Whether it’s for a vacation getaway or as a second home, houseboating in Kentucky, with thousands of miles of waterways, is very popular. Kentucky is also known as the “houseboat manufacturing capital of the world” and home to the inventor of the houseboat as we know it today
When P.J. and Gordon Burkett married in 1967, Gordon typed an addendum on the bottom of their marriage certificate. It read: “Thou shalt love the water forever and ever.”
Gordon is just joking about the addendum, but it is definitely an ongoing joke between the couple you would pick up on immediately upon meeting them, particularly if you heard the Burketts talk about their lifelong love for the water and for boats—houseboats in particular.
“Houseboating is like living in a small town in the years before air conditioning and television, when everyone sat on their front porch and said hello,” says Gordon.
“When you are tied closely together on the marina, people sit and talk to each other, especially on the weekends. At home, you wouldn’t think about just walking through someone’s door and starting talking. But that’s the way it is on houseboats. It’s like it was years ago, before everyone closed their doors and turned on their TVs. Houseboating has brought that community back.”
It has also brought the Burkett family closer together. Daughter Kim Webster, her husband Troy, and their two children, Emma and Sammy, are regular visitors.
“My favorite time on the boat is when our daughter, her husband, and our two grandkids come, and we go out on water together as family. We find a secluded cove with a waterfall and spend important, quality family time together. I fish with my son-in-law, play with my grandchildren, and talk with my daughter,” says Gordon.
“Family is, of course, first and foremost,” adds P.J. “It is also important to be able to enjoy the many friends we have met through our houseboating experience. These are not just friends during the boating season. They are year-round friends.”
Regular houseboaters Scott and Lynne Hewson and their children, Whitney and Clay, recall similar experiences aboard their boat, the ScottLynneYard.
“My best memories are having all the family at the lake together from parents to cousins,” Scott says. “My sister has a houseboat, too, and we have kids from age 15 to 23. When we all get together, the kids water ski, Jet Ski, and swim. The adults visit and relax. We have a bunch of people, and everyone has a good time.”
Scott, a pharmaceutical representative, says the lake is the perfect getaway from the busy day-to-day pressures.
“The lake is a safe, fun place,” he says. “The kids have their home friends and their lake friends. The kids at the lake just meet up and get to know each other. There is a constant turnover of kids on the boat.”
Both families are drawn to Lake Cumberland, a favorite for houseboating, with its more than 100 miles of water and 1,200 miles of shoreline. But scenic as it is, Lake Cumberland isn’t the only choice. With 89,400 miles of rivers and streams, Kentucky has more running water than any other state except Alaska. Kentucky also has 19 reservoirs that are more than 1,000 acres in size, not to mention all the smaller lakes across the state.
Kentucky—specifically Monticello—is known as the houseboat manufacturing capital of the world. The tiny community of 5,981 boasts six houseboat manufacturing companies alone. Two others are located in nearby Somerset, including Sharpe Houseboats, started by James E. “Jim” Sharpe, considered the “grandfather of houseboats.” (Read more about Jim Sharpe in below sidebar.) Still more houseboat manufacturers are scattered throughout the state.
Building a houseboat is akin to building a custom home except that there is no lot. Sharpe has built houseboats for people in virtually every state as well as Brazil and the United Arab Emirates. Most of their clients come from out of state.
The process starts with flat pieces of aluminum cut to size. The pieces are welded together and flipped over for double welding. The carpentry shop installs subfloors and cabinetry; then it’s on to plumbing, electrical, and the final finish shop. Along the way, a generator and sanitation system is installed. The entire process takes about six weeks from start to finish.
Today’s “average” houseboat is some 16 feet wide and 80 feet long and costs in the neighborhood of $250,000, but that neighborhood extends well over $1 million for some of the most elaborate boats, which also get considerably larger.
“These are luxurious floating homes,” says Chris Sharpe Girdler, a member of the management team at Sharpe Houseboats and grandson of Jim Sharpe. “Each is custom-built, and each individual brings his own taste to it. The houseboats have all the amenities of home. Many people’s houseboats are nicer than their homes.”
