Afloat and at home at Lake of the Ozarks

Published online: Apr 27, 2009 News Tom Uhlenbrock, ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
LAKE OF THE OZARKS, MO. - For one weekend, we had the baddest boat on the lake.

Sure, the season was young - the redbuds had just popped and snow flurries were in the forecast - but our 59-foot houseboat was by far the biggest thing on the water. The only competition was a few fishermen in bass boats.

Come summer, the lake will be brimming with the boys and their toys as mega-cruisers make crossing the main channel a challenge. But we tooled along at 8 mph, king of the Lake of the Ozarks.

The lake began with Mom-and-Pop fishing motels, grew with resorts such as Lodge of the Four Seasons and Tan-Tar-A, and evolved into a retirement and second-home community. Forever Resorts is the only renter of houseboats on the lake.


The company is based in

Scottsdale, Ariz., and owns and operates more than 60 properties in North America, Europe and Africa. Forever Resorts will take over the lodging at Missouri's Montauk State Park next year.


The company's Lake of the Ozarks Marina has 10 houseboats for daily rental: one 56-foot boat, six 59-foot boats and three 65-footers.

We took a 59-foot houseboat for a cruise before the official April 1 opening of the rental season. The boat had four queen beds and two bathrooms.

"Most of our clientele goes to the state park area and hangs out there for the weekend," said general manager Cory Ginsky. "A lot of them bring their own boats, especially if you've got a ski boat, and tow it along. It's easier to go out to restaurants if you have a small boat."

Before allowing two novices, whose only boating experience had been in kayaks, to pilot the $250,000 houseboat, Ginsky spent 30 minutes demonstrating every aspect of its operation. We learned how to flush the toilets, stop and start the generator, control the breaker panel and tie up on the lake's rocky shoreline. We also learned the ground rules: no fireworks, no tiki torches, no turkey fryers.

We looked at the propellers and signed off that they were in good shape. "The most common problem is damaging the propellers in shallow water," Ginsky said. "The cost is $90 if they're repairable and $120 if they have to be replaced."

Each boat is equipped with a map of the lake that is marked with red tape that indicates shallow areas. We were told not to go beyond the red tape and not to drive the boat at night.

The boats have an easy-to-understand operating manual that covers all of its systems. If the manual fails to help, renters also have emergency numbers, including Ginsky's cell phone.

"Actually, I don't get many calls during the season because, by then, we've worked out most of the kinks," he said.

We were taking out the 59-footer on its first run after a winter layover. We only had to call Ginsky twice.

"ROUGHING IT"

After Ginsky eased the boat out of its slip in the covered dock, we were on our own. We took Ginsky's advice and headed for Lake of the Ozarks State Park, some 18 miles away. The top speed of 8 mph allowed time to peruse the shoreline architecture, which included modest A-frames and baronial palaces with helicopter pads.

The boat's interior included a spacious living area with a fully equipped kitchen, a dining room table, a sleeper sofa, a TV and DVD player and a cassette/CD stereo. The kitchen had everything from dish towels to marshmallow forks.

Two bedrooms each held a queen bed, and a third, larger bedroom had two queen beds. One of the two bathrooms had a small shower with good water pressure and hot water from a 300-gallon freshwater tank.

The front deck had a gas barbecue grill and giant ice chest, while the rear had a curving water slide, which went unused in the blustery weather. The 65-footers have hot tubs, which we could have used.

The top deck had a sun canopy, a wet bar with icemaker and refrigerator, and a captain's flying bridge. There was plenty of room for sunning and sightseeing as we cruised by the streaked bluffs that marked the former course of the now-flooded Osage river.

HERONS AND A BUSY BEAVER

The houseboats are designed to be beached front-end first onto the rocky shoreline, then tied up to trees with two long ropes. When done correctly, the boat won't budge in the wind.

We found a perfect cove within the state park, but it took a couple of tries to get the boat tied up. The trick, as Ginsky had pointed out, is to tie the first rope to a tree at a 45-degree angle, then swing the steering wheel to make the rope taut before tying up to the second tree.

While our two crewmates prepared dinner, the two captains lounged on the front deck, watching the setting sun turn the placid water gold, then red. A beaver skimmed across the cove, and several great blue herons stalked the shallows for their dinner.

We made our first call to Ginsky after a breaker on the electric panel tripped off. We switched it back on, but not all the kitchen lights were working. The switches, it turned out, were equipped with resets that had to be pushed after an outage. Even we could fix that.

BUILT FOR FUN

So, what's the price for such luxury?

"For the 59-footer, it's $718 a day, $845 in the peak season, from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, plus you pay for your own gas and oil," Ginsky said. "Reservations are encouraged. It's pretty rare that we have something available if you walk in."

The 59-footer sleeps 10, including the sleeper sofa, and the maximum occupancy allowed is 12. The dual outboard engines burn about 17 gallons of gasoline an hour when cruising. The generator, which Ginsky recommended we leave on, uses about a gallon per hour.

Three couples, splitting the cost, would be ideal for a weekend outing. Big families benefit by the fact that all meals can be prepared onboard, and there is no extra cost for shore excursions.

"The houseboats are built to take abuse, everything is heavy-duty," Ginsky said. "On a lake like this, they're perfect for having a good time, with the scenery always changing."

CHANGE OF COMMAND

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