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Venera Di Bella Barles

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Riverboating With the Queen
By Venera Di Bella Barles
Thursday, November 25, 2004

Rated "PG13" by the Author.

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Recent stories by Venera Di Bella Barles
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A hell filled family trip on a rented houseboat with teenagers, a sickly sister-in-law and inept captain and his first mate.



The ad reads...

This is the vacation you've dreamed about

No experience Necessary

Cruise Where you Want. When you Want.

It's the Vacation Thrill of a Lifetime!


House boating is the new rage for vacations in the 1970’s. Big page advertisements beckon the unwary with delights of sailing on the Sacramento River Delta.

"Whatdaya think, Vin?” Eddie says. “Do you wanna try this?"

"Sure, It’ll be a break from Yosemite. “I wonder if it matters that we don't know a thing about navigation?”

"How hard is it to sail a houseboat? What's the big deal?"


Gina and Carisa, our daughters, now ages fourteen and twelve, are at a point in their lives, that to be seen anywhere with their parents brings on orphan-like behavior. We pick our vacations carefully.

In our plans we include Ed's older divorced sister, Leona, also a slave to the work force, who is in need of rest and quiet to heal a nasty stiff bursitis shoulder. Her nautical skills? Probably equal to ours. We have yet to find her talents, but we know she's a true Barles. She's a good eater.

We finally make the decision to contract for a full week on a 42 foot ten-sleeper houseboat called the Delta Queen. These transplanted New Yorkers to the Wild West, have never tried anything like this before.

"Is it necessary to know how to swim, Eddie?”

"Don't worry, Vin. They’ll have life jackets. Besides how much problem can you get into with a boat that only goes five to ten miles an hour?"

I prepare several casseroles of our favorite foods, and bring an assortment of deli meats and cheeses. I purchase the latest processed foods my family normally doesn't get to try. Junk food will reign supreme this vacation.

We load the 1961 Dodge station wagon to the last inch. After spending most of the day traveling we finally come to the road that leads to the Sacramento River Delta and the houseboat marina. Our instructions are to put our belongings on board and appear for a short orientation.

"Ed, do you think we brought too much stuff?” weak and frail Leona asks. “We’re going to be gone for only one week and look at all this stuff!"

"Nah,” he answers with an air of leadership.

"You know, Ed, she's right," I say, as I juggle two, man-size, meal-in-one dishes. "We look like worker ants on a safari. We've made about ten trips from the car all ready!”

We leave for the half hour orientation and are promptly given ranks. Ed is Captain, and I, am singled out as his First Mate. No great surprise. In a quick half hour the personnel explain some of the different problems that could arise, but it is all said in fast talking technical terms.

I nudge Ed with a questioned look, "What did he say?"

"Did you catch that, Vin?" he grinds out brusquely

I can tell we are already losing that ‘loving feeling’ amidst the squabbling. We are in serious trouble. Neither of us can comprehend three-fourths of the information and no one has asked any questions. The head guy continues to tell us about some things that can go wrong.

"Wha. What did he say?" Ed whispers.

"I don't know. Something about ‘if a cotter pin breaks and the motor bursts into flames.’"

"Holy crap, it's coming at us too damn fast!"

"Eddie, how many packages of that stuff are we supposed to put into the toilet, and where are we to empty it?” I ask, as my heart plays bongos on my chest. “For crying-out-loud, did you get all that?"


The one page brochure reads: ‘Each houseboat is fully equipped’. Among the gear; is an eight-foot long hook, probably the single most precious item a houseboat rookie should have, often used to push away from docks or whatever else you need to get away from. Ours will be well worn. The toilet requires chemicals to dissolve the unmentionables and our instructions are to empty our holding tank at least once during the week. No problem. The large map of the sloughs and deltas is pinned to the wall. All looks good.

Boat number 253 is eager to go.

Captain Ed sizes up the situation. After an unpleasant start, we have a favorable, but vigilant sail. We decide to cut our day short; return to the marina, have a casserole and relax. Our long drive from the Southland left us exhausted. We all agree, it is a good idea to start fresh tomorrow.

As we cruise towards our destination, there is a fork in the river.

Captain Ed asks, "Vin, quick! Which way do I go? Right or left?"

Swiftly, I attempt to interpret the ‘Houseboat Pleasure Map’ on the wall, with its ‘1000 miles of peaceful waterway’.

"I think it's left," comes my dyslexic reply.

He turns his wheel to the left and my eyes spot our marina's location on the map.

