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Barge Right In

My brother Charles and I spent most of our school years living north of Charleston, South Carolina, in an 18th-century plantation house on the Santee River delta. The house, called Harrietta, was uninhabited when we first saw it,and hidden by rampant vines and overgrown camellias. If it cried out for rescue (perhaps most resonantly to our mother), the river and creeks beckoned to Charles and me. While our contemporaries escaped from home on bikes or in cars, we took off in boats.

We spent entire days out on the delta in a canvas kayak, drifting with the tide and generally a bit lost in the maze of creeks and ditches that cut through the sawgrass. Sometimes we used an old motorboat to run the 40 or so miles down to Charleston for parties, returning either at dawn or by moon and flashlight, Charles at the helm and me, the kid sister, generally asleep down below. We knew the creeks and marshes along that stretch of coastline the way most people know local roads and filling stations.

Ever since I settled in upstate new york, I've yearned to take my husband, brad, and our two daughters, seven-year-old Sarah and 11-year-old Jane, back to Charleston and the low country. I especially wanted my family to explore the region as I once had, by water. So when I stumbled on an ad for a flotilla of canal barges that make spring and fall "migration cruises" up and down the East Coast, I was thrilled. Mike and Teresa Wheeler rent out their barges in Florida in winter, and along the Erie Canal in summer; they also lead weeklong charters on their way South in the fall and back North in the spring. The objective for our cruise would be to move the boats North, so the itinerary was relatively set and travel was one-way. But the barges have bikes on board, as well as rubber dinghies with outboard engines. And when I discovered that the Charleston schedule coincided with our daughters' spring vacations, I scarcely glanced at the rest of the brochure before booking.

standby for launch
On a Saturday in April, we set out to meet the barge. My brother Charles, his wife Blair, and their two-year-old, Oliver, had met up with us the night before in Charleston. The Wheelers had sent a contract stipulating that we meet them at noon on Saturday at the Charleston Municipal Marina. But this turned out to be problematic, since the establishment did not, apparently, exist. Unable to reach the Wheelers by phone, we had no choice but to call every marina in town; at each, attendants assured us that there were no canal barges at their docks. Our hotel limo driver(thank you, Best Western) remained unfazed, in fact downright jolly, as we navigated the city for the third, then fourth time.

This was Charleston as I remembered it: the classical architecture, hidden gardens, basket vendors on street corners, live oaks with their freight of Spanish moss; and, more than anything else, the attitude--a regionwide shrug at haste, worry, and anything else that smacks of big-city living. We kept driving. It took stopping at every marina to find our barge. There it was, finally, with its two sister ships, all bobbing like a trio of tub toys. Their stout 42-foot hulls, from upturned bows to fat, round sterns, were poster-paint blue, their topsides a crisp red and white, with scalloped blue awnings covering the aft seating area. It struck me that when our daughters draw a boat, this is about what they come up with; our barge even had a forward porthole that looked like a bright, unblinking eye.

the first, and best, three days
The children charged up and down the docks while the Wheelers jovially introduced themselves. "How was your trip?" What is the correct response?I muttered something about phones. Teresa, in citrus-colored clothing, and with blond hair cropped short, took us aboard the Fantessy (pronounced, to our confusion,just as it's spelled, fan-tess-ee) and marched us through Barge Operation 101. "The air conditioner"--jaws fell open--"should only be used when you're hooked up to shore power" via a mighty-looking yellow cord. She walked us through steering, nodded toward the two bikes and pair of 12-foot dinghies, and showed us down below, where there were two double staterooms, a palatial shower, and a dining area whose table and benches converted to a third double bed. Then, the two bathrooms: "Depress this pedal. Pump." Teresa was pushing and pulling a tall handle with some force. I glanced at Brad, who was looking doubtful. "And this is extremely important"--her voice had taken on the force applied to the pump--"never turn off this switch!" It was in the main passageway, at Oliver level, and something like Armageddon would ensue if it were flipped off. Or was that on? Blair and I looked at each other, and before the hour was up, we had it sealed off with a few miles of duct tape.

After dinner in town, we spent our first night aboard the Fantessy safely tied to the dock. Fantessy, Jane remembers, "tipped back and forth; not in a scary way, just nicely. And I fell asleep. Then I woke up and had a yummy breakfast." Breakfast was cornflakes and toast and jam, but with the sun streaming in, seagulls mewing overhead, and little waves pattering against the hull, even cornflakes tasted special. It was Sunday, officially our second day, and it rolled in perfectly cloudless and in the seventies.

We were to travel along a series of interconnected rivers and canals called the Intracoastal Waterway, which runs 700 miles from Florida to Chesapeake Bay, a sort of boaters' back road that winds through port cities, fishing villages, wildlife refuges, and even, to my dismay, occasional malls. This was a bareboat charter, meaning, as barge literature proclaims, "You are the captain!" Not me--at least not me first. We all agreed on Charles, a computer programmer who has had ocean-racing experience on big sailboats. As the last dock line was thrown from shore, a flag-snapping wind swung us out into the harbor. This is when being the captain tends to hit you with a little zing: it is quite possible, after all, to wind up a barnacle on a rock.

But the Wheelers were in front of us on Freedom; all we had to do was follow and we would, presumably, stay out of harm. As a fallback, the Wheelers stay connected to their little brood by VHF radio. Steaming behind us on Fair Dinkum were Terrell and Beverly Price from North Carolina, and Bill and Betty Dorman from Mississippi, whose spirit and sense of humor proved to be one of the great pluses of the trip. We traveled as a flotilla throughout our voyage, with Mike and Teresa always leading, and the other two boats arranged according to the Wheelers' dictates.

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