Those words, in an email to a group of houseboaters, landed like an explosion amid an extraordinary few days on Yellowknife Bay.
Daniel Gillis, owner of a houseboat he named Big Blue, appeared to be declaring that he was abandoning the vessel and would let it sink overnight.
“I’ve been fighting a losing battle to fix the flotation,” he wrote. “Long story short, it didn’t work. Big Blue is floating more or less level at the moment, but only as long as I keep injecting compressed air into the damaged flotation.
“My generator was filled with gas at 3:30 this afternoon, and as soon as it runs out of gas, it will start the inevitable trip back down to the bottom of the bay.”
That message was sent earlier in the week. As of Friday evening, the wounded Big Blue – one flotation tank ruptured – was listing badly.
Gillis, also feeling wounded, had left the city. Cabin Radio reached him by phone on Thursday night at Vancouver Airport, awaiting a flight back to Ottawa, which he now calls home.
In that call, he said a fellow resident’s efforts to help save Big Blue had been interrupted by other people threatening to report that resident to the Coast Guard if they tried.
“There’s too much poison in the bay,” he said, referring to his relations with most of his fellow houseboaters.
“And now there’s more against me, because the houseboat is doing poorly at the moment and it looks bad for the houseboaters. Although it’s very strange that, you know, the best thing for the houseboaters is that everybody looks good and that everything’s tickety-boo, and yet they’re blocking somebody from helping me.
“It almost seems like they want it to sink.”
There are dozens of houseboats in Yellowknife.
In some respects, they aren’t technically in Yellowknife at all – and the tax implications of that are a whole different story – but the houseboaters are mostly known as a colourful community, in several senses.
Firstly, the boats (some are actual ships, others an assembly of parts with vaguely house-like qualities) add rugged charm and character to the city.
Secondly, most people prepared to live on small vessels in the bay, canoeing home in summer or striding across the ice in winter, tend to seem a bit different to residents who prefer dry land.
Some people become houseboaters by renting one of the vessels for a few months. Others, like Scott Mitchell, are founder members of the houseboat community and have called the bay home for decades. It is their way of life and, in that way of life, you do not head to the airport and fly across Canada if your houseboat is sinking.
When Mitchell read the email – “So, I’m leaving it all to you guys” – the words did not sit well. Gillis went on to conclude his email by writing: “I came to Yellowknife in 2008 with nothing. Now, I’m leaving with nothing.”
“When people just shirk their responsibilities, it’s heartbreaking,” Mitchell told Cabin Radio.
“The owner of the vessel has abandoned it. If you read that email, it says ‘it’s up to you guys,’ which is the houseboat community. Why is it the houseboat community’s responsibility? It’s the owner’s responsibility.
“There’s this whole concept of, ‘Oh, if this houseboat fails and causes an issue, then it’s going to affect the whole houseboat community.’ But it should not do that, because it’s one individual that doesn’t live here, has been collecting rent on that thing for I don’t know how many years, has not done improvements to it – and he can walk away and say, ‘Well, I tried to fix it, but I couldn’t, because I’m exhausted after three days.'”
Gillis regrets how parts of his email came across.
He acknowledges the impression it created of a man walking away – but he challenged that notion, even with Vancouver Airport’s public address system playing in the background of the call.
In setting out the efforts he and his son, Ben, had made to save the houseboat before sending that email, Gillis described two people racing to find a solution without a full appreciation for some of the tasks they were taking on.
Gillis has rented Big Blue for years as a tourism endeavour or accommodation for people moving to Yellowknife. The point at which the last tenants left the boat – and when Gillis became aware of problems with Big Blue – could not be immediately established. Following reports that it wasn’t floating properly, Gillis says he arrived on Saturday to inspect it and immediately concluded one of the floats was in trouble.
“Over the next few days, we worked at it really, really hard,” he told Cabin Radio.
“Ben, especially, was a champion. We rented scuba gear and he was underwater for at least two hours, in the freezing water, doing some very difficult work. We managed to plug the hole enough that we could raise the houseboat again by introducing air. We had quite a successful operation but we weren’t convinced that it was 100 percent.
“So we rented some welding equipment – and the welding was new to us.”
Trained welders may find the following paragraphs hard to digest.
“Although Ben had gained some experience with welding, we only found out too late that you cannot weld against air pressure. As the houseboat sank slowly, Ben was exhausted and welding, and welding, and welding this one spot, and no matter what he did, air holes would reappear,” Gillis said.
“That night, he woke up with extremely sore eyes and almost cataract-like vision because the welding helmet that we had rented didn’t work. So he had to use sunglasses, which were not effective, and so he really, really damaged his eyes – thankfully, not permanently.
“I took him to the hospital and we were so relieved to hear that this was going to be a temporary thing. He’s still suffering from it, but he’s much better now after a day or so.”
(If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, be aware that sunglasses do not work as eye protection when welding.)
“It’s one of the reasons why we just can’t continue on. We’re exhausted. We have responsibilities back at home. And so we decided that we would go, and I drafted a letter to the houseboat community,” Gillis continued.
