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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Shantyboat Interview With Seattle's Bryan Lowe

Shantyboat/Houseboat interview with Seattle’s Bryan Lowe
A Shantyboat/Tiny Floating House Interview with Seattle’s Bryan Lowe  (by Derek “Deek” Diedricksen of originally for Tinyhouseblog)

     Bryan Lowe ordered a copy of my book “Humble Homes, Simple Shacks…” a ways back, and as in many fortunate cases with those who have done the same, it became a common ground on which we began emailing back and forth on our love of tiny shelters/houses, and more specifically, shantyboats. Bryan too, is Harlan Hubbard obsessed (I’m telling you READ “Shantyboat”- its pretty amazing/gutsy).                 
      Well, back on track, it only seemed fitting to grab an interview, for all to read, from a guy who actually runs the blog, so here you go….And thanks to Kent Griswold, for helping to spread the word as well, and to the many other friends that are part of this whole community (can I get a “Whoa Bundy!?”). Ahem….cough….bad eighties references aside, here’s our “yap session”…..

     BACKGROUND INFORMATION: Hi, my name is Bryan Lowe. As for a little backstory on me, my grandfather built himself a couple of boats, most likely 17 to 24 foot GlenL designs that he used for fishing all over the western US.  My father built the house I grew up in, all seven of us, which also included a “garden room” made from scrap lumber and windows from a tear-down as well as a blacksmithing set up in the backyard.  I grew up thinking building stuff is what you do, and it’s a given that you try even though you don’t know how.  My dayjob is as Program Director for KING FM, the classical radio station In Seattle, a job where I spend much time in concert halls and fundraising dinners.   At night, in my other life, I am much more “shanty” in my approach, driving an old meter maid scooter and build shantyboats in my garage.

Deek: Now Bryan since you drop the self-describing term “shanty”, aside from “WHY “shantyboating?”, is there a certain criteria by which a structure can be called a “shantyboat”. Is there much of a difference from them to “houseboats”? Its rudimentary, but to some reading, there might be some confusion that needs alleviating as there seem to be thin lines of definition between the two.
Bryan: Well, In the dictionary shanty means a small crudely built dwelling, so a shantyboat would therefore mean a crudely built boat, and that is a part of it, up to a point.  No shanty has gold plating, literally or figuratively.  These are simple craft, homebuilt by untrained builders, with an eye toward extended stay, such as your life allows.   For a few, it’s living aboard in some backwater full time.  For most of us, we build our simple craft and grab as many weekends as we can, always dreaming of a future time with expanded shantyboat living.  The line between houseboat and shanty is always subjective.  There are a few givens: you can buy a houseboat but you can’t buy a new shantyboat.  A houseboat can be built with virtually unlimited resources, but a shantyboat almost requires a little pragmatic scrounging.   And finally, there is intent.  Are you trying to recreate a home that just happens to be on the water, or create a homebuilt replica of a commercially built houseboat?  Shantyboats aspire to a different aesthetic.  They can be cute, they can be painted, they can be cozy, but there must be no mistaking them for commercially built.  A shantyboat is handcrafted by it’s owner, with care, with affection, and with a decidedly pragmatic streak!  Shantyboats are square, they have edges, with no effort to make it more aero or hydro dynamic.  In the end it’s like porn.  You know one when you see one, without doubt.

Deek: Lets keep this PG Bryan! Kidding, kidding…Now give us a little bit on the set-up, and specs of your own, self-built shantyboat project, and the impetus and story behind it? Is this soemthing you designed?

A Shanty/Shelter-Boat from this blog author's book "Humble Homes, Simple Shacks.."

Bryan:  My Escargot is an 18 foot long by six foot wide box, designed after the canal barges of England and France by retired University of Washington Architecture professor Phil Theil.  Phil likes pedal powered boats, and this one was no exception.   But when I built it I was the first to leave the pedal power off.  It just wasn’t practical.   After I took him for a spin he was convinced, and everyone of his larger designs since has included an outboard.  Mine is a 6hp 4-stroke that moves it at about 7mph.  I built it in my driveway with minimal tools, and with treesap and rain creating something of a mess of it at times.  By nature I am not a detail guy, and my life doesn’t really allow it, with boat building time usually grabbed for just a few minutes whenever possible after work and parenting.  My boat isn’t straight and I’ve never gotten around to that final detail work, but it works and I have used it for scores and scores of nights in small rivers around the NW.  It has a head, a rudimentary kitchen, a “living room”, and comfortable sleeping room for a couple.  There is a small deck or seating area at each end.

