The Boykins are privileged to have kept waterfront property on Gibson Island in the family for generations. However, their little slice of paradise is rather unique. It’s a 84-foot-by-26-foot, 75-ton wooden houseboat.
Summers on the boat were integral to the youth of the five Boykin children. Now under the stewardship of sisters Nina Boykin Tracey and Rebecca “Rebel” Boykin, the boat is a haven for their own children— who now range in age from 20 to 26— and a constant source of family fun.
In today’s era of super-sized beach homes and safety-conscious parents, life on a houseboat might seem unusual. But that wasn’t always the case. “When we were kids, lots of families lived aboard and some of them would even rent out their houses on land,” says Nina, a realtor who lives in the Green Spring Valley. “It was so much fun. We’re stunned, living near the bay, that more people don’t do it now.”
The sisters’ parents bought the houseboat in 1960 from George Mackubin, a founding partner of both Legg Mason and the Gibson Island Club, who had the boat built by local ship- builder William Lowery in 1928. Mackubin, who made his money on investments in Texas, called the houseboat Lone Star. Each spring it’s towed from winter storage to its mooring in the scenic Gibson Island Harbor, where it is the lone houseboat to be seen.
While life on the boat is rustic by some standards, Nina and Rebel describe a childhood that sounds idyllic. “We’d pack up the Ford station wagon with all five of us and all the junk strapped on the roof and live on the boat all summer long,” Nina recalls. “It’s such a safe environment, the parents let the kids explore.” Adds Rebel, a nurse who lives in Glyndon, “We just had to be sure to show up for meals.”
To get around any safety concerns, the children had to wear life jackets while on the outdoor decks until they were able to pass the parental swim test: a lap around the entire boat sans life jacket. It’s not surprising, given the heat of Maryland summers, that the Boykin kids learned to swim young so they could jettison the stifling flotation devices.
Dawn, when the harbor was calm, was perfect for water-skiing and morning swims. During the day, the kids played, sailed or worked jobs on Gibson Island. The top deck was ideal for sunbathing. Jumping off the deck into the water was a rite of passage. Everyone loved watching thunderstorms roll in and engulf the boat in rain and lightning. In the evening, the kids drifted off to sleep while their parents listened to the player piano in the living room.
And, of course, there were epic parties. “The party I remember being the deepest, shall we say, was Daddy’s 50th, when there had to have been 120 or 130 people onboard,” says Nina, noting the boat was sitting quite low in the water that night. “It’s a great venue for parties. People will come up in boats and ask how much it is to rent.” Surprisingly, only one person ever went overboard, a baby sitter who fell off a ladder during a party and was chivalrously “rescued” by a gentleman partygoer.
Before their parents died, the children vowed to keep Lone Star in the family and Nina began a tutorial at her father’s elbow, learning the many idiosyncrasies of maintaining an aging wooden boat. Lone Star is little changed from its early days, though a new, larger generator, boosted by solar panels on the top deck, allows for air conditioning on hot nights. Green before it was hip, the shower and sink in the one bathroom uses rainwater collected on the roof. The beadboard interior is cozy with a fully outfitted kitchen and butler’s pantry, five bedrooms decorated in bright, Lilly Pulitzer colors, a dining room— rarely used in favor of the outdoor decks— and a spacious living room. The player piano (lost in Lone Star’s one sinking in the ’70s) has been replaced by a television, though it’s used only for watching movies. Normally, the living room is the scene of lively games of charades.
Nina and Rebel can commute to jobs in Baltimore and be back on the bow of the boat in time for sunset cocktails. Now it’s their children swimming and motoring off in skiffs to summer jobs, or dropping in on the weekends, along with the Boykin sisters’ husbands. The close quarters and eccentricities of life onboard breed a closeness that’s lasted generations.
“It’s like living in a small house,” says Rebel. “No one has their own room or their own bathroom. You pay attention to what your kids are doing and you’re forced to interact.” Says Nina, “Our kids are like brothers and sisters and it’s because of the houseboat.”