Previously ivory with aluminum trim, Nomad now sports soothing gray-green paint and warm cedar woodwork; the pop-up holds a sleeping loft and the upper deck features Adirondack chairs and a firepit.
A mid-century houseboat anchors a former helicopter pilot on Rangeley Lake.
By Jesse Ellison
Photographs by James R. Salomon
According to Rheanna Sinnett, driving a houseboat is not unlike flying a helicopter. “There’s a mechanical element to it that overlaps,” she says. “Conceptually, a lot of things are similar, like anticipating what you need to do to maneuver. And being a Navy helicopter pilot — 90 percent of it is over open ocean with nothing in sight. Rangeley is a big lake, so it’s very reminiscent of deployment flying.”
Sinnett would know. She flew helicopters for 11½ years while on active duty in the Navy. She’d followed her father into the military after spending her childhood moving from base to base. Rangeley Lake, where her parents began vacationing when she was 2, was the one constant. Her folks retired there in 2005 and eventually started a small vacation rental and guided tour business. In 2014, Sinnett joined them to help out. Still a member of the reserves, she spends winters fulfilling her military requirements. But after a 2016 deployment to Germany, and several years of lusting after tiny houses, she decided it was time to put down some tiny roots.
In 2018, Sinnett’s father came across Falmouth boatbuilder Rick Keith, who makes what he calls “EcoCat Power Catamaran Trailerable Floating Tiny Houseboats,” like his own 28-foot Shanty Cat. “I immediately fell in love with it,” Sinnett says. “My dad was like, ‘How can we get one of these boats and make your mom understand there’s a reason for it?’ In the end, they opted to purchase a 1968 Thunderbird Drift-R-Cruz houseboat and hire Keith to renovate it, thinking this would be a quicker, more cost-effective route. It wasn’t. “If we get a second boat, we’ll have Rick do it from scratch,” Sinnett says with a laugh.
While most houseboats are designed for leisurely cruises, the 34-foot Thunderbird was built for speed and strength. Sinnett estimates it can zoom around the lake at upwards of 35 knots and old advertisements show it pulling six groovy water-skiers fanned out in a line in its wake. But the interior — with its faux-wood paneling and avocado-green Formica countertops and cabinets — appeared to have been untouched since those airbrushed days. Keith agreed to let Sinnett work alongside him during the renovations, allowing her to save money, become better acquainted with her boat, and help with the day-to-day decision-making.
ABOVE Beyond the kitchen is the boat’s original helm station and captain’s chair. LEFT Between the loft, an aft chaise lounge, and a forward settee — upholstered in patterned fabric from Sinnett’s grandmother — the boat sleeps four. The white-pine doors conceal a bath and closet. RIGHT A former Navy helicopter pilot and current member of the Navy reserves, Rheanna Sinnett is also a Certified Maine Guide, yoga teacher, and, as of last year, a houseboat captain.
ABOVE Beyond the kitchen is the boat’s original helm station and captain’s chair. MIDDLE Between the loft, an aft chaise lounge, and a forward settee — upholstered in patterned fabric from Sinnett’s grandmother — the boat sleeps four. The white-pine doors conceal a bath and closet. BOTTOM A former Navy helicopter pilot and current member of the Navy reserves, Rheanna Sinnett is also a Certified Maine Guide, yoga teacher, and, as of last year, a houseboat captain.
The two toiled for seven weeks last summer, painting the exterior, adding cedar and pine trim, and gutting and rearranging the living space. They installed a sliding cedar door to the foredeck and a sleeping loft with pop-up hatches that invite in the stars. For the interior walls, Keith found a beautifully grained, but inexpensive, plywood that they pickled nearly white, lending airiness to the space. The new kitchen cabinets are plywood as well, but epoxied to a super-high shine, as is the counter that stretches nearly the entire length of the starboard side and does triple-duty as a prep space, dining table, and desk. Of the furnishings, Sinnett says virtually nothing is new. “It’s a collection of things I’ve gathered over my entire adult life,” like hanging fabric lanterns from Vietnam, a Himalayan rock salt lamp picked up in Germany, and green Boho-print pillow covers purchased in Spain. “I think I bought the dish rack.”
When it came time to name the boat, Sinnett sent an e-mail blast to friends and family members asking for ideas. “Boaty McBoatface was a top recommendation,” she jokes. “And Steve.” In the end, Nomad — a “he” not a “she” — just came to her one day. Given her itinerant lifestyle, “it fit in every way,” she says.
After staying on board for ten days last summer, Sinnett began renting Nomad on Airbnb — she intends it to be the flagship for her new business, Just Add Water Floating Camps, which she hopes will someday encompass a fleet. Eventually, she’d like to live on board year-round, perhaps taking the boat south in the winter. This year, though, Nomad spent the off-season in a barn, which, Sinnett says, “hurt her heart.” Speaking in the late fall, she was already anticipating the thrill of setting him afloat again. During the renovation process, “you’re biting your nails and thinking this is costing so much money and it’s so much work, and it’s going on forever,” she recalls. “And then stepping onto the boat, letting go of the lines, going on that first ride by myself; I was in heaven. I’m getting goose bumps now, just remembering it.”