We approached the vessel by canoe—the Seekonk River was placid and frigid at 7:30 in the late October morning. A hoodied figure in shredded, paint-stained jeans, sporting some feral bed head, emerged from the boat’s cabin with a steaming cup of coffee and a face fresh from having woken up to the water. As he called out to us in the canoe, a massive, jet-black raven landed on the man’s shoulder.
Zachary Weindel and Daniel Gladstone are the architects and engineers behind a houseboat currently moored in the Upper Narragansett Bay near Providence. They are both in their early 20s and built the boat from scratch over two years, glomming it together from used and recycled materials with some help from the “free” listings on Craigslist.
The two have been living on the boat full time—residing in homey tidal coves in and around Providence—since August. Gladstone, who grew up in Rhode Island, is still a student at URI, so he makes frequent trips to the mainland. But Weindel, who is originally from Eastern Connecticut, goes weeks without ever leaving the boat.
Instead of the hackneyed pirate’s parrot, Weindel has a trained, pure-bred corvid-hybrid—a more fitting bird for Providence. The raven-esque bird is named Gurgy and she doesn’t just talk—she croaks in a Tom Waits timbre, “always less.” The phrase is something of a mantra for the boat people: it positively inverts the landlubber’s “nevermore” and encapsulates their sustainably-minded lifestyle of minimal consumption.
Weindel said he picked a bird as the perfect pet because it can do everything he wants to do: cross the water and the sky. When I ask, “sky?” I’m not surprised to learn that he’s a licensed aeronaut who built and flies a hot air balloon. Considering how successfully he and Gladstone have patched together a creative and original dwelling, a hot air balloon landing pad for the houseboat doesn’t sound too far-fetched.
Despite the striking initial impression, the first moments on board reveal that boat living is no freewheeling, rustic, aquatic joyride. Not only must the ship’s residents be resourceful and diligent in meeting their daily needs, they also are responsible for carving out both a social and conceptual niche for houseboat residents in and around Providence.
Weindel and Gladstone built the wooden base, a 50’ by 50’ platform, on land, then got it afloat with two pontoons made out of 26 old barrels, recycled foam, and concrete. They built the cabin out of local wood and two pallets’ worth of poly-iso foam from a nearby testing company, fastened a modest 85hp motor to the back, and set it out in the water.
The top level features a ship’s wheel (the helm) and a literal “crow’s nest,” a netted habitat for Gurgy. The inside of the cabin is an expertly mixed use of space. It has a shotgun floorplan: a small bunk area, a storage area, a kitchenette, and a sitting area with a workbench. The walls are made out of expanding polyurethane foam that keeps the cabin well insulated, and many of the building materials are clearly recycled. The boat’s exterior is a spectrum of foam grays and unfinished wood, and the washers that hold the structure together are a hodgepodge of beer bottle caps.
Gladstone casually jabs a knife into their experimental poly-iso foam wall to demonstrate its resilience. All the while, Gurgy croaks and gurgles from the roof, “always less, always less.”
Weindel, who briefly went to school for mechanical engineering, prides himself on being able to see applications for unlikely materials, such as an experimental glue or a newly designed fiber blanket.
“Sometimes one of the things that I call myself is a ‘materials application specialist,’” he says.
This type of knowledge is often learned on the job—living full time on a boat is a life-encompassing art. Neither Weindel nor Gladstone work on land very often on. They focus most of their time and energy toward the upkeep and construction of the boat.
A Maritime Habitat
Gladstone says a houseboat community “doesn’t exist in Providence—there’s no precedent for it yet! There’s no regulation that has ever been made about where you can moor your houseboat.” The few folks who do live-on-board often do so seasonally and on more traditional crafts like sailboats or yachts.
In Providence and Pawtucket, there is not very much boat traffic. But sometimes, the two moor the boat in the city of East Providence, where there is a wealth of coves and anchoring places, but more laws restricting boat movement.
“They have a harbor master because East Providence has several anchoring and mooring fields, and lots of waterfront, lots of really nice property, and lots of little coves and stuff… and he keeps things ship-shape and organized,” Weindel says. “He’s called us out on a couple of violations we’ve had in the past, and that’s probably a good thing because we’re better off and more informed.”
Throughout the Fox Point Reach and south of the upper bay, the Coast Guard enforces the law. Still, in the less frequently boated areas where the two tend to keep their home, Weindel is quick to point out that, although the laws may be gray, there is some sense of order. “It’s not lawless—there’s all the federal laws: you can’t discharge into the water, oil or sewage; no litter, you’ve got to take out the trash… They’re all about environmental stuff.”
Living on the water means rent is free. Nevertheless, several issues come to mind when living off the grid. There are the basics: clean water, heat, and electricity. Then there’s the question of what to do with one’s waste, and the problem of finding a safe, legal place to anchor.
The boat has a rain-water collection system and an outhouse which composts waste. Food mostly comes from shore and a propane tank and burner facilitate cooking. The most complex utilities present the biggest hurdles. “Electricity is the most difficult commodity out here,” says Weindel.
They have a wind turbine that can charge the boat’s deep-cycle batteries, but Weindel has taken it down for the day since there isn’t much wind and the out-of-balance blades threaten Gurgy.
For other needs, they sometimes get help. Passersby, regular fishermen, and boaters often supply them. “Probably more than anything I get fishers that come and they give me Corona and offer me weed and stuff like that. You know, you get the weirdest offerings from local people,” Weindel says. “People come by and say, ‘What do you guys need out here?’ then they come back with some toilet paper or canned food or something.”
Once they were bequeathed a piping-hot pepperoni pizza. The boat has made a splash at nearby fishing spots and boat ramps, and the offerings are usually made by fans showing their support.
And then, of course, there is the constant hassle of getting to and from land.
“It’s got me thinking a lot about an amphibious vehicle,” says Weindel.
He says he has plans to build one—an hydroplaning, scooter-engine-powered model—but for now, Weindel and Gladstone must stick to the trusty canoe and focus on the more urgent obstacles presented by the winter.
Inhabiting the Future
The guys’ ultimate vision is to start a creative and sustainably-focused live-on-board community. They’ve been settling into full-time boat living, and say they’re going to start a blog about the boat to get people interested in sustainability, building one’s own dwelling, and houseboat communities.
“What I’d really like to see is a group of houseboats clustered along the bottom of a wind turbine,” says Weindel. This may sound far off, but nearby Wood’s Hole in Cape Cod has an established, thriving community of boat-dwellers, many of them professors doing research at the Cape’s Oceanographic Institute.
Then there’s the more pressing future: the cold weather presents a more immediate problem—and opportunity. Weindel and Gladstone are installing a brick masonry stove inside the cabin and will be tenting in the part of the deck with the outhouse and outdoor workbench. They are confident that the foam walls will keep them warm.
As of late, the boat has been consuming most of their time, and the two are crafting a tailored, skillful art of maritime habitation. I ask who is technically the captain. One replies, “Gurgy’s the captain, we’re just crew,” and the other says “I don’t think a boat really needs a captain.”
ALEX SPOTO B’11 [Jalopy floats].
To tune in to the community around the boat and see more pictures and videos (including Gurgy glamour shots), search “Landlord Independent” on Facebook.