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The River: Tracking the Rafter CLYDE on the long journey from Aurora to her new home in Tennessee


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, Tuesday, July 7, 2020, I last saw the Rafter CLYDE heading below Rabbit Hash, across from Rising Sun, Indiana, on the Middle Ohio River.

Only a couple of hours earlier, the sternwheeler paddled out of my life on a long voyage to her new home on the Tennessee River near Knoxville. Dr. Julie Johnston bought the CLYDE a month earlier. For the delivery trip, Julie employed the capable services of Captain Tim Roberts, late of the KNOXVILLE STAR excursion paddlewheeler, to “carry” her boat home safely. Knoxville still lay some 1200 miles, or three to four weeks away via the Ohio, Cumberland, and Tennessee Rivers.

Dr. Julie Johnston, who bought the CLYDE, and I, before CLYDE’s departure.

True to my word to Captain Bill Judd, though I may have fudged a little, I never watched the CLYDE go entirely out of sight as per the ancient steamboat tradition of not observing a departing steamboat fade away into the distance. Practitioners believe doing so brings “bad luck” to both the observer and the vessel. Although I pushed the convention to the limit, I knew when to quit and return home to follow CLYDE the rest of the way via the electronic route of the internet. It didn’t take long before a text came across my computer screen from Captain Tim:

“1:15 pm. CLYDE is now in the big chamber at Markland Lock and Dam, her first of many locks on our trip to Knoxville. I’m planning on overnighting at Madison, Indiana, tonight.”

After an early start from Madison on Wednesday, 08 July 2020, Mrs. Susan Johnson, wife of the CLYDE’s former Chief Engineer, was waiting at Westport, Kentucky with the Johnson children, Ryker, Madelyn, and little Cora as the CLYDE paddled past. Ryker and Maddie had been aboard the boat, especially Ryker, who accompanied his dad on several occasions. Madelyn was on the CLYDE once, with Phillip, where I kept her amused with a rubber snake while her father worked on the diesel engine. Both of the Johnson children were careful and well-behaved during their time aboard the paddlewheeler and were natural “boat kids.”

Susan Johnson, the wife of the CLYDE’s former Chief Engineer, was waiting at Westport, Kentucky with Ryker, Madelyn, and little Cora as the CLYDE paddled past.

Captain Jamie Donahue, formerly a pilot on the Steamer BELLE OF LOUISVILLE and a lord-high muckety-muck at the Louisville Pluckebaum Boat Works, uploaded a shot of the CLYDE passing Twelve Mile Island, above the city. CLYDE was heading toward McAlpine Lock and Dam that bypassed the treacherous “Falls of the Ohio River,” the bane of riverboats for the past two centuries, or longer. On the BELLE, Chief Engineer Dan Lewis snapped a photo of the CLYDE headed into the Louisville and Portland Canal, circumventing the waterfalls. Chief Dan helped Phillip on some mechanical projects aboard the CLYDE, and his efforts were always appreciated. Dan toyed with the notion of acquiring the CLYDE, but once Dr. Johnston got involved, all other assumptions were off the playing table.

Later that afternoon, before shoving the CLYDE’s nose into the mouth of Salt River for the night, Captain Tim revealed:

“Big blow coming out of McAlpine Lock – 30 mph winds with a loaded tow coming in. I had to pour the coals to her, but no problems. Have bad AIS (location finder), but getting a new one.”

Captain Jamie Donahue uploaded a shot of the CLYDE passing Twelve Mile Island.

Ironically, a similar squall packing 30-mph winds slammed into the CLYDE while leaving McAlpine northbound as an inbound “red-flag” gasoline tow pushed into the canal from above. That incident happened on Sunday, 08 July 2012, while I brought the boat on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers from Alma to Aurora – precisely eight years to the day!

The next morning, Thursday, 09 July 2020, Captain Tim already had a message waiting in my email box:

“So far, so good. Had trouble shoving off the bank this AM. The river dropped a foot overnight. Took 2 1/2 hours, but got off. There was plenty of water at the sea chest. We never really grounded her. Barely touched bottom and tied off. Didn’t expect the river to drop so much. Before tying up, I called the lock and was told the river was ‘as low as it will get.’ Guess the lockman was off a little. Ha. Ha.”

That night, the CLYDE stopped at Derby, Indiana, a tiny town on the lower end of the scenic “Oxbow Bends” region of the Ohio River. Capt. Tim texted, saying cell phone service was nonexistent at Derby, but he used the WiFi at a local restaurant to get his message my way.

