A long time ago on a houseboat not so far away…
Story and Photos by Clarence Baker
It was a brisk morning in early 1974. A man by the name of Clarence Baker started the engine of his beloved houseboat, Li’l Hobo, which had been commissioned for an epic journey from Pennsylvania to Florida.
He pulled in the lines.
He went cautiously to the fuel dock, then crashed into it—likely out of sheer nervousness for the impending journey he was about to take with his spouse and friends.
“We filled our tanks and then crashed into the dock again while maneuvering to leave it,” Clarence noted in the first installment of this story, which debuted in our July issue. “We waved goodbye to Newt and Lynn, who ran the marina. I’ll never forget the worried looks on their faces as we left them behind to start our great adventure. We were finally on our way…”
When we last heard from Mr. Baker, they had been running for ten hours and were all very tired. They had come across the Intracoastal Waterway heading toward Texas but decided to take the Intracoastal to Lake Pontachartrain and were waiting for their turn to lock through.
The place was jammed. It was like the turnstiles at the World Series. We were up against a tall, filthy splinter encrusted wall made out of old pilings with a very gusty wind trying to blow us away from them. The only way to hang in there was to dig in with forty fingernails. Time went by while it seemed all the rest of the world paraded through those locks but us. No one would even answer our calls on the radio. At last, one kind towboat operator yelled out of his window for us to lock through with him. “Bless you brother, bless you,” We were all saying out loud. I didn’t understand at first, but this tow wanted us to tie up to him before he went into the lock, and stay tied up to him until he told us otherwise. When I asked him, “Why all the precautions?” he answered, “These other guys will tear you up in the lock if don’t do as I tell you.” We tied up to his starboard side and finally entered the lock.
The tow we were attached to was pushing big, square, gray, steel boxes through the water. If you saw them on the land, you would think that they could never float.
The upper gates opened and you would have thought that we were watching the start of the Indianapolis 500. After the lock was cleared of the other boats, we were told to unhook from this box boat and get going. After all this, our water level had changed only one lousy foot.
Now with only a short distance to go up the channel and a few miles across Lake Ponchartrain, we would be tied up to civilization for the first time in many nights.
The channel was crowded and busy, but very interesting to see. We were following the traffic in front of us toward the drawbridge, which led to Lake Pontchartrain. We’d cross the lake to Nirvana when suddenly the traffic, one at a time, starting pulling over out of our way and stopping. This was great; we had the drawbridge and the Lake all to ourselves. We called them on the VHF and found that there were no trains coming (it was a railroad bridge) and they opened wide for us to pass through.
As the bridge went up and we passed under it, we plowed into a hole in the water, which we thought was kind of strange. Thirty seconds later, I knew that I had made a big mistake. There was a small craft warning out but I figured, what the heck, it would only be a short trip to the marina. We were being hit by eight-foot waves coming from a couple different directions at the same time. The boat and its contents were being tossed around mercilessly.
Rose grabbed the life jackets and made everyone put them on but me. She tried to help me put mine on, but I just didn’t have time. Our thirty-five-pound anchor was washing from one side of the boat to the other and bending the railings in the process. The entire front of the boat was glass, including the front sliding door (which kept sliding open). The waves were crashing into the glass so hard that we thought it would surely break. We couldn’t make any forward progress; in fact we were being pushed backwards toward the shore.
The shore behind us was lined with large steel girders protruding out over the water at about forty-five-degree angles. I suppose they were there to keep flat-bottomed houseboats off the railroad tracks. The only thing we could do was to make a ‘U’ turn and go back, but getting broadside to the waves was the last thing I wanted to do. I timed the waves as best I could, goosed the throttle and we all hung on until we got turned around in the opposite direction.
Now we were headed back toward that closed railroad bridge, unable to stop. I tooted the horn three times over and over. I called several times on the radio and just as we were about to lose the top half of Li’l Hobo, the bridge opened. We plowed through that same trough and back into calm water.
As we passed under the bridge, the operator called us and asked, “Hey Li’l Hobo, are you going to try it again in a little while?” Out of breath I said, “Hell no.” He calmly returned, “You should have been here when it was rough out there.” This was our first big lesson, where we learned that you are definitely on your own on the water. There may be the Coast Guard and the Marine Patrol and several other agencies established to look out for the boater, but in reality, you’