Perched atop 16 pilings, nestled in a cove in Barnegat Bay, sits a houseboat turned summer residence turned full-time home turned guest cottage. Appropriately named Bay Heaven for its spectacular 360-degree views, it’s now a family gathering spot year-round, where kids and grandkids vie for privileges. The only rule, jokes the current homeowner, is “Don’t burn it down.”
The houseboat was originally built in 1917 in Toms River, at the long-defunct Kirk Boat Works. Its origins are largely unknown, but two things are certain: It was always meant to be a house, and it was always meant to float. The houseboat never had an engine, so, in the early 1920s, when it was purchased by two sisters named Gorman, they had it floated north along the bay, about 10 miles as the crow flies, to their empty lot in Bay Head. There, it was secured to a bulkhead, and it has never left.
Why a houseboat? No one is sure, but David (the homeowner, who asked that we not use his last name) surmises it had to do with avoiding property taxes. “When it floated on its own bottom, it was cheap real estate,” he says. In the 1930s, it was lifted out of the water intact and placed on 16 creosote-treated wood pilings in its permanent location. (Creosote, David explains, is a material once thought to be indestructible in marine settings. More on that myth later.) Another major improvement occurred about 20 years later; the houseboat was connected to the town’s sewage lines. “Before the 1950s, the sewer system was Barnegat Bay,” says David. Eventually, the Gorman sisters sold to a local family named Witke, who spent 40-plus wonderful years living aboard.
What happened next is—well, kismet. David and his wife, Gail, Fanwood residents, had summered nearby for years, living aboard their own 44-foot motor yacht tied up in an adjacent marina. “It was our own two-bedroom, two-bath floating condo,” jokes David. Increasingly crowded with four children, the couple wistfully watched their neighbors, the Witkes, enjoy their spacious houseboat until one day they noticed a for sale sign. Says David, “I looked at Gail and said, ‘Is there any way we could do that?’” Somehow, they did, purchasing it in 1999. “I like to think that we saved it from falling into the bay,” he says now.
THE BOAT LIFE
First, the couple needed to rebuild the pilings and shore up the foundation. Because the houseboat was essentially suspended three feet in the air, it had begun to droop. “The foundation, the rack, had a swale,” says David. “We thought it was a goner.” After leveling the houseboat, they replaced the windows and doors, reshingled the exterior and fiberglassed the roof. “We kept the character,” he says, “and kept the floor plan.” Inside, the nautical theme is plentiful in its 1,200 square feet: The home features three berths (one with built-in bunk beds), two full baths (heads in boat-speak), a laundry room and storage area, a compact but full kitchen, and a surprisingly spacious living room and dining room. There’s even a wood-burning fireplace (hence the previously mentioned rule). A narrow passageway with floor-to-ceiling wainscot connects the spaces. Windows and bay views are, naturally, abundant.
The couple’s four children grew up on the dock—“the kids lived in lifejackets,” says David—crabbing, fishing and learning to swim. It was a carefree summer lifestyle full of fun memories, including one particular day when, as David and Gail ate lunch at the kitchen table, a power boat pulled up to the open window. “They ordered hot dogs and Cokes,” laughs David. “They thought we were a snack bar.” Wildlife is plentiful: crabs, ducks and swans, and a lone otter who once tried to take up residence in the rafters. A favorite sight, David explains, are the purple martins that migrate from South America each spring, flocking to the birdhouse he resurrects each April. A favorite day? Fourth of July, spent on Bay Heaven’s roof with family and friends, David says. “There are fireworks in every direction. Everyone’s head is on a swivel.”
The couple relocated to Bay Heaven full-time in 2005, a few years after David retired; they decided to build a house on the adjacent land in an effort to accommodate their expanded family. David and Gail stayed on the houseboat while overseeing construction, and, when the house was finally completed a full year later, Gail stayed put, clearly loving the boat life. “It was July,” says David. “Gail didn’t move into the house until Thanksgiving.”
Life was good until 2012, when Superstorm Sandy decimated the Jersey Shore. Bay Heaven took on 3 1/2 feet of water. The houseboat was still intact—it miraculously didn’t float away—but it was damaged severely. “Not only did Sandy beat it up, but shipworms got into the pilings,” says David. The couple restored the houseboat once again, stripping it down to its studs, and also eventually replaced the old creosote pilings with pressure-treated, resin-coated wood pilings. “Creosote is oil-based, and worms can eat right through it,” says David. For future flood protection, the couple also lifted the houseboat up another three feet, keeping it out of harm’s way, but also improving the already stunning views.
Sadly, Gail passed away in 2019, following a short illness, and David has kept Bay Heaven largely intact in her memory. The extended family, which now includes 11 grandkids, still clamors for time aboard, all year long. Gail’s memory makes it more sacred than ever, David says. “This place is our story together.”