FEATURE – August 2014
By Denise Dowling | Photography by Nicole Wolf
A floating off-the-grid cabin becomes a summer isle for one North Haven couple
They may call it “The Redneck Yacht Club” or “Chateau Bathtub,” but Foy and Louisa Brown’s floating hand-built cottage stirred a wake of envy when its photo appeared online. “Someone come live here with me,” gushed one viewer while another sighed, “It’s like all of my dreams come true.” In fact, the cottage was supposed to be a getaway for other people, a rental to net extra funds. “But we realized that if you rent it to someone who gets snot-flying drunk,” says Foy, “you’re screwed no matter how much insurance you have.” The plan was moot anyway; once the house was finished, he and Louisa didn’t want to share. “I thought I’d have to fight Louisa to go out on it,” Foy says, “but it’s a fight to get her to come off.”
Construction was a decade-long labor of love punctuated by a string of curses from the salty Foy. First he built a float onshore, rigging plastic floatation tubs, Styrofoam, and pontoons as foundation. The float was then towed to sea, and he built the cottage above it, using mostly pine shiplap. If Foy unexpectedly needed a particular screw or tool, it meant a skiff ride back to shore. He toiled in the dark, after working at J.O. Brown and Sons Shipyard on North Haven. A family business started by Foy’s great-grandfather in 1888, the yard still designs and builds wooden boats with tools and techniques passed along five generations.
The home is an off-the-grid haven from work and island life, where being neighborly means you’re always on call. There’s a VHF radio onboard, but the cell phone only bleats when the house faces up harbor. “The best part is getting away from it all,” says Foy. “There’s no TV, no one to bother you—and no property taxes or permits.” “When you’re in your house, you think of all the things you need to do,” adds Louisa. “Out here, you can just relax.”
The cabin was complete in time for Foy and Louisa’s wedding night in August 2010. Or nearly ready: “She was pretty crude,” according to Foy. The roof leaked above their honeymoon air mattress. Foy MacGyvered a sheet to catch the rain, then added a rubber roof the next year. With nothing to hug the float, the structure creaked at night in tune with the waves. Foy built a cradle and sunk it with rocks; when tide ambled in, they hoisted the cottage over the cradle and released the rocks. Before mooring in Vinalhaven’s Perry Creek, when the cabin was kept nearby in Fox Island Thoroughfare (the strait between Vinalhaven and North Haven Islands), it broke loose from the metal weight mooring anchoring the structure. “We had to chase it down the thoroughfare,” says Louisa. “It was a good wind.”
Louisa ferries water out daily for a 55-gallon tank that supplies the shower and kitchen; barrels collect rainwater for plants and flowers. Two propane tanks power the refrigerator, stove, and hot water on demand. When the sky inks black, the cottage glows with candles and oil lamps while solar lights illuminate the platform. On Sundays, the couple grills on the deck, a tradition from when Foy’s father scooped the family onto his lobster boat for picnics on the constellation of islands in Penobscot Bay. They’d toast hamburgers and hotdogs over a driftwood fire, swim, and gather sea glass. For Foy and Louisa, the floating house is their island. Surrounded by a cathedral of spruce trees, it bobs in the cobalt creek.
Sharing a 240-square-foot space could fray any relationship, but the Browns’ schedules rarely collide. Foy leaves before the sun to “lobster it up,” then heads to the shipyard, and returns home by moonlight. Louisa’s skiff putters off at 6:30 in the morning for her five-minute commute to North Haven Medical Clinic, the island’s only healthcare facility, where she’s both office manager and EMT. She’s back at Chateau Bathtub by midafternoon, with hours of sun to swim the creek or row her skiff to land for a hike on Perry Creek Trail. In the late afternoon she’ll grab a book and sink into an Adirondack chair outside, keeping one eye on the neighbors: eagles, herons, seals, and nesting ospreys. “I love how the house spins in the current,” says Louisa. “It’s like being on a boat.” With swaying paper lanterns and barrels bright with black-eyed Susans, snapdragons, basil, and tomatoes, she created a patio garden.
Interior walls are pickled with a light stain and three coats of Polyurethane. Louisa painted the floor turquoise and the loft ladder area white “so us old people could see it better. Every now and then I’ll think what happens if I fall down the hatch,” she muses, “but eventually Foy will find me.” Foy added blueboard to insulate the walls, but he didn’t pad the roof because they like looking at the rafters from their bedroom loft, which features a driftwood railing and starry skylights. The Browns camp there from May’s thaw until November’s crisp. A gas monitor toasts it on autumn mornings; between the lamps and cooking heat, the cabin keeps warm at night. “But,” says Foy, “the outdoor shower ain’t that nice when it’s cold out.”
“I feel very sad when we have to leave,” says Louisa. “It’s like closing up a summer house.” The cottage is towed to North Haven and tied between two piers to shelter it from the wind and keep it visible. Some winter-gray Sundays, the couple fires up the grill for a picnic. Bundled on the deck, Louisa pines for May and wishes their island were year-round.
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