“Would you like to boatsit a houseboat with me?” Denis asks, grinning. “What’s ‘Boatsitting‘?“ I reply.
„It’s like babysitting. But with a boat, instead of a baby.“ The boat in question is a self-made, mapled marvel on giant black floating tubs, currently bobbing up and down in the Rummelsburger Bucht. Denis had helped build parts of the boat – and has a motorboat license, making him an ideal choice for a potential boatsitter, it seems.
“Absolutely!” I grin back.
The houseboat, though built as a group project from what I understand, belongs to a friend, who is out of town for the week. Under normal circumstances, most boats have a parking spot, where you anchor your boat and leave it there – but due to mysterious and unexplained circumstances, the boat was no longer allowed to anchor at its original mooring place.
In Berlin, the place to go for boats with this issue is the Rummelsburger Bucht. According to a rather historical law allegedly dating back to the 1800s, boats are allowed to set anchor here – as long as someone checks on them every 24hrs. Which isn’t an issue if you’re living on the boat – but it is when you’re out of town for a while.
But I guess that’s what volunteers with a current obsession for life on the water, and a motorboat license are for.
I finished up experiments as quickly as possible on Monday, cycling Mango along the shore of the Spree till I see Denis steering towards me on the water. “Need help?” I yell. “Not much. Just stop the boat from bumping against the peer,” he shouts back.
A few moments later, Mango, my backpack and I are safely onboard. Denis gives me a small tour. Kitchen, workspace, bedroom and oven are all in the same main room. I sit on the bed to begin working.
The boat sways gently back and forth. A murder of crows is playing on the boat next to us. And as my eyes begin to move across the words of the grant I’m editing, I remember something VERY important that in my excitement to live on a houseboat I’d completely forgotten about.
I get seasick super easily.
Why do I say that? Because not only does my own scraggly, in combed hair and slightly wrinkled clothing reminds me of my time camping in the woods. But also because the other people living on their boats permanently and their easy-breezy “it is what it is” attitude reminds me suspiciously of wildcamping bikepackers.
Also this is the third time I’ve heard our new neighbour, Torsten the Pirate, say: “That ain’t under my control,” and shrug his shoulders in the 10 minutes since I’ve met him. This time he says it as his boat, with its pirate flag raised and fluttering in the wind, slowly drifts away from the shore. “It’s free now,” he huffs. Then adds: “I’ll get someone to help me catch it later. I need to go pay some bills on land first.”
It’s Day 2 of living on the houseboat.
I got up early that morning to go to the lab and run experiments, and I came back in the afternoon thinking I would be picked up from the shore a few minutes after my arrival. But Denis texted that he was struggling with the anchor, so I started chatting with Torsten instead.
Torsten has tan skin, and a salt and pepper beard as scraggly as my hair this morning. He eyes our fancy houseboat with suspicion as it approaches. Denis seems to have gotten the anchor loose, at least – but the wind pushes him so hard off course that he needs to run the approach manoeuvre not once, but twice. Torsten, amused by the antics of us two landlubbers lost at sea, helps with the parking of the boat.
Right next to the “NO PARKING” sign.
“Eh, the police don’t care if just stop next to the ‘NO PARKING’ as long as you do what you need and then leave right away,” Torsten the Pirate mutters, as Denis jumps off the ship to give me a hug. “Sorry for being late,” Dennis says. “The anchor got stuck.” – “That’s no surprise,” answers Torsten. “There’s 18m of toxic sludge at the bottom of this lake, dating back to the industrial revolution. Pretty tough anchoring well in that.”
We manage to repark the boat a little while later, with the help of three other people and nearly taking the NO PARKING sign down as we…. Maybe… potentially… ahem. Scratch the boat’s backboard against it.
“Take it down, take it down!” One of the pirates jeers. “No one likes that sign anyway!” He cackles. We check – the boat is fine.
Torsten and his gang have been living on the waters in the Rummelsburger Bucht for nearly a decade now. “Alongside nearly 200 other floating… well, things.”
“Some boats don’t deserve the name ‘vehicle’ anymore,” Torsten huffs.
The pirates (“Spreepublikaner”) jump from ships to shore as easily as the little coots circling our boats do, at as much ease on water as they show on land.
I’d gone bouldering at @ostbloc in the afternoon, and just got home to see Denis chatting with some curious onlookers. Not pirates, but hipsters – like us. I make us some soup and offer Torsten as bowl as he saunters past.
“I already have all the soup I need before bed,” Torsten waves a cup in his hand. “Its a pirate drink before bedtime. Rum and coke. Sleep well you, too.” Then he jumps back off and makes his way to his boat, The Free Dream.
Rain patters against the glass as the lights in the other boats are turned off… one… by one… by one.
That was Day Two of #HouseboatLiving.
I absolutely cannot sleep. And no, it’s not the thought that Torsten send us off to sleep with (“Hope you don’t get robbed, byyyyye!”) that’s keeping me awake. Or the wind that’s rocking the boat sometimes gently, sometimes more raucously back and forth. No. It’s that giant light in the sky that refuses to let me sleep:
The full moon shines onto our pillows as if all the bed’s a stage, and we are the main attraction.