John Sturgill, chief operating officer of Fantasy Yachts, agrees.
“Our houseboats have everything to accommodate the luxury lifestyle—exotic floor plans, fine furnishings, extravagant woodwork, vinyl walls, leatherette ceilings, Jacuzzi tubs, outdoor grill areas. They are floating condominium palaces.”
Interestingly, however, most houseboat owners do not have high incomes. According to Sturgill, the average customer for Fantasy Yachts is a middle-income person, a small entrepreneur, who can afford a second home and chooses to have that home on the water.
Back at Lake Cumberland, the Burketts’ latest, and fifth, houseboat—the Majestic 2—certainly qualifies as a floating palace.
It has four bedrooms, including the captain’s quarters with a king-size bed, a spacious salon (living area), impressive galley (kitchen), two full heads (baths) with showers, and an office/work room with a computer desk, washer/dryer, and utility closet. Closets are numerous and roomy.
The galley includes a side-by-side refrigerator, freezer, dishwasher, and custom hardwood cabinets. There are three icemakers on board, including one in the refrigerator/freezer on the upper-level bridge. There is a walk-through suncouch on the bridge for everyone to relax, so the captain can join in on the fun even while the boat is moving. Central heat and air keeps the temperature perfect inside regardless of what is happening outside.
And speaking of outside, there is a folding canvas “Bimini” over the bridge and a 24-foot fiberglass top over the bar and entertainment area, so rain doesn’t spoil the fun. The Majestic 2 has a 15-kilowatt generator, twin V-8 engines, and a rear thruster, which pushes the boat sideways.
The boat’s name, Majestic, was chosen because that is how the Burketts feel about the view they see every time they go over the hill toward the marina.
Like most houseboaters, the Burketts didn’t start with a top-of-the-line boat. Their first houseboat, which they bought in 1973, was 32 feet long and 10 feet wide. “It slept six wall-to-wall so everyone had to go to bed at the same time,” says P.J.
In 1978, they moved up to a 50- by 12-foot houseboat they called South Wind, named for the warm southern breezes they enjoy on the lake. Like their first one, this houseboat was used.
“That was the only way we could afford them,” the Burketts recalled. “We would save money from odds jobs in a boat fund. As soon as we had enough money, we would upgrade. Fortunately, houseboats appreciate rather than depreciate.”
Their third boat–purchased in 1987–was named the South Wind 2.
“I tell everyone that is the most expensive shower I ever purchased,” jokes Gordon, because the couple bought the boat to have a shower.
In 1998, the Burketts’ “dream boat” became a reality. The couple had both been teachers with the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS), retiring in 1997. With money they had been saving, the couple returned to Sharpe Houseboats to build what they thought would be their last houseboat.
Gordon recalls the first morning he spent on the couple’s “dream boat.”
“I was sitting at the bar in my recliner,” he recalls. “I looked out at the water and looked around me. I felt like I had rented a luxurious condo somewhere. It was so light and airy.”
They wound up keeping the Majestic only 16 months, however.
One day, while Gordon and P. J. were away, some houseboating friends showed the Burketts’ houseboat to a couple from Arkansas. Later that evening P.J. received a phone call from the couple.
“They said they wanted to buy our houseboat,” P.J. recalls. “They had sold their houseboat on the Arkansas River and were living in a camper. They wanted a houseboat—a Sharpe houseboat—with a side hull, so you can’t see through the houseboat, and they wanted it now. I asked them if they saw a ‘for sale’ sign on it. They said they didn’t, but it was exactly what they were looking for.”
Within five days, the Burketts had sold their dream boat, and Gordon had pulled out a plan he had drawn for another houseboat. With the proceeds in hand, they were back at Sharpe Houseboats ready to build dreamboat number two, which they named Majestic 2.
Now when granddaughter Emma calls, her first question is which home her grandparents are at—the one in Cynthiana or the one at Lee’s Ford Marina. She prefers the floating home with the “quack quacks and waterfalls.”
