The House Boat

March 7, 2009

By Roger Emile Stouff

When I was a lad, my father built a houseboat.
   It was a years-long project. He built it as he could afford the time and funds. He started it in the yard on the side of the house. I don’t remember – if I even knew at all – what he framed it with. Knowing him, it could have been anything, but I’m guessing cypress or oak.
   It would be 35-feet long, built on the style of a bateau hull, just like his 12-foot boat built in 1962. I can’t say I even remember the frames coming up. In my earliest memory of it, the hull was planked with thick plywood and at least a roof of the cabin on. If memory serves, the rear deck was about six, maybe five feet long, the front maybe six.
   It took years, like I said. It sat there, like Noah’s Ark, on thick wooden beams to keep it off the ground. My buddy and I used to leap from its up swung bow playing superheroes. He had fiberglassed, with cloth, the hull and applied a little sand to the deck paint for traction. Now and then, when he could, he’d go build something on it. The yard was always full of boats he repaired for extra cash, mostly fiberglass boats, and he built wooden ones for people from all over the state and beyond up until I think about 1990 or so. The scent of fiberglass dust and fresh, hardening resin were almost a constant.
   Eventually, it was done. He and a couple of my uncles gathered up a bunch of round wooden fence posts and slowly rolled it to the bayou atop them, moving the posts cleared at the stern back to the front. Eventually, after years as a landlubber, the old girl slid quietly and gracefully into Bayou Teche.
   We enjoyed it for many years. He put a 35-horsepower Mercury on it, and it was slow, so later he put a 75-horsepower Chrysler engine on it, and it wasn’t quite so slow. We’d moor at the mouth of Sawmill Bayou in Grand Avoille Cove, sometimes in Lake Fausse Pointe.
   Out there, on the lake of my ancestors, it was a world with dew still on it, as Norman Maclean put it. We had a small electric generator of dubious origin, and we often towed the little boat so that Dad and I could take off and fish. Usually my grandparents came with us. We’d tie off between two cypress trees, and draw gawkers. I suppose it was because Dad’s cabin boat looked so…different. A bateau hull, elegant in his own design, it was unusual.
   I’ll never forget when my grandmother, then in her 60s, fell off the boat into Sawmill Bayou. Dad was already rushing to get her when she popped up out of the water with some long wooden object in her hand.
   “Look what I found!” she exclaimed as we helped her back aboard.
   To this day, I don’t know what it was: About three feet long, with wooden “teeth” like small pyramids, descending in size from one end to the other. It was perhaps four inches wide and two thick. It had no visible areas where it might have been attached to some larger mechanism. We sent photos to universities and museums and could never get a clear answer on what it was. It remains a mystery today where it sits in my back room, and every time I stumble on it while looking for something else, I can see Faye Stouff pop out of the water of Sawmill Bayou with her eureka declaration.
   The lake and cover were deep back then, and when I recall of its majesty it makes me sad. Sad, as does that old house boat that was constructed in the yard in spare time and with spare change.
   When I was a teen my father let me take it to the lake, and we spent a day or two out there. On the way home, I needed to go check something on the engine and let a buddy drive. As I was at the stern, the bow suddenly catapulted upwards, and I rushed forward to find water rushing in from a fist-sized hole in the bottom, right where the planking began its upward sweep. I stuffed a few rags in and we throttled the old girl up to keep her nose high until we got home.
   Then, of course, I had to tell my father.
   He was working at the church, he and the family minister building Little Pass. I confessed, and took the blame, claiming to be at the wheel when it happened. Since he was in church, I was spared the tongue-lashing, and by the time he got home, he had calmed enough to not raise too much tarnation with me.
   We kept it behind the house, and would fish off the back deck, like a wharf. It was a big, wide craft, but graceful despite its bulk, easy to maneuver, quick to obey. Unlike boats that float more from habit than anything else, my father’s boat stayed dry and sound and never, ever leaked even after he patched the hole we put in it that day.
   After my grandfather passed away, and sometime in my late teens, he sold the boat to one of my cousin’s husbands. I don’t know what happened to it after that. I’d like to think it’s still out there, somewhere, but probably not. It was quite a vessel, and that it was built by his own hands made it even more so.
   When Longfellow wrote, “She floats upon the river of his thoughts,” I at first wondered if he meant a woman, a boat, or both. Many years after first reading those words, I think he meant the boat. Or both, because we call boats “she” don’t we? She floats upon the river of his thoughts.
   There were bigger, more ornately adorned, expensive and lovely craft; since my days in my father’s old bateau-hulled cabin boat I’ve seen some fabulous wooden boats. But that old cabin cruiser will always hold the most special place in my heart, and on the river of my thoughts.