CINCINNATI -- Brewster Rhoads takes a vacation almost every week. And wouldn't you guess that when it's getaway time, the man who founded Paddlefest in 2001 heads toward the water, where his kayak is waiting for him?
Oh yeah, it's right there on the dock next to the 1955 bi-level houseboat he and his wife, Ann Lugbill, have moored at the Ohio River Launch Club in the East End for 15 years. About once a week -- even more in the summer -- you'll find Rhoads and Lugbill on the rear deck of their home-away-from-home, sharing a beer and conversation, watching the coal barges and the pleasure craft go by as the sun sets over Kentucky.
The boat is mostly for the enjoyment of Rhoads and Lubgill these days. Their two daughters are grown and living and working in Southeast Asia. The family's big party days are behind them, although they still occasionally host dinners for another couple or two.
So it is on the "Mr. Chairman" -- named for Rhoads' father, who refinished and caned chairs at his antiques shop -- where the couple wash away stress and dream of following a barge all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Except they can't. At least not in their houseboat.
It has no engine.
"The bottom line is this boat doesn't go anywhere," Rhoads said. "It just sits here. It's like a vacation home."
Small, simple, maybe even a little cave-like for people pushing 6 feet tall, the boat is like a floating hug or a security blanket. Using culinary terms, Rhoads said it's "like comfort food. … It's a comfort house."
Known as the region's celebrity river rat for his involvement in the annual Paddlefest and the Great Ohio River Swim, Rhoads grew up in Philadelphia as Carroll Brewster Rhoads III. Water was not necessarily his thing.
Lugbill, on the other hand, was from what she described as "a family of fanatic paddlers," small-town folks from northwestern Ohio who vacationed on the Jersey Shore and at lakes in the Poconos. One of her brothers kayaked in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and another was a top-level kayaking coach.
The couple's connection to the river that led to their buying boats was formed when they moved to Cincinnati to escape a new political environment in Washington, D.C. Rhoads, who was director of the Coalition for a New Foreign Policy, and Lugbill, who worked as an attorney for the Church of the Brethren, met on the National Mall in the bicentennial year of 1976 and married in a Dupont Circle church four years later.
Both felt that their ability to effect liberal change in Washington ended with the election of Ronald Reagan, so they launched a search for somewhere else they could make a difference, she as a lawyer, he as a political activist. They chose Cincinnati.
"Cincinnati," Rhoads said, "is big enough that what happens here matters. But it's small enough that you can affect what happens here."
They settled in a small house near what is now Rookwood Pavilion in Oakley and had two daughters. The beauty of the Ohio River and nudges from a nautical neighbor turned them into boat people.
In 1988, they paid $8,000 for their first vessel, a 26-foot, 1966 aluminum cabin cruiser made by Marinette of Standiford Field, Kentucky, that had been in use on Lake Erie. It came as a surprise to Lugbill.
"I said, 'Brewster, why in the heck are you looking at boats after all these years?' We didn't think we could afford one," she said.
They docked the cruiser at Four Seasons near where they had moved in Mount Washington.
"The kids sort of grew up in it," Rhoads said. "We could stick them down in the bow in this little sleeper area and they'd go to sleep. It was like driving in a car. It was great."
It was in the 1990s that Rhoads became an avid paddler and swimmer on the Ohio and other regional waterways.
"It was 1999, and I'd been paddling past this marina where I'd see all these houseboats. I said, ‘God, that looks kind of nice,'" he recalled. The hunt for a houseboat was on, and in a short time they found what they wanted: a 1955 boat made by Kelly of Jefferson, Indiana. A couple who had it on nearby Louisville Creek sold it -- still running well -- to Rhoads and Lugbill for $30,000.
"So I hired this Comair pilot for $900 to drive it up the Ohio to Mike Fink's (riverboat restaurant), where Alan Bernstein (his family owned Fink's and still owns BB Riverboats) was kind enough to let me dock it. That was the last time it was driven. I've never driven this boat. After that, we thought, 'Who needs an engine?' It was like having a floating log cabin on the best piece of real estate in Cincinnati."
If you ever have the opportunity, ask Rhoads about the time he found a through-and-through bullet that had been shot into the boat. Rhoads didn't repair the hole the bullet made in the bow, saving it instead as a conversation starter.
"Mr. Chairman" doesn't have cable or satellite television, but WiFi keeps them connected to the world. Its one air-conditioning unit in the kitchen works fine when needed, which isn't often. Tall people have to duck to enter the cabin, and anyone 6 feet or taller must crouch a little when standing.
There's nothing fancy about the cabin, yet it has all the comforts of home: a simple bathroom with a bathtub shower; a compact kitchen with funky green linoleum floor that looks like a poor man's onyx; a living room with a double refrigerator; a stuffed recliner that came with the boat; a three-steps-down bedroom that's almost all bed and can be closed off by an accordion door, and photographs and prints of river and ocean scenes, in particular the couple's beloved Key West.
Rhoads and Lugbill, both of whom are on the low side of 5-feet 6 inches, fit well in their houseboat and only occasionally have trouble sleeping on it.
"Frankly, in the summer I'm here for a night about once a week," Rhoads said.
Sleeping can be interrupted by waves caused by boats that disregard the 300-foot no-wake zone or by logs that slip under the boat and bump its bottom for 50 feet, but that's the exception, not the rule.
When the river is calm, Rhoads said, the double bed he and Lugbill share under the pilothouse -- which serves as their upstairs party deck -- becomes "the ultimate water bed."
Living on the river, even if for daylong vacations, sometimes can be problematic, the couple said. The great flood of 1997 took a toll on the old boat. High water knocked it off its concrete blocks and dented it pretty badly -- but nothing that couldn't be repaired.
The past two years also have been rough on the house. When the river rose to above 56 feet in 2014, underground cables that moor the boat to the riverbed were hit by what Rhoads described as "a battering ram of debris." The houseboat broke loose and floated several hundred feet downstream to the launch at Schmidt Field. Later, a large, floating tree smashed into its bow, creating a gallon-a-minute leak, Rhoads said.
"It has taken two years getting it back into shape," he said.
Installing new foot plates for the deck railing was easy. Fixing the hull was not. About 3,000 pounds of old steel plating had to be removed and replaced by about 10,000 pounds of new steel.
The boat, Rhoads said, will bury him someday -- literally.
"A guy once said to me that if I get the scrap off of it, it'll pay for my funeral," he joked.
Rhoads and Lugbill said they plan to keep their vacation home as long as they can safely walk the docks at the Ohio River Launch Club, which at 118 years, he said, is the oldest privately owned boating club on the Ohio River.
"We just love this gorgeous river. It's magnetic," Rhoads said.
"It just draws you. Right here, you can live in nature, in your house. … The river air, the wind, the sun, the water level, the current. Every day is different."