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The River: Rafter CLYDE to soon be on her way with new mistress; will her former Captain watch her go?


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

In a couple more days, the Rafter CLYDE will point her bow westward, headed in the direction of the mouth of the Cumberland River, some 422 miles downstream. Then it’s all uphill to Barkley Dam, through the Barkley Canal into Kentucky Lake, and then other 600-plus miles up the Tennessee River to the paddlewheeler’s new home near Knoxville. That’s just a smidgen less than the nearly 1,300 miles Everett Dameron and I shoved the boat from Alma, Wisconsin to Aurora, Indiana soon after she became mine in the Spring of 2012. 

In a couple more days, the Rafter CLYDE will point her bow westward, headed in the direction of the mouth of the Cumberland River, some 422 miles downstream.

CLYDE’s stalwart new mistress, Dr. Julie Johnston, a 27-year veteran of the United States Army, spent the past month recreating the interior of the scruffy workboat into her image. Out went the “clutter” I regarded as part and parcel of my “great big collection of steamboat stuff,” to paraphrase the lyrics of a John Hartford melody. Then, in came Julie’s oojamaflips, including a new microwave oven, a larger refrigerator, and a deluxe, custom-made mattress made especially to Cap’n Johnston’s specs for the pilot’s berth by the Mattress Factory of Cincinnati. The state-of-the-art bed was quite an improvement over the over-sized, moldy, box springs, and musty rubber pad it replaced. Understandably, the CLYDE delights in all that pampering.  

Captain Tim Roberts, the Master of the KNOXVILLE STAR excursion boat, will be responsible for guiding the CLYDE home to a covered slip waiting at the Tellico Marina southwest of Maryville on the Little Tennessee River, a tributary of the river the Cherokee Nation called the “Tenasi.”   

Although Captain Tim and I chatted a couple of times on our cellphones, I have yet to see him in person. From what I gather from our conversations, he seems to be a knowledgeable boatman and a regular guy. This Tuesday will tell.
  

Dr. Julie Johnston, a 27-year veteran of the United States Army, spent the past month recreating the interior of the scruffy workboat into her image.

Last week, back in CLYDE’s completely authentic white oak paddlewheel, two spoke-like Arms and several inner and outer Circle Fillers demanded a replacement. Working alone, each set of Arms took an afternoon, apiece, to remove and restore. Although hoping to demonstrate the process to the Owner, or her representative, neither was available for the lesson. Replacing paddlewheel parts is not as precise or complicated as building pianos; there is, however, a particular procedure that demands following as each piece fits individually and requires a time-proven method of completion.

Such was a lesson hard-learned soon after the casino boat GRAND VICTORIA II first arrived in 1996 at her new facilities in Rising Sun, Indiana, and required some badly needed therapy in her monstrous, 26 X 52-foot sternwheel. Though I had the opportunity to work with my deckhands for only a day before I was relieved by another captain, I cautioned them to finish one piece at a time and never tear out more of the wheel before completing what we’d already removed. Judging from many years spent fixing and rebuilding paddlewheels, I knew that biting off too much at a time could become problematic.  

Soon after I left the GRAND VIC II for home, the engineering consultee for the management outfit overseeing the Marine Department contradicted my advice and ordered the crew to rip away a large section of the steel and wooden wheel in opposition to the crew’s pleas.
 

The state-of-the-art bed was quite an improvement over the over-sized, moldy, box springs, and musty rubber pad it replaced.

“But Captain Don said NEVER do it that way,” they reminded the advisor, who demanded they follow his lead and disregard mine. As soon as too much material came off the wheel, it sprung horribly out of shape, as I warned before my departing. The damage was so severe; the gambling boat remained “dockside” until my return two weeks later. Once back, I spent the next several days re-aligning the sternwheel with two talented deckhands destined to rise within the organization: Paul Webber and Frank W. Jones, Jr. Paul later left the deck for the engineroom and served as an Oiler until his retirement. As quickly as possible, Frankie earned his U. S. Coast Guard Merchant Mariner’s License and served as a Deck Mate until his promotion to Bridge Mate, where he assisted alongside the Captains in the pilothouse.  

If the CLYDE ever requires specialized paddlewheel attention, Julie knows my contact numbers and how to ring my bell for attention. Happily, I will head to that most-promising Tennessee Valley river country and conduct paddlewheel mending classes on the fantail. 

