Dream Boat — Or Floating Nuisance?

In Maine, where some houseboat owners are navigating troubled waters, it depends on whom you ask.

Rockport boatbuilder Timo Foster spent five years restoring this 1929 floating home, pictured in Camden Harbor; the owner is currently looking for a more out-of-the-way spot to anchor.

Rockport boatbuilder Timo Foster spent five years restoring this 1929 floating home, pictured in Camden Harbor; the owner is currently looking for a more out-of-the-way spot to anchor. Photo by Tara Rice

By Sara Anne Donnelly
From the Fall 2022 issue of Maine Homes by Down East

For more than half a century, one of Maine’s oldest floating homes wasted away on 700 Acre Island, off Islesboro. Constructed in 1929 by boatbuilder Willis Rossiter, the two-story wooden structure, which once sheltered Rossiter’s wood shop on the first floor and his family on the second, ended up abandoned at an island boatyard. In 2014, a local caretaker and urchin diver paid $1 for the structure, by then so dilapidated its wooden hull had completely rotted. He hauled the boat to Belfast on a barge and trucked it to his Searsport yard, where he and Rockport boatbuilder Timo Foster spent five years rehabbing it. The owner, who, Foster says, prefers to remain anonymous, “was like, ‘We’re not gonna buy everything, we’re not gonna have a plan, we’re just gonna flail until we get it done.’” So they did, scavenging parts and materials, such as a $200 hammered-copper sink the owner drove to Brooklyn to purchase; cedar doors from a Liberty lumberyard; yellow-pine hull planking salvaged from a Bangor warehouse; tropical-hardwood decking donated by a sympathetic boatyard owner on Martha’s Vineyard; redwood clapboards from a friend of Foster’s father; and blowdown locust wood for rub rails.

Last spring, the owner, Foster, and their loved ones gathered to lift the boat by crane into Rockport Harbor. “The owner was holding the bow line and I was holding the stern and, as it hit the water, everybody started cheering,” Foster says. “We looked at each other and we’re like, ‘Holy shit, it’s floating!’” Foster has photos of the motorless bone-white craft being towed to a friend’s mooring in Camden Harbor that day. Tall and lean and bobbing ghostly over the dark chop, it looked like it could tip over at any moment. But it didn’t. To see it seaworthy, Foster says, “was a moment of total elation.”

The feeling didn’t last long. A couple weeks after its launch, the houseboat found itself homeless, ejected from a friend’s float in inner Camden Harbor because the owner hadn’t applied for a permit. Around the same time, Foster started hearing complaints about the structure from some locals. They moved it to another friend’s mooring farther afield. At press time, Foster expected they’d soon have to move again, to a more secluded spot where, he hopes, it won’t make waves. “It’s raised a lot of eyebrows,” he says. “There was definitely this feeling of ‘Hold on, Camden’s not going to be full of houseboats! What the hell are you guys doing?’”

Driven by record-high waterfront-housing costs and the tiny-house movement, floating homes have proliferated in recent years. But they’ve failed to charm many Maine communities, whose residents complain that the tax-exempt structures are noisy, polluting, and a hindrance to fishing and navigation. Boothbay, Harrison, Rangeley, and York are among the municipalities that have passed laws restricting houseboats or outright banning them. Last year, parties on a Green Lake “house float” prompted Dedham to limit anchoring houseboats to four hours. Responding to the piecemeal regulations, state representative Paul Stearns, of Guilford, recently sponsored legislation to create statewide guidelines governing floating homes — defining, for example, expectations for sewage disposal, property taxes, and accommodating various waterfront stakeholders — which he expects the legislature to vote on this fall. In the meantime, he advises those with motorized houseboats to follow local boating rules, and other floating-home owners to “be judicious” about where they anchor. “I would not put it in an area that is going to cause a lot of concern,” he says.

Foy and Louisa Brown’s handbuilt houseboat with a wraparound deck and outdoor shower is a fixture in Vinalhaven’s Perry’s Creek, where it has recently been attracting crowds.
Foy and Louisa Brown’s handbuilt houseboat with a wraparound deck and outdoor shower is a fixture in Vinalhaven’s Perry’s Creek, where it has recently been attracting crowds. Photo by Nicole Wolf

Since 2011, Foy and Louisa Brown have anchored their floating summer home in a secluded cove in Vinalhaven’s Perry Creek. A hand-built tiny house on pontoons with an accidentally chic asymmetrical roof (pitched to accommodate a loft bedroom) and salvaged windows accented with abundantly planted boxes, it prompted some grumbling when the Browns first arrived. “People thought we were going to be noisy and whatnot,” Louisa says. “But actually the boats are louder than we are.” Now that neighbors know them, they say there’s been no animosity. And you can’t beat the bargain: While a nearby waterfront home might go for upwards of $500,000, the Browns figure they spent $20,000 on their build. They ferry in water daily for the 55-gallon tank that supplies the shower and kitchen, and are not subject to mooring fees in Perry Creek. So beyond replenishing the twin propane tanks that power the refrigerator, stove, and water heater, their costs are minimal. “It’s a lot less expensive to do it our way,” Louisa says.

On warm evenings, Louisa likes to sit and read on the dwelling’s wraparound deck and watch the setting sun tint the sky orange. At times like these, she’s filled with gratitude for her floating house. Other times, though, she’s not. The Browns’ Pinterest-adorable place has become something of a local celebrity and has recently been attracting boating crowds. “They could spread out within the cove more, but they seem drawn right to the houseboat,” she says. Sometimes the strangers tie up next to them, wanting to chat; staying up late; partying. Lately, it’s gotten so noisy that the Browns have had to head to their mainland home to sleep. “Sometimes I think I would love to move,” Louisa says, “but I don’t know where else we would go.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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