JEFFERSON CITY — Roger Giles has a special touch for river boating, and for his new stern-wheeler.
"The very first time he had to start the boat, it was in front of thousands of people, who were ready to see a stern-wheeler race," his wife, Barbara Giles, said. "Here we were, a couple of amateurs … and he just backs it out perfectly."
"Roger — he’s a pretty gutsy guy," she said. "There's a touch, there's a feel — and he's got it."
Roger was just as quick to compliment Barbara — his "first mate," "road dog" and "galley wench" — and their friend Lee Holbrook, "chief engineer," for their contributions.
This crew of three is nearing the end of a monthlong journey by river from Marietta, Ohio, where they bought the stern-wheeler Nancy Ann to be brought back home to Columbia.
When docks were unavailable, they've had to tie up on the riverbank, adjusting for current and wind. Choppy water damaged the paddle-wheel buckets that propel the vessel, which Holbrook temporarily patched with a portable welder.
Thick fog, "coming up the river like a bad science fiction movie," has delayed them on more than one occasion. Once, they were already under way when a dense fog rolled in.
"You're moving, you can't see," Holbrook said. "It's sort of like closing your eyes driving down the highway. It's a slow-motion disaster."
"But when you look back at it, that's the cool part," he said.
Roger was positive about the challenges. "Every time something goes wrong, it just goes into our database of things that can go wrong," he said.
Every time they docked the stern-wheeler near a town, they awoke in the morning to find people aiming binoculars and cameras at their floating attraction. They've been interviewed by reporters and drawn the interest of a school bus full of children.
"So many people came up and said, 'I wish I could do this,'" Barbara said. "I felt so fortunate that I didn't have to say that, that we did it."
The Gileses say they are lucky to work in a place where they can save up enough vacation hours to take a trip like this. Roger is the manager of Hazardous Material Services at MU, and Barbara is a research associate for the biochemistry department.
Although changeable fall temperatures have forced the crew to change clothes two or three times throughout the day, they've gotten to see the leaves change colors in real time.
"We've been out long enough, we've actually seen the transition day by day," Roger said. "Our stretch of the river's the pretty part anyway. And it sure has been."
At 15 feet wide and 79 feet long, the Nancy Ann is the largest boat the Gileses have owned. The paddle wheel on the stern, which provides forward and backward thrust, is powered by a Detroit Diesel engine and an Allison automatic transmission that fill a whole room.
The boat is large enough that there's no practical way to get it out of the water, and Roger isn't sure yet what he'll do with the boat once winter sets in.
For meals on board, the crew has used a barbecue grill to supplement a small but functional kitchen below deck.
"Barb's kept us spoiled rotten with her cooking," Holbrook said.
Barbara has gone back and forth in her duties, sometimes on board and sometimes driving a truck along the shore, scouting out the conditions at nearby docking sites and procuring supplies.
For Barbara, there's an extra riverboat connection in her genes. She's related to Joseph M. LaBarge, a famous riverboat captain who taught Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain about the river. The Gileses are considering renaming the Nancy Ann after this famous relative.
"It adds something when you're talking about the river," she said. "It's a great heritage."
Barbara said that while they have enjoyed learning about her ancestors and their ties to the river, this trip represents more than a return to her roots; it's something for their whole family to enjoy.
"I've enjoyed the working together," she said. "I'm pretty in tune with what he has to do and vice versa. It's been a neat thing for our relationship … There's not many couples that can be together for a month like this. Especially with a third person."
"It's like a space capsule," Roger said.
"They haven't thrown me overboard," Holbrook replied.
With the journey almost over, the group received more personal visitors, like the Giles' children and grandchildren. Their 2-year-old grandson, Graham, has taken to calling Barbara "Grandma Boat."
Upon arrival in Jefferson City, the crew was greeted by several friends and family members. They tied up to the Carl Noren access, within view of the Capitol. The boat barely moved, even in the strong current, and the galley was warmly lit and filled with quiet chatter.
Roger said the trip had been great, but that he was looking forward to docking at Cooper's Landing south of Columbia, their final destination. Barring heavy fog or a breakdown, they hope to be home Saturday afternoon.
"I got stuff I need to do at home, but I could do this for a very long time," Holbrook said. "It's just the trip of a lifetime."