Real State

She Wanted an R.V. He Wanted a Sailboat. This Was Their Compromise.

Victoria Sass, an interior designer in Minneapolis, had long dreamed of owning an R.V. so she and her family could hit the open road with their living quarters attached.

“I grew up in Santa Cruz, California, with a Volkswagen van,” said Ms. Sass, 40, who had fond memories of traveling with her family in their mobile vacation home. She wanted her husband, Torben Rytt, and their three children, Duncan, 3, Irene, 8, and Walter, 13, to enjoy the same experience.

Mr. Rytt, who grew up outside Copenhagen, had other ideas: He wanted a sailboat.

“I’m from a boating family,” said Mr. Rytt, 45, a consultant for Nordic technology companies. “My parents met at a boat show, and we’ve owned boats since I was an infant. Every summer, we’d go sailing for five or six weeks.”

Mr. Rytt had no interest in an R.V.; Ms. Sass had no interest in a sailboat.

So Mr. Rytt offered a compromise: What if they bought a motorboat with a large cabin that held a kitchen, bathroom and sleeping quarters?

Think of it as an R.V. that just happens to float down rivers, he suggested, instead of rolling along roads.

Ms. Sass, who runs the design firm Prospect Refuge Studio, liked the idea, as long as she could customize the interior to make it as cozy as a woodland cabin.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Rytt to find their project boat: a 44-foot-long vessel from 1983 in nearby Red Wing, Minn., with a tiny kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and bunk room that needed some maintenance and love.

They bought it for $100,000 at the end of 2020 and moved it to their planned docking spot on the St. Croix River. The following spring, Mr. Rytt began taking lessons to learn how to pilot the boat, and they began their work to transform it.

They had the exterior of the boat repainted, changing it from maroon to sky-blue and white. They replaced the worn black awnings with new blue ones. Below deck, they tore out the grungy carpet, and Mr. Rytt spent an entire summer installing a new teak parquet floor. (There was existing teak wall paneling and cabinetry that they liked, so they cleaned and oiled the wood to refresh it.)

The more they worked, the more they realized that in such a compact space there was a reason for everything.

“Every picture and mirror on the wall was actually an access panel to something mechanical,” Ms. Sass said. “So if you replace something, it has to be replaced with something of the exact same size, which can be frustrating. It’s like every piece of trim is interconnected. Even the wallpaper is integral to the boat.”

Nevertheless, she was adamant about replacing the art on the walls. She was more flexible in the bathroom, where she kept the existing wallcovering, but recruited Kelsi Sharp, a graphic designer and sign painter, to give it tidy maroon-and-blue stripes.

For the kitchen, she worked with Kristen Falkirk to produce handmade black and mint-green ceramic tiles to resurface the counter and backsplash, giving the space a little wabi-sabi appeal.

For lighting, Ms. Sass mixed Danish nautical lights with a few designer favorites, including Rotonde X ceiling lamps with fabric shades from Roman and Williams Guild, which she mounted in the living room.

To furnish the boat, she mixed upscale pieces with budget finds, blasting everything with color and pattern. In the living room, she covered an Ikea sectional sleeper sofa with blankets from OddBird, piling on patterned pillows from Caravane, Goodee and St. Frank. For the floor, she bought a cushy wool rug from Beni Rugs.

“It’s super shaggy, which is totally impractical for a boat,” she said. “But I just think it’s fun.”

Because they were limited to working on the boat only in warmer months, it took three years to complete the overhaul, at a cost of about $250,000. They rechristened their vessel Freya, a play on the name of the Norse goddess Freyja that they hope is easier for non-Scandinavians to pronounce.

Now they use the boat not only on weekends, but also for multiweek voyages on the Mississippi River, traveling between river towns. It’s not quite the same as seeing sights from an R.V., but the whole family has fallen in love with life on the water. “Some days we just anchor out in the river, to get away from it all,” Ms. Sass said.

She no longer yearns for an R.V., and Mr. Rytt has abandoned all thoughts of a sailboat.

“The funny thing is that I actually prefer this over a sailboat,” he said. “It’s one of those things I don’t think I can ever get enough of. I could spend an infinite amount of time on this boat.”

Living Small is a biweekly column exploring what it takes to lead a simpler, more sustainable or more compact life.

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