Charlie: All this fool talk... goin' down the river.
Rose: What do you mean?
Charlie: I mean we ain't goin' to do nothin' of the sort.
Rose: Why, of course we're going! What an absurd idea!
-"The African Queen" (1951)
Steamboaters seem to quote "The African Queen" a lot, probably because, to many of them, the Hollywood movie's star attraction isn't really Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn-it's the film's river steamboat, The African Queen. For steamboat hobbyists, the classic film captures the adventure and romance of river steamboating.
New England and Middle Atlantic States members of the NASBA or North American Steam Boat Association hauled their "retro" steam launches over hill and dale to Vermont's Otter Creek. Sixteen elegant steamboats-modeled after their Victorian and Edwardian-era predecessors-along with 30 individuals, steamed up and down the Otter Creek between Lake Champlain and the Vergennes Basin, as part of a second annual gathering at River's Edge Cottages and Campground last week.
"As you can see, we love steamboats," said Russ Steeves of Chlemsford, Mass., skipper of the fetching S.L. Redbud. Steeves is a retired aerospace engineer who loves to tinker with mechanical things. "Well, technically our boats are called steam launches or S.L. for short."
Steeves was proud to give this reporter a cruise up and down a portion of the Otter Creek to demonstrate the retro, dare I say steampunkish, ways of a 21st-century reincarnated steam launch.
Complete with a brass-trimmed wood-fed boiler, locomotive-like steamboat whistle, a mini blackpowder cannon for signalling the social hour, mahogany-teakwood deck and gunwale, as well as upholstered Victorian bench seats, the S.L. Redbud would be the ideal vehicle for a neo Bogart and Hepburn to explore the mist-shrouded Otter.
"Our members' steam launches are really new boats made to look old-many use fiberglass and wood-but some have a few antique fittings here and there," Steeves said. "Overall, our boats are evocative of a vanished era when river and lake travel was slow, measured-without the loud noise of modern boat engines."
The soothing pocketa-pocketa-pocketa inner workings of these steam vessels are a meditation on 19th-century technology-maybe ornate, but a heck of a lot fun.
Capt. Steeves was joined by other steamboaters including John Crockett of Andover, N.H. and skipper of the S.L. Jabberwock; Charles Roth of Glen Gardner, N.J. and skipper of Adamey III; Doug Pyatt of Bethlehem, Pa., and several others including a network television producer. A few came to the unusual hobby through steam railroading or an interest in maritime history.
Roth said today's steam launches are registered as gas boats because states simply don't have a category for steamboats.
Most steamboats run between 25-30 feet in length. Most can navigate in shallow water, down to 22 inches deep.
With a full firebox, the S.L. Redbud can cruise up to 15 miles with stoking required, maybe, every 10-20 minutes. And at a top speed of between 5 mph and 6 mph, this vessel won't get you to the church on time. But then, who cares? Steamboating is not about speed or competition. It's about community and enjoying river travel at its own pace.
While staying at River's Edge Cottages and Campground, steamboaters enjoyed day trips-via Otter Creek-to downtown Vergennes for shopping; they also included mini cruises along the shore of Lake Champlain, although some of the skippers dislike the lake's big swells when the weather gets dicey. A few have ventured as far south as Whitehall, N.Y.
"We were on the water when the big thunderstorm hit July 21," said Steeves. "We got back to the River's Edge dock in a hurry."
In the old days, steam launches came in a variety of lengths and were used to ferry passengers on rivers and lakes. Similar launches were a common sight on Lake Champlain and Lake George up until World War I.
Steamboaters planned to wrap up their get together July 25. But there was an opportunity for one more cruise on Otter Creek.
Looking at his steam gauge, Capt. Roth of the Adamey III said, "I need about 100 psi on the gauge, then, I am ready to go.
"Oh," he slyly made an aside, "I should mention that our unofficial cocktail is the gin and tonic-in honor of Bogart and Hepburn and The African Queen.
Well, here's to you, steamboaters! Bon voyages. There is nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.