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The River: Grizzled Capt. Howard Tate taught me a lesson when he challenged me on the ‘Fool’s Knot’


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. This a part of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

It happened on the bow of the DELTA QUEEN while splicing an eye into a busted line that the grizzled, cantankerous, old river pilot, Captain Howard Tate stopped, stood over me, and watched as I performed the “over-one; under-the-next” ritual on the frazzled grass rope. Only a few days earlier, the line parted at a bank landing further up the Mississippi River.

The elderly boatman, best known to his peers as “H. Tate – the very first mate,” or, “Towline Tate,” never hesitated to say whatever was on his mind.

Tate made me more apprehensive than nervous as he observed every tuck I made into the hemp strands. He could be a critical, cynical SOB when he wanted. The elderly boatman, best known to his peers as “H. Tate – the very first mate,” or, “Towline Tate,” never hesitated to say whatever was on his mind regardless of the bother his words might inflict.

But on this day, I was surprised when he asked:

“Say, boy… you know how to tie the ‘Fool’s Knot ‘- any fool can tie it?”

From my perspective, sitting on the oakum-caulked, wooden Main Deck beneath the overhanging Cabin Deck, Captain Tate looked larger and more intimidating then he did when I was standing, as I was somewhat taller than he. I’d known him since the morning after he stepped aboard the QUEEN from the walkway stretched across the gap between the steamboat and the Poydras Street Wharf and immediately fell when he slipped on the icy, canvas-covered deck after the highest ranking official from the home office ordered a deckhand to break out the water hoses in freezing weather.

Though at the time, I didn’t know the identity of the old fellow who was was taxied off in a United Cab to the hospital with a broken arm, I felt sorry he was injured just hours before the boat was leaving for Vicksburg that evening.

1. Grab line with both hands, palms facing together.

It wasn’t until after midnight when I stepped into the pilothouse and stood face to face with Captain Howard Tate with his arm in a sling, that I realized the injured man was also my “pard” sharing the back-watch while most aboard the DELTA QUEEN slept.

For much of the next several days, Captain Tate asked that I steer the boat while the pain in his arm caused him to sit and grimace on the Lazy Bench behind the pilot’s station. Often he would leave me alone for various lengths of time. Although I was a novice at “steering” a steamboat on a broad, swift river in the dead of night, I’d spent enough time in the pilothouses of the DELTA QUEEN as well as on the Steamer AVALON, in earlier days, to have a general idea of what to expect. After a few watches stood mostly alone, I began feeling comfortable “behind the sticks.”

2. Bring hands together – Bring hands together.

One night when Cap’n Tate was below, and I was steering alone in an empty pilothouse, the radar screen brightly glowed as it outlined both shores of the Mississippi River while the DELTA QUEEN approached an area where several electrical transmission lines crossed above the river between tall, steel towers. I’d been shown, sometime before, how the radar set picked up the ponderous, overhead cables and “painted” them on the screen as a white blob similar to how another vessel might appear on the scope. Assuming that was the case this time as the steamboat lessened the distance to the wires, I watched the blip as it came closer and closer toward the center of the lighted display.

3. Reach Under – Reach under each bight and grab opposite line.

Finally, perhaps out of curiosity to prove to myself that the radar was showing the overhead electric lines, and expecting to find a dark, empty river ahead, I flipped a switch and activated the port carbon arc searchlight. As the blinding white light illuminated the water ahead, a runaway deck barge loaded with shells (the South’s equivalent of gravel used for parking lots, driveways, and such) was squarely approaching the bow of the DELTA QUEEN. A few minutes more, and … I hate to imagine the consequences.

After several more days, the pain in Captain Tate’s arm subsided sufficiently, and he took back control of the boat.

Once he did, I couldn’t have paid him to let me steer.

4. Pull Each Strand – Pull each strand outward.

Although Cap’n Tate and I shared many watches, no bonds of comradery or friendship developed between us. From other pilots of his generation, I heard stories of how, when he was perhaps the roughest steamboat mate on the Lower Mississippi, he kept a supply of leather palm, work gloves aboard his steamboat which he sold to those needing a pair at exorbitant prices. Someone said that if “Towline Tate” saw a deckhand’s pair of work gloves lying on the deck while their owner was elsewhere, the brutish mate, more-often-than-not, kicked the gloves into the river; forcing the man to buy another pair onboard as the towboat made no stops ashore.

