A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: AVALON on the way downriver, picks up some guests, and later a canoe, skiff race ensues

The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. The is a part of a long and continuing story.

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Right about lunchtime, a day, or so, before the AVALON left Memphis and continued downriver, two tanned, muscular young men in a canoe got our attention as they paddled alongside. Captain Wagner leaned over the Main Deck railing and asked them where they came from and where they were going.

“Minneapolis,” one replied, “… we’re headed for New Orleans,” the other chimed in.

“Tie that thing up back there and come aboard and eat with us,” Big Cap invited, referring to their canoe and all its plunder. As the voyagers nudged against the port fantail, I was waiting and tied off the thin line tossed from the aluminum canoe. Once they were out of their craft and standing alongside me on the steel deck, I saw that one was a tad taller and the other a bit shorter than I. By the looks of them, their story of paddling all the way from near the head of navigation on the Mississippi, to the foot of Beale Street, seemed plausible.

AVALON in Negative. When the AVALON backed away from the Waterways boat store barge and into the current of the Mississippi River to continue southward, the canoe,  with its crew of two, was on board. Our next stop was Greenville, Mississippi, located on the eastern bank of Lake Ferguson, an oxbow lake left from an old channel of the ever-changing river.

“Git in here and git yourself a plate,” Wagner again ordered. Entering the Deck Room where most of the crew were eating at their assigned tables, the wayfaring strangers found two plates already filled and waiting for them at the Captain’s bench. By the time their dishes were emptied and washed down with two tall glasses of ice tea, apiece, the duo was already the guests of the Captain. After lunch, a couple of us helped bring the canoe aboard and found an out-of-the-way place to stow it. Cap even gave the men a room on the cool Texas Deck away from the sweltering heat near the boilers were the rest of the crew, except the licensed officers, slept. With nothing else to do but eat, sleep, and ride, the canoeists found themselves a new home, they evidently believed.

All I saw of the new guests was at lunchtime as they were putting away the free chow at Cap’s wooden picnic table. While the rest of were allotted one plate of grub a meal, they had theirs filled a second time. Whereas the rest of us were confined to the lowest deck whenever paying passengers were aboard, the two freeloaders were mingling on the dancefloor singling-out the prettiest girls.

“Dirty-Shirt” Harold, the Night Watchman, whispered around the deck of seeing the boys sided-up to some local folks who were giving them free booze once the boat was underway. Soon, it became obvious that the two paddlers were reveling in their carefree life aboard the steamboat without a worry in the world. It must have been a sight-better than paddling a tiny canoe on a rugged river on hot, often stormy, summer days.

Lake Ferguson. Our next stop was Greenville, Mississippi, located on the eastern bank of Lake Ferguson, an oxbow lake left from an old channel of the ever-changing river.

When the AVALON backed away from the Waterways boat store barge and into the current of the Mississippi River to continue southward, the canoe, with its crew of two, was on board. Our next stop was Greenville, Mississippi, located on the eastern bank of Lake Ferguson, an oxbow lake left from an old channel of the ever-changing river. Not much happening on the AVALON long escaped the attention of the veteran master of the steamboat. Captain Wagner soon realized his guests were overstaying his generous hospitality. And though the canoeists had it in their minds to ride the boat the rest of the way to New Orleans, Cap called them together and informed them they would be getting off at Greenville.

As quickly as I could, after the steamboat was tied up and all my chores done, I dropped the aluminum rescue boat off the port fantail and into the translucent water of Lake Ferguson.

While most of the crew hurried off the excursion boat as soon as free time was infrequently made available, I chose to take the yawl out for a row. As I was about the only one who enjoyed rowing a little boat in my spare time, I was usually the only one in the skiff, as I was on this particular day. As I was bobbing about a hundred yards off the stern of the AVALON, a small craft came from around the bow, heading my way. By the way two figures within the boat were furiously paddling, it could only be the Minneapolis to New Orleans-bound canoe. From the tone of their voices, the former guests of the Captain were apparently upset over their eviction and the predicament of again facing the elements and the unpredictable wrath of the Mississippi River. They didn’t see me resting on my oars until their canoe was almost alongside my aluminum yawl. “Wanna race?” I called to them.

