The Real Houseboats of the Mississippi

Floating with the live-aboards at the Watergate Marina and the St. Paul Yacht Club

There's also the most basic appeal of a houseboat: the simple economics of it. Getting onto a boat costs less than getting into a house: Houseboats can range from $500 for an engine-less fixer-upper to $250,000 for a historic two-story. And the living's cheap: Live-aboards don't pay property taxes, and their slip fees — the marina equivalent of rent — come in around $5,000 annually for an average-sized boat.

"You do get some people that look at it as a cheap lifestyle," says Roger Anderson, the manager at the SPYC. "Frankly, you get some bums."

But in Anderson's 16 years running the marina, he's also come to see the kind of people who are drawn to houseboats as he would a diverse city block.

Mark Sauer started leasing space at the Watergate for his growing business, St. Paul Shipwrights, 16 years ago. “I like the anonymous nature of the place,” he says.
Benjamin Carter Grimes
Mark Sauer started leasing space at the Watergate for his growing business, St. Paul Shipwrights, 16 years ago. “I like the anonymous nature of the place,” he says.

"You have wealthy people, you have poor people, you have people at the high end of society and people that are barely surviving, you have mentally ill people, you have handy people, you have helpless people," he rattles off. "It's a microcosm of the world at large."

For most of the about 50 people in the Twin Cities' houseboat community, the attraction of the live-aboard life is little bit of all those things, but also something else — something less easy to put a finger on.

Kramer's own explanation is in his boat's name. The bow reads, in proud gold lettering, "Carl G. Jung," after the psychiatrist who pioneered the study of dreams.

MacLeod hasn't yet painted a name on the side of his boat, but he knows what he calls it: Sanctuary.

When Bruce Klaenhammer walks down the dock at the SPYC, he waits for his neighbors to wave first.

That's the informal rule about greetings in a neighborhood where boats float port-to-starboard with each other: To preserve some privacy, the person on the boat chooses whether to say hello.

"It's a gauntlet to go down the dock, petting dogs and talking to people and seeing how their guitar playing is going," Klaenhammer says. "You don't find that in most neighborhoods."

In the marina, one person's business is everyone's business: A live-aboard can hear his neighbor turn on his sink, or watch his neighbor's TV as easily as his own. On nights when Dancing With the Stars is on, the women at the SPYC cluster on one of the boats to tune in together, while the men stream over to a separate boat to have a drink.

"You're living in a neighborhood that is more closely knit than a trailer park," says JP Lindrud, the manager at the Watergate. "Your boat is literally three and a half feet from your neighbor. That's a tiny yard."

For Virgil Amsden, his neighbors in the marina have come to be more important than the boat or the water.

Amsden has had boats as long as he's been married — 52 years — but since 1987, he has anchored at the Watergate. Most of the time, his boat doesn't leave its slip.

"The thing to me now is certainly not the boat ride," Amsden says. "It's the gathering of the community, and the friendships that we've developed over the years."

Instead of getting out on the water, Amsden organizes events for the Watergate's yacht club (mascot: the Watergator), leads boating safety classes, and enjoys people-watching on his dock.

His sons grew up on his boat and now have boats of their own. His daughter died of breast cancer a few years back. At her funeral, the Amsdens' dock neighbor — a pastor whose boat is named "Holy Bucket" — gave the eulogy.

Like Amsden, Klaenhammer likes a lot of things about life in the marina. He knows the "crazy little birds" that come by and eat the spiders that burrow into the dock, as well as the mama and baby beaver, and the stray kitty who lives in the pile of logs on Raspberry Island. But above all, he likes the people.

"You can live this close and still be left alone," he explains. "But I wouldn't think that it would anything less than appropriate for me to join a neighbor's party."

Klaenhammer's had boats for "50 years," he guesses, starting with a block of Styrofoam with plywood glued to the top that he and a buddy used as a swimming platform after they realized it didn't sail. He moved aboard in 1993 "to live a simpler life," he says, though he later mutters something about a woman.

The boat he's on now has 38 feet of length, 160 square feet of living space, and a round bottom conducive to rocking in the marina's river harbor. "Feel that?" Klaenhammer asks, as his house sways. "That's the positive buoyancy."

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Klaenhammer sits on his back deck sipping white wine, overlooking the downtown skyline, and demonstrating that no rule is hard and fast.

"Hey, Peter!" he shouts when his neighbor appears on his deck with a book. "Want some cheap wine?"

On the coldest nights during her first winter at the Watergate, Dawn Brodey's equipment and insulation weren't enough to keep ice from forming around the boat's fiberglass hull.

So in the middle of the night, she woke, bundled up, and grabbed a 30-pound steel pole to smash the ice and push the chunks away from her boat to keep them from re-freezing. After the 40-minute ritual, she slid herself underneath the plastic wrap around her boat to climb back underneath her frozen blankets and try to catch some sleep.

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