"No, no, no, Ed! Quick, turn to the right, instead! Can't you go faster?"

"What the blazes? Are you sure? Holy mackerel, there's a damn speedboat making a big wake. It's shoving against the boat! I can't go faster with this thing."

"Eddie! Look out! You're heading towards that island! God! Look at all those downed trees and branches!"

Ed attempts to rectify the error - but the boat, on its determined course, can't respond in time. The water swell shoves us toward the entangled land. We stand frozen with our future before us.

"Look out!" Leona yells. “We're going to crash into that island!"

"We're going to hit that tree, Ed. Oh Goooooooood!"

The boat slams to its resting place. The sounds of crunching metal and broken tree limbs fill my head.

Stunned, we cautiously peer over the railing.

"Can you believe this?” Eddie exclaims. “We're impaled. Impaled on a fallen tree!"

"Oh, my, God! There's a large gaping hole in our side. Are we gonna sink?" I scream.

Leona has gone to be with the food in the kitchen for solace.

She shouts out, "Hey you guys. It looks like the trunk of the tree has pierced the boats innards. It’s sticking out of the lower kitchen cabinets, and it’s knocked out cans of diet sodas and beers!"

All the years of yoga and meditation does not prepare me for this anxiety. I'm certain this is the end of our week at sea, all in one day. I don’t think the teenagers ever came off their bunk beds. Ed and I try the trusty 'pole' to free ourselves, but no luck. But, all of a sudden we begin to push out. We look over the side again and there is wild-eyed, bursitis ridden, Leona, at the back end of the boat; her body half over the barrier, pulling at the large tree. Single-handedly, she has managed to work the log out of the Queen. Bad shoulder and all! The boat slips back into the water.

We limp back to the marina with our sober tenants. As we arrive in Walnut Grove, our home base, our heads are filled with thoughts of having to mortgage the house to pay for the repairs on the Delta Queen. But the personnel don't even flinch.

"No big deal," they say, as they bang a piece of fiberboard over the hole. “Stuff happens.”

Our first day is not to be forgotten. A few unscheduled sandwiches help to calm our nerves. Our heroine, Leona, has developed a severe attack of nerves and runs to the refrigerator each time Ed starts the motor. I am not far behind.

We brace ourselves for day two.

Captain Ed decides that after our frightful time the day before, we probably shouldn't attempt anything too daring. He offers that we take a quiet trip into one of the many smaller waterways. We find a serene, secluded, picturesque cove, and agree. This is it. A quiet and safe cul-de-sac for needed recuperation after yesterday's harrowing disaster.

Ed jumps ashore and ties the vessel to a tree. We will stay the night and head for the marina in the morning. It is magnificent. The delicious smell of steaks barbecuing on deck, triggers our out of control ravenous appetites. Nothing new for the three adults on this cruise, just added padding for our established Rubenesque bodies. In spite of all our fears, we manage to eke out a few laughs at our good fortune of having escaped living out the summer on the brier island. But, today gives us confidence that we can handle new vistas tomorrow. Later that evening, as we soak up the peace and quiet with just crickets and bullfrogs filling the night air with song, we settle in for an enjoyable game of Casino.

It's hot and sticky this dark, moonless night, and our cabin lights are beginning to get exceedingly dim, and before too long we play cards by flashlights. Except this boat seems to know when our guard is down and getting too self-assured.

"What's that sound?" I ask, as I deal a lucky hand.

Eddie answers, “I don’t hear anything. Stop worrying, Vin, it’s just your imagination.”

We continue to play.

"Leona, don't you hear that? It sounds like trees breaking." Leona’s eyes have reached the limit of openness.

Soon, the cracking, snapping and crunching noises get louder. Suddenly, the window screens begin to fall into the room, whacking our heads and covering the gambling table. We bend, but remain as statues, like the ash encased Pompeians. Now fruit tree branches plow through, pelting us with pears and pushing themselves into our little space, as if devouring our Queen.

"What the hell is happening now?” I shriek. I finally awake to our new fiasco. “My God, we're in the trees! Can you believe this? It’s a tree house!"

"I guess we didn't consider the rising tide." The Captain says, as he looks at his stunned silent daughters; convinced their father is trying to kill them.

“The rising tide?” Leona apes. “What the heck is a rising tide doing in a weed infested pond?”

“So much for a calm and peaceful evening!” I say.

