OUTSIDE THE SQUARE
Ours is a culture of cubists. We’re born in cubes called hospitals, reared in house cubes, educated in school cubes to work in office cubes. Most of our structures are built as cubes. A life afloat can soften things.
There’s absolutely no comparison for living in a boat. The flowing lines and graceful curves of most vessels may have been dictated by strength and seaworthiness – or the strictures imposed on boat designers by various yacht racing handicap rules – but no mere building can aspire to a boat’s grace and elegance.
A boat is a living habitat, immersed in a living medium, it rarely sits still and is neighboured by living wildlife, an entire ecosystem.
House dwellers live their lives indoors, estranged from their surroundings by walls and windows – but boat people tend to live outdoors to watch what’s going on around them.
Most major cities host liveaboard communities, generations of whom are born, raised, educated and play afloat. Hong Kong, Singapore, Amsterdam, London – thousands of people who prefer to live their lives afloat.
Boat-dwelling people form close communities, bonded by their difference from those who live on land and who constitute
the majority of humankind. A vague insecurity comes from living in a constantly-changing environment and from that, liveaboards develop an awareness to any irregularities around them.
Liveaboards are the best security a marina can have. People who keep an eye on their surroundings and are quick to spot trouble before it happens. They keep an eye on mooring lines and monitor neighbouring boats for any signs of fire or flooding. In times of trouble, liveaboards are quick to rally round and offer labour and advice. All glued together by shared experience and a lingua franca which is – boats.
Interestingly, many of the big decisions affecting society are made in round buildings. Our own Beehive in Wellington, the Capitol Building in Washington where the US Congress gathers to squabble – and many other seats of government – are round.
Many Maori whare were round and some other cultures prefer to live in round abodes – Eskimos and their igloos, the Mongols with their yurts and the circular tent of the Touareg desert nomads. All strong, portable homes, built for their environment and capable of surviving the worst weather – and quick to replace if they don’t.
Maybe cubes are easier to build – a good gang of builders can put a three-bedroom family home together in just a few weeks these days. The official solution to Auckland’s housing shortage is built of these: bulk construction of cuboid houses, miles of mediocrity which will end up as suburbs of uniformity. Peter, Paul and Mary’s prophetic 1970s folk song about “little boxes on the hillside” is coming true throughout Aotearoa.
It’s always interesting to see news reel footage of houses that have been swept away by floodwaters. They twist, rack and tear themselves to pieces, planks popping off and walls collapsing, until the roofs collapse and the house is reduced to a floating jumble of its constituent parts.
Compare these flimsy structures to boats which are built to withstand their working life coping with exactly those same forces that tear houses to pieces in minutes. Every day at sea, boats are crushed and pummelled by tonnes of seawater and most manage to shrug it off.
Boats have shape and form. They’re probably humanity’s longest unchanged design – since the first homo sapien figured out that a log was easier to paddle if it was sharp at one end. Since then boats have evolved through a wonderful array of shape and form depending on the waters they’re used in, the building materials available or the service they’re designed to perform. But they all have a staunch structural integrity that no suburban cube dwelling could ever aspire to.
Somebody once wrote that “a man who is building a boat is preparing to live – but a man building a house is getting ready to die.”
That’s probably overstating the case a bit – but it contains a germ of truth. A new boat has potential, it will cleave gracefully through the water, plunging and curtseying with each wave. She will live in and respond to the restless salt water that covers 70 percent of our planet. She will take her people beyond distant horizons to visit different lands and cultures. She has a potential for challenges, adventure and delight than no mere land-bound edifice can match.
A house will be plonked on a piece of land and stay there until it crumbles away. People will come and go until the house finally succumbs to rot and boredom.
Admittedly, many boats end their days rotting away in some backwater, but boats of quality lead active, adventurous lives and earn the respect and, yes, love of the people who sail in them. It’s hard not to love the vessel that’s keeping you alive.
Boats can be voluptuous and full – to provide buoyancy where it’s needed – or lean and sharp for speed. An experienced eye can assess how they will handle in a seaway, whether they’ll be wet; hard-mouthed and cranky – or sea-kindly and soft-riding.
But a house is just a house. An assemblage of flat walls subdivided into rooms for sleeping, eating and toileting. Plants can be put in the ground around them to act as a disguise – but a box is a box.
They may be built with a view – but that soon palls when compared with the ever-changing vista that living in a boat brings – tides come and go, dolphins chuff nearby, gannets plunge into the sea and emerge seconds later with fish flapping in their beak. The weather is a slide show of clouds and sea that goes largely unnoticed by house dwellers.
Living space is intimate – but who needs another 1.5m of head space hanging over them or room to swing a cat? Life is lived outdoors where headroom is infinite. Sleeps aboard are generally sound, lullabied by the laps of wavelets on the waterline. Things that no quarter-acre cube can ever provide. Postscript: Footage after the Japan tsunami showed houses flattened, smashed and pulverised – many with an intact boat perched on top of them. I often wonder whether the crews stayed with their vessels for the ride; several seconds of surfing exhilaration and sheer terror until the wave subsided and left their boats high and dry. BNZ