The Canrights wanted to get away.
Their life had all the trappings of contentment: a cozy clapboard house in a leafy neighborhood of Palmetto, a yard as jungly as you can get at this latitude, two dogs, two cats, no kids, a successful kettle-corn business. But to Larry and Sara, married eight years, something was missing. The house seemed a little earthbound, and everything that happened in it awfully routine. The Palmetto city government had a habit of posting notices regarding the overgrown vines on the Canright fence, the traffic around home was horrendous, the neighbors too close for comfort.
So Larry and Sara bought a boat.
Not just any boat, but a barge: a 104-year-old former manure barge from the vicinity of Rotterdam, a plump green sea-monster with wooden flippers.
It was a decision that would change their lives completely.
A Barge Named Neeltje
The adventure began, as so many things do, on eBay. By June of 2004, Larry, 58, had become an insomniac boat shopper. He'd spent his youth in the Navy; in fact, he survived Vietnam intact, only to lose a leg in a car accident in the '80s. Now he had a vision of a new life on the water.
But Sara, 36, was prone to motion sickness even in a kayak. A massage therapist, she'd lived all over the country but had never traveled far by boat, let alone learned how to sail or do marine work.
But when Larry showed her the eBay page of a certain "character boat," she was smitten. "That's it!" she said, taken less, perhaps, with the idea of the boating life than with this particular boat.
The boat's name was Neeltje (Nail-tchay). It was a tjalk (challek), a Dutch barge made to transport goods through the rivers and canals near Rotterdam. For locomotion she had a mainsail and a headsail, and for stability she had two thick oaken paddles on either side, in place of a keel. The cabin and engine were later additions by the man who brought her to America, Dan Rowan of Laugh-In fame. The engine room was once the living quarters, and the present living quarters were in the former cargo hold.
After Gerard Bouman, a member of the original owner's family, contacted them, the Canrights were able to peel back several more layers of Neeltje's past. Bouman, 75, told them that his great-uncle Adrianus had named it for his wife, and he sent them pictures of the Neeltje's home harbor, of his relatives, of Rotterdam, of the woman Neeltje herself.
Larry and Sara loved the boat's sagging, stretching profile and its many-paned green windows, and immediately bought plane tickets to Baltimore to meet the seller. But when they saw the barge up close, they got a big reality check.
Neeltje's size was overwhelming: length 62 feet, weight 35 tons, with a mast the height and girth of a telephone pole. It seemed ludicrous to think that two small people — however tenacious — could govern a ship that substantial. Reluctantly, they said no.
Back in Palmetto, the vines kept expanding and the traffic got thicker.
"By July we were both so depressed," Sara says. "And we didn't have anything exciting coming up."
Larry couldn't sleep at night and monitored Neeltje jealously on eBay. "We had the fever," he nods. "We had it bad."
Then, through Internet searches, he discovered an article by a Dutch barge expert who wrote that tjalken were built to be run by teams of two. He took it as a sign — he called the seller and agreed over the phone to buy the boat for $60,000. The following spring he and Sara dropped their pets with family in Ohio and flew back to Baltimore as the proud parents of a gigantic, ancient baby.
In the Boatyard
At Tidewater Marina in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the Canrights set about rehabilitating the boat. Sara remembers thinking that "if everything looked good, we'd have it in the water in two weeks."
On the second day, Larry scraped loose paint from the hull. He scraped and scraped and the paint never stopped falling. He scraped until he hit rust, and kept scraping until an 8-inch hole appeared in the bottom of the hull.
"We were both sick," says Sara. "We didn't know what to say to each other." So they had margaritas at a Mexican restaurant, and considered the possibility they'd been saddled with several tons of unrepairable junk. Larry had given the boat a once-over on that first visit to Baltimore. The seller had just installed a new air-conditioning system and generator: No one in his right mind would have made improvements like that to an unsound boat. But if the hull was bad, what other surprises lay in wait?
The couple had enough money either to patch the hull or pay for housing, but they could not do both. So they moved aboard the boat.