Ann sang a familiar tune as the houseboat bobbed on a clear, calm stretch of the Colorado River southeast of Las Vegas:
"Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip "
It was a joke, of course. Gilligan and his long-suffering boatmates sailed out of a tropic port, not a lakeside marina in the middle of the desert. And there were seven of them, only six of us. But visions of being stranded on an uncharted desert isle floated before my eyes nonetheless. This was my fourth trip. I knew what to expect: a Little Houseboat of Horrors.
On previous Colorado River trips, my companions and I had been beached and nearly dashed against rocks, had suffered through major equipment failures and had nearly blown up a fuel dock. (We hit it a mite too hard coming in to gas up.)
And then there was the storm of '94 that struck while we were at sea uh at river. The yowling winds and 6-foot waves so terrified the crew that some vowed never to set foot on another houseboat.
Consequently, when this newspaper asked me to try a houseboating trip — I recently wrote a similar story on RVing — I had to think about it. Finding a team wouldn't be easy. Capt. Dan, who had manned the helm on the earlier Houseboat of Horrors trips, was game to try it again. But where would I find the rest?
I took the easy way out and invited neophytes — unwitting friends who had never houseboated before. Joining Dan would be Ann, Hal, Ted and Dorothy.
Our mission: to test the waters of the Colorado River. Could a group of average vacationers survive the journey?
Not only did we survive, but we also had a great time.
Oh, there were a few scary moments here and there. But the good things that made our houseboat trip a unique vacation easily outweighed the difficulties — things like waking up to a glassy sheet of water turning golden with the rising sun. Or perching at river's edge during the heat of the day with our feet dangling in the water. Or sitting around a crackling campfire onshore with a universe of stars shimmering overhead.
And knowing a real bed — not a sleeping bag on the ground — awaited each night.
"This is like a floating condo," Dorothy said as we loaded provisions onto No. 255, our Forever Resorts houseboat, on a Saturday morning in late April.
Fellow sailors were equally impressed. "Pretty plush," Ted said. "Amazingly roomy," added Hal, who might not be a good judge because he does most of his boating in a kayak.
The boat did feel spacious. It was 56 feet long, with broad picture windows, a well-equipped galley, a dining room, three cabins (including one with two queen-size beds) plus a sofa bed, 1 1/2 baths, a sundeck roof, water slide, air conditioning and a TV/VCR. Clean linens were stacked atop each bed.
Comfortable digs, considering our destination: the backcountry of one of the hottest regions on Earth. We started our journey at Cottonwood Cove Marina on Lake Mohave, a meandering 67-mile stretch of the Colorado River surrounded by rugged mountains and stark desert. Mohave, with 250 miles of shoreline, is bordered by Nevada and Arizona and begins beneath the massive base of Hoover Dam, winding south to Davis Dam, ending just north of the fun-and-games town of Laughlin, Nev.
Along with huge Lake Mead, it makes up the 1.5-million-acre Lake Mead National Recreation Area. In summer, temperatures can reach 120 degrees.
We weren't worried about the heat on this trip, though. April showers seemed more likely. We scheduled our adventure during the "value season" to save money, paying $995 for our weekend (54-hour) rental. On May 1 the price rose to $1,595, and from Tuesday to Aug. 30 it will be $2,295. All rentals require a minimum security deposit of $500.
When I booked the boat, I told the rental agent the tab seemed steep. "But it sleeps up to 10," she answered, "so the cost per person really isn't so high."
I said I'd think it over and hung up.
I promptly called back and asked whether there were any specials, because most of the travel industry seemed to be offering them this year.
"Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, a few like that, but nothing general. Sorry."
Specials don't seem as prevalent among houseboat rental companies as they are in some segments of the industry. Clients call without them.
"People are still looking for trips close to home," said Mike Harris, publisher of Houseboat magazine. "The industry isn't booming the way it was in the '80s and '90s, but it's stable."
A nationwide phenomenon
The nation's houseboating hot spots are in the heartland, especially along the rivers and lakes of Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, but rentals are available in most states. Californians can rent houseboats at Lake Shasta or Trinity Lake in the north, in the Sacramento Delta region or at a handful of other lakes, most in Northern California or the gold country. Many Southern Californians try the Colorado River or its nearby lakes: Mead, Mohave or Havasu.
The boats have changed significantly since their earliest days, when "they were pontoons with a house trailer plopped on top," said Fritz Parker, a University of Louisville professor who studied the boats' development. "Now you see houseboats that are over 100 feet, have three levels and cost more than $1 million."
Our boat was about half that size, but it seemed larger — especially when a Forever Resorts employee boarded to give us some last-minute pointers.
"This is 17 tons of boat, and they don't move real easy when they're stuck on a beach," said Terry Fernald, a houseboat mechanic. "So don't get it stuck. And never try to navigate one of these things in high winds or when waves break over the bow. Get into a safe cove and stay put."
Capt. Dan, recalling earlier Houseboat of Horrors trips, listened closely. "On our last trip we made a few mistakes and ended up sideways on a beach," he said.
"Well, that's sort of a normal thing," Terry said. "Just call us on the radio and we'll come out and get you unstuck. Most likely you'll tear something up if you try it. Most likely we won't tear anything up."
This was a revelation. Our other trips had left us feeling alone out there. If the boat swamped or beached or broke down, we had to deal with it. But here was a guy telling us he would deal with it. Terry was even going to pilot the boat out of the marina for us.
Things were looking up.
"Call us on Channel 11 if you have any problems," Terry reminded us twice before departing. "If someone gets hurt, call the Park Service on Channel 16." He also pointed out videotaped instructions — the rental company had sent us a copy in advance too — and an operator's manual, "just in case you have problems. And, remember, get into a sheltered place if high winds come up."
