A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: A sad/happy farewell as the CLYDE is sold and the Captain is a boatman without a boat

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

I’m about to move on to the next, possibly final, phase in life. The Rafter CLYDE, my last physical connection to the river, sold last week. After some 68 years of messing about on the water, I am now a boatman without a boat. With no regrets, it’s time to say farewell.  

It all happened so fast. Seemingly, out of nowhere, on the evening of the 14th of May at 10:20 pm, a message appeared in the Rafter CLYDE email account, “Is your sternwheeler still for sale?”

The Rafter CLYDE, my last physical connection to the river, sold last week. (Photo by Aaron Richardson)

Within twenty minutes after noting that the inquirer had a telephone area code from the Upper Tennessee River area near Knoxville, my return email assured “them” that the CLYDE was still available. The message, I quickly discovered, came from Dr. Julie Johnston, Ph.D., who informed me, “I am very interested in your paddle boat. I used to work on one in Kingston, TN. I live in Tennessee and would like to talk to you about your boat in the morning if you would be available.”

The next morning, I called Ms. Johnston. Once we became sufficiently acquainted, we forged arrangements for a visit to the CLYDE for a personal look at the paddlewheeler. 

As I found out later, Julie had researched other sternwheelers, but her hunt now focused on the CLYDE. Only a one-on-one contact would tell my prospective buyer if this was the right boat for her. We agreed that Friday and Saturday of the following week, 22 and 23 May, were the right days for Dr. Johnston’s visit. Later in the day, I made three “walk-around” videos of the CLYDE and posted them on YouTube to give Julie a better picture of the condition of the boat.

After some 68 years of messing about on the water, I am now a boatman without a boat. My mentor, Capt. Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley at Louisville, KY 2014.

CLYDE’s Chief Engineer, Phillip Johnson, was quickly informed about what had suddenly transpired. He offered, “Want me to come up early Friday and wake up the ole girl?”

In my column for May 31st, I wrote in length about Phillip “waking up” the CLYDE still winterized from the previous November. On Sunday, May 17th, 2020, an entry in CLYDE’s log read, “I bought the CLYDE eight years ago this.day.” 

Monday, May 18th, had a few rain showers and the temperature cooled as I straightened the Captain’s Quarters in anticipation of the Tennessean’s arrival at the end of the week. Two oil filters, NAPA # 1064, plus two gallons of 10W30 engine oil, were ordered online with the stipulation that I pick them up as soon as the Lawrenceburg, IN NAPA dealer assured me they were in stock.

Tuesday, 19 May, the 65th anniversary of “Camp Day,” when my brothers Dick and Bob and I claimed a “tiny parcel of heaven” on the Licking River as our camp, found my youngest son Jonathan and I sweeping and cleaning the boat. We removed strips of insulating foam rolls from in between the skylight windows and the fly screen that had been in place since November. On Wednesday, I worked on my weekly column, a task usually reserved for Thursdays, as I am doing now.

Phillip changed the oil and replaced the filter on the mighty 35-horsepower, four-cylinder, Kubota, diesel engine. He also cleaned the sea chest, checked the coolant and hydraulic oil.

On Thursday, 21 May, the Log read: “ At NAPA: Oil Filter # 1064 $13.88, and 2 ea. Five qts.ea. 10W30 motor oil, $41.71.” The 2020 Indiana Watercraft Stickers replaced the ones still in place on the side of the CLYDE. I should have changed them last fall. However, the owner of the houseboat next to mine promised to make a couple of fancy aluminum backgrounds for the CLYDE’s registration numbers and the orange adhesive labels signifying all the fees paid to the state for the current year were current. But my neighbor never got around to fulfilling his verbal engagement and sold his vessel downriver before I saw him again. Before departing the CLYDE at 1850 hrs., or 6:50 pm, I swept the roof and wiped down the pilothouse and “chicken coop” storage unit.  

