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Dave and Anke
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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Fixed Space or Flexi Space?

Lost in Flexi Space... our bed made up s'brd; guest bed made up port. Cozy.

This shell which we built, or which grew around us, 
has become as efficient as that of the river mussel, 
and has almost as little waste space.
From Shantyboat: A River Way of Life by Harlan Hubbard

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to arrange a boat's interior.

A)  Fixed Space -- Furniture and cabinetry are built in, each assigned a fixed role.
B)  Flexi Space -- Interior is left open, and may be used in many different modes.

Fixed Space, these days, is the most familiar to sea-going Occidentals. Dinettes, settees, bunks, galley and nav cabinetry, heads, lockers, etc.. They define the interior, and may provide important structural re-enforcement to the hull. At sea, a function of fixed furnishings is to provide hold-fasts, and reduce the distance one might be tossed about. Sea-going monohulls tend this-a-way, and for very good reasons. Sea-going multihulls (each hull being more narrow) might break either way.

At their best, they harmonize with the humans they serve, both functionally and ergonomically (Ergonomics - The art and science of fitting artifacts to human beings).

Not at their best, any failings are a constant annoyance and/or a major rebuild project. Especially in non-DIY boats, a fixed interior, designed for some hypothetically average client, often fails to fit the actual one.

Flexi Space is nothing exotic. It's essentially a space devoid of fixed furniture. Any room in which you can rearrange the furniture is a flexi space (though in practice, most furniture may as well be fixed).

A single flexi space might serve many purposes. A sitting room by day; a sleeping room by night. A galley, a workspace, a rumpus room. A pilot house? A cargo hold? Imagination and ingenuity are the only limits.

Among most indigenous peoples and in the Orient, flexi space has been the choice. It's arrangements are graceful, ingenious and economical. It allows living large within a small space. It encourages communal living in the best sense of the word.

Our boat, SLACKTIDE, lies somewhere in between.

We have sitting headroom in the cabin, with the exception of near the companionway, where we have enough full standing headroom for two people.

A fixed, strip galley runs thwartships at the forward end of the cabin (a galley box is more flexi). A drawer to port has a sliding cover (cutting board) that adds worksurface when drawn. Counter is at kneeling counter height, or we can sit on it, though we seldom do. Woodstove/heater to starboard.

The middle area is a 10ft x 7ft platform, cushioned by carpet with foam under. A sleeping mattress is folded up to port, like a sofa without legs. We sit or lounge on it by day; pull it out and sleep on it by night. To starboard is a fold up work table, hinged against the wall. When not made up, we cushion and lean against it. Several plush pillows are covers, stuffed with spare bedding.

The aft bulkhead presents a 'chest of drawers' in three tiers. Each has a lid. The lower tier is at seat height, when drawn; mid-drawers at sitting bench height; upper drawers at standing bench or shelf height.

This arrangement has been very comfortable, for us, and in most of our boats, we have tended toward the flexi side of things. Our barge hull has high form stability (doesn't toss around), and the hull is small and narrow enough to provide hand-holds a'plenty. While it can get rough where we cruise, there're always harbors close at hand... we never have to ride out a storm at sea.

We notice that some of our... *AHEM*... older friends have trouble being on the floor. They tend to gravitate to one of the pull out seats. I wonder if flexi-space will keep us flexible? A while back, I saw a picture of a nice, older Japanese couple, kneeling comfortably in traditional fashion and talking to a nice young man (also kneeling). Turned out to be Mr. and Mrs. Emperor of Japan, talking with one of the Fukushima workers!

Harlan and Anna Hubbard also chose flexi space in their SHANTYBOAT.

They had standing head-room throughout. A bit of fixed cabinetry, mostly high or in the corners, was custom made to house particular gear. Chests and chests-of-drawers doubled as seats, working counters and supports for a table. At night, a bed was rolled from under the foredeck. Generous storage for canned goods from their summer gardens was provided under the cabin sole.

The Hubbards spent many years drifting the Ohio, Mississippi and into the Bayou country. Gifted in music and the arts, they entertained many from the 'upper crust', whom they delighted with their simple but ingenious home. In later years, their house at Payne Hollow was outfitted in similar fashion. Before and after their deaths, it became a beloved examplar of simple living on a small footprint.

One last observation; tent structures aside, most of the small flexi spaces I've ever seen have large windows. Uninhibited by furniture, these open the interior into the wide world, giving light and an expansive feel to the most diminutive of homes.

So fixed or flexi? Like so much in boating, it's a very personal decision. Both have their attractions. I guess I'd say that if you're torn, start with flexi... you can always fix it later.

 This post appears as a guest column at


  1. A delight to go through these posts as they are streaming out of the DZ cranium like the Orinoco in rainy season. Can you imagine a bargeboat of 12 X 48 flexi-spaced? Or half built-in and half-flexi? Look forward to more posts. I see a day not too distant when your archives pull more daily traffic than your current post. Thanks for the raw knowledege too. Inspirational to the commoner looking for a truly secure, paid off home.

  2. Here's another flexi-space advantage:

    Since the functional furniture (galley-boxes, bedding, folding chairs, etc) is moveabe, you can enjoy all the comforts out on deck, in the tender or on the beach.

    A moveable feast!

  3. Can you explain a little how and where you stow your bedding during the day? Also, I'm _very_ interested in learning more about your wood stove--visible in the first photo. Can you tell us more?

    1. Our bedding is primarily a double wide, self-inflating mattress that Cabela's carried for a short while. Since the system worked out, we may switch to close cell foam, if and when this one wears out.

      Since the air intakes can be bought for replacement, I've always thought it would be an easy(ish) matter to build them, custom, to fit whatever space.

      During the day, we fold the mattress in half as a 'sofa' against the port wall (beer pic). The bedding (dbl 'van' sleeping bags) are folded in thirds on the bottom, with a heavy comforter, in half, as a seat cover.

      Two single self-inflaters go in a fitted cover against the sbrd wall, and various pillows (stuff bags with extra sleeping bags are strewn about.

      BTW, we sewed up the pillow cases and mattress covers from upholstery cloth. They work great and let the bags breath and help maintain their loft, even over long periods. Pillows are versatile for various sitting arrangements. Heavy velcro closures work great if not stuffed too tightly.

      The stove is a little SKIPPY two-burner woodstove by Portland Ring Co (used to make SHIPMATE wood/coal ranges). It works really well, but we plan to build a four burner for more efficient cooking. It has to be feed every 1/2 to 1 hour, depending on draft, and we never leave it running overnight or while away from the boat. Wood storage (about 4 cubic feet) is in a bin to the left of the stove.

      We collect wood (small, standing dead spruce, mostly) with bow saws and spend about an hour a week on it, on average... a little more in rainy or cold weather, less while warm or underway.


    2. PS... SKIPPYs, LITTLE CODS, SHIPMATES and some others are being manufactured again for original or slightly modified plates. They're beautiful, and work well, but have gotten spendy.

      One contender for a wood range is the SHEEPHERDER from it's relatively inexpensive, and welded from mild steel, which should work better with drift wood (salt wood eats cast iron alive).

      -- DZ