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Victoria couple turning B.C. Ferries lifeboat into floating tiny home

As housing prices skyrocketed after they sold a condo, the couple realized they would not likely be re-entering the conventional housing market.

A Victoria couple has found a unique solution to the area’s housing-affordability crisis — they’re converting a diesel-powered B.C. Ferries lifeboat into an electric-powered houseboat, a 200-square-foot tiny home on water.

Danielle Tate-Stratton, 34, and Toryn Sundstrom, 39, say they’re investing $100,000 in the 28-foot semi-enclosed lifeboat, called Luja, and hope it will be seaworthy in a year.

The plan is for it have a kitchen, dining area, bedroom, toilet and shower, and while it’s small, it will have more space than the couple’s former sailboat.

“It’s not a huge boat, but comparatively, it is huge,” said Tate-Stratton.

The couple met in 2010 while part of an equestrian vaulting club in which people do acrobatic tricks on horseback. It was a first hint that they both had different interests. They were friends for a year and have been partners since.

“We’re really lucky — we’re going on 11 years without a fight,” said Tate-Stratton. Living in close quarters suits the couple well and focusing on their complementary strengths keeps them happy.

“We’ve been through a lot,” said Tate-Stratton, who calls Sundstrom “the most even-keeled Buddha type person you’ll ever come across,” adding: “I’m fairly the same, so there just isn’t that much that gets us riled up.”

When Tate-Stratton decided the couple should live with and help out her now 86-year-old grandfather in the Elk Lake area, Sundstrom sold his condominium in 2015. As its post-sale value skyrocketed, they realized they would not likely be re-entering the conventional housing market.

The couple toyed with converting a bus, but after a few years experiencing the freedom of sailing, they settled on a houseboat.

“It’s a dream that neither of us shared when we met, but both of us sort of immediately cottoned on to,” said Tate-Stratton, noting her only caveat is that she doesn’t want to be crossing any oceans. She likes motoring around the Gulf Islands.

“My boat dream is to be closer to shore … and he totally got on board with that.”

Searching on and off for a lifeboat since 2017, the couple began seriously looking in January.

Sundstrom was “idly Googling” one day when in May 2020, he found a listing for about five B.C. Ferries lifeboats for sale on Craigslist.

“I still remember how excited I was,” said Tate-Stratton. Within days of finding the three-to-four-month-old ad, they purchased their future home for $5,000.

They’ve since covered over the lifeboat-orange colour with maroon paint and added walls, seven hatches, six rigid solar panels, windows and perimeter walkways.

Tate-Stratton, a graphic designer, is planning the customized interior, including an induction oven and recycled paper resin countertops, while Sundstrom, a machinist, is working on everything from the steering to the power system.

Someone else could do the renovation more cheaply with less expensive appliances and finishes and environmentally friendly elements, she said, but “this is our home.”

The boat is moored at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club in North Saanich. In the summer, when it’s hauled out for work, they use the Van Isle Marina yacht park.

As the renovations progress, the couple is awaiting delivery of 16 200-amp-hour batteries — 12 for the 48-volt engine system and four for the 12-volt system house.

They also have more framing and inside walls to erect and tiling to do. Amongst the more novel approaches, they are planning to use Havelock wool as insulation and will install a recirculating shower to re-use water.

The two have a marine electrician overseeing their work and have consulted with marine engineers, but have endeavoured to do the rest themselves. “We both love a project and we love all the research and we love to doing it and trying it,” said Tate-Stratton. “It’s totally about the journey.”

That journey has included a few lessons: They’ve had to tear out and redo the side walls, the windows at one point didn’t fit, and after painting the vessel blue, they changed their minds and repainted it maroon.

Tate-Stratton can’t remember ever wanting a conventional life.

She attended a private school in Victoria where she felt success was defined as becoming a doctor or lawyer, and not the interior- and graphic-design professions that intrigued her. Upon graduation, she had to “unlearn” those concepts and redefine happiness and success based on her own desires and values, she said.

“I have never wanted kids and Toryn was also on board with that … so I don’t think we ever thought, ‘OK, well we better get a place that’s big enough for our expanding family’ because we knew that wasn’t something we ever planned to do,” said Tate-Stratton. “So it was like, what else can we do?”

Family members’ reactions to the couple’s “big dreams and crazy projects” range from envious to supportive, said Tate-Stratton, adding her grandfather can’t wait to join one of Luja’s first cruises.

Once they finish building Luja, they plan to cruise the Gulf Islands and one day maybe the canals of Europe.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com