Jeannie Richter Conn and Peter Conn’s lilac houseboat, with shiny white shutters and a gleaming metal roof, stands out among the mostly white sailboats at the Penn’s Landing dock in Philadelphia. Fittingly, visitors are greeted by the mama duck Jeannie named Esther Violet and her three ducklings, who recently hatched in the Conns’ basil pot.
The home is perfect for the couple, whose love of sailing brought them together in 2007.
At the time, Peter was living on a nearby sailboat and Jeannie was commuting between her dad’s sailboat and her grandmother’s home in Delaware County. In 2008, once it became clear that they were destined to move in together, Peter acquired a dilapidated houseboat and got to work.
It was a mess, recalled Peter, who works in IT. “It had been in the marina for probably close to 20 years. The decks were all rotted and the inside was half-gutted.”
Through a series of renovations between 2008 and 2016, Peter transformed the boat into a 320-square-foot home.
“We lived in a tiny house before it was popular,” joked Jeannie, an ESL specialist in the Rose Tree Media School District in Delaware County.
For the new design, “we definitely didn’t want it to feel like a boat, because we had a sailboat,” Jeannie recalled. “We wanted a bed that you could walk around and free-standing furniture, something that felt more like a home. No nautical decorations — more beachy and Caribbean.”
That vibe comes through with their white couch, yellow walls, and white shutters.
Peter extended the back of the boat by 3½ feet to accommodate their queen-size bed, elevated to allow for clothing storage below. He built a kitchen, complete with a sink, small refrigerator, dishwasher, stovetop, and toaster oven.
“We are both anti-microwave, and in a tiny kitchen, we have tried to keep appliances to a minimum,” Jeannie said.
The round wooden kitchen table once belonged to Jeannie’s great-grandmother and is useful when they entertain. They have hosted Thanksgiving dinner and had parties with close to 20 guests.
Peter also installed a marine-grade bathroom, pushed out the walls, built a gorgeous cedar vaulted ceiling, and fitted shutters where sunlight streams in.
“The cool part is that we actually lived here through the renovations as it evolved,” Jeannie said.
The boathouse gives the couple flexibility to follow their passion to sail the world.
“From day one, Peter told me about his sailing trip to Panama, and I said, ‘Sign me up for that,’ ” Jeannie said. “By living here, we wouldn’t have a mortgage or the white picket fence, and we’d be able to go cruising whenever we wanted to.”
The pair married in 2011 on a beach in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and were inspired by the architecture and way of life of the islands. Four years later, they took a year off and sailed as far as Panama, where they spotted a lilac shack of a house that inspired Peter’s houseboat remodel.
Undoubtedly, the small space and location bring challenges. “Every space has to be functional and do double-duty,” Jeannie said. For example, the steps that lead from the front of the boat to the back are removable, and the space underneath is used for storage. “Maybe normal people have a mudroom where they come in and take their shoes off and put away their keys, but ours is out in full view.”
The couple have a storage unit where they keep offseason clothing and supplies that won’t easily fit on the boat. “One of the biggest challenges is that everything that comes onto the boat is either hauled on your back or in a cart down the dock,” Jeannie said. “The change of seasons doesn’t happen immediately, so it’s time for sweaters, yet you can’t get rid of your summer stuff.”
Winter brings its own difficulties. “The first winter here, Peter bought me Yaktrax — traction cleats for walking on snow — which gave me confidence that I wouldn’t slip on the ice and fall in the water,” Jeannie recalled.
And their neighborhood has changed, especially in the last two years. Their view of Camden now includes high-rise buildings, and Pier 4 overflows with visitors. They sometimes wonder how long they will continue to live solely on the water. But that decision isn’t easy. Challenges aside, the couple love their adventurous life.
“I have always loved living here,” Jeannie said, “living in the city and on a boat. Nature is all around. There’s so much wildlife. You can tell when there is a storm coming before there’s a cloud in the sky — you can feel it on the water as it gets choppy. With the metal roof, you can just listen to the quality and texture of the precipitation.”
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