Canoe on Mississippi. Right about lunchtime, a day, or so, before the Avalon left Memphis and continued downriver, two tanned, muscular young men in a canoe got our attention as they paddled alongside. Captain Wagner leaned over the Main Deck railing and asked them where they came from and where they were going. “Minneapolis,” one replied, “… we’re headed for New Orleans.”

The canoe nearly rolled over when the two paddlers suddenly lurched to the outboard side of their tipsy ark at the unexpected sound of my voice. But their shock soon turned to laughter. “What, you want to race us in that piece of crap? We’ve paddled all the way from Minneapolis.” “Yeah, except for from Memphis to here,” I taunted. The barbs flew fast and thick from the boys until I added, “Well… are you just downright chicken, or don’t you want to have to go home and tell your friends that some skinny kid rowing an old beat-up boat bested the both of you and your slick canoe in a race?” I could hear one say to the other, “Let’s whip his ass – he’s ain’t got a chance…”

A course from about where we were floating; downstream to a spit of revetment projecting into the water, was chosen as the boundaries for the race – a distance of about two lengths of the AVALON, or one football field – some three-hundred-some feet, more or less. “But first,” I announced, “I need to put some rocks into my boat to add some weight.” The two looked at each and laughed. “Sure. Put in all the rocks you want.” I eased the pointed bow of my aluminum skiff against the rip-rap revetment on the Arkansas shore of the lake and filled the nose with heavy limestone blocks until the bottom of the hull, at the stern, lifted out of the water.

“Hey, you think you got enough rocks? Put in some more!” one taunted, as I gingerly stepped from the riverbank and into my carefully balanced craft. My rivals flaunted their ignorance of the dynamics relating to the performance of a vessel with a pointed bow, a trick I learned from Captain Wagner whenever he ordered the AVALON be trimmed nose-down to increase speed and lessen resistance. By lifting the stern out of the water, the area of the surface of the flat stern bottom was mitigated which decreased the tension and drag of the hull through the water. With the center of gravity moved toward the bow, the little boat wanted to fall forward through the water, and that was exactly the effect I was seeking as the ballast was added to the nose. Those fools were beaten – they just didn’t know it yet.

Aluminum Skiff Boat. I dropped the aluminum rescue boat off the port fantail and into the translucent water of Lake Ferguson. While most of the crew hurried off the excursion boat as soon as free time was infrequently made available, I chose to take the yawl out for a row.

Carefully, we lined up noses-even with the starting line. So sure were the canoeist that victory was theirs, they allowed me to call the start: “READY… GET SET… GO!” I shouted. The first stroke of my oars thrust the skiff suddenly forward while the paddles of the seasoned canoers dug furiously into the calm waters of Lake Ferguson. The canoe quickly gained the lead, but my boat was yet to reach its maximum speed. With each stroke of the oars, my skiff, with its massive stones in the nose, accelerated until it became apparent that it was gaining on its competitor. The taunts of the two men ceased as they focused all their energy on driving their craft past the rapidly approaching finish line. But, now, the canoe was losing ground as my oars worked as furiously as the steam engines of the AVALON whenever it races a towboat to get to a lock first.

As I shot across the finish, the bow of the canoe was well aft of my stern. I waited for them to cross the line and was expecting well-meaning felicitations from my rivals congratulating me and my clumsy-looking craft on our victory. But, instead, they were furious, insulting, and cursing both my craft and me. Had they been able, they undoubtedly would have caused my noble vessel and me bodily harm.

Instead, they splashed on like clumsy novices; cursing and shouting as they aimed toward the mouth of Lake Ferguson where it joined the Mississippi River. The canoe, nor its personnel, were never seen or heard from again by the AVALON crew. A gut-feeling has forever convinced me that the tanned, muscular young men, who paddled most of the way from Minneapolis, ne’er realized their goal of reaching the Crescent City of New Orleans by canoe.

(To be Continued)

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.

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One Comment

  1. Connie Bays says:

    Always delightful reading!!!!

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