By BARBARA BOWERS Special to The Citizen
When Rick Keith first visited in 1984, he camped his way down the Keys on beaches.
"I didn't even know there was a town at the end of the road," he said of Key West, and the island lifestyle that apparently made an impression. "When I went back to Maine, I started building catamarans."
By 1991, Keith moved to Key West, worked on charter boats, did inventive carpentry for homeowners like Michael Blades and Eric Anfinson, who prize custom-built, boat-like interiors, and began developing his boat-building business.
Along the way, he met his boat-building partner, Steve King, and they launched their live-aboard catamaran in 2004.
Their latest design, an Ecocruiser 50 catamaran powered by twin 9.9 hp motors, is located at #1 Sailfish Pier in the City Marina at Gararison Bight. But instead of looking cat-like with pontoons showing, its Deco-ish design is as distinctive as the streamlined excursion steamboat, SS Admiral that docked on the St. Louis Mississippi Riverfront, until eight barges broke loose from a towboat during an over-flood stage of the river in 1998.
The Admiral remained afloat after three barges hit it and there were no casualties among the 3,000 people aboard, but today, its steel hull is being dismantled for scrap, a repurposing code that boat builders and sailors live by.
"We work with what we've got," said Keith. "We come up with a solution for what materials we have at hand."
At hand, when Keith and King built the comfortable and environmentally low-impact cat, was wood and fiberglass, which stretches across its two sleek, enclosed decks, plus fore-and-aft sundecks at the second level.
First level entry is into "the mouth of the whale," Keith said, through two interior bulkheads with circular openings that reinforce the impression of ribs, and a design Jonah might have encountered inside the belly of the beast.
This first-floor living space has a wide-open floor plan -- 50 feet from front to back -- and features a Keith-painted mural of a whale on the floor. In the center, a replica of Captain Ahab's whaling dory is almost as striking as the exterior design; actually, it's mind boggling because here, a 10-foot dory, or skiff, sits intact (basically a boat inside a boat) with, of all things, a missing floor.
Now remember, two invisible pontoons are on either side below the houseboat, hoisting it two feet above the surface of the water. And hanging from the dory-room ceiling is a panel cut to fit exactly on top of it; if necessary, a plug of sorts for the hole, which was initially meant to be a bar, but...
"Fish of all kinds swim here -- no fishing allowed -- and an occasional manatee hangs out," said Keith, for whom a hole in this central room's floor is far more playful than disconcerting. "I placed an underwater light there for night viewing, but the deck opening's primary purpose is to suck air from beneath the hull and carry it through the houseboat 24 hours a day."
On houseboats, venting is a major consideration. The men wanted the independence of solar panels, and no air-conditioning. So the natural passive airflow of Conch houses is resplendent on both levels, where the entire stern is made up of sliding glass doors that open to easterly winds.
On the first floor, or crew deck, the primary living space features a kitchen that is anything but a galley: It occupies one wall of the spacious dining and living area. Appliances are minimal, though. No stove, just a hotplate and microwave. The sink is fiberglass, custom made by the boat builders, but the standard-size refrigerator is unusually big for a boat.
"I lived on the hook for years and became a one-pot vegan because of bad refrigeration," said Keith. "Only beer should be cold."
These days, the beer is cold, and the refrigerator and a 6-foot red table are where all the household action takes place.
As on most boats, clever storage is essential, and what looks like a table with expanding leafs is really a cabinet opening in the middle of the table for electronic device safekeeping. There is no cable TV onboard but Internet abounds, and one computer can project Netflix movies onto the roll-up screen in the dory room.
"The first movie screening was Moby Dick streamed from YouTube," said King.
Round ports, better known to landlubbers as windows, surround the houseboat, and are strategically placed at berths on both decks. Keith and King's retake on master boat-builder Nathanael Herreshoff's (1848-1938) port design transformed his self-draining ports into larger round windows that sport louvers, screens and plastic insets, which allow them to stay open in any weather.
Upstairs, the "Admiral's suite," with a full galley, stateroom, Jacuzzi tub and sundecks fore and aft, is King's domain. Keith resides in the crew quarters on the lower deck, where four futons in the dory room can accommodate visiting guests. Keith's "pod bed" is also down here, at the entry deck, across from the bathroom that serves the first floor with walk-in fiberglass shower, a copper fish sink that spouts water like a drinking fountain and a plank floor.
"Plank floors in the head and the galley area represent the parallel lines of the whale's baleen, its food filter," said Keith, of the ocean-going mammal that inspired this houseboat's interior, but not the next one.
"I'm designing and building a new 56-foot, four-masted shallow-draft sailing catamaran that comes apart for transportation by trailer, or it can fit into a shipping container to go anywhere in the world.
"I plan to sail the Mediterranean, but you can forget the ocean crossing," he said. "I want to get there and do the fun stuff."
Barbara Bowers is a Key West writer and host of a radio talk show about owning and maintaining property in the Florida Keys. To suggest a home to be featured in the Keys Homes section, send an email to email@example.com. Homes listed for sale may not be considered.