The ‘African Queen’ will not be out of the pear branches until morning. It's a long, sleepless night, cutting away twigs and limbs with kitchen knives and swatting large carnivorous mosquitoes, who must think this is the greatest event since their last get-together at the swamp. What to do? Ah! Food. Finally, we crash into our beds, bleary-eyed and apprehensive at the prospect of a new day.


As the week progresses, the thought of waking up each day and starting all over again leaves us a little wary. Every new adventure brings disaster. I now understand why there is much drinking on board pleasure boats. A few AA meetings at sea could prove to be quite handy and necessary. Whenever Ed starts the motor he gets himself a beer to steady his nerves.

But, I need to have more faith.

This will be a much better day.

Besides, it is our wedding anniversary and my Captain's birthday. We give it another try. We intend to celebrate, as long as it involves food.

Fellow mariners tell us of a pleasant restaurant in the main channel of the river. So, we rev everyone up for the sail down the waters. The Cliff House gleams in the late afternoon sunlight as we tie the Queen up to the eatery’s dock.

We find our humor slowly restoring; we enjoy our meal, and our family is intact. After all, I tell myself, we have lived through nineteen anniversaries and Ed's forty-four birthdays. And besides, we will work all this trauma and chaos out in psychoanalysis. This is a year of challenges and changes. But, I ramble. Even Gina and Carisa, momentarily out of their bikinis, seem to be relaxed, though, ever attentive to the on going search for heedless males. However, our serene evening is soon interrupted with a loud bellow from the next table.

"Holy cats!” someone shouts. “There's a houseboat loose. Look! It's floating away!"

We leap from our chairs, nearly knocking the precious spread to the floor, and strain to see what number is on the side of this boat, but, we also notice a very strange thing. Everyone in the dining room is standing at the windows with fear on their faces, their bodies stretching to see whose houseboat has decided to leave them. How does one catch a forty-two foot boat, floating down the swift Sacramento River, out to the Pacific Ocean?

A woman screams and screeches, "I don't believe it! It's ours! It's ours! Oh no. Not again. Harry, I just knew we couldn't get through this meal without more trouble with that god damn boat!"

Her voice, though shrill and fretful, is music to my ears. The Queen is safe! Our anguish is assuaged, for the moment. We devour our meal. "You know, Vin,” Ed, the older, proudly says, “We need gas and I spotted fuel pumps on that dock down a bit. I think we can probably stay there overnight, then in the morning all I have to do is fire up the engine and pull the boat straight ahead. We'll be right in line to fill up without turning the houseboat around."

“Good. Whatever gives us a smooth time,” I say, leery of any new suggestions.

After dinner, we sail the short distance to the overnight dock. So, to sleep we go, peaceful with the attitude that we are finally getting a grip on this trip.

With breakfast over, everyone is ready for the new day. There is an increasing awareness, amidst the denial, of a need to attend to the odiferous latrine. The air dominates the pear blossoms. As the food supply diminishes, the toilet gets a decided work out. The chemicals are not doing an efficient job. We definitely have been having a ‘Scarlet moment’ with our avoidance. Maybe tomorrow!

"Is everyone ready?" Ed asks. "Vin, where is, Leona?"

"I’m here. In the kitchen."

Ed directs our course for the next dock with the fuel tanks. The attendant, on the dock, stands and waits with a big smile on his youthful face. He watches my husband as he nears.

Then the man hollers to Ed. "Whip it in, mister!"

"Whip it in? Whadda ya mean, whip it in?"

"Your gas tank is on the other side, mister! You have to turn it around!"

Tension is restored.

Captain Ed braces himself to pivot the Queen. Leona runs to the refrigerator to grab a last minute bagel, our young ladies hide in their bunks and play a game of Pig, and I resign myself to the fine print in my marriage contract.

Ed sails forward, and strives for a short right angle turn, without success. The water current, I realize by this time, is working for the Queen, slams us full force into the wharf. We helplessly watch, as parts of the pier, boards, railroad size spikes and posts, soar in all directions into the air, like roman candles...jolting, all the wide-eyed people standing on the dock who were out for their morning stroll. Titanic's sister ship, the Delta Queen, has met her iceberg.

The ashen-faced, slack jaw attendant jumps back aghast!

The Captain manages the best refutation statement he can create. “Fill'er up, please!"

Along about mid-week into our adventure on the high seas, one of the small bridges spanning the many inlets comes into view, and as we near it, we realize we may not make it under without forfeiting our upper deck.

