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The River: 600 river miles to go, CLYDE is ‘slow and steady,’ gets an oil leak and runs into ‘big blow’


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

Last week we left the CLYDE and her crew, Captain Tim Roberts and deckhand Rick Welton, at Paris Landing, Kentucky, Mile 66, their first night on the Tennessee River. Ahead lay more than 600 miles of river, most of it water impounded behind mighty concrete and steel dams constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority, the TVA, in the 1930s and ‘40s to bring prosperity through electricity to cities, rural communities, and farms in the Valley of the Tennessee.

Overall, a nice boat, unique and fun, she is somewhat limited by her power, speed, and maneuverability, especially in heavy current or wind.

The next morning, Friday, 17 July 2020, Captain Tim left Paris Landing as the sky began to brighten before the sun peeked above the horizon. By 2 pm, Central Daylight Savings Time forever referred to as “boat time” for the rest of the voyage, the CLYDE was below the CSX Railroad Bridge at Mile 100 with an average speed of 4.16 mph. I guesstimated the mean rate based on CLYDE’s 8:45 position (Mi. 74) and the CSX Bridge (Mi. 100). Twenty-six miles in 6.25 hours, or 4.16 miles in one hour. The Rafter CLYDE may not be a speedster, but like the tortoise, she’s “slow and steady.” 

While I had the opportunity, I messaged Cap’n Tim asking what he thought about the CLYDE now that he “knew her.” He shot back:

“Overall, a nice boat, unique and fun, she is somewhat limited by her power, speed, and maneuverability, especially in heavy current or wind. The current, below the dams on the TN River, the water can be quite fast at times. I hope we are lucky enough to miss those situations.”

‘We have developed an oil leak. We are going to have to shut down every couple of hours and check.’

I replied: “Though CLYDE was built as a weekend boat to putter around, you and I have pushed her envelope. The trip from Alma in 2012 was harrowing at times. One of the reasons I sold the boat to Julie was I knew the CLYDE couldn’t fight her way alone up the Mississippi to St. Louis as some prospects had to do if they bought her. Once the boat gets home, she should settle into friendly territory.”  

Captain Tim, again: “Yup, I understand. Just wanted to be honest. I’m sure Julie will enjoy her. We have been fighting the wind and current the whole way. I’m looking forward to a calm day.”

The last communication received from the CLYDE that day read: “Anchored-up at Mile 125 at 1930 (7:30). Lots of wind, today.”

But the next morning, Saturday, 18 July 2020, the captain messaged: “Underway at 0530. We have developed an oil leak. We are going to have to shut down every couple of hours and check.”

Jeff Prince & Capt. Tim – Jeff Prince, who replaced Rick Welton, with Capt. Tim Roberts.

6:30 a.m. “A significant leak developed after one hour. I put the Pig Mat (oil-absorbent) under it this morning before we left. That picture I sent is after one hour of run time. We are at Perryville Marina. 
I got a call into a mechanic while waiting on the engine to cool down.”

The leak turned out to be a loose part on the engine called an “oil pressure sending unit” the mechanic found that was “very loose.”

3:45 pm: “The mechanic will be back later to take care of it. There is no way I could contort my body enough to get to it. We should be underway again in the morning,” was the captain’s final message for Saturday. 

As is the custom to allow as much daylight running time as possible, the CLYDE departed at 5:40 am Sunday, 19 July 2020, with Jeff Prince aboard who replaced Rick Welton at Paris Landing as the skipper’s assistant. Rick, it turned out, helped Captain Tim deliver his private boat, a custom-built Kelly Craft, from Louisville to Tellico Marina, the same one CLYDE had in her sights near Maryville, Tennessee. 

At 8:18 am, Captain Tim noted: “Going fine, Just plugging along.”

The CLYDE was in the neighborhood of Savanna, Tennessee the home of Jeff Wilkes, a local real estate agent by trade and steamboat buff by the proximity of the Tennessee River which instilled his passion for the history of the steamboats that once prowled the length of the river some called the “Cherokee.” Jeff surprised everyone with a drone flyover whose film footage became a mesmerizing video of the Rafter CLYDE paddling past the US 64 Highway Bridge along the scenic waterway. 

