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Pedaling Afloat with Phil Thiel’s Tiny Houseboats

Phil Thiel of Seattle, Washington, has inspired a whole fleet of tiny human-powered houseboats in the United States, England, and Germany. He calls his quaint canal cruisers Escargots for their slow speed and sells the building plans for just $150. Each 18.5′ by 6′ houseboat fits up to three bunks and is propelled by a combination of pedal and solar power.

The solar drive isn’t strong enough to allow for direct solar power propulsion and the best way to move about is to pedal. At a pedaling rate of 50 rotations per minute, Thiel’s design can puff along at four miles an hour. Keep in mind that the average cyclist pedals at around 60 rotations per minute and professionals can do nearly twice that!

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Human-powered Floating Home

A cute and cozy Escargot canal cruiser

Thiel, now 91 years old, is a naval architect who started enthusing about and building human-powered boats when he was a teenager. Born in Brooklyn and now relocated to Seattle, Thiel has only driven an automobile twice in his life. Houseboats, though, he’s steered plenty of times.

His love of the water and sailing is clear in all he does. His simple website starts with a paragraph reminiscent of Thoreau. “To live near the water,” he writes, “and to not have a boat is probably against a law of Nature [and] masochistic.” He goes on to quote Edward Gibbon and Francis Bacon, tying their statements into the environmental impact of most water travel.

One of Thiel’s building plans

The $150 plans Thiel sells for his Ecargot designs are simple and accessible to anyone with a little bit of building experience. Most of the materials are affordable and easily found at a lumberyard and hardware store.

The pleasures of living in a Escargot are many. You can get your exercise and travel without leaving your house all without polluting. Imagine traveling each day along a calm and scenic river, pedaling yourself lazily through paradise.

Phillip Thiel writes on his website that since traveling by sail is “spasmodic” and solar panels are spendy, paddles, pedals, and oars are the most sensible method of water travel. Ruling out paddling and rowing as tiring and uncomfortable, Thiel concludes that pedal-power is the clear superior for environmentally conscious houseboats.

These pedals can take you anywhere water flows!


  1. http://thistinyhouse.com/2012/pedal-powered-shanty-boat/
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FGa8_NPITjg

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{ 19 comments… add one }
  • jim sadler
    February 25, 2012, 1:23 pm

    Check local laws but in my area i don’t think you have to register a boat at all unless it has a motor so you may not want solar propulsion at all. One answer is simply have a buddy tow you when you need to move against currents or wind.
    We have quite a few poor people living on sail boats in my area. Heat is the major issue here. Those guys take quite a beating from sun and heat. It is also next to impossible to move all of these sail boats when our frequent hurricanes smack us and we always end up with hundreds or even thousands of damaged boats.

  • Carl in SC
    February 25, 2012, 1:31 pm

    Very great idea from my viewpoint, but spouse might not enjoy peddling so much. I’m sure you could put two seats and peddles as is used on the paddle boats you rent at lakes. This would enable two people to peddle (paddle) and it would be less strenuous and maybe allow for faster propulsion. If someone ever makes these in kit form where I could just assemble I’d be interested in buying. But I don’t have the workshop to cut out the materials.

    • jamesskaar
      April 3, 2012, 10:00 pm

      it is set up for two, little hard to see in the pics, but is.

    • April 4, 2012, 7:59 am

      It shouldn’t be too costly to add an electric motor to help with pedaling/paddling either.

  • sesameB
    March 7, 2012, 1:34 pm

    Thanks. This was excellent.

  • HenryJ
    March 12, 2012, 9:13 am

    Nice Boat .Simple way to live .maybe a kite could be used to help power the boat .

    • April 4, 2012, 7:59 am

      A kite/sail would be great to add power.. along with electric motor, too, if you wanted

  • RCBill
    July 3, 2013, 5:10 pm

    Thanks for the Vid. The slow relaxed boating style looks very inviting. Thanks for the website. I’ll pursue the idea further.

  • Novotny Ingersol
    July 14, 2013, 10:27 am

    Are you the Phil Thiel of M.O.S.T Berkeley ca. 1958 ??? If so–best wishes. If not–still BWs.

  • Cal 20 Sailor
    August 27, 2013, 11:58 pm

    Nice simple design I wouldn’t mind living on at all, on the right waters. Bigger boats are moved about rivers and harbors in Asia using long sculling oars quite easily, even by small women and children who know how to use them correctly. And the new breed of electric motors are a powerful improvement over the old Minnkota trolling motors. There certainly seems to be enough roof space for a good solar layout…

  • Cal 20 Sailor
    August 28, 2013, 12:11 am

    After revisiting the plan drawing I see that the 4′ ceiling height would be a problem for long-term accommodation, unless pop-up or hatches provided more headroom, in the galley and head areas especially…

  • Virginia La Monica
    September 2, 2013, 1:46 pm

    I like this idea for so many obvious reasons. Would also be a great recreational boat to trailor to the local lake in So Cal as long as you didn’t want to water ski. LOL But to have one up in WA State and explore the area would be awesome!

  • AL-APL
    March 13, 2014, 10:51 pm

    As Eve said on Facebook, “bicycling, tiny houses, solar panels, and houseboats, COMBINED. Whoa, dude…”! This is awesome. I can imagine it on the Seine or on the Aude (or any other great river). Yes, that would rock! Eco-friendly & “free” gym coolness all in one! 🙂 Happy Days…

  • lewis esposito
    June 14, 2015, 6:53 am

    Can you tell me where I can get a twin cycle single prop drive unit as on the Escargots?
    Lewis from Wales

  • Daniel
    July 8, 2015, 5:50 pm

    I would love to see more pictures of this.

  • Ardi
    December 17, 2015, 1:53 pm

    Hi Jane, Sarah’s book sounds so aminazg and I think it will be next on my to read list! Thanks for the introduction to her! My Sept. has been to busy to enjoy. Too much going on and I can’t seem to get the to do list under control. Looking forward to that changing soon and getting a little me time back in my life. I am so excited to start reading some great books again! I even finished my cozy reading room .just havent had the time to use it yet.

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