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CONSUMER REPORT

Handling a Houseboat Can Be Easy Even Without Experience : Transportation: A vessel sleeping 10 costs about $1,500 a week in the summer, not including gas, and must be docked slowly .

February 14, 1993|JACK ADLER

Vacationing by houseboat seems to be increasing in popularity, but some consumers have misconceptions about this kind of travel experience.

One of the major concerns many travelers have is that they ought to be experienced in handling a houseboat, which isn't necessarily so, according to houseboat company operators.

"People think running a houseboat is harder than it actually is," said Karen Lippe of Seven Crown Resorts, which bills itself as the largest houseboating and marina resort company in the United States. Based in Irvine, Seven Crown has more than 300 houseboats for rent on the California Delta, a 1,000-mile network of rivers, tributaries and channels in Northern California near Sacramento; Shasta Lake; Lake Mead, Nev., and Lake Mohave, Nev. In 1992, Seven Crown had about 6,000 bookings, up 12% from 1991.

"The most difficult part of handling a houseboat is pulling out from the dock and parking it," Lippe added. "The boats don't have any brakes, so you have to handle it slowly. But the boats only travel at a maximum of 12 miles an hour, so you're not moving very fast at any time."

Seven Crown's orientation sessions include a walk-through of the boat, with demonstrations provided by company representatives. However, trial runs generally aren't offered.

"We don't get many accident reports about houseboats, and as long as one is careful, they're wonderful vacations," said Ben Benites, a manager for California's Department of Boating and Waterways, based in Sacramento.

"Most of the accidents involve property damage when people ram into other boats while mooring," Benites said. "Sometimes they don't pay enough attention to wind and currents, and don't fully realize that houseboats lack the power and maneuverability of other boats."

Diving into shallow water can be another hazard, said Benites. "People should never dive off the top of a houseboat without confirming the depth of the water. We've had several neck injury reports. For example, someone jumps into four feet of water, which is deep enough for the houseboat to move in but not safe to dive into. It's like diving into the shallow end of a pool."

According to Benites, there were 17 houseboating accidents reported in California in 1991, the last year that figures on the subject are available.

"More consumers have become aware of houseboats as an alternative form of travel," said Darla Cook, director of sales and marketing for Forever Resorts. The Phoenix-based company operates 90 houseboats in Nevada, Texas, Missouri, Florida and Kentucky. "We get lots of novices, but we send them an instructional video, then provide a run-through instruction at the marina. A lot of people don't realize how easy it is until they operate the boat."

In 1992, Forever Resorts added Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri and St. John's River in Central Florida to its roster of houseboat locations. The company plans to add Lake Cumberland in Kentucky this year.

"About 40%-50% of our renters, who range in age from the 20s to the 70s, are novices," said Bill Schappel, owner of King Island Houseboat Rentals, based at Lakehead, Calif., at Shasta Lake. The company offers 22 houseboats ranging in length from 40 to 56 feet in the Delta and on Shasta Lake. "Initially, some people feel uncomfortable and think the boat is too big for them to handle. But once they get out there on the water, they find it isn't hard to manage the boat."

Houseboats come in different sizes. Some are considerably more luxurious than others. For example, Seven Crown's houseboats sleep from six to 10 people and range in size from 43 to 49 feet. All come with fully equipped kitchens, refrigerators/freezers, pots and pans, utensils, dishes and glasses, and silverware. They have pillows with disposable cases on built-in bunks, plus soap, stacking chairs, large and small trash cans and extra bags. Bathrooms have a shower or tub. Guests must bring their own sheets, blankets and towels.

On less expensive houseboats, lights are run by battery, with propane used for stoves, the water heater and the refrigerator.

On the more expensive houseboats, generators are used for all of the electrical power, including air conditioning. Microwave ovens may also be included. All of the houseboats on Lake Mohave and Lake Mead have generators and air conditioning. They are offered on some Shasta Lake boats, but not on the California Delta houseboats.

Forever Resorts has mostly 54-foot-long houseboats sleeping 10 passengers. These air-conditioned houseboats offer a fully equipped kitchen, five queen-size beds and a bath and a half. Entertainment equipment includes television, VCR and stereo cassette. Pillows, blankets, towels and sheets are all included.

Smaller boats offered by King Island have fewer amenities, most notably they lack generators to provide air conditioning. But all of the boats have full kitchens and bunk-type beds that sleep six to 10 people.

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