So when Captain Tate approached as I was on the deck splicing an eye into a line and asked whether, or not, I knew how to tie the “Fool’s Knot – any fool can tie it,” I was both surprised and curious to learn what he had on his mind.

I figured there was more to what he wanted to show me than just some silly rope trick; so I replied that tying the “Fool’s Knot – any fool can tie it,” was a river skill I had yet to learn. Reaching down to pick up a bight, or loop, of line with both hands, Tate quickly put his hands together, palms touching, and as he pulled them apart, two loops had formed with a perfect square knot in-between.

Cap’n Tate showed me only twice, and then dropped the rope and went on his way leaving me there to wonder what was the purpose of learning a seemingly worthless sleight of hand with a piece of line with no practical use as far as I could determine.

5. Tate quickly put his hands together, palms touching, and as he pulled them apart, two loops had formed with a perfect square knot in-between.

Something naggingly told me, however, that there was undoubtedly a sane method to Captain Tate’s madness, and I was determined to tie the “Fool’s Knot – any fool can tie it,” as quickly as the old boatman had shown me. Several days later, Captain Tate again found me on deck and inquired:

“Say, boy, did you ever learn how to tie that ‘Fool’s Knot – any fool can tie it’?”

Without hesitating, I snatched a ¾-inch piece of stuff and replied, “Do you mean like this?” as my hands quickly replicated a perfect imitation of Cap’n Tate’s odd knot.

Delighted that I took the time and effort to learn how to tie the “Fool’s Knot – any fool can tie it,” he continued:

“Now, let me show you how to Long Spice.”

All the crafty riverman wanted to know when he showed me the “Fool’s Knot – any fool can tie it,” was whether, or not, I was genuinely interested in what he had to teach. When I made an effort to learn, Tate saw in me someone genuinely ready, willing, and determined to benefit from his experience. Captain Tate’s “Fool’s Knot – any fool can tie it,” may be the most crucial contrivance we ever shared.

Cap’n Tate showed me only twice, and then dropped the rope and went on his way leaving me there to wonder what was the purpose of learning a seemingly worthless sleight of hand with a piece of line with no practical use as far as I could determine.

Over the years, I have used the outwardly appearing useless knot to help determine who was worth fooling with, and who was not worth my time and effort.

A perfect example was aboard the late Vaughn Wendling’s ADVENTURE GALLEY II, a replica of a 1792 flatboat that brought the first European Americans to what became the city of Gallipolis, Ohio. The reproduction boat, built in 1984 by Captain Jim Coomer’s students at the Cincinnati Maritime High School, was staffed by two graduates who harbored passionate dreams of careers on the river. After I came aboard closeby a cotton field near Helena, Arkansas for the downbound trip to the New Orleans’ “Louisiana World Exposition,” or “World’s Fair, “ I soon showed the fellows how to tie Cap’n Tate’s specialty knot, sometimes referred to as the “Riverman’s Recognition Knot.”

After an often troublesome adventure, the grass-roofed flatboat reached the fairgrounds alongside the river. Before I departed for home, I asked the two young men if they learned how to tie the “Fool’s Knot – any fool can tie it.” They sourly wrinkled their brows, and one spoke for them both when he snarled:

“We ain’t got time for that bull crap. I’m going to be a pilot, and he’s going to be an engineer!”

Though not surprised at the curt remark, I blurted back:

“You’re not going to make it! Neither of you has either the perseverance or fortitude to become a professional riverman!”

The last I heard, once the ADVENTURE GALLEY II returned to Cincinnati aboard a flatbed trailer, the “pilot” was working at a gas station, and the “engineer” was delivering pizzas.

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.

Click here to read all of Capt. Don Sanders’ stories of The River.

The late Vaughn Wendling and Cap’n Don Sanders aboard the ADVENTURE GALLEY II, a replica of a 1792 flatboat that brought the first European Americans to the city of Gallipolis, Ohio. The reproduction boat, built in 1984 by Captain Jim Coomer’s students at the Cincinnati Maritime High School, was staffed by two graduates who harbored passionate dreams of careers on the river.


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One Comment

  1. Elaine Santangelo says:

    As usual, another great story. I remember teaching knot tying using licorice strings.

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