anything less than 45 or fifty feet of fiberglass tricked out with every electronic device known to mankind. I remember once someone describing another person’s boat saying it was fantastic because it had the “most expensive” navigation gear available. Naysayer that I am I said that NO, most “expensive” is NOT  a synonym for “best.” Those same boating mags totally ignore the fact that Robert Manry n 1965 sailed from Falmouth, Mass. to Falmouth, Cornwall, England in Tinkerbelle a tiny 13.5-foot (4.1 m) sailboat.


Or that 16 year old Robin Lee Graham sailed his 24′ Dove around the world alone


or that Tania Aebi did a solo circumnavigation in a 26′ sailboat when she was 18.


Between 1955 and 1959 John Guzzwell sailed solo around the world in a boat that wasn’t quite 21 feet long.


The answer to the question “What size boat do I need to go cruising?” was best summed up, I think by Don Casey and Lew Hackler in their book Sensible Cruising: The Thoreau Approach when they said, “The one you have.”


I absolutely LOVE this book and the advice in it is gold…

And “cruising” DOESN’T have to entail great ocean crossings. Taking your boat and going to a little cove you’ve never been to before is going cruising.

L. Francis Herreshoff, who knew a thing or three about boats had this to say about cruising . . . “Cruising should be entirely for pleasure, and when it ceases to be so it no longer makes sense. Of course those who want to beat out what little brains they have in a night thrash to windward should have a strong, stiff racing machine, a very expensive contraption, one which sacrifices the best qualities of a cruiser. But the little yacht that can snuggle alongside some river bank for the night and let its crew have their supper in peace while listening to the night calls of the whippoorwill will keep its crew much more contented. They will be particularly happy and contented when the evening rain patters on the deck and the coal-burning stove becomes the center of attraction. Then if you can lie back in a comfortable place to read, or spend the evening in pleasant contemplation of the next day’s run, well, then you can say “This is really cruising.”

And here’s a truism most people aren’t aware of: “Boats are used in inverse proportion to their size!” That is, the smaller the boat and the easier it is to use then the more it WILL BE USED.

So, what got me started on this rant in the first place? Well, I’ve once again been bitten by  the “I need to have a shanty boat bug!” And I’ve been pouring over old articles I’ve saved and scouring the internet for new inspiration. And last night I saw this neat thing. It’s LaMar Alexander’s 8×12 Stealth-boat Tiny House Design.


The VERY FIRST THING that crossed my mind was, “with just three more sheets of plywood you could extend it to 8X20 feet and have a lot more room!” I mean that was my instant reaction, and it’s really not wrong, I don’t believe, if you’re making something that you intend to live on.


An eight by twelve foot shanty like this would be a great weekender or fine for a short vacation, but I really believe if you’re going to spend much time on it you need to make it AT LEAST 16-feet long but I wouldn’t go over 20 because of cost, weight, time to build, etc.

Just be wary of where you brain leads you. It’s going to automatically make you want to go bigger.

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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 Amazon.com 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.


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