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.

Boating NZ - - Feature -

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

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