Caught in the undertow

If internet reaction anything to go by, the nine-month saga of the conception, birth and execution of Paul Jepson's home-made houseboat interested a lot of people.

Each time we photographed it and wrote about it, the comments poured in - and a high percentage backed the elusive builder, who was sometimes sighted from a distance but never able to be pinned down by humourless officials or inquisitive journalists.

Indeed, his fame was partly based on the time he threw stones at and showered curses on a Nelson Mail photographer who got too near for his liking. He wanted to live his life, not to talk about it.

Unlike the shameless Nelson horse-and-cart man he has often been compared to, Jepson was not in anybody's face. He didn't seek to provoke. His only engagement with the public was to eventually paint a heartfelt but ultimately inaccurate message on one wall, or allow someone else to do so: "Life will go on long after money." Banknotes and coins will outlive us all - but we get his drift.

We have not yet reached the point where building yourself a boat is against the rules, nor where you can't muck about in it.

Jepson's initial error was to do his building beside the Boulder Bank, cunningly erecting an illegal structure on piles until he was ready to make it float, when it instantly became quasi-legal, or at least temporarily free of official heat.

Second, he didn't have propulsion or steering. Then again, neither does a simple barge, but this was enough to blur the line separating a boat from a structure when the court got involved. Third and most damning in today's world, he didn't appear to have a self-contained toilet of any sort. If he didn't take a bucket with him when he visited, he was in danger of adding a few dollops of human excrement to the large quantities deposited in the Haven every day by birds and fish.

So he had to shape up or ship out. The city council said so, and the Environment Court. Declining to do either, on Thursday he paid the price. His floating home was towed away to be broken up, making a pretty sight as it was pulled along behind the harbourmaster's launch on a wonderfully calm Nelson morning.

Nobody would want to see Nelson Haven become a squatters' camp. But wasn't Jepson's real "crime" nothing more than poverty? With a few thousand dollars, perhaps only a few hundred, he could have made something that suited the rules, with a little motor, a rudder, a toilet, and a flotation system that was more than old drums lashed on with rope. He could have fitted in. Instead, he made the floating equivalent of a tree house. It cost next to nothing. It upset some but charmed many more. Let's hope he got some fun out of it.

The Nelson Mail