Thursday, October 05, 2006
When he set out from St. Petersburg, Fla., two months ago to cruise his slow-moving boat through a maze of canals and rivers to St. Paul, Brion Kerlin had one goal in mind — to attend a performance of Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show. Along the way, he added a second goal — to get married. "He proposed on the phone somewhere on the Mississippi," said his now-official fiancée, Jo Nelson, who was back in St. Petersburg when she got the fateful call. "He said, 'I want papers on you,' " Nelson related, sardonically adding, "Yeah, sure, it was the most romantic proposal." Kerlin, 59, left St. Petersburg on July 26 and arrived in St. Paul last Thursday. The Huck Finn, his unique 27-foot "canal" boat, is now docked at the St. Paul Yacht Club's marina beneath the Wabasha Street Bridge.Nelson, who grew up in Mendota Heights, arrived in St. Paul on Thursday. She's traveling as a passenger in a friend's car. "But we'll go back to St. Petersburg together — on the boat," she said. As of Friday, Kerlin still was trying to score tickets to the Oct. 14 broadcast of "A Prairie Home Companion." The very low-key wedding, however, is scheduled to take place the following day in the home of one of Nelson's many St. Paul relatives. On that wedding, Kerlin defends his own version of the proposal story. "I proposed to her at least two years ago, but she never talked about when she wanted to do it," Kerlin said as he sat in the boat's cozy, neatly organized pilot's "bridge." "So when I told her I thought (St. Paul) would be a good place, she said, 'I agree — it's a good time.' I nearly fell off my chair." Unlike the wedding, Kerlin's river voyage was not a spur-of-the-moment undertaking. He started planning the trip shortly after buying his boat from a Key Largo boat maker two years ago. "It's the kind of live-aboard boat made for inland waterways," Kerlin said of the Huck Finn, noting that boat builder Dave Westfall modeled it on the narrow canal boats that are ubiquitous in Europe.The Huck Finn is almost all cabin and has a shallow keel. It's powered by a 20-horsepower inboard engine that can run 10 hours on five gallons of diesel fuel. But it's certainly not a speedboat. Kerlin said his average speed was 4 mph on his mostly upriver voyage of 2,000 miles. Nor is Kerlin — or Nelson, for that matter — inexperienced with boats. A former teacher, school administrator and carpenter, Kerlin obtained a maritime "captain" license after moving to Florida 12 years ago from Illinois. He set up a semi-retirement business as a for-hire skipper, offering business cards that read, "Have License … Will Travel." Kerlin and Nelson met while living on different boats in a St. Petersburg marina. They discovered they had things in common, including divorces. Before moving to Florida, Nelson and her former husband had built a sailboat at their Inver Grove Heights home and had sailed it to Florida, ending their marriage in the process. "I thought he had saltwater in his blood, while I'm more of a river rat," Nelson said of Kerlin. "It took some time to figure it out."Kerlin said the greatest challenges on his St. Pete to St. Paul voyage included crossing a section of the Gulf of Mexico and staying clear of barges on the inland waterways. "When you travel on the water as much as I do, if you're not careful, you're not going to last," Kerlin said. He had one close call. It occurred when he turned off the Tennessee River into a creek and tied up for the night in 10 feet of water, intending to avoid overnight traffic on the nearby river. What he didn't know was that a dam farther up the creek had been closed. In the middle of the night, he awoke to find the front two-thirds of his boat aground and the stern filling with creek water. "I would have lost the boat if a guy hadn't taken it upon himself to pull me out with a line attached to his lawn tractor," he said. "I was lucky." Kerlin kept a running online log, complete with photographs, of his trip. His musings at reflect a man obsessed with river sunsets and the visual poetry of rivers. And serenity. "I was the only idiot going upstream," he said. "Everybody I passed said the same thing: 'You're going the wrong way!' " Kerlin said the wedding this month will launch a new voyage. Their married lives, he said, may not be entirely spent in Florida. Nelson seemed to agree. "We're boat people," she said. "So what can you say?"