Downtown, West Side
September 19, 2022
When someone says they’re living on the Mississippi River, they really mean along the river. The few who truly do live on the Mississippi are folks who live in boats, especially year-round. In Saint Paul, you’ll find these folks in one of two places—Watergate Marina on the far south end of Highland Park or the St. Paul Yacht Club on the West Side, on Harriet Island, across from Downtown.
While numerous Minnesota boat owners spend a night or two aboard their vessels, few stay beyond that. Rare indeed are those whose primary residence is a boat. Colloquially, they’re known as liveaboards and there are 15 of them at the St. Paul Yacht Club.
Barbara Haake and Truman Howell piloted the Trubador and docked it at the St. Paul Yacht Club for the first time on October 30, 1994. Aside from periodic excursions up and down the Mississippi River each year and a rare trip to the Minnesota, Trubador has been moored there ever since.
Though still liveaboards, Barbara and Truman have spent part of the winter in Florida since about 2018.
The adventure of Barbara, Truman and Trubador began several years earlier, in 1988, with Truman’s divorce from his second wife. As Truman told it, “She got the house, I got the shaft, which was the boat.” Truman has lived on the Mississippi since then, first on that craft, the “Howell-e-luyah.” It was docked at the St. Paul Yacht Club and, though smaller than Trubador, it “was very comfortable. It was nice.”
Barbara and Truman met in 1989 through a mutual friend and began spending time together. That’s how Barbara learned that Truman’s only home was his boat. Although Barbara also owned a boat, she was stunned to discover that Truman — and others — lived on their crafts at the Yacht Club all year, including through the long, snowy, below-zero winters. In fact, Barbara still seemed incredulous about it. “Never would anybody that’s living in any suburban area, except if you’re in downtown Saint Paul, you would know that there’s a marina that people live in the Minnesota winters.”
After living together on Truman’s Howell-e-luyah for a few years, Barbara and Truman went about getting a larger craft. For one thing, Barbara wanted her own clothes closet and a bigger galley (kitchen.) Both agreed they could use a touch more space for entertaining and overnight guests. They opted for a vessel called a Florida Bay Coaster, described as part yacht, part freighter. With 1,800 square feet, including a lower level workshop and storage area, it has the space for them to comfortably live.
As an architect, Truman had the skill and savvy to design much of the boat, though both he and Barbara pointed out her abundant contributions to the interior plan. He finished the blueprints in early 1994 and handed them off to the boat builder in Escanaba, Michigan. For the next several months, Truman explained, he and Barbara regularly visited Michigan’s upper peninsula. “We would travel over to Escanaba about every other weekend to take a look at the progress and obviously, discuss details.”
As Barbara explained, “You can bring a boat in here (St. Paul Yacht Club) with nothing finished on the inside, as long as the outside looks like it’s finished, which is something that you can understand so that people aren’t seeing construction.” She admitted it took more than five years to finish the interior of Trubador.
From Escanaba to Saint Paul
With the hull and mechanical systems complete, Trubador was declared seaworthy and released to Truman and Barbara in October of 1994. They and some friends piloted it all the way from the boat works in Escanaba to Saint Paul; a journey of exactly 1,280 miles by Barbara’s measure.
“One thing you don’t ever want to do is go on to the Great Lakes in the fall. It was kind of a rough trip back,” said Truman. (Though that’s exactly what they did.) They navigated Lake Michigan from Escanaba south 300-plus miles to Chicago. Moving inland on the Illinois River, the next leg to Grafton, Illinois, where the Illinois and the Mississippi Rivers converge, was about 330 miles, and from there, it was about 600 miles to Saint Paul.
On the trip to Saint Paul, the waves caused an annoying but ultimately humorous situation. Truman explained that one of the beds, which was on wheels, rolled back and forth. “So then I put ropes on it because we had metal ceiling bar joists. And so I hooked the bed to the bar joists and here we go. This damn thing is swinging back and forth. It’s like there’s no way we were gonna be able to sleep in that, but we did ‘cuz we would stop at night and everything would be okay.”
The boat includes a unique mix of features for navigating both large bodies of water and rivers, Barbara said. “The single pane glass in the pilot house, the step up when you go into the thresholds. Because if you were out in the Great Lakes, you could have waves, you’d have rain, snow, etcetera, and you don’t want it to come inside the house.”
A V-shaped hull usually provides the most stability on the Great Lakes and other large bodies of water. That hull shape doesn’t perform well on the Mississippi River, where the channel is just nine feet deep. “On a river boat, you usually wanna have something that’s more flat bottom,” Barbara said, “so when you travel down river, you can tie it up in an island. So our (hull) depth is a five foot depth and it’s more of a flat bottom.”
