Living on a boat
Not all plain sailing
The steady rasp of the outboard motor drops in pitch. Something is wrong. ‘She’s really stuck, there’s a ton of mud beneath us’, groans university college student B (believe it or not, this is his name). ‘We’ll have to pull her out.’
B is the student owner of a 32 feet long boat named Lieve Noor. He’s taking her from Garnwerd, where she was moored for the summer, back to Groningen. But now she’s stuck in the murk of the Reitdiep, the canal that links Groningen to the North Sea.
Quickly, B strips down to his boxers and dives into the cold water, where he starts to excavate a channel for Noor to escape. On the bank, a small group of Garnwerd’s gongoozling oma’s are giving sarcastic advice. ‘Have you done this before?’ one of them asks. And ‘Groningen is the other way!’ giggles another.
A cold shower can be just as good
But B doesn’t pay any attention and after a bit of underwater excavation and a good glass of rum, the Noor is loose again. ‘Although the engine has given me hell, it wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the city’, B says proudly.
While not a simple houseboat, this boat has certainly become B’s ‘home’. A home that sails, a home that can cross oceans. B is one of those students who decided that living in a regular student house, or studio is really not for them. Together with several dozen other students, he chose to live his student life on a boat.
B has always been in and around the water, but really learnt to sail during a gap year: ‘In Spain I met some guys in a bar in Gijon and they asked if I wanted to sail across the Bay of Biscay with them – how could I say no?’ After that he was in love with sailing.
He bought Noor – deep keel and polyester construction – in Zeeland on the advice of a shipwright friend. Noor has everything you need for a cosy, albeit cramped life aboard: a small gimballed stove enough for a kettle, squabs for seating, a small head and a cosy forward berth that has become B’s bedroom.
But living on Lieve Noor also means he misses comforts that those on land take for granted. Noor’s foredeck doubles as a garden, internet comes from a hotspot or not at all. When he wants to take a shower, he’ll have to use the shared, coin operated, showers in the park. ‘It doesn’t bother me, a cold shower can be just as good.’
He has had to learn how to do marine wiring and engine diagnostics in order to make the boat habitable. And then there’s the constant repairs and mends that living on a boat brings. Owning the boat has been a process of ‘getting things wrong and learning by doing’, he says.
‘It is something I wouldn’t have experienced if I weren’t living on a boat. It has also made me question where and how I want to live my life – there are more interesting things out there than brick and mortar houses.’
Former biology student Arnoud Hoorn fully agrees. Although, his Mea, a six-and-half-metre-long, resplendent sloop, has a radically no-frills fitout that makes life on board ‘not all plain sailing.’ Spring on the Hoornsemeer meant ‘the Forum became my office’, he says. ‘My garden was as big as I wanted it to be’, but with no toilet and no shower the frigid water of the Hoornsemeer filled in.
Arnoud’s boat Mea was actually purchased off a friend of B, a good indicator of how close knit a community living on the water can be. Living without a bathroom and constantly hopping between semi-illegal moorings on the lake gives Arnoud cause for pause.
‘Living life in this way makes you much more aware of the norms of society. Living with less is frowned upon’, he thinks. But at least, he says, ‘I could play my guitar as loud as I liked’.
It leaves you asking if putting on a fresh t-shirt is really necessary
Irish student of art history and design Holly Baker can relate to this point of view. Currently moored in Northern France on board the nine-metre-long Berwick, they are awaiting repairs after being washed ashore in a gale – Berwick’s twin keel saved her from the worst of the damage. Holly describes her life on board alongside her cat Hugo not by what it lacks, but rather by its abundance of simplicity.
She used to be docked at Oosterhaven with her boat. ‘I became much more conscious of how to live with less.’ She changes her outfits way less than before. ‘I try to wear simple outfits that can handle the dirt of the boat but still look good’, she says.
Water is paid for by the litre and room for rubbish is limited. ‘You can see the dial on the water meter tick up, and the bin bag can only fit so much. When conserving is the norm, it leaves you asking if that second cup of tea or putting on a fresh t-shirt is really necessary’, she says.
The whole city is my living room; this is all I need for now
Of course, it has its disadvantages too. Bringing people home becomes an exercise in being quiet. ‘Once, I had a date over, and trying to be romantic we did a candlelight cleansing session – somewhat silly on a wooden boat.’ She leaned over and before she knew it her ponytail was ablaze. ‘You just can’t be as romantic as you might like!’ she laughs.
However, the community that springs up on the water is one of the big attractions to life on board. ‘The city is on your doorstep, living on the water and right in the city all at once is really special.’ Neighbours will pop their heads through the companionway for a coffee, sharing tales from the high seas and tips about how best to ‘wash head sails’ or when to ‘start oiling the teak’.
‘The boat is your commonality’, she explains, and the simple tasks all boat owners have to do go a long way to foster connections with those who live around you. Having finished her degree in June, Holly is now making her way to the Mediterranean. Back in Groningen her former berth has seen a new arrival.
In Berwick’s wake is now the sleek, race-ready Fuisje. Her owner – student of international relations Hedwig van der Lauw is an accomplished sailor, already having crossed the Atlantic on a tall ship. She has life on board down to a fine art.
While the Berwick and Lieve Noor are still reasonably big ships, Fuisje was never envisaged as a home. ‘I find my way around the headroom’, Hedwig smiles. ‘I know where I can stand up straight.’ She demonstrates, her head grazing the light fitting: ‘It’s a bit strange not being able to stand up in your own home!’
However, Hedwig had little choice. To her, Fuisje was the novel solution to the housing problem. ‘Although I would like to have roommates – it’s part of being a student and all – this will do for now’, she says.
Her friends think that living on a boat is great. They drop by all the time. And, gesturing to the Martini Kerk and Forum in the distance, she too feels that ‘the whole city becomes my living room’. ‘This is all I need for now.’