Couple ready to hit river on boat they built

PARKERSBURG – On Monday, a couple who have spent the last six years building a houseboat will sail down the Ohio River for parts unknown.

Steve Marsh and Mary Ann McClain are making final preparations to depart from Parkersburg where they have been for the last three years building their boat, the Turtleback.

“We started dating in Port Royal, Va.,” McClain said. “I remember I told him I always had issues with homelessness. I said I would love to be like a turtle and have my home on my back.”

This prompted Marsh to start visualizing what he could do, having worked as a welder.

“The next thing I know, he is building models out of cardboard,” McClain said. “I love to float and do the river thing, because I can’t afford to travel. I can’t go anywhere. There is always an excuse, but I would just love to float.”

In building models, Marsh wanted to visualize what they wanted.

“I wanted to get a picture of it in my mind,” he said. “It just turned out. I don’t know how it happened. It just did.”

In 2008 in Port Royal, Va., they ordered steel and built pontoons in the backyard under an oak tree. After two years, they brought those to the campground on Broadway Avenue in Parkersburg.

“We put the pontoons there and for the next three years we built the rest of this on top of it,” Marsh said.

The boat has a main living area, a little kitchenette and bunks for them and their dog, Lucy, which is accompanying them on their trip. There is also a deck on top.

Marsh had no idea the boat would become what it did.

“I just did a little at a time with what fit, what worked and what was available,” he said.

The majority of the materials came from Lowe’s and Home Depot while people have given them other materials.

“We shopped locally and supported the economy while we did it,” McClain said. Bamboo that they used in railings on the upper deck came from a house in south Parkersburg. The boat has six-inch walls that are insulated.

“This is better built than most homes,” McClain said.

The couple had limited funds to do the work.

“We were only able to devote $350 a month to this for the last six years,” McClain said. “The windows came and that was all we could do one month.

“When the walls came, that was all we could do for that month. That is the way we did it and we did not give up.”

They tried to use lightweight materials where they could, but the costs kept growing.

“It got heavier and grew, but it is Tonka tough,” McClain said.

One of the biggest jobs was to coal tar the bottom of the boat.

“We saved up two years just to put the coal tar on the bottom,” McClain said. “That was the hardest to apply it, but once it dried it was like an M&M.

The couple estimates they put around $35,000 into the Turtleback over the last six years.

They are now in the testing phase to make sure the Turtleback was riverworthy.

“We finally got it into the water a month ago,” McClain said. “We were waiting to see if it would take on water.”

The boat almost got away from them Wednesday night as storms moved into the area. They were able to get it secured and got Lucy back after she ran away after being scared by the experience.

The boat is now docked at Point Park.

The couple are waiting on motors from Dave’s Marina. Those will be here Monday and put on.

“After that, we will be headed that way (as he points down river along the Ohio River),” Marsh said.

They will be heading toward the Tennessee River, believing they will get there by Christmas. From there, they plan to go to northern Alabama and to Chattanooga.

“We may not make it that far,” Marsh said. “We may find a place we like and we might just stay there.”

“We are in no rush,” McClain said.

They have a small motorboat and a bicycle to run errands. When they arrive somewhere, they plan to check out the area.

The couple has been learning about boating and how to handle the boat through books and other sources.

“We are learning,” McClain said. “Shanty boaters did this years ago, going from the Ohio to the Mississippi River back in the ’50s.

“If they can do it, we can do it. We have more technology.”

People move from home to home all the time, Marsh said.

“Unless they are lucky, it doesn’t really work out for you very long,” he said. “This way we can move really easily.”

They have met many people locally who said they wish they would have done something like they are.

The couple plans to stay in contact with friends here, but are looking forward to the next place.

“You don’t look back,” McClain said. “Whenever life changes, you keep going forward.”