Also unique to the hull design is that it creates a wave which actually gives the 72-ton boat a bit of a push forward, improving efficiency.
The lovely, intricately planned interior of Trubador has many imaginative features, according to Truman. Ubiquitous in homes and buildings but rare in watercraft, sheetrock walls and ceilings are one example. “And the reason is there’s vibration and there’s movement in most boats. And here there’s not a crack in the sheetrock because these RC-1 channels take up any vibration of the engines.”
Windows rather than portholes provide the views, which Barbara insisted on. “I didn’t want portholes, I wanted real windows and that’s why you see this. It’s just as if you were still sitting outside. And I know with 28 windows in the boat, because I paint them.”
The boat’s rich wood floors have an interesting story. They came about from Truman’s work designing hotels. “Truman got profit sharing at the end of the year from hotel projects,” said Barbara. “We were thinking, we’re gonna go to Italy with that 10, 15,000. Instead of that, I said, ‘We need flooring.’ Italy is on our flooring. That is what paid for all of these oak and then the pine you (Truman) wanted in the pilot house.”
Compromises and Adaptations
There are some minor drawbacks to liveaboard life, at least at the St. Paul Yacht Club, according to Barbara. “You carry your trash up the hill. You’ve got dumpsters for recyclables, for the garbage. Your car is a million miles away.”
Speaking of the car, she added, “I haven’t necessarily liked the fact that there’s no garage and I have to clean the car off all the time. Having to go that far when you bring groceries up and down, that’s not real convenient.”
Truman summed it up simply. “There’s a lot of walking involved.” And dust is a nuisance, especially on the unenclosed decks.
For most of us, a stumble and fall in our yard has only minor consequences. However, when the Mississippi River is your yard, a fall can be life-threatening, explained Truman, “That’s one thing that you learn very quickly when you first come here, is that you gotta be cautious because once you fall in, you are part of the elements at that point, and you gotta find a way out fast.”
A harrowing incident one March that Barbara described involved the swollen, swiftly flowing Mississippi, a neighbor and tree limbs that came to rest against the neighbor’s boat. “She was using her pike pole to try to push those logs away from underneath the stern of her boat and she fell in.
“I heard this word, ‘Help! Help!’ And if we weren’t here, nobody else would’ve heard it. I go out and I see my neighbor trying to push the trees away from the stern end of her boat. She’d fallen in the water, she had boots on, she had winter clothes and she was getting cold very quick.”
Truman came out and grabbed the woman’s coat to keep the current from pulling her under the dock and near-certain death. Meanwhile Barbara grabbed an extension ladder from the Trubador, and stood it up in the river next to the woman who, with help from Truman and Barbara, climbed onto the dock.
Like other Saint Paul residents, Truman and Barbara and the other liveaboards at the Yacht Club have municipal water and sewer services and Xcel provides electricity. Still, living on a boat rather than in a traditional home requires some adaptations. Potable water is stored in two 200 gallon tanks, and two other tanks each hold 500 gallons of diesel fuel.
An on-board electric generator gives them the freedom to leave the yacht club for extended trips. “We can stay out for a weekend, we can stay out for a month,” Barbara said, and added, “I can turn that on at two hours in the morning, two at night, and it keeps everything cold in my refrigerator. And during that time of two hours in the morning, two hours at night, you can do your coffee, your breakfast, your stove, everything, and then the same thing at night. So it is totally independent of anything on land.”
With insulation packed in the space between the hull and sheetrock and a built-in heat pump, it takes little effort to maintain a comfortable temperature in nearly any weather. “We can turn the heat pump on and we can maintain 70, 72 degrees in here, and it’s also a heat pump air conditioner, so it also does our air conditioning.”
An Incomparable Neighborhood
The uniqueness of full-time living on a boat lends itself to special relationships with the neighbors, Barbara told me. “When you’ve got your 15 to 25 liveaboards down here, there’s somebody that’s going to be able to help you immediately. It’s fabulous. The other thing that they’re such a good, honest group. They’re so solid. They’re like-minded people. They love it as much as we do.”
The liveaboards frequently gather on Friday evenings on one of their boats for what they call “Docktails,” which involves food, drink and conversation about Yacht Club happenings. And someone is guaranteed to host a party during Minnesota Vikings games.
Meet a Neighbor
After Barbara, Truman and I finished our conversation, she showed me around the Miller Dock neighborhood. We bumped into Andrea Johnson on Steel Magnolia, the boat she, one of her daughters and her husband share. Andrea happily agreed to talk but said she had about 10 minutes until she needed to leave.
