Rancho Santa Fe native returns The African Queen to former glory

By Kathy Day

Thanks to former Rancho Santa Fe resident Lance Holmquist and his wife, Suzanne, The African Queen is cruising the waters of Key Largo again.

The riverboat that gained fame in the 1951 Humphrey Bogart-Katherine Hepburn movie by the same name had fallen into disrepair, drawing sad glances from tourists and locals around the area.

Holmquist, a sort of legend in his own right among those who know boating in the Florida Keys, said he never thought he would be “spearheading a journey like this” that involved about $70,000 and several months of welding the hull and refinishing the black African mahogany to get the African Queen up and running again. He even added a steam engine for effect, and faux distressing on her newly painted hull so the boat looked the way it did in the movie.

His mother Joan Holmquist, who still lives in the Ranch with her husband Herb, said the boat was a mess when Lance started the restoration — one of many he’s done over the years that have led him to a successful business as owner of Calypso Watersports and Charters.

The Holmquists moved to San Diego in 1971 when Lance was 11; their fourth child Kristen, who now lives in Miami was born three weeks after the move, joining the brood that included two older sisters Cynthia and Kim. Kristen and Mom and Dad all turned out for the launch party – just another party in the continuing party that Lance and his mom say his life is.

They talk fondly of each other. He says “she’s a hoot — she has a great laugh.”

She says “He didn’t let anything get him down. He’s got great character and, since he was 2, he always got the girl.”

His mom recalls the days when Lance and friends James McDonald, David Cantwell and Wayne Winke tore up the hills on their minibikes and when he rode horses with Theresa Baker.

But he left San Diego after graduating from Torrey Pines High School, heading for Hawaii on his own after a friend bailed on the trip at the last minute. Following some adventures — and some misadventures — there and despite his parents pleas to come home, he stayed for a while. Then it was off to Australia, where he surfed, tended bar, got a divemaster’s license and skipper’s license, and took up sailing and running charters as he does today.

Eventually, he made his way to the Florida Keys, working as a divemaster before getting his captain’s license and sailing endorsement. He started buying smaller boats and fixing them up, selling them and stepping up in size. Today, he and Suzanne, his wife of eight years, own several boats and run sailing charters to the Marquesas and Dry Tortugas. Their boats are moored just a couple of boats away from where the African Queen sits. For years they had watched people wander by and recall its past. But it wasn’t until just before New Year’s Day 2011 — when he learned the 100th anniversary of the boat was approaching — that he first gave any thought to it.

He had seen the movie and although he wasn’t a big fan, he said it left an impression on him.

“I think Mom and Dad let me go on Pirates of the Caribbean one too many times,” he joked.

“Bogart was a sturdy, salty kind of a guy who didn’t take any guff and wasn’t afraid to throw a punch,” he said. “In my younger years I had more of that attitude. Nothing ever stopped me.”

Acknowledging that once he puts his mind to something, he “gets tunnel vision,” Lance said he “can weld, plumb, ‘MacGyver’ just about anything.”

But first he had to work a deal with the owner.

The 30-foot-long, 8-foot-wide boat was built in England as the Steam Launch Livingstone and used by the British East Africa Co. to carry passengers and cargo across Lake Albert and then in the movie, when it was seen in Uganda and the Belgian Congo. Lance said he did similar trips on the rivers in Australia, where he taught people about crocodiles and took hunters and tourists on his boat.

After a few stops along the way, the African Queen was brought to Key Largo by Jim Hendricks Sr., who found the deteriorating craft in 1982 and even corresponded with Hepburn about it. Its permanent home became the marina by the town’s Holiday Inn, which he owned.

But when Hendricks died, the boat nearly did too. His son, Jimmy Jr., had the desire but not the wherewithal to bring her back. So when the Holmquists reached out, he agreed to a lease in which he gets part of the proceeds from its operations.

The excitement over the African Queen’s return to the water drew Stephen Bogart, son of the actor and Lauren Bacall, to attend a local event that included auctioning a ride with him, as well as pieces of the boat that couldn’t be refurbished.

Now, Lance said, he’d like to take the boat through the wilderness waterways of the Everglades and maybe even back to the Congo for “a real expedition” or for a journey on the Seminale tribal lands.

“It would be great to film it for the History Channel or Discovery or National Geographic,” he said.

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