A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Living and working closely with a boat crew sometimes meant dreaming the same dreams

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 Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

A boat crew, living and working closely together, can become so much alike, so much so, that they may even dream the same nightmare. Twice have I witnessed, and been a participant in, such frightening phantasms. The first was on the DELTA QUEEN, several years ago, and the last time was aboard the GRAND VICTORIA II while that colossus sternwheeler lay moored on the Ohio River, at Utica, Indiana, a few months before she paddled upstream to her permanent home in Rising Sun, a hamlet also on the Indiana shore.

The spring of 1996 was unusually cold, and the river remained swift and choked with drifting flotsam, while the GRAND VICTORIA II lay tied-up alongside several empty barges at Utica, a few miles upstream and across the river from Louisville, Kentucky.  The crew, of but eight souls, had been living in shifts aboard the boat for several months and were only awaiting the completion of a mooring dock in Rising Sun, some one-hundred miles upstream before they could ferry the “Grand Vic” to her new home. They spent most of their time onboard cleaning, drilling for emergencies, and only occasionally were they able to take the paddlewheeler off the dock and into the channel of the swift, drift-filled river.
 
 

The spring of 1996 was unusually cold, and the river remained swift and choked with drifting flotsam… and only occasionally were they able to take the GRAND VICTORIA II  paddlewheeler off the dock and into the channel of the swift, drift-filled river.  

Though tied tightly against the barges, rafts of driftwood and every other conceivable variety of flotsam that came sailing around the point of land, above, aimed directly at and battered the helpless 300-foot casino boat moored in the path of the current that ran close to the Utica shore.  Most of this debris was swept beneath the barge-shaped bow and traveled underwater, beneath the whale-like hull, for the full length of the mammoth, metal monster.

Down in the Hold Deck, below the surface of the river, each crewmember slept on an air mattress in his, or her, own private “stateroom” that later became an office after the casino opened.  When the drift was unusually heavy, sleeping became difficult as the rumble of passing logs, refrigerators, bottle-gas cylinders, and whatever-else afloat on the flood constantly jostled the exhausted crew who tossed fitfully with their heads pressed to the deck, scarcely a few feet above the debris as it dragged by beneath them.

Rafts of driftwood and every other conceivable variety of flotsam that came sailing around the point of land, above, aimed directly at and battered the helpless 300-foot casino boat … and traveled underwater, beneath the whale-like hull, for the full length of the mammoth, metal monster.

On one particular day, a newscast on a Louisville television station told about a woman who jumped off the Madison Highway Bridge, some forty miles, or so, upstream. Gathered around the table at “Mom’s Kitchen,” their dining and break area on the fourth deck, the crew made a few grim comments about the broadcast and then paid no further notice. Perhaps, though, they may have mentally calculated the time it would take for the corpse to float downstream and pass by the GRAND VICTORIA II, or possibly no one gave the notion any further consideration. Whatever their thoughts, the crew returned to their chores, and their attention turned to the routine tasks at hand.

Twelve-hours later, after an exhausting watch, they went to their rooms, rolled out sleeping bags, and lay down upon their air mattresses where the sounds of the passing drift both lulled them to sleep and then again awakened them as whenever a huge wooden cable spool occasionally rolled the length of the hull like a bulldozer rumbling below.

The next morning the crew returned to the kitchen for a mug of the robust riverboat coffee that generally jolted them awake and sent them into motion for another twelve-hour frenzy, but on this morning the coffee grew cold in their cups.  Each crewmember remained quiet and sullen and depressed. Finally, the Captain, who, himself, was suffering from the same melancholy, asked the deckhand seated across the table why she seemed so morose. She was unwilling to share her feelings, and a glance around the breakfast table disclosed that at least one more of the other three, seated there, was feeling the same heaviness of spirit as the Captain and the deckhand.

On one particular day, a newscast on a Louisville television station told about a woman who jumped off the Madison Highway Bridge, some forty miles, or so, upstream.

The Captain was the first to speak:
 
“I had the most terrible dream,” he revealed. “I dreamed that the dead woman, who jumped off the Madison Bridge, came drifting under the boat last night. She must have been floating face-up, for her fingernails were dragging along the metal bottom, and I heard the terrible sound her nails made as she scratched them along the underside of the boat.”

When the Captain finished his tale, the two dejected crewmembers suddenly became excited, and both burst forth together:

“That’s what I dreamed, too!”

Each then told the details of their dreams, and all were the same in every aspect. Joyce-the-deckhand even climbed onto a chair, put her fingers against the overhead tiles, and dragged her nails across the metal, perforated ceiling, thereby re-creating the intonations of the ghastly resonance that visited each in their fitful dreaming and left them in a drug-like state after waking.  

The candor of their disclosures revealed around the breakfast board seemed to relieve each of the loathsome dread brought to the table, and they began another day aboard the boat much like they would have had, had not they dreamed their mutual nightmarish reverie.

Later that afternoon, there was a commotion downstream at the head of Six-Mile Island, about half a mile below the Utica landing. Flashing blue lights of police boats told the crew that something dreadful lay in the debris that collected onto the head of the island, and it did not take long for word to reach the GRAND VICTORIA II that the body of the Madison Bridge jumper was what they found.

Later that afternoon, there was a commotion downstream at the head of Six-Mile Island, about half a mile below the Utica landing. 

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.

Related Posts

One Comment

  1. Joey Ritchie says:

    That’s a story you read then go out on the river at night. The darknes brings alive noises and sounds thats just not heard during the day. Very good.

Leave a Comment