Friday, the 22nd of May, was an exciting day aboard the CLYDE. Chief Johnson logged in at 12:47. Phillip changed the oil and replaced the filter on the mighty 35-horsepower, four-cylinder, Kubota, diesel engine. He also cleaned the sea chest, checked the coolant and hydraulic oil by 1400 when one crank of the key brought the slumbering engine back to life. We exercised the paddlewheel and left Slip16 and paddled around the basin and Laughery Creek until Julie Johnston arrived on Bravo Dock at 1705. After the arrival of her friend Ricky Peebles, 45 minutes later, the CLYDE “tooled around” in the basin and the creek until Phillip and Julie landed the CLYDE two hours later while I handled the lines on deck. By 2100, Phillip and I were off the boat, and Ms.Johnston and her friend found overnight quarters aboard the CLYDE. 

On Saturday morning, I was back aboard the CLYDE for morning coffee. Before our coffee cooled, a goodwill check for earnest money sealed the deal. My beloved Rafter CLYDE was no longer my boat. Julie and Rickey departed by 10:20, and I left a few minutes after 1100.

We exercised the paddlewheel and left Slip16 and paddled around the basin and Laughery Creek.

Sunday, May 24th, found me back alone aboard the CLYDE late in the afternoon at 1720 hrs., or 5:20 pm. My log entry read, “So lovely aboard; I decided to sleep overnight.” I was awake and up the next morning at 0820. Soon, I began moving my “clutter,” as the new prospective owner described my river treasures and “steamboat stuff,” ashore. 

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the 26th and 27th, more plunder found its way off the CLYDE, up the steep dock ramp, and into the back of “Black Beauty,” my faithful 1995, Ford F-150 pickup. Number One Bilge was straightened and swept before I tested a homemade COVID-19 mask Nori Muster sent. After a slight adjustment of the small brass safety pins on the tie strings, the cover fitted perfectly.     

Thursday and Friday, 28 & 29 May – Not aboard both days. On Saturday, Number One Bilge got another go at cleaning and tidying-up. Before leaving for home at 1930, I rearranged two bumpers between the dock and the starboard guard of the boat.

Sunday, the last day of May, was spent at home with my family.

I wire-wheeled unpainted metal circles on paddlewheel before painting them.

Monday, 01 June, “a lovely day,” according to the Log, found my elder son Jess and I on the boat. More plunder followed the path ashore for hauling away. The same routine held the next day.

Wednesday, 03 June 2020 – Log: “Sunny, Hot, Breezy. Alone aboard the CLYDE at 1320. After talking to Julie, I found that she’ll come here with Tim, her mechanic, and spend a day or two next week. I also learned I am excluded from riding on the delivery trip. The buyer will remit the balance of the purchase price in full.”

Wednesday was also the perfect day to scrub the paddlewheel of six months of accumulated mud, algae, and Zebra Mussels. The one-ton wooden wheel was not easy to roll uphill by myself alone, but after eight years, I understand the nuances necessary to position the wheel in place without help. The first application of bleach to neutralize the algae growth proved too weak to do much good, so I slipped away to the house for a couple of gallons of 10% sodium hypochlorite and sprayed it onto the affected area. After hand scrubbing with a natural fiber brush and a garden hose, the paddlewheel “looked great in comparison,” or so said the logbook. After all that exertion, and at the suggestion of my wife Peggy, I spent the night aboard the CLYDE.

Elizabeth Marler and Cappy Julie Johnston onboard the CLYDE.

The next morning, June 4th, I was on deck at 0900 and noted, “Have to return home for ‘Writing Day.’ Feeling ‘down’ over the sale of the CLYDE. I wish it weren’t to be. Departed at 1015 for the house.” 

Friday, 05 June 2020. Log: “Aboard alone at 1520 hrs. Julie and a lady friend here tomorrow. Wire-wheeled unpainted metal circles on paddlewheel and painted them Valsbar Armor Anti-Rust White. Done by 1900. Julie called at 2007 hrs. and will be here in the morning. Departed at 2110 – tired.”  