Andrea and her husband Bruce purchased Steel Magnolia about six and a-half years earlier. “He grew up in Iowa and they had a lake house, and then he was in the Navy for 20 years and he said, ‘I really wanna find a way to live on the water.’ And I was like, ‘Okay.’
Although she lived in the Twin Cities for almost 30 years, Andrea knew nothing about the St. Paul Yacht Club or that one could live full-time on a boat. One day, she said, Bruce broke the news to her. “‘I was on Boat Trader. I found this boat. It’s a fixer upper, I think I’m gonna do it.’”
True to his word, he purchased the boat, “It was a big fixer upper, he bought it for cheap and we started on it six and a half years ago and we did literally everything top to bottom, inside and out.”
As renovations progressed Bruce began hinting that Andrea should move in with him on Steel Magnolia. “He kind of was dripping the idea ‘cuz he started living on it right away. I would visit and he’s like, ‘You know, someday we could live here together.’”
Andrea had trouble getting her head around the idea. “In my brain I lived in a house with four kids and I had a lot of furniture and bedrooms and things, a garage. And I was like, ‘What would I do with my stuff like my giant sectional and my king size bed.’ And so I just thought he was crazy.”
Family members, unsurprisingly, reacted with skepticism to their plan to live in the non-traditional dwelling. “My kids thought I was crazy. His kids thought we were crazy.”
That initial assessment changed, however. “Now they love it and now we’re their celebrity parents. People find out their parents live on a boat and the questions are, ‘What do they do in the winter? How do the toilets work?’ Those are the liveaboard questions we get every time. ‘What about the ice?’”
Andrea agreed to join Bruce on the boat but acknowledged that parting with some her possessions, especially mementos, was burdensome. “I was determined not to get a storage unit. A lot of people here have a storage unit and I said, ‘I’ll just keep more stuff, and then I have to go there and I have to pay for it.’ So I was—ruthless is the word—with the getting rid of things.”
Over her years on Steel Magnolia, her thinking about possessions has evolved. “Now we’ve almost adopted this minimalist lifestyle where things are just things and you don’t need ’em, they’re overrated. Getting rid of them was difficult, but also very cathartic.”
Andrea and Bruce’s rule is simple and strict: If you buy something new, something old has to go. “Whether it’s clothes or hobbies, whatever. He wants a new guitar, I said, ‘Well then an old guitar has to go out.’”
“You have to be kind of hearty to live here. There’s spring is always a crap shoot. Is the water gonna be high? Are we gonna flood?”Andrea Johnson
After the time and toiling they put into transforming the boat into a home, Andrea knows they did the right thing. “ I love it now. It was very plain before; it was very just white. It looked like a little trailer. It was a great boat, but it’s got a little more curb appeal now. Or dock appeal.”
Andrea’s mother came to cherish the liveaboard life as much as she and Bruce. “My mom had lived with me for a really long time and we were trying to figure out what to do with her. Well, it worked out so well that she actually bought the boat two slips down, so she lives here too. We keep an eye on her and she loves it!”
Like Barbara and Truman, Andrea admits life on Steel Magnolia isn’t perfect. Living next to Harriet Island Park can be loud, there have been occasional break ins and incidents with people apparently with a mental illness. But, she added, “It’s the kind of the price you pay for this beautiful skyline. I mean, we have a million dollar view for cheap.
“I like no yard work. I like less house cleaning ‘cuz it’s small. I love, love the nature of it, the wildness of the river. Even though we’re in an urban setting, it is unbelievable how many animals we see on a daily basis.”
Andrea continued, “There was a heron out here all morning fishing, doing his little dive. We see eagles every day. We see beavers, we see raccoons, Once in a while you see a fox, but so many birds. And so I have really fallen in love with the wildness of the river. And I never thought that would be a thing. I was a suburbs girl.”
Andrea agreed their neighborhood is extremely social. “All your front porches are kind of here and we’re all on the dock. It’s a small community. We all know each other. So it’s very social and it’s fun.”
As I walked through the Miller Dock gate and back to my bike, I contemplated the exotic and unique lifestyles of Andrea and Bruce and Barbara and Truman. As an admirer of photography, sunrises, sunsets, wildlife and socializing with neighbors, I undeniably saw the allure. Those pleasant thoughts skidded to a halt, however, when I gazed upon my bike and the completely flat rear tire. Fortunately, my wife Sue was able to pick me and the bike up, eliminating an eight mile walk home.