Though born and bred in Little Rock, The Observer had never been on the Arkansas River until just the other day. We rolled out of bed at the crack of dawn to set sail with the River Revival Flotilla, a group of boat owners who departed from the Little Rock Yacht Club and headed downriver to the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum in North Little Rock. It was the first leg of a 10-day journey that will take the flotilla of 17 boats to Pine Bluff and back upriver to Fort Smith before returning to the capital city.
We joined Stan Hastings, a local businessman, on his boat the Promotion (at only 72 feet, he insists it's not quite a yacht), along with his son and father-in-law. Hastings has been on boats his entire life; in the early part of the 20th century his grandfather raced yachts, and his family's been boating ever since. He says he takes the boat out almost every weekend — it's his substitute for a lake house. We don't blame him: with a kitchen, a fairly prodigious living space, two full bedrooms and two smaller rooms with bunks, and plenty of outdoor seating up top behind the helm, it's a handsome, commodious piece of marine technology.
Despite the fact that there's always a good time to be had floating around on a well-appointed boat, the flotilla had bigger purpose in mind. It was part of a public relations campaign that was intended to raise awareness about the commercial and recreational potential of the river, as well as the economic goals of the Arkansas River Connections, a non-profit that advocates the development and improvement of tourist and port facilities. The flotilla took part in community-oriented special events at each stop it made along the river, including our stop at the Maritime Museum for a kick-off event that included a band, food and a speech by North Little Rock Mayor Patrick Hayes.
"The Arkansas River is very much underused," Hastings explained. "The amount of commercial traffic and operations — barges, dredging, that kind of thing — could easily be tripled." He also thinks it's important that those of us who live along the river recognize that it's a great source for recreational activity, such as fishing and camping. The event was also meant to promote the pedestrian bridges that are suddenly such a hit, Hastings said, as we waited with the other boats to get through the lock and dam, about halfway through our trip downriver.
Underused as the Arkansas River may be, Hastings and his fellow boaters are certainly taking advantage of it. The Observer can only imagine what it must be like beating the Arkansas heat with a bottle of champagne and a few good friends on the deck of the Promotion. Our trip aboard her, however, was on one of the first cold mornings of the year; as we cruised away from the marina, fog drifted across the top of the water and a 40-degree wind stung our ears. Not that we're complaining — the city looks different from the river, and we were particularly taken by the downtown skyline as it came around the bend. Meanwhile, the radio was crackling with messages from other boats, chugging along single-file behind.
By the time we anchored at the Maritime Museum the sun was up and a flurry of organizers and press was hurrying around the deck of the USS Razorback. From somewhere nearby came the sound of a band breaking out in cheery WWII-era instrumentals and the smell of hamburgers cooking. The Observer enjoyed our ride, but really, 10 days aboard a yacht seems a bit lavish for our tastes. For a decent enough cause, however, we're sure we could manage.