The lecture about the wind made me nervous, especially because the next day's forecast listed 30-mph afternoon winds — strong enough to cause houseboaters serious problems. But forecasts aren't always right.
WE had arrived at the marina at 10 a.m.; by 1 p.m. we were on the lake heading north.
Dan was at the helm, Ted was lounging on the bow deck, Hal was shooting pictures and Dorothy and Ann were making lunch. Vacation with play was underway.
The lake was wide at this point. Ridge after ridge of dark, barren mountains rose on both sides, a sharp contrast to the deep blue water. About 9 million people swim, boat and fish in the Lake Mead Recreation Area each year, but we saw only a handful of boats.
We planned to motor north toward Black Canyon, where the lake narrows and a jumble of jagged volcanic walls towers over the water. Unlike Lake Mead, which has huge water fluctuations that leave muddy shorelines, Lake Mohave's water level is fairly constant. Secluded coves offer good shore anchorages for houseboats.
Terry had cautioned us to leave ourselves three hours of daylight to find an anchorage. By 3 p.m. we had broken out the binoculars and were searching. We were looking for four elements: a sandy beach, a cove that allowed the boat to face into the wind, protection from the wind on three sides and water at least 6 feet deep at the rear of the boat so the prop wouldn't be damaged.
In less than an hour we found Red Cloud Cove, which seemed to fit the bill. The clincher was a pile of wood left next to a fire ring onshore. Previous cove tenants had been thoughtful campers.
We scrambled into action as Capt. Dan turned the boat toward the cove. Ted and Hal jumped into our rented tag-along boat, a 17-foot aluminum skiff with a 25-horsepower motor (weekend rental $270). We had been cautioned to unhook the tag-along before pulling into shore so its lines wouldn't get tangled in our prop. Dorothy, Ann and I watched the water for sandbars and got the anchor stakes and lines ready. It was a perfect landing. Within 20 minutes we had driven the stakes into the sand and tied up the boat. We adjourned to the rooftop sundeck with margaritas in hand.
"No freeway noise here," Ted said.
"But that lapping on the side of the boat is pretty darn annoying," Dorothy joked.
Our sundeck had built-in benches toward the bow, and we lounged for a while, watching the river. But it was in the 80s, and the reflection from the white deck was almost blinding. More expensive rental boats ($3,695 for a 54-hour summer weekend) have awnings, wet bars and spas on the upper deck. We weren't sure we needed all that, but the unshaded deck was a drawback. We decided to return for sunset.
We spent the rest of the afternoon getting to know our cove. Hal inflated a raft and paddled away; Dorothy dragged a chair onto shore to sit at the water's edge; Ted fished; I went for a hike. We marveled at the translucent water and watched 15 or 20 fat carp swim in lazy circles, each of them clearly visible from the boat. Ann tried to swim but found the 58-degree water temperature so bracing that, she said, "I was afraid I'd drown."
Our boat had been designed to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning of swimmers, a danger with houseboats, according to the National Park Service. The incidents — there have been several fatalities — occur when people swim from the rear of a boat while the generator or engine is running.
No. 255 had ducts directing the fumes away from the boat, so we weren't concerned about that. And with the chilly conditions, we wouldn't be in the water anyway.
A bit later, four of us piled into the tag-along to explore nearby coves that were inaccessible in our tubby houseboat. We hoped to see bighorn sheep but settled for a wild burro, which brayed loudly as we passed. We found 300-foot cliffs, surprisingly clean beaches and tamarisk trees in bloom.
Dinner was pork tenderloin marinated in whiskey, ginger and soy; on our second night, filet mignon wrapped in bacon topped the menu. In both cases, we grilled on the on-board propane barbecue. After dinner we went ashore, lighted a campfire and enjoyed good company and the great outdoors.
Things seemed to be going well. We couldn't reach anyone on our marine radio, but we weren't worried. "Maybe we're just in a bad spot," Capt. Dan speculated. "Tomorrow when we pull out, we'll pick them up."
Silence before the storm
But we couldn't reach anyone the next morning, and we couldn't get the weather band either. With a wind forecast, memories of the Little Houseboat of Horrors began to nag at me.
"Since we don't know what the weather will be, perhaps we should stay here," I said.
Crew members weren't so sure.
"There's no wind," Dan said. "We'll motor north and see what's around a few more bends." We motored, and the wind began to blow.
I picked up the mike: "This is Boat 255, come in Cottonwood Cove." Static.
I repeated my request. More static.
Whitecaps were popping up across the lake's surface. A speedboat passed, and wind-blown spray arched over the water. Our crew members, who started the journey on the bow deck, were shivering with cold as they came inside.
"Maybe we should turn around," Capt. Dan said.
He swung the boat in a wide circle. We had been running with the wind; as we turned into it the houseboat shimmied and slowed, bouncing across the water.
I tried calling the marina again. This time there was a response: Thirty- to 35-mph winds were forecast.
We scanned the shoreline for a spot to put in. The first secure place we sighted was familiar Red Cloud Cove.
We tucked into a pretty anchorage near the one we'd had the previous night. A spit of land — sort of an island — protruding into the bay, it gave us water views on four sides. Out on the lake windblown waves were kicking up trouble, but it was calm here.
Dorothy dragged a chair to the shore. Hal set out in his raft. Ann thought about swimming and decided to read instead. Ted took a nap. I went for a hike.
Our ship had set aground on the shore of a desert isle. Like Gilligan and the rest, we'd make the best of things.
Rosemary McClure is an editor in the Travel section.