Sunday, October 12, 2003

Living the river life

When a houseboat is your home, fun and beauty are on your doorstep

By Maggie Downs
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Jason Neiheisel and his brother Scott on the deck of their houseboat at Riverboat Row in Newport.
(Mike Simons photos)
| ZOOM |
Most of us see the Ohio River as a brief glimmer from the highway. The postscript underneath steel guardrails on a busy commute. The brushstroke across a city-view canvas.

For others, it's home.

Scott and Jason Neiheisel are residents of the river - a community that exists in plain sight of all Tristaters, but is actually quite secluded.

The brothers, both single, share a houseboat. Monday through Friday, they put on their tailored clothes and work professional 9-5 jobs. But evenings and weekends, they shed the suits in favor of sea legs.

"My friend has a condo that overlooks the city," Jason said. "I tell him he has the nosebleed seats - while I sit front row."

The river got into their blood after several summers spent idling on the water. They were young when their dad bought a family boat. By the time they were teens, the brothers invested in their own. Over the years, they traded up - got bigger, better ones and spent increasingly more time on the water.

Finally it became their neighborhood.

About a year ago, the Neiheisels gave up their house in a prime Mount Adams locale in favor of floating real estate.

"It's a little bit muddy, but you know what? People pay top dollar for mud baths," laughed Jason, 29, a salesperson for Laird Plastics in Dayton.

Waterfront (14 Pete Rose Pier, Covington): Very accessible to boaters. Features fine dining as well as a casual atmosphere ... even a pool with waterfall. Dock space limited.
Beer Sellar/Hooters/JB Finns (Riverboat Row, Newport): Haven for the fun and young. And you can float there.
Riverside Marina (Foot of Lafayette and Eden avenues, Bellevue): Plenty of dock space with a party-like atmosphere. Among boaters, this is considered the true "river rat" experience.
Mike Fink's Restaurant (100 Greenup St., Covington): Housed on an old steamboat, this is the premier place for people on the river. Nice, plentiful dock space. Easily accessible by boat. High-quality dining.
Michael G's (4601 Kellogg Ave., Columbia-Tusculum): Up the river and located in a marina, so it doesn't have a river view, but the food is good and the atmosphere is laid back.
Fore and Aft Floating Restaurant (7449 Forbes Road, Sayler Park): . Meals are great and priced moderately. Has boaters ambiance.
The brothers have seen the reflections of red, gold and blue rocketing fireworks in the movement of the river. They see vibrant life on the water that lasts past the periodic celebrations. They see the community that exists in the ever-flowing space between Newport on the Levee and Sawyer Point.

Now, on the eve of the Tall Stacks blowout, the Neiheisels watch as others discover what they already know - river life is pretty hip.

For people like the Neiheisels, the Ohio is a treasure chest of beauty, bars and boats. Stress is left on the shore. The best in food and nightlife is just a brief float away. And while the rest of us are still looking for parking, they're already partying.

"As soon as I step out on the boat, all the pressures of every day stay on land," Jason said. "Literally, it's like going on vacation every weekend."

The Neiheisels' houseboat - typical of many found on the Ohio - is spacious and comfortable, though conspicuously free of houseguests.

"You'd think you'd be beating people off with a stick to get out here," Jason said.

"They just don't understand the luxury boats afford," said Scott, 32, a factory representative for Toyota Motor Sales.

On the Ohio, the brothers are the exception. Most docks are barren of young professionals.

Statistics aren't kept on such things, but many marina personnel say the average age of their river residents hangs steady around 40 to 50.

"But really, you get all kinds out here," said Mark Hemsath, 47, assistant manager of Four Seasons Marina in Cincinnati's Columbia Tusculum neighborhood. "Every dock has its own personality. Some are party docks; others are for the veteran boaters."

The Neiheisels' houseboat - tied to a private dock in Newport - might not be lavish, but it is nicer than most motels. It includes a water pump, a large refrigerator, full oven, microwave, shower, washer, dryer and grill. The jet skis and ski boat are attached to the side.

To keep things cool in the sun, there's also a 3-ton air conditioner.

"I can chill this thing to make snow," Jason said, patting the system on its side.

Still, there is a certain amount of sacrifice. Storage space is pretty much non-existent. The beds are on the small side.

"We don't have a lot of living space, but what we get out of this boat is complete serenity," Jason said. "There's no comparison between this life and one on dry land."

There's a cost for such luxury, though, and that's what keeps a lot of young people from the river life.

An entry-level runabout is $10,000 to $15,000. A 30-foot cruiser could be approximately $150,000. The big yachts could go for a cool half-million.

"Not a lot of young people have that much money yet," Hemsath said.

Even if they can't call it home, they find it a great place to party.

"Especially in the summertime, a lot of young people relate the river to fun," said Jimmy Capano, 56, director of operations at Mike Fink restaurant, docked near the Roebling Suspension Bridge.

Bands draw a younger, more diverse crowd on weekends, said Dave Bricking, 50, owner of Riverside Marina, east of the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge, Bellevue side.

"We kind of have a Florida-type atmosphere," he said. "It makes it neat, like sitting out on a boat."

While the Neiheisels take advantage of the partying, living on the river is also a way of life.

"The beauty of the river is that you can actually come down and live here," Scott said.

On Friday afternoons, they head to the grocery store. They stock up for the weekend - food, cleaning items and beer. After that, their cars remain parked until Monday morning.

By early evening, they're on the ski boat. They head to Hooters for dinner or the Beer Sellar for a drink. Some evenings they catch a river shuttle to a Reds game across the Ohio, other times they visit other boaters. Most often, they explore the neon lights, raucous music and strong mixed drinks of the river's entertainment district.

Saturday morning comes too early on the river.

Rocking waves and penetrating sunshine prod everyone awake.

The first order of business is to enjoy the scenery. "In the morning, the water is glass," Jason said. "It's almost unreal."

The brothers sit outside, sip coffee and take in the daily resurrection of the river.

"I don't think the scenery could ever get old," Jason said. "Every day is something new on the Ohio."

Then they move on to their cleaning ritual, which takes about three to four hours each weekend. They mop the top deck, sweep the porch and back areas, wipe off windows and countertops.

"The alternative is mowing a lawn," Jason said. "And who wants to do that?"

They motor off in search of something to eat, taking in the fresh air, the water and the camaraderie that exists among boaters.

"It's all a little bit of nothing until the evening," Scott said.

All that's left to do is relax. And crack open a Corona."

"I don't miss the Main Street bar scene at all. It's too crowded," Jason said.

"I wouldn't trade this life for anything."


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