Saturday, the 6th of June, the 65th anniversary of D-Day, Operation Overlord, the allied invasion of Normandy, France, 1944, found Julie, her friend Elizabeth Marler, and myself at the boat by 10:30 a.m. According to the log, “we stripped, cleaned, and hauled ‘clutter’ ashore until 1657, or 4:57 pm,” some six hours with only a break for a delicious sandwich lunch enjoyed on the Aft Boiler Deck of the sternwheeler. Did I mention that the afternoon temperatures approached nearly ninety humid degrees? But the heat never deterred the mission. I don’t think I worked as hard in many years, but the Tennessee ladies out-classed me in the labor department. As I related later, “Julie and Elizabeth gave new meaning to the word blitzkrieg.”

A better master for the spunky paddlewheeler would be harder to find than “Cappy” Julie Johnston of the Tennessee River.

By the time we finished for the day, the CLYDE was a different looking boat on the interior. I’d never seen such a transformation in such a short time. It reminded me of stories of changing over the White House from an outgoing president to the incoming one on Inauguration Day. Julie emphasized, however, she will continue the traditions and architectural and design integrity of the Rafter CLYDE. 

Before my 1730 departure, the Rafter CLYDE officially became the property of Dr. Julie Johnston, and for all practical purposes, my 68 years on the river were behind me. Finally, I became a captain without a command.

So what does this all mean for the CLYDE? Like the original CLYDE of the 1870s, the Rafter CLYDE will be Tennessee River bound, perhaps to spend the rest of her days. No one knows for sure. But undoubtedly, the boat’s new commander possesses the energy, will, and determination to carry on the traditions began by her builder Ed Newcomb in 2001 and continued by myself, her restorer, starting in 2012. A better master for the spunky paddlewheeler would be harder to find than “Cappy” Julie Johnston of the Tennessee River.   

Here’s a toast to the CLYDE and to Ms. Johnston in the words of John Hartford:

“May your paddlewheel be free of driftwood…
May you never run aground.
May all your winds be tailwinds…
And all your trips be down.” 

Godspeed Rafter CLYDE…

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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  1. Ron Washington says:

    Good luck to Clyde, her new owner and you Don Sanders.

  2. I love your stories, this one left me feeling a bit sad as I feel I knew the Clyde and will miss her. One thing for sure, Capt Don took magnificent care of the “old gal” and the new owner is lucky to have her.

  3. Trish Caldwell-Landsittel says:

    What. A. Great. Story.

    How is it possible to feel happy and sad simultaneously.

    My best to Cappy & Clyde.

  4. I was once told by a noted riverman “the happiest days in the life of a boat owner are the day you buy the boat and the day you sell it”.

    The phrase made good sense when I heard it.

    Then came the CLYDE. and that wise statement seems to have changed.

    She was a lot more than a boat to you. She was a labor of love and your compassion for her authenticity made her the stuff legends were made of. Your postings about her taught us a lot about river history and we learned a great deal about why things are done the way they are. You gave a voice to her and let her tell the story.

    I am glad to have had her story in my life, too.

    While she will be missed, all of us who have followed her on Facebook and your column are richer for the experience.

    Thank you for letting us tag along on your great adventure with a spunky boat from the Upper Mississippi as she became an Ohio River queen.

    May she long reign on the Tennessee River…a stream who will soon welcome a great piece of river history thanks to your great dedication and care.

    I’d like to think she’s “headed down into the mystery below”, to quote lyrics of another great river man.

  5. Connie Bays says:

    I’m happy if you’re happy…..
    But part of me cries……..
    Congratulations Cappy Julie Johnston. You getting a peach of a vessel…., and one that could never have been more loved.

  6. Cori Reade-Hale says:

    Wow.a story of tears & smiles & super energy is masterfully told. God bless the Clyde & Capt Don as they go to their separate new adventures. It seems she surely has a lady to love & give her the TLC she requires.

  7. Lee Anne Ward says:

    She’s a good boat. Thanks for my time piloting a sternwheeler. I will miss her, too. I wish you both the very best!

  8. Capt Dave says:

    Farewell CLYDE! Congrats Cappy Julie! Can’t wait for your next story Captain!

  9. Jessica says:

    Bittersweet. Good to hear Clyde’s new captain respects and cares for the same river traditions you hold true to. I look forward to what you’ll be writing on next.