“We just got incredible professional drone footage and pictures. The video will be done professionally!” Jeff added.

Jeff surprised everyone with a drone flyover whose film footage became a mesmerizing video of the Rafter CLYDE.

Another unexpected cinematic and photographic extravaganza came from Ms.Tara Fortenberry. Tara posted a video and several stills of the CLYDE “north of Pickwick Lock & Dam on the Tennessee in Decaturville,” as she described the location of her artistry.

By evening, Capt. Tim updated his position: “Going to anchor at Mile 195. Slow going.”

The log entries for Monday, 20 July 2020 sounded curt and to the point. Maybe it was the intense heat on the Tennessee River that slowed exchanges between the boat and my desk, but at 5:20 am, boat time, the CLYDE “hauled anchor and underway,” I understood.

8:28 am. “Cleared Pickwick Lock,” and at 3:11 pm, “Just paddling along, stopping at Florence (AL) for the night. 4:10. Passed Eastport, Mississippi, heading to Florence.”

Tim further noted that the CLYDE tied up for the night at the Florence Municipal Dock.

Another unexpected cinematic and photographic extravaganza came from Ms.Tara Fortenberry.

Tuesday, 21 June 2020, began early, as usual. Ahead lay the 93-and-a-half lift at Wilson Lock, usually an experience that those fortunate enough to witness the wet, cavernous mossy-green cement walls towering to the clouds never forget and talk about for the rest of their earthly days. As I waited impatiently to find how well the CLYDE and crew fared riding the nearly 100-foot watery column above the rocky boulders of what was once the bane for steamboat transportation on the Tennessee River, the ominous Mus Shoals, I received but one word in reply, “easy.”

Wilson Lake is the smallest of the series of TVA lakes on the Tennessee. When in the middle of Wilson Lake, the crew could easily see Wilson Dam behind the paddlewheel and Wheeler Dam ahead and not far into the distance. At 10:15 the red light on the Chat Box announced a note from the CLYDE:

“Cleared Wheeler Lock at 10:50. Locked through with the M/V (Motor Vessel) RED WAGNER, a TVA work towboat, and barge.”  

As quickly as I could, I texted Capt. Tim: “You’re in my old territory now. I was on Joe Wheeler Lake for six years. Thanks for the pics. I’d appreciate one of the Decatur RR Bridge if you can.”

Failing to receive a return message in nearly eight hours, at 6:57 pm, I begged: 

“Still underway?”

Hearing nothing for three hours, I finally asked, “Where are you for the night?”

Locked thru Wheeler with Red Wagner – Locked through with the M/V (Motor Vessel) RED WAGNER, a TVA work towboat.

Nothing… but then:

“Just got into a (certain) marina in Decatur. We ran into a hellacious storm with 60-mph winds. Blew us out of the channel in seconds. No way the CLYDE would come into the wind. Dropped the anchor, but we dragged for at least 1/2 mile till it snagged something. The storm blew for about an hour and a half, and we ended up in four feet of water full of seaweed. After the blow subsided, we hauled anchor only to discover the engine cooling water standpipe was full of seaweed. So we took off the cap and spent a couple of hours trying to clear it and the strainer. Finally got it done and made it to the marina, another shithole of many. Their diesel pump quit working, the sewage pump-out broken, and they have no showers. We decided to go up to the restaurant to get a bite, but the kitchen closed five minutes earlier. Not a fun day.”  

My reply: “I’m happy that you two are safe and nothing’s seriously broken. I was concerned, today, about the weather your way. I’ve seen some mean stuff in Decatur.”

Wednesday, 22 July 2020. At 9:18 am I inquired Captain Tim:

“How’s it going this morning after a helluva day? When you get up to Hobbs Island, Miles 334 to 336, is where the bones of the original CLYDE may lie buried in the chute of the island.”

At 9:34 am, Tim cautiously assured me, “So far, so good at Mile 315.”

Hearing nothing more for the rest of the day, a text at 8:10 pm arrived in my box:

Captain Tim attached a video showing the “huge blow” with winds that must have been howling at a hurricane force.

“So far, so good. Cleared Guntersville Lock at 1820. Six miles to tonight’s stop.”

