The mast is a thin question mark of a tree, held fast by coat hangers and propped upright near the bow of the raft by a wooden cable spool. The mainsail has been fashioned from eight chicken-feed bags. Midship, balanced on the warp of a dozen boards and planks that form the deck, are a wicker chair and a recliner. The rudder has a door knob attached to it. A turtle hangs by its neck near a cook stove that once was a television. From 30 feet away, you'd swear it was Lil Abner's front porch gliding down the Ohio.
"Nothing's working right, but it's nice to know it's all here," says Bill Tsangares, the 21-year-old captain and crew of the USS Fear, a $15 collection of scrounged parts, rusted nails and spontaneous combustion that is heading down the Ohio River to the Mississippi and then to New Orleans. Such, at least, is the plan. "I figured at the rate I'm going, it will take me 8 1/4 years."
The USS Fear, formerly known as the Bad Art Barge and the Columbia 4, was launched a month ago with a crew of two. Since then it has twice lost its rudder and mast and once split almost in half. Last week Graham Hacker, a 17-year-old from Athens, Ga., who helped plan the trip and build the raft, had to return home to finish high school.
Despite those misfortunes, maybe because of them, the raft and its riders managed to win hearts and handouts from people in three states.
"The people around here have really taken to the boys," says one of the Coast Guard officers who towed the raft to shore for safety violations after it had traveled just a quarter- mile down the river. "In this day and age, with everything going on, I think they're a nice contrast."
The Coast Guard told Tsangares and Hacker they could not float their creation down the river without such equipment as a marine radio, charts, distress signals, lights, a horn, life jackets . . . in short, a few hundred dollars worth of items that Tsangares and Hacker were not likely to purchase with the $5 they had between them.
"At that point it looked like the trip was over," said Tsangares. "We started thinking of symbolic ways to blow up the raft."
A story in a Huntington, W. Va., newspaper halted the execution. People began appearing at the downtown dock where the raft was tied, bearing gifts of food, money and equipment. After three days, Tsangares and Hacker had rebuilt the raft, and satisfied every Coast Guard objection to their craft. Somebody donated a car battery. A local electrician then volunteered to wire the radio and horn.
"It was amazing. We didn't have to do anything but sit and everything came to us," said Tsangares, who now thanks the Coast Guard for docking their trip. "We were already starting to come apart when they got to us. If they had just waited we'd have fallen apart after a few miles. They gave people time to help us."
It is a few hours after sunset and the USS Fear has dropped its cinder block anchor into the mud 20 feet from the Kentucky side of the river. The stars are so bright it is difficult to tell where they end and the lights from the string of barges begin. There are coal trains chugging behind both banks and low-flying jets overhead. This is not a river for light sleepers.
"The fog is worse than the dark because you can't see the barges until they're right on top of you," says Tsangares. "I have stood on the side of the raft holding a paddle, ready to push off."
Potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil are baking in a charcoal fire. The glow lights up the turtle carcass.
"That is kind of the symbol for this whole trip," says Tsangares. "I'd like to make a flag that shows an upside-down turtle with a mast coming out of its stomach." Another symbol is the bicycle lashed to the shingle-covered lean-to where Tsangares escapes summer storms. The bike was brought along as land transportation, but it has had a flat tire from Day 1.
Tsangares and Hacker say they got the idea for their river trip on a freight car they had both hoped to get to the World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn. At the time, they figured to make New Orleans in two months. What they didn't figure on was the Army Corps of Engineers and the dozen dams it has built on the Ohio to control its flow. Where the river once rushed to the Mississippi, it now barely flows. During the summer, the Ohio resembles a long and winding lake.
"I don't know when I get the raft out there whether it will go forward or backward," says Tsangares, who considers it a good day's travel to get out of sight of his last campsite. "It depends which way the wind is blowing."
If the pace has been slow, Tsangares rarely has. There are always repairs to make, sails to sew, catfish to catch and tourists to entertain. They pull up on their speed boats, wanting a picture of the raft and its modern-day Huck Finn. The irony is that Tsangares always planned this as more of an outlaw adventure than an all-American tour.
"We were thinking more like pirates," says Tsangares, who spent his first 10 years in Washington, D.C., before moving to Greensboro, N.C., Dania, Fla., and finally Los Angeles. "But after so many people were so good to us, we couldn't even steal corn from a field without feeling bad."
The potatoes are done. The trains and planes and barges have disappeared. The only sound is a dog barking.
"This could turn from a summer vacation into a way of life."