Sighing, I get up and light a candle. It’s 4:40AM.
At 7AM, the first dinghies join us on the shore. A dad and his kid, the latter carrying a school backpack, tie their small canoe to the dock, wave hello, and leave. A few curious joggers running past stare into the boat as I work on my computer. It’s a little disconcerting, and I’m reminded of something @nora.caterin.born once told me about #vanlife. “For some reason, people have no problem gawking into your van. You’re standing in your kitchen, making coffee – and suddenly some stranger is staring into your living room.”
#Boatlife is no different, though the gawking is often accompanied by the question: “Can I rent this?! Like a Boat-BnB?” – “It’s not a Boat-BnB. This is somebody’s main home!” Cue raised eyebrows. I guess #HouseboatLife has yet to become as socially accepted as #Vanlife.
I get back to the boat after the lab completely knackered. But there’s work to be done: a water pipe in the bathroom broke, and we need to saw open the wooden floors to remove the (now soggy and soon-to-be mold riddled) insulation material. We’re out of petrol, too, so we walk to the nearest gas station to get some. Now, I am a firm believer in ABT (“always be training”). But I do have to admit that it’s not an easy task to carry 20L around, even if it’s just for 500m.
I’m beginning to suspect that, just like #VanLife, the houseboat life may be harder than it looks.
And for tomorrow, there’s a storm front on the menu on top.
I guess one could say: reality of life on the houseboat is starting to sink (in, pun intended).
Treacherously, the brightest day can end in the most wicked storm. Just like Day 4 of #HouseboatLife.
The fact that a storm was coming was no surprise after Micha, the owner of the houseboat, had texted us that we were in “for the full adventure package.”we checked 13 weather apps to confirm his warning. They all had different opinions on when the storm would hit, but they all agreed on thing: it would get messy. I decide to cancel underwater rugby training, just in case.
Hence my annoyance when the next day, I wake up to the most serene, calm, and sunny mornings we’ve had out on the water yet.
So much for “full adventure package”.
I cycle to the lab, raincoat stuffed into my backpack, when a message from Denis arrives: “So… after I dropped you off, I tried to park at the docks again… and 10m from the shore, the motor broke.” Another houseboat owner helped haul him in for the last few meters.
After I get back from work, Denis asks me to turn on the engine while he’s back at the motor, just to check what’s broken. Standing at the front of the boat, I turn the key to the ignition – and immediately hear shrieks from the back: “TURN IT OFF!!!” The distinct smell of gas hangs in the air when I check up on Denis and the motor. He shows me the video he took of the motor turning on. It seems that instead of a functioning motor, we have a petrol-spouting, miniature version of the Old Faithful geyser on board.
“Ey, and tomorrow morning at 10AM, the police will be making the rounds to make sure we’ve left this place!” Our new neighbour, who helped roped our boat in, chuckles. “They make you leave every day between 10-11AM, so these places don’t turn into permanent parking zones.”
“But we can’t move!”
Jonas, our neighbour, grins. “You’re gonna have to convince them of that!”
Before we sleep, Denis checks if the boat’s securely attached at both ends on the docks.
“Well, if we do come loose and drift off, at least we won’t have any problems with the police tomorrow!“ I think.
And fall asleep once more…
The police arrive just in time to catch us. We’re lounging in the “No Parking from 10-11AM” zone – at 10:30AM. Jonas, our neighbor who helped tow our houseboat to the docks after the motor broke down, chuckles. “Let’s see if we can’t sweet-talk ourselves out of this.” – “What happens if we can’t?”
Jonas doesn’t respond. He’s already on his way to the ship’s bow to welcome the arriving water cops.
The boat had (other than the motor) survived the night well. I slept through the storm like a baby on a sleep schedule – without waking even once. Denis had already gone off-board, while I got a visit from @annihabub to get some thesis writing done together.
Soon after, Jonas arrives, too. Unlike us, he hadn’t slept on his boat. “It’s not ready yet,” he explained. Just last night, his girlfriend had literally broken through the floorboards.
“I heard you work as a sewage treatment researcher! Can you explain to me what happened to this lake to make the mud below so toxic?” I ask him. “Ha! Many things. But one thing in particular: when the Soviets arrived, they washed their uniforms in these waters, they used a soap containing perchlorate. It’s meant to disinfect – which it does. Forever. And everything around it, too. It has a lifetime of a few thousand years.”
Just then, the police arrive.
I watch them drive up to the first boat, parked in front of Jonas. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but the boat stays. Next, they move on to Jonas. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but the boat stays. Next, it’s our turn.
“Ey! Y’all are supposed to be gone!” The police man yells at me. “We can’t, our motor is broken!” He raises an eyebrow. “Huh. It’s a bloody epidemic of broken motors at this dock, I’ll be damned.”
The other two boats were perfectly fine, I knew that.
“I want all three of you gone tomorrow by 10AM! I ain’t got time to write frigging tickets anyway,” the police man sighs.
Shortly after, I leave the boat too – for good. Micha is back in town, and our time of Boatsitting is up.
But it was an adventure while it lasted.
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