“In my exhaustion, I thought I might as well make sure that the valuables on the boat were not going to waste. I thought I was being generous,” he said. (The line about “leaving it all to you guys” occurs in his email at a point where it appears to apply to all the equipment he’s leaving, but could just as easily be read to mean leaving the houseboat to its fate.)
“That was probably ill-advised,” Gillis said of his broader wording, “because what that’s saying is I’m abandoning the boat, and I really didn’t want to do that. That wasn’t my intention. I was only thinking about saving the items on the boat.”
‘Poor choices on my part’
Gillis insists he wants to find a way, even from Ottawa, to keep the boat above water and get it to safety.
“All you can do right now is bring it into the shallows and just let it sit,” said Mitchell, assessing what safety might look like. “And then when the ice comes in the winter, go over there with an excavator and rip it apart.”
Gillis thinks there are other tricks left to try.
He says another houseboater had been in touch within half an hour of his email, starting a conversation that resulted in “two different ways that we can fix it permanently.” But he says that houseboater was almost immediately scared off by others on the bay.
According to Gillis, the person who had offered to help (he declined to name them) wrote: “Sorry, Dan. If I board your boat, my neighbours are going to call the Coast Guard. So now I can’t get involved. Sorry.”
Why would the Coast Guard get involved?
Mitchell says there are clear rules if someone has indicated they are abandoning a boat, and you don’t want to be anywhere near the vessel in those circumstances. (To be clear, Gillis did not identify Mitchell – in fact, did not use any names at all – in his account of how other houseboaters had reacted. Mitchell spoke with Cabin Radio separately, before Gillis had been interviewed.)
“I reached out to people to say don’t touch anything, because there’s a big liability ticket on your head if you touch anything,” Mitchell said of Big Blue.
“According to that email he was abandoning the vessel, right? Saltwater, you can go and salvage stuff. But freshwater, it’s a whole different story.”
It’s one thing to warn people that liability is an issue in this kind of situation. But Gillis is describing something significantly different – a concerted campaign by houseboaters to stop anyone offering assistance.
“Let’s just say that because of past events – and, I will venture to say, poor choices on my part – I gained the disfavour of a bunch of houseboaters,” is how he describes the effect on his relations with the community on the bay.
“It’s not like everybody’s against me, but there are enough people pushing back against the people with goodwill to make them second-guess their ability and willingness.”
Mitchell corroborated this assessment, without personally expressing any of those views, saying Big Blue’s owner “doesn’t have a really good reputation, I don’t think, around here.”
“But that has nothing to do with it,” he added.
Mitchell acknowledges there are “personalities” involved, but stresses that in his view, the main thing preventing anyone from going near Big Blue should be the regulations that govern how abandoned vessels are handled. “Everybody understands, I believe, now, that you touch that? It’s a liability,” he said.
Gillis, again, insists abandonment isn’t quite what’s happening, even if that’s the impression he gave.
“It’s not that I have completely abandoned it,” he said.
“Physically, I have. But I’m working really hard behind the scenes with this houseboater, and there are others who are interested in helping in various ways.
“Ben and I basically did 99-percent of the work to make it perfect but, because we didn’t know that important part about welding, it’s not 100 percent. I can pass on that information to whoever is willing to help me. It can be repaired.
“Once it’s proven that the houseboat is safely floating, I would like to sell it – and it won’t be for a lot of money, but I want to recover just the value of the valuable items on it.”
Coast Guard says risk is low
In the past few days, Big Blue has led a precarious existence.
Gillis heard that someone had been going out to the houseboat and putting gas in the generator to power the air compressor, otherwise the situation would have been far worse, far sooner.
“That is pretty generous of somebody, if they are in fact doing that,” he said.
Gillis also says he has contacted the Canadian Coast Guard. He argues that even if the float fully gives way, “there are no chemicals or any kind of biological or chemical hazards that go into the water.”
Jeremy Hennessy, a Canadian Coast Guard spokesperson, said by email on Friday: “On May 29, the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) was made aware of a houseboat that was listing in Yellowknife, NT. CCG has been in touch with the vessel owner who is aware of their responsibilities to remedy the situation.
“CCG has completed an assessment of the houseboat and continues to monitor the situation. The pollution risk is low.”
Friday also brought a brief scramble when emergency responders received a call suggesting someone had seen a bright light, like a help signal, being transmitted from a houseboat – possibly Big Blue. But that operation soon ramped back down after a fire crew raced over to the bay, took a boat out onto the water, and appeared to find nothing.
Beyond this week’s drama, Mitchell’s feeling is that the Big Blue problem was building for years.
In his assessment, the houseboat was poorly designed in the first place, the floats were old containers ill-suited to their task, and the owner was not prepared to listen to good advice from the likes of Dave Smith, another of the bay’s most experienced veterans.
“I didn’t have the luxury of spending a lot of money on my floats. I’m a house builder. I’m not a metal structure guy,” Gillis admitted.
“I’m not blaming anybody but myself. I just made the decisions that I thought were right when I built it, and I have done my best to maintain the place well, and I’ve had really happy renters over the years. This breakup was hard on that one float.
“We did our best, and we’re exhausted. And emotionally tapped-out.”