"Marona Mia!" I scream to Ed and Leona, as she sensually runs her hand over the refrigerator. "We need to let the kids know. There is no time to stop! It looks like we're going to smash our top!” I scream. “Gina! Carisa! Hit the deck! Bridge ahead!"

"Vin?" Leona asks. "Did you see this on the wall?" She adjusts her glasses and takes a closer look. "It says you have to be very careful about the changing tides. It says it can affect going under bridges. My God this boat is trying to kill us!"

"No kidding?” I respond.

We console ourselves with several small snacks. The larder is almost empty. Our sandwiches are unquestionably smaller. Our casseroles are gone. We have consumed most of our beverages and snacks. It does not seem conceivable that three adults and two children have devoured enough food for fifteen people. This night we return to the marina to stay and recuperate.

Stress is upon me. My need to organize is imminent.

"O.K., Eddie, we definitely have to discuss a plan of action regarding dumping the toilets!" I nag to my glazed eye spouse. "There is just so much air freshener we can use. It's not working any more."

It is agreed we will evacuate the Monomatic toilet at the dock in the morning.

We learn that the boat, The Delta Roamer, with its large simpatico Mexican family, has docked next to the Delta Queen. They plan to return home today. It has been pleasant watching the elderly parents sit daily on the deck chairs, warmly waving at people as they drift by. And now, this is their final day.

Captain Ed's wondrous imagination immediately comes into play.

"Listen, I've got an idea. We’ll empty the toilet when the people next to us start their motors."

I wince as he lays out the caper. Leona moves towards the table and as I look over to our daughters they have already installed their headphones.

"Vin, you can let me know when they begin to back out of the marina. Then, I'll release the inside discharge valve. Then the churning waters will suck the sewage and gunk down below and no one will be embarrassed or the wiser. Right? You remember this is the way the guys at the rental office said to do it. Right?"

The moment arrives. My instructions are to stand on deck and wave good-bye to the Garcias, and at the right moment I am to give our captain the signal to pull the plug. Our daughters, who at this point have developed a sixth sense about our maneuvers, decide to jump ship and hide in the wild grasses. Leona, well, we all know where she is.

Grandma and Grandpa Garcia, their married daughters, sons and in-laws smile broadly as they tell me to be careful, but have a good time. They speak wisely because they were instrumental in getting help for our rescue calls a couple of times. Arms are open wide for their departing adios. The Delta Roamer starts to leave the dock. I wave farewell smiling cheerily, but with trepidation. And to Ed I shout between my clenched teeth.


He pulls the plug.

It is done.

From the side of the Queen, five feet above the water, a spout of feculent blue-green sewage is released. It shoots and fans, in a continuous gush, out across our noble neighbor's deck, with a force equal to a firefighter's hose.

They are engulfed, erasing the wholesome grins from their faces. Adults and children watch the muck unfold with stunned, frozen stares. Bits of paper and unspeakable odious fragments lace humans, railings, draping deck chairs and even the grandson’s prize cowboy hat. As my painful eyes look further I see another young man's pride, his clean and shiny chrome motorcycle, its gleam completely lost! They strain to detect where the waste matter is coming from. With their fingers and hands dripping, they point to the offending party.

The Delta Queen has assaulted and bombarded The Delta Roamer.

"My God!” I screech. “Ed, stop it! Turn it off!"

Unaware of the chaotic mess Ed replies, "I can't. It won't stop. Why? What's wrong?"

The waste inundates and splashes everything and everyone as it continues its endless journey. I fall prone to the deck, to hide and cover my mortification. The Garcia's boat cannot back out fast enough. We never see them again.

Although we are friendless, our 'head' is again sweet smelling. We pray for amnesia. Within a few days it will be the end of our week on the Sacramento River Delta with ‘over a thousand miles of gentle inland waterways at your beck and call!’

Our last day finally arrives.

We have lightened our load considerably for our drive home. Our food supply is gone.

We return the Delta Queen, number 253, to her owners. They salute us for surviving and hope to see us next year. (Oh yeah!) The Queen is checked over and lined up in the marina, waiting for another unsuspecting family to fill their memory banks.

Next year we're going to rent a housekeeping cabin, again, at Yosemite National Park...on terra firma.



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Reviewed by Marge Fulton 8/7/2008
Hilarious! I love the line about praying for amnesia!
Reviewed by Michelle Kidwell Power In The Pen 11/25/2004
Another excellent write, keep up the great work, keep the pen moving and May God Bless

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