Ironic Storm 08 Jul 2012 — Ironically, approximately 8 years to the day, a similar squall packing 30-mph winds slammed into the CLYDE while leaving McAlpine northbound as an inbound ‘red-flag’ gasoline tow pushed into the canal from above.

At 5:47 am, Friday, 10 July, the CLYDE slipped her ties at Derby and cleared Cannelton Lock at 11:14 with more strong winds howling. Cap’n Tim noted:

“She gets a little squirrely in a quartering wind.”

At 2101 hours, “ We are at French Island Marina, Mile 765.5. Took on fuel. Found water tank leaks. Not sure where. it’s too hot to get down there. Probably a hose or fitting.”

CLYDE covered 73.5 miles for the day after an early Derby departure.

Saturday, 11 July 2020. Captain Tim reported, after running another 64 miles with 94 more to go until the Cumberland River:

“Cleared Newburgh Lock at 0803. Arrived at Mt. Vernon (Indiana) City Dock, Mile 829.5, before 6:30 pm. Time for chores and rest.”

The CLYDE stopped at Derby, Indiana, a tiny town on the lower end of the scenic “Oxbow Bends” region of the Ohio River.

During the early morning, Sunday, 12 July, I informed the captain that a dock at Green Turtle Bay Marina, on the Cumberland River above Barkley Dam, burned during the night which would surely impact his plans as that was where he planned to have a crew change with another fellow swapping places with Rick Welton who’d been aboard since the beginning. At 8:30 am, Captain Tim texted:

“Above John T. Meyers Lock & Dam with 3-4 hours delay expected. Currently, pushed up to the lead barge of MISS KATHY, a 600-foot asphalt tow. Possibly, be here all day. I told her captain to be careful so our 35 ponies (Clyde’s 35 horsepower diesel engine) don’t push his tow onto the bank.”

At 5:37 pm, Captain Tim continued:

“Finally locked through John T. Myers at 2 pm. As we were pushing off the lockwall, I noticed the tach bouncing around. By the time we reached the end of the wall, all hell had broken loose as the engine shut down, and the wind was pushing us back upstream towards the dam on the wrong side of the wall. We quickly dropped the anchor and pulled open the engine hatch. The belt to the alternator and water pump had broken. And of course, it is the innermost belt. I did recall seeing a new belt in the back closet, so I grabbed it and began removing the others so I could replace the broken belt. Unfortunately, the new belt was too short to work, no matter what I tried.”

“The anchor was dragging a bit, but slowly, so I decided to put the pitiful remains of the original belt back on. At least, maybe we could get to the bank. But after installing, I realized it wouldn’t last a minute more, and I didn’t want to overheat the engine again. Finally, a light bulb went off in my head. Maybe the belt from the air compressor would work. Off with all the belts again, and I put the air compressor belt on the water pump. Though it was super tight, I barely managed to get it on after disconnecting the tensioner on the alternator to make it work. Voila, we were back in business! We are nursing CLYDE down to an overnight anchorage in the chute at Cincinnati island, Mile 861. Tomorrow we will limp her to Golconda, IL, and pick up parts and spares. It’s been a trying day.”

Despite all the problems, CLYDE racked up another 31-and-a-half-miles closer to her new home.

On Tuesday morning, 14 July 2020, at Smithland Lock & Dam, the last lock for the CLYDE on the Ohio.

Monday morning, 10:30 am, 13 July 2020, after passing the notorious pirate lair at Cave-in-Rock, Illinois, Captain Tim cheerfully announced:

“Hauled anchor at 0530. On the way to Golconda (IL) to get parts and supplies.”

By 6:17 pm, Rick Welton sent the following:

“A BIG thank-you goes out to the fine folks at NAPA in Golconda. We would’ve been in a sticky situation without access to transportation, but they sent someone to take us to their store for parts. They even took us to get some groceries on the way back. There are some awesome people in this world!”

At 7: 10 pm, Capt. Tim added his praise for the help received in Golconda:

“The owner of the local NAPA came and picked us up. We got all new belts and two new batteries as we discovered the others were bad. But that’s another story. The owner also took us to the grocery store and helped bring everything to the boat. Super nice guy. I have replaced all the belts and double-checked everything twice. Tomorrow it’s on to the TN River (hopefully).”

CLYDE pushed up to the lead barge of MISS KATHY. (Capt. Curtis Ehlman photo.)

