Story and photos by Diane Slawych

When Vincent van Loon lived on a houseboat in Amsterdam, he often encountered questions from passersby. “How do you get your water and electricity?” they would ask, or “Is it cold, damp and dark onboard?”

After a while, van Loon thought up a way to satisfy people’s curiosity – he opened a houseboat museum. That was 20 years ago and today the Hendrika Maria, as the vessel is called, continues to get a steady stream of visitors.

The boat, with geraniums and other potted plants on its deck, is located on the Prinsengracht canal in the central Jordaan district. A sign outside beckons visitors to “See a houseboat inside.”



The interior of the houseboat, with a reproduction of a Van Gogh painting above the sleeping quarters
The interior of the houseboat, with a reproduction of a Van Gogh painting above the sleeping quarters

Living on a houseboat is not as primitive as some people think. Residents have all the typical services of those living on land – including electricity, gas, water and phone. Some are surprised to find the interior is not as cramped as they expected. This ship is 23 metres long by 4.5 metres wide (about 75 by 15 feet) and offers an interior living space about equal to the size of an average Amsterdam apartment.

The Hendrika Maria was built in 1914 and started life as a working freighter that transported mainly timber, sand and gravel. In 1967 the vessel was transformed into a houseboat and was occupied until 1997. Then, in 2008, several areas including the deckhouse, kitchen, living room, sleeping nook and the bathroom were restored to their original state. No one lives here now, as it functions strictly as a museum.

Entrance is from the stern, down five steps into the deckhouse where the skipper and his family once lived. There’s a hand pump above the sink that was used to pump drinking water from the water tank.

Next is a small kitchen and a cosy and authentically furnished living room with 1950s décor. The room is heated with a wood burner and throughout the boat are radiators connected to a gas fired central heating boiler.

The living room of the Hendrika Maria.
The living room of the Hendrika Maria.

The space under the floor is filled with insulation and tiles that serve as ballast, which helps the ship lie lower in the water and makes it easier to pass under the bridges.

Ships like this one require maintenance every three to six years as the iron hull is prone to rusting. Most houseboats have no engine and have to be tugged to a shipyard, where the hull is pressure hosed and painted. Amsterdam also has houseboats made of concrete, which float on a concrete base and require no such maintenance. They’re sometimes called “arks.” A third type of houseboat is a combination of ship and ark – and is referred to as (you might’ve guessed) a “schark.”

In a room near the bow, visitors can watch a four-minute slide presentation, which includes images of some of these other houseboats. Some vary greatly in appearance. One is shaped like an actual house, while another resembles a Mondrian painting.

In a city with lots of canals and a shortage of housing, it’s not surprising so many residents live on the water. In Amsterdam’s city centre alone there are 900 houseboats, a few of which are available for rent. For those simply wanting a glimpse inside one of these floating homes, there’s the Hendrika Maria – billed as the only houseboat museum in the world.

  • Carolyne L

    Your Nederland (Amsterdam, Holland) houseboat story canal living was on American CBS “Sunday Morning,” TV program showing in Toronto, today, Sunday, May 21.17, with Jane Pauley, showing the same Dutch houseboat pictures in your story…

    And then Sunday Morning presented a short complement of this B.C. Canada story link…

    http://www.ctvnews.ca/mobile/canada/freedom-cove-b-c-couple-lives-on-nature-inspired-floating-island-1.3421097

    Then back to a whole Amsterdam life-story… From making real wooden “klogs” clogs , to making cheese; an American wife with her Dutch husband, on their farm and business in Holland.

    Always enjoy your REM articles, Diane.

    Carolyne L 🍁