COLUMBIA — During the first two weeks of Roger Giles' journey from Ohio to Missouri by river, he's become used to attracting attention.
“Every time we stop, it's like a little tourist attraction,” he said. “All of a sudden there's cars stopping and people taking pictures and people coming down wanting to tour the boat.”
Giles, who lives in Columbia, is cruising the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers on a decades-old double-decker boat — the stern-wheeler Nancy Ann. The boat's body was built in the 1930s for gambling during Prohibition. In the 1980s, the boat was modified with a steel hull, a pilothouse and a paddle wheel on the stern.
Giles and his wife, Barbara, have been interested in river boating for several years, but the Nancy Ann is the biggest boat they've owned.
“We have worked our way up through larger boats," he said. "First off just a little jon boat and then a couple of small house boats, and we've just kind of had an interest in a stern-wheeler.”
They found the Nancy Ann several years ago when they traveled to Ohio, a part of the country where stern-wheelers can be found, Giles said. They drove up and down small rivers, pulled over every time they found one of the boats and talked to the owners. One of the boats they asked about was the Nancy Ann, but its owners weren't ready to sell, and Giles wasn't ready to buy.
"We stayed in touch, and now we're taking our boat home," he said. "Our new old boat.”
On the trip home, some of Giles' friends came on board for a few days at a time, while others took turns driving a truck that followed the stern-wheeler along the river banks. The permanent crew includes Roger and Barbara Giles, a dog named Max and the Giles' friend Lee Holbrook, whom Giles calls his “chief engineer.”
Holbrook laughed at the title. “We brought a lot of tools with us — we didn't really know what to expect," he said. "It's kind of a new thing for all of us. There have been very few real glitches; it's gone pretty well.”
Once, the boat encountered choppy water, which damaged the paddles. Holbrook used a portable welder to repair them. He said the boat has held together well so far, but the couple is kind of concerned about the current of the Mississippi.
“So we'll see how that goes," he said. "But every day's a new challenge. We don't know what to expect when we get up. That’s part of the fun of it.”
Peter McCarthy, another Columbia resident, joined the group for the first few days out of Marietta, Ohio. “It was pretty fun,” he said. “Every day was like a lifelong day.”
“Everybody has been friendly and helpful,” Giles said. “Sometimes eccentric, but that goes with the territory.”
One day, they met a man who said he’d dreamed of taking a stern-wheeler down the river for 30 years. They let him join the crew for the day. “It was his birthday, too,” said Giles. “He said it was the best birthday ever.”
Another day, they met some people who were coming from Pittsburgh on a homemade raft and docked with the Nancy Ann for shelter from a storm.
“They even had a couple of chickens on the raft,” Giles said. “So we’ve met a couple characters, but we are characters, too.”
Giles passed the halfway point of his trip and turned onto the Mississippi River from the Ohio River on Saturday. When the trip is over, he plans to keep the boat south of Columbia at Cooper’s Landing.
“It'll just be our pleasure boat when we get there,” he said. “Something to share with our family and friends."