At nearly 10 pm, my time, I messaged the captain, again: “Laid up for the night? Where?”

At 11:10, he answered: ‘Yes, at Guntersville Marina (Mile 359). Huge blow. Bouncing like crazy.”

Captain Tim attached a video showing the “huge blow” with winds that must have been howling at a hurricane force. The screaming winds starched CLYDE’s flags out stiffly, but with the boat tied securely to the dock, the video immediately raised concerns of what would have happened had the CLYDE been caught in the storm underway on Lake Guntersville.

Early Thursday morning, 23 July 2020, the CLYDE was underway before Guntersville Marina opened at 8 am. An hour later, Captain Tim announced by way of Facebook Chat:

“Yup.  I got to the channel but had to stop and clear the strainer and standpipe again. Full of seaweed. Another hour’s delay.”

With the red chair on the port side, the green chair to starboard, we ran the rest of the way home showing those “lights.”  

“That’s a problem we never had,” I reminded Cap’n Tim, “Zebra Mussels for us.”

“Is that new pipe-cleaning brush I bought helping? Remember, too; there’s a Wet-Vac in Bilge # 4 if you need a sweeper or blower.”

“Oh, I’ve used the vac, Captain Tim responded, but the brush gets stuck and is a booger to pull back out. I’m going to trim the bristles back a little. The red port running light was out, and I think we will be running in the dark tonight.  So I rigged this up to get us through.”  

The Captain attached a photo of a cleverly-rigged running light with a small flashlight attached to the back of the light’s housing. Immediately my thoughts turned to 2012 when the CLYDE was deadheading back from the 100th Anniversary Celebration for the Steamer BELLE OF LOUISVILLE, and we lost both required port and starboard red and green navigation lights. Fortunately, the deck gear included a red and a green folding canvas camp chair. Before darkness set in, we laid lantern flashlights in the seats and turned the backs forward on the appropriate sides facing oncoming traffic – the red chair on the port side, the green chair to starboard, and ran the rest of the way home showing those “lights.”  

Unless I hear from the CLYDE, shortly, I’m going to leave everyone, including myself hanging, as this evening is also my deadline to get these pages to the editor. What does Captain Tim have up his sleeve, tonight, to necessitate running after dark? I’m sure he has a wise plan as the CLYDE is entering into territory on the Tennessee River that is as familiar to him as long stretches of the Ohio River are to me.

The scenic “Gorge of the Tennessee River” below Chattanooga, where the river twists and turns for some 26 miles through a massive gap in an ancient rock formation known as Walden Ridge.

Hold everything! Cap’n Tim came in online just as I was about to hit the Send Button. He’s been pushing the CLYDE extremely hard to run through the scenic “Gorge of the Tennessee River” below Chattanooga, where the river twists and turns for some 26 miles through a massive gap in an ancient rock formation known as Walden Ridge. Before a hydroelectric dam raised the level of the river in 1913, treacherous rapids, and rocks with colorful names caused some extremely hazardous conditions in the Gorge.

The Suck, the Boiling Pot, the Skillet, and the Pan struck terror into the hearts of boatmen and travelers on the river as it tumbled through the Gorge of the Tennessee. Though now, Captain Tim is not fearful of those old drowned haunts in the Gorge, he is concerned that he can tie off, tonight, at a Chattanooga city dock. 

Instead, the captain summed up his reasons for pushing the CLYDE so hard into the night:

“We are about two miles from our stop tonight at Mile 412. Going to try and tie to a city dock in case we get another big blow. Should make Chattanooga tomorrow.”

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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5 Comments

  1. David S Wilson says:

    It’s for another great read capt

  2. Jo Ann W Schoen says:

    I’ve been sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for word each day how the CLYDE and her crew are doing. What an adventure. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Ronald L Sutton says:

    What kind of Speed comes from ‘Pushing Hard?’ A little boat in Big Boat Territory. A skilled boatman/Captain using every bit of experience and guile available.

  4. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    More awesome coverage. Thanks Capt Don for sharing Capt Tim’s log of events. I feel as if I’m on board for the adventure. Bless them & Clyde.

  5. Awesome reading. Thank you for the lovely journey writing of Clydes ventures to her new home. Luv it!

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