A few chores remained this past week before the delivery crew arrives with Dr. Johnston on Monday. The boat’s one-inch-diameter nylon anchor line spent the better part of the past year tossed into the back of my pickup truck, where it turned stiff and dirty with the growth of green algae. A simple solution I learned long ago is to soak the line (we boat people rarely say “rope”) in a washtub filled with water, bleach, and fabric softener and allow the “soup” to brew at least 24 hours. Then the line is removed, rinsed, air- dried, and should be as clean and soft as a baby’s bottom. Try it if your boat suffers from stiff, dirty nylon lines.
  

Last week, back in CLYDE’s completely authentic white oak paddlewheel, two spoke-like Arms and several inner and outer Circle Fillers demanded a replacement.

Shortly after noon tomorrow, Monday, July 6th, the Knoxville crew should arrive at CLYDE’s dock on the Middle Ohio River. Chief Phillip Johnson plans to be aboard to help familiarize Captain Tim and his team with the vitals concerning the operation and care of the paddlewheeler on its long sojourn to Southern waters. Ironically, the original CLYDE, the namesake for this vessel, also ended her final years on the Tennessee River where its historic iron hull, the first built for a steamboat on the Upper Mississippi River, may still lie hidden beneath the muck, sand, and waters of that river. While Phillip and I “show Captain Tim the ropes,” Julie and a helper will likely be frantically shopping for supplies and foodstuffs for the long voyage lasting at least some three weeks.   

Depending on the weather and other factors, the CLYDE may have one last ride with Phillip Johnson and me aboard, together. Captain Aaron Richardson says he will be following along on his tug, the historic ELIZABETH LEA. Many times our two boats cruised in tandem, and there were a couple of times we needed Aaron and “LITTLE LIZ’s” help to return to the dock. Hopefully, this won’t be another of those occasions.   

Sometime early Tuesday morning, we suspect Captain Tim will call to let loose all the lines. Then he will back out one last time from Slip16 on Bravo Dock, twist the CLYDE’s head in the direction of the Ohio River, and slowly come ahead on the paddlewheel. At Laughery Creek, the bow thruster may help turn the boat toward the broad Ohio where the Captain will spin the steering wheel hard to starboard, and the CLYDE will paddle into the current and out of my life. 

Will I be able to be there to watch her leave? I don’t know, yet, if I can.

Frank W. Jones, Jr. earned his U. S. Coast Guard Merchant Mariner’s License and served as a Deck Mate until his promotion to Bridge Mate, where he assisted alongside the Captains in the pilothouse.

Captain Aaron Richardson says he will be following along on his tug, the historic ELIZABETH LEA. Many times our two boats cruised in tandem.

The Captain will spin the steering wheel hard to starboard, and the CLYDE will paddle into the current and out of my life.

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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9 Comments

  1. Jo Ann W Schoen says:

    Your writing conveys all the emotion I know you must feel. Console yourself that she is going to a caring owner and a beautiful river.

  2. Mike Washenko says:

    Another great article Cap. I couldn’t watch her leave.

  3. Heidi English says:

    What a bitter sweet end to a long love of paddlewheel life.
    I know the heart ache you are feeling. As a woman who spent her entire childhood on the Ohio river it pains me to live 2 hours away and knowing my husband doesn’t have what pulls me back to that ol Man so often.
    Its a must that you bid farewell to Clyde. I would have great regret if I did not watch her leave. Close her story Don, so there’s no gaps when you write of her next life. Oxox

  4. Parting Does Not seem to be sweet sorrow. Well written, Capt. Don.

  5. Connie Bays says:

    Wonderful writing, but very sad. Please pardon me while I cry. Many, many best wishes for the next chapter in your life.

  6. Jeff Miller says:

    Thanks Captain Don, I always enjoy your writing.
    I know you’re going to miss the Clyde, best of luck to the new owner. Safe travels.

  7. Cirnelia Reade-Hale says:

    Beautiful Don. The real stuff of work in boat life mixed with the emotion of farewell..I hope you did see her off.just as Bob McCann would say “Don’t watch her out of sight”.
    That’s great of you to offer to be sure wheel maintenance & love are carried on.
    God speed to you & the lovely Clyde in your new separate ventures.

  8. Don Searls says:

    man that’s too bad. i just found your facebook page and wanted to cruise for a while.

  9. Capt. Don says:

    Thanks, everyone for your comments. Time marches on and change is eternally inevitable.

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