Deek: Have you made any long trips or stays onboard?

Bryan:  I built it to explore the backwaters, but without a boat I wasn’t sure where I could go.  I have a wealthy friend who took me up in his airplane and we scouted out the Snohomish River and the sloughs at its mouth.  It was perfect.  Lots of snags, a couple of rundown marinas and at least 25 miles of water rarely used by most recreational boaters.  I’ve spent dozens of nights there.   I’ve also been on the Skagit River and it’s estuary just north of Seattle and on a few small rivers between Seattle and Portland, including a few on the edges of the Columbia River. The longest I’ve been aboard is a week, but I’ve done that many times.

Deek: Now aside from your own site what are some other sources we can tap for information on these boats and/or available designs? I’ve been to The Duckworks Magazine site a bit, and have read all the Harlan Hubbard Shantyboat books- which I can’t recommend highly enough- but what else is out there? It seems a VERY untouched/underground movement.

Bryan:  It is untouched by the mainstream, but the Yahoo shantyboat group I founded is getting close to 1000 members.  THAT group is the best resource there is, for there are a good number of folks there who are living the life or heavily into the dream.  And they won’t tell you it can’t be done, or argue whether it’s a shantyboat or not.  These are good guys who understand the lifestyle and the dream.   Those books you mention are must-read items.  You’ll find inspiration on Youtube as well.  Search google images as well.  And then be sure to share what you are doing through our Yahoo group or with your own website.  Be a part of the sharing.

Deek: So much like the tiny housing scene, its an open forum of people willing to help one another- that’s great- and the way it should be, rather than competitive. Now, what about codes, legal hassles, and neighborly/sea-worthiness concerns/complaints? Does creating and owning a shantyboat come with its own set of woes from lawmakers and local citizens, as say, the houseboating communities of Seattle have regularly seen?

Bryan:  You must live beneath the radar, and that isn’t possible in the “nice” places in town.  But I’ve never been hassled in any river I’ve been in, nor I have seen any of the authorities out there.  Get a license if you fish, and that is about all they care about in the waters I hang out in.  Don’t pour sewage overboard or leave garbage lying about.  My boat is painted up like an english canal boat, or some think it uses Rastafarian colors, it doesn’t really blend in.  I think there is strength in that.  Most people come running to take pictures when I come around the bend.  I feel I am a welcome part of their day.  At night  I never park where I can be seen from a home, and I never stay in one place too long.   Keep your boat small, keep it clean, add a bit of color through flags or banners, and then wave and smile.

Deek: So basically, keep things clean, friendly, and don’t mount any canons onboard. Got it. What’s next on the project slate for you? Or “trip” slate? Any planned once the warmer weather returns?

Bryan: Well, aside from many things, I’ve also started a Micro-shanty project, a boat just 8.5 feet long and 4 feet wide.  It will sleep one and includes all the basics in one little craft, with room enough to read, to write, cook, fish, and explore.  I’m a big fan of keeping it small.  The bigger you get the more complicated your life will be.  I’ve additionally planned a small boat get-together on the sloughs of the Snohomish this Summer and invite anyone to join me.  True to the shantyboat style any boat will do, though be sure it doesn’t draw much water and can handle hitting a snag or two.  Heck, It can be a rowboat with a 2 by 4 holding up a canvas tent.   We never go faster than idle, we don’t drink in excess, we must be self containted, as there is no land to pitch a tent, and we must have no plan other than to live the shantyboat lifestyle for a week.  Learn more at, another site I’ve made, where we talk about adventures for regular folks.  Its The Walter Mitty Action Committee.
I’m also working on a book not unlike what you’ve done with tiny architecture, though without the artistic touch, as I have no talent for drawing.  It will be a book about the lifestyle and how to do it.  Self publishing, most likely, this Summer.  If you have any advice I’d be delighted to hear it! Any readers of this too.., Thanks so much Deek!
Thanks to Kent Griswold for originally running this interview on

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