“I come to your houseboat, okay?” Emma asks. And the answer is always yes—not just for Emma but for all of Gordon and P.J.’s friends and relatives.
JOINING IN THE FUN
You don’t have to own a houseboat to join in the fun. Marinas across the state offer houseboat rentals, from smaller houseboats to some of the most luxurious on the market.
To make a reservation, determine which lake you want to visit and call one of the marinas on that lake. Choose the dates you are interested in and the size of the houseboat you want. At most marinas, the combination of time of year and size of boat determines the rental cost. Naturally, rentals are more expensive in peak season.
With WaterWay Adventures, a company serving three marinas, renting their Marquise models from Monday-Friday is $2,467 in the spring/fall season, $2,984 in their value season, and $3,674 during the regular season. Other models are available as well. Rentals are available for Friday-Monday rentals and weekly rentals as well.
The Marquise is the company’s top of the line, sleeping 12 with six private sleeping rooms, a full-size sofa sleeper, two baths with showers, a kitchen, living room, satellite dish, top-deck wet bar, forward deck gas grill, patio tables and chairs, air compressor to inflate water toys, an outdoor shower, fly bridge, central heat and air, tunnel-style water slide, and an optional hot tub, among other amenities.
There are more than 25 marinas in Kentucky that rent houseboats. The best place to locate marinas offering houseboat rentals is in the Kentucky Getaway Guide 2004. The book is divided into four regions, and each region has its own marina listing. To obtain a copy, call (800) 225-8747 or go to their Web site at www.kentuckytourism.com and click on “2004 Getaway Guide.” You can order one or download an electronic file of the guide.
GRANDFATHER OF HOUSEBOATS
Native Kentuckian and self-described “river rat,” James E. “Jim” Sharpe is considered the inventor of the houseboat.
“Jim Sharpe is to houseboating what Henry Ford was to cars,” says Chris Sharpe Girdler, a member of the management team at Sharpe Houseboats and grandson of Jim. Houseboat magazine says that Sharpe is “largely credited as the inventor of the lakestyle houseboat.”
The seeds for his idea were sown from an early age. As a child, Sharpe spent most of his time by the river, “fooling with john boats.” When he grew up, the Somerset native joined the Navy. As he looked around the ocean, he saw barges with little wooden shacks on top of them.
When Sharpe returned to Kentucky, he founded Somerset’s first public swimming pool with his brother Bill, and then in 1949, founded Sharpe Marine, where they sold boats, motors, and trailers.
The Army Corps of Engineers was in the process of creating what would become Lake Cumberland. Sharpe looked around him. There were virtually no hotels anywhere close, so boaters would be forced to camp out. Sharpe thought people would enjoy having a boat where they could spend a few days. In 1953, Sharpe changed the name of his company to Somerset Marine and built his first houseboat—a 24- by 10-foot steel hull, flat-bottom with a scow bow.
“I started building one boat at a time with a little cabin,” Sharpe recalls. “They had a steel hull with an outboard motor on back and a propane stove inside. Eventually they had propane lights.”
The size and complexity of the houseboats grew along with the reputation of his company, which changed names several times but always kept its core values of quality and customization. In 2003, the company celebrated its 50th anniversary with a huge surprise party for Sharpe, who has retired and passed on his business to his two sons, Joe and Chip, his son-in-law Brent Fothergill, and his grandson Chris Girdler.
The one thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the inspiration for his houseboats.
“People still love to get away from the humdrum of city life and business and their everyday schedule,” he says, “and be on the water where everything is peaceful and nice.”
LEARN MORE ABOUT HOUSEBOATING
If you would like to learn more about houseboating, Houseboat magazine offers some great resources. Visit their “Discover Houseboating” program at www.discoverhouseboating.com or read articles from Houseboat magazine at www.houseboatmagazine.com.
Their annual houseboat show is held in Louisville in February. You can learn more about this expo at www.nationalhouseboatexpo.com.
HOUSEBOAT COMPANIES IN KENTUCKY
For a list of 17 companies manufacturing houseboats in Kentucky, click here: Houseboat Companies in Kentucky