The 115-year-old boiler on the African Queen sounded like a gigantic goose. With each squawk, Captain Lance Holmquist pretended he was making the goose calls and shouted, "It’s a goose! A Canadian goose!"
The boaters and tourists on either side of the canal laughed and waved at the historic steamboat. The African Queen is a Key Largo favorite.
The boat that co-starred with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn now cruises the canals of Port Largo in Key Largo, Florida. Key Largo is about an hour’s drive from Miami. The cruise lasts 90 minutes.
"Key Largo was actually named for the 1952 movie," Captain Lance said. "Before that, it was called Rock Harbor."
Sounds uncomfortable. Thanks to Bogie and Bacall, Rock Harbor has a more romantic name.
The Overseas Highway, also known as US 1, is a ragtag strip of bars, restaurants, T-shirt shops and hotels, including the Holiday Inn Key Largo. The Queen is docked at Marina Del Mar, next to the hotel, between fishing charter boats and a pirate cruise ship.
"Most of the movie takes place on this boat," Captain Lance said. "But it was too small to shoot on with those big old Technicolor cameras. John Huston built a big raft with a three-quarter mockup of the boat. I know this boat so well, I can usually tell which scenes were shot on the replica and which on the original African Queen."
He keeps a thick binder of rare unpublished black-and-white photos of the making of the movie. One shows Bogie stretched full-length, balancing himself on four beer bottles.
"The movie was partly filmed in Africa," Captain Lance said. "Everybody got sick except Bogart. He said it was because he drank bourbon and they drank water."
The African Queen steamboat is about 30 feet long, with a red-and-white striped awning. The boat was a sprightly 50 years old when the movie was made. She’s now a hundred and one.
The Queen has worked most of her long life. "The African Queen was built in England in 1912," Captain Lance said. "It was sent to Africa for the East Africa British Railways company. She was used to shuttle cargo, missionaries and hunting parties across the Victoria Nile and Lake Albert, between the Belgian Congo and Uganda."
It must have been a crowded trip, with people and goods crammed into the small space. The 30-foot steamboat has seats along the sides. The boiler squats in the middle, chugging, hissing, whistling and belching steam.
The original boiler "was stolen when the Queen was transported back from Africa to London," Captain Lance said. It was replaced with an even older boiler, from 1898. Captain Lance tends it wearing a pair of thick gloves. The Queen still has its cinematic whistle.
Even on a fine day, the sun beat down. Captain Lance keeps a huge umbrella on board. I opened it up and waved to the less fortunate on their yachts. They weren’t on a real steamboat.
"The African Queen" got Bogie his only Academy Award, and Katharine Hepburn a nomination. I thought she deserved an Oscar for her performance as the prim missionary who falls in love with the hard-drinking boat captain. "She modeled her performance after Eleanor Roosevelt," Captain Lance said.
After her starring role in the movie, the Queen went back to work in Africa until 1968.
Then she came to the US, working as a charter boat in San Francisco, Oregon and then Florida.
By 1982, the Queen had come down in the world. Attorney and Bogart buff, Jim Hendricks, Sr., discovered her in a cow pasture in Ocala, Florida.
A year later, the Queen was working again in Key Largo. There she stayed, a registered National Historical site. Her engine broke in 2001, and tourists posed for pictures with her.
A decade later, Captain Lance Holmquist and his wife, Suzanne Holmquist, leased the Queen and restored her in time for her 100th birthday. They wanted the beautifully battered African Queen of the movie. They replaced the rusted steel in the hull and the broken boiler. "That’s real black African mahogany in this boat," Captain Lance said.
On the tour, the African Queen cruised past waterfront mansions. "See those big houses along the water there. That used to be a landing strip used by drug smugglers in the ’80s."
The Queen chugged out in the ocean. "That’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park," he said. "You have to go diving and snorkeling in it."
On the trip back, Captain Lance asked, "Did you bring your camera?"
"Left it at the hotel," I said.
"Then we’ll have to take your picture," he said.
He snapped this photo with his cell phone.
"Now see that empty gin bottle there?" he said. "Fill it with water, then pour it out, just like Katharine Hepburn. And don’t forget, she was disgusted by gin."
Here’s the photo. I don’t think my performance will get an Oscar nomination.
To book your cruise on the African Queen, go to www.africanqueenflkeys.com. Don’t forget your camera.