Although the CLYDE’s destination lies close to the source of the Tennessee River, over 600 miles upstream from where it empties into the Ohio River, Captain Tim chose to paddle up the nearby Cumberland River to Lake Barkley and then across the Barkley Canal to Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River. The distance going by that route is not only shorter, but other circumstances at Kentucky Lock on the Tennessee warranted going by way of the Cumberland. A particular disadvantage, however, for the 35-horsepower paddlewheeler was the swift velocity of the current pouring from the water-powered electric generators below Barkley Dam.

On Tuesday morning, 14 July 2020, once past Smithland Lock & Dam, the last lock for the CLYDE on the Ohio, the sternwheeler turned into the mouth of the Cumberland River and immediately felt the blast from 30-miles above.

At 10:25 am, Captain Tim announced: “CLYDE seems fine for the moment. Making way up the Cumberland now, but running very slowly.”

When I replied, “I thought you had a helper-boat,” Tim answered, “We do.They caught up to us at Mile 9.5. We could only make about 1.2 mph. But now that we’re on the hip of the towboat M/V SISCO, we’re doing 4 to 4.5.”

Later that evening, I messaged Rick Welton: “Have you made Barkley Lock?”

Rick answered: “Just cleared Barkley. No photos. Between disconnecting from the tow, fighting the strong current, and getting tied off in the lock, we weren’t able to. We’re pretty frazzled.”

Now that we’re on the hip of the towboat M/V SISCO, we’re doing 4 to 4.5.

“Going to Green Turtle Bay? I queried.

“Nope,” Rick answered, “Closed to transients due to the fire. Going to Moor’s Marina on Kentucky Lake.”

At 7:18, Rick texted: “We just entered the cut through the channel from Lake Barkley to KY Lake.”

On CLYDE’s Facebook page, a message attached at 8:30 pm to a photo posted by Mr. Bumper Hostetler announced:

“Clyde and crew arrived safely at Moor’s Resort & Marina, Tennessee River Mile 32.2.”

Mr. Bumper also added, “Captain Tim is my wife’s brother. We moor our pontoon at Moor’s Resort and Marina, where he is spending the night. Mile marker 32.2.”

So ended an especially eventful day. The CLYDE was finished, possibly forever, with the Ohio River where she’s spent the last eight years, and, like her namesake, the original rafter CLYDE, was on the Tennessee River. After negotiating a suspenseful passage on the Cumberland River with the assistance of the towboat SISCO, the vessel and crew settled in at Moor’s Resort for a breather. Still, there was work to do, as the Captain revealed in his last text of the day:

Tues 07-14-2020 – Mr. Bumper Hostetler announced: “Clyde and crew arrived safely at Moor’s Resort & Marina, Tennessee River Mile 32.2.”

“I had to put in a new alternator and re-greased the chains and blocks. My crew change comes tonight.”

“That’s been a helluva strain on that little boat,” I answered. “You’ve already done a year’s worth of normal boating. You still have around 600 more miles to go, and it’s all uphill.”

By Thursday evening, CLYDE laid up for the night at Paris Landing, Mile 66 on the Tennessee River. For the first time since Ed Newcomb built the paddlewheeler on the Wisconsin shores of Lake Pepin, along the Upper Mississippi River, the Rafter CLYDE was in the State of Tennessee where she’s likely to be for some time to come.

By Thursday evening, CLYDE laid up for the night at Paris Landing, Mile 66 on the Tennessee River.

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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8 Comments

  1. Terri Christie says:

    Love, love love your river tales and the journey of Clyde to a new home is a thrill a minute. Thank you so much for sharing. Can’t wait to read next week’s adventure.

  2. Jo Ann W Schoen says:

    As always another great read! I love following along with the CLYDE headed to her new home, just as I did when the CLYDE came to the Ohio River 8 years ago.

  3. Ronald Sutton says:

    Delivery Trips seem to be a bit more strenuous than little afternoon pleasure jaunts. Surprise she is eating Belts. Well written, Capt Don. Ships and Boats sometimes seem to acquire Human Personalities.

  4. QueenAnn Baker says:

    Great story

  5. Anne Beaver says:

    Enjoy reading about Clyde’s adventure. The lady who bought Clyde goes to church with us. Will be looking for the next story.

  6. Luv it! Can’t wait to read more on Clyde!

  7. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Awesome following sweet lady Clyde to her new home. You tie all the Captain’s messages in well with her past journey. I feel like I’m there.I’ll love to see the rest. Thanks.

  8. Ronald Sutton says:

    Will all the tales of Belts and Leaks, almost feel like I’m Working Again……expecting the ‘Come Quick!’ call any minute. Were I the New Owner, I would set aside a New Locker especially for Belts and Hoses, and Keep it Full. Glad to hear that good old fashioned MidWest Hospitality is still present and Well.

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