  10. Everett Dameron says:

    A sad, but happy day for us who knew the Clyde as intimately as you and I, after her delivery trip from the upper Mississippi to the mid Ohio river. I will miss seeing her and you on the Ohio. But you are welcome to visit ” My Escape” my 1979 Marinette cruiser for a shore side lunch and a ride on the wide Ohio at Warsaw.

  11. Joy Scudder says:

    Beautiful, Captain Don. Felt like crying as I read your goodbyes to the Clyde. I understand. Although you are no longer on the water, I trust you will continue telling your many stories of time spent on the river.

  12. Ronald Sutton says:

    Well written, Capt Don. Almost brought a Tear. Best wishes and Luck to Capt. Julie. Walking away from a part of your life is not easy. Ever think of a School for budding River Rats, just sort of seminars.

    • Bonnie says:

      Captain Don, I know this has been a sentimental journey with The Clyde. Thank you for sharing your adventures of friends & family aboard Clyde. You are one of the most informative, exciting, funny & caring storytellers, that I have been blessed to know, during my journey. Please continue to share your life’s journey with all of your fans. I’m sadden to see Cylde sold but understand. I hope the new owner loves Clyde, the way you do. Godspeed, my friend.

  13. Ron Stith says:

    All good things come to a end. Think of it as a Great Adventure. It may be Bitter Sweet, but the saying is so true..
    The happiest day of a boat owner is when you buy it. But the day you sell is a different happy. Good luck to your next Memory Lane.

  14. Virginia Rhynders says:

    Happy and sad for you at the same time. I’ll look forward to following the Clyde and wish Captain Julie the best of luck. As for you, I hope you continue for many long years allowing us to share a bit of your river lore and memories.

  15. Mary Jackson says:

    I’ve always enjoyed your stories. I hope that you continue writing about the river or whatever pops into your mind. You are a true storyteller . I look forward to the next one.

  16. John smarr says:

    Hi don. My son John and I are greatful for getting the tour of the Clyde photo from the pilot house etc. memories of your family and early age boating at the old Covington harbor. Good luck on your next adventure

  17. John Stephenson says:

    I loved the story and the man.

  18. Arlene Bridges says:

    Looking forward to more exciting and interesting tales of life on the river from you, Capt. Don. Hopefully, Clyde’s new owner will send you some photos and stories of Clyde’s home on the Tennessee River that you can also share with us.

  19. Ron Teke says:

    Thanks for sharing part of your life with us.

  20. Tony Espelage says:

    Love these stories of the river. Look forward to reading them.

  21. Christine T McCarthy says:

    Is it protocol to keep her named Clyde?
    Edit or delete this

  22. Tim Rodgers says:

    Can I come over and ride the ship before she sails the seas?

  23. Capt. Don says:

    Thanks, everyone for your heartfelt remarks. It’s time for the Rafter CLYDE to follow in the footsteps of her historic namesake and venture to the Tennessee River, where she may, quite likely, pass near her predecessor’s bones somewhere along that picturesque river. The spunky little paddlewheeler will be in loving hands. Dr. Julie Johnston, CLYDE’s new owner has many exciting plans for the boat after it gets home in the Knoxville area. I’m sure “Cappy” Johnston will keep us all updated with news of CLYDE’s new adventures. Thanks, again, for all your love and support.

  24. Peg Sanders says:

    And to sum it all up, as John Hartford would sing..”Life and the river keep rolling on by. “

  25. EdFleming says:

    July 10, 2020
    Saw Clyde heading west on the Ohio River before it docked at French Island Marina Boat Club.

  26. Paul Brinkopf says:

    Saw Clyde heading downstream on the Tennessee River last night at sunset. (July 14, 2020) What a great site. Sure envied the Captain and gave a big wave from my wave runner, and took a video to show my family.

    Great story in this New World of ours!

  27. Christy Moody says:

    My husband & I just spotted CLYDE, while out driving our Jeep hunting property, at Dickie Landing/Morris Chapel TN. I snapped some pics through the trees…then did a google search wondering CLYDE’s story, assuming there was one! Neat!

  28. Art klee says:

    Clyde just passed me heading upriver on the Tennessee. South of Watts bar dam and highway 30 bridge. July 25, 2020 17:42

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