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The River: Cub pilot Jonathan Sanders joins the crew for stormy, life-threatening journey up the river

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 is a part of a long and continuing story.

CLYDE at Lighthouse Point YAcht Club (Photo provided)

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Nine years ago this past week, Wednesday, 11 July 2012, Everett Dameron and I landed the Rafter CLYDE at Lighthouse Point Yacht Club at 2:50 p.m. after a nearly 1,300-mile all-water delivery trip from Alma, Wisconsin to Aurora, Indiana. Later that afternoon, the sternwheeler’s Log Book noted: “Jonathan Evan Hartford Sanders joined the crew of the CLYDE.”

My youngest of two sons, Jonathan, and I moved the boat from E-Dock to D-Dock, the first time the two of us ever shared any degree of maritime activity. Jesse, his older brother, and I often spent time together on the SUN*FISH, our former workboat at its berth on the Tennessee River at General Joe Wheeler Lake near Decatur, Alabama. To my disappointment, Jon never endured the long automobile ride to Northern Alabama to spend time aboard the FISH.

Jonathan Sanders about CLYDE (Photo provided)

The voyage from Alma down the Upper Mississippi with another 500 miles up the Ohio River to Aurora was a race against time with the insurance company that granted the CLYDE a thirty-day temporary policy to allow Ev and me barely enough time to get the sternwheeler home. What was needed for permanent coverage required a complete survey by an authorized marine surveyor while the boat was out of the water and on the way. The closest marina capable of pulling the 17-ton CLYDE, I thought, was Washington Marine, on the eastern side of Cincinnati, some 39 miles further upstream.

(A few years later, Lighthouse pulled the CLYDE into their storage yard to replace the bow-thruster tunnel and give it a bottom paint job. But, unfortunately, I didn’t ask Earl Bratfish, the owner of Lighthouse, if he could move the CLYDE out of the water for the marine survey. Why? I haven’t a clue. The fact was, I made plans to paddle upstream nearly 80 miles, up and back, for the job that could have possibly taken place right where the boat was moored. Beats me. I’m still wondering…)

After moving the CLYDE from Lighthouse Yacht Club on Laughery Creek, Jon and I docked the paddle wheeler at Waterways Marina on Hogan Creek, a couple of miles upstream.

A Log entry for Friday the 13th read: “Brad, my insurance man, called and said: ‘Cannot get an extension for insurance without marine survey.’” Immediately I telephoned Washington Marine and was informed, “See no problem with the survey.” The following day, I rang Captain Bill Judd and left a voicemail message asking if he’d be willing to survey the CLYDE.

Capt. Bill Judd (Photo provided)

Around 5 p.m., Captain Bill Judd returned my call and advised that I contact Washington Marine again and ask if they had any concerns about pulling the CLYDE. After phoning them, we decided to pull the boat on a trailer and not with the TraveLift for fear the heavy straps on the lift would damage CLYDE’s overhanging exterior walkways. Cap’n Judd also said he would talk to the insurance underwriters to know exactly what they wanted in the survey. Insuring any older steel-hulled vessel can be a nightmare – especially one driven by a paddlewheel, a contraption completely misunderstood by most marine insurers. However, one clever sternwheeler owner listed his means of propulsion as “outboard” and received his coverage without the usual complications of explaining the workings of a paddlewheel.

Log. Tuesday, 17 July 2012, 9:30 a.m.: “Hot, Sunny, & Windy. Jonathan and I arrived at the CLYDE to take her to Washington Marine to be hauled out and surveyed — Departed Waterways at 1015 – Entered Ohio River upbound at 1025 — I-275 Bridge, Mile 491.6, Lawrenceburg, IN at 1025 hrs — Anderson Ferry at 1400 — Walt’s Boat Club Ramp, 1514 — Fuel Transfer from 1545 to 1600.”

CLYDE’s Log Book continued: “A hot cruise through the Cincinnati harbor… most everything has changed and only remnants of the waterfront I remember as a youth remain. The stout, steel-beamed dock of American Compressed Steel is now an observation deck for Sawyer Park, a public playground where a scrapyard once dominated the waterfront. Jonathan has steered for most of the trip. For a first-time helmsperson, he seems to have a knack for the pilot’s art. He anticipates the wind, knows when to ‘widen-out,’ and is perfectly calm and composed when passing tows. Normally, most beginners panic at the first approach of a towboat shoving 12 barges.”

Captain Don and cub pilot Jonathan in 2017 (Photo provided)

Around 5:30 p.m., with a hard wind blowing on the Cinncinnati shore, the CLYDE passed by Washington Marine as Jonathan made a lazy, wide turn downstream toward the dock. With the wind on the stern, the paddlewheeler screamed towards the Washington berth. However, I took control before we “landed,” more like a semi-controlled crash. By 6 p.m., the CLYDE was tied tight for the night. With the last line out and “all fast,” Jon heated a tin of canned chile on the propane stove for supper. Then, with no electricity, we settled in for a hot, sweltering night without even a fan for a breath of cooling air.

By 7 a.m., early the next morning, Wednesday, 18 July 2012, Cap’n Bill Judd arrived. An hour later, a hydraulically adjustable cradle pulled CLYDE to the top of the steep riverbank, where the survey began the moment the buggy stopped on the first flat plateau above the Ohio River. Captain Judd declared the hull exterior was in “very good condition with no rust or pitting,” although brown moss clung to occasional spots on the bottom. Soon after Washington workers installed four magnesium anodes to the rudders, the CLYDE swiftly returned to the waiting waters below the steep grade. By thirty-five minutes past noon, Jonathan was behind the wooden steering wheel again, guiding the CLYDE downstream towards home.

Log: “1345. Dayton Bar Light. Mile 468.8 — 1426 hrs. Roebling Suspension Bridge. DUKWS alongside — 1615- 1700. TREMENDOUS STORM. Mile 482 – I dropped the anchor, but it dragged—backed stern into the wind – which saved us: backing plus our old faithful anchor. The storm finally blew past but lost a packet of PFDs (lifevests) off the roof and one bucket plank in the paddlewheel. Thank you, Lord… again.”

Or as my THE RIVER column of 14 July 2019 recalled:

On the way home after obtaining a positive inspection by Captain William “Bill” Judd, an accredited marine surveyor, we ran into a summer squall, unlike anything I’d been in since 1978 while experiencing a life-changing encounter with a tropical storm in the Atlantic Ocean after departing Bermuda sailing on a small Offshore Supply Vessel bound for Norfolk, Virginia. After 45 minutes of raging, the storm moved on, leaving the CLYDE and her crewmen a bit tattered but still floating fearlessly. Once we returned home with a positive marine survey, I enrolled the CLYDE with an insurance underwriter other than the one who allowed us to risk that hazardous journey financially unprotected.

Clyde returned to the water (Photo by A. Richardson)

Although the storm we encountered on that hot, unstable summer day was Jonathan’s first experience in such a life-threatening situation, he acted as fearlessly and professionally as anyone I have ever met on the river or at sea.

Now that nine quick years have passed since Jonathan and I crewed together aboard the CLYDE for the first time and had such a dramatic and unexpected experience, I asked him what encountering the storm meant to him. He responded:

“That being my first time on the river, I had no idea the dangers a smaller craft can face. A stormy day on the river can seem calming when contemplated from the bank. Although, I do remember a few times, as a child, being frightened from squalls over the river as viewed from ashore. Ours looked and felt like a dramatic storm at sea in a movie, pitching left and right, seemingly ready to topple. I was sure that, in some solipsistic way, a tornado was sure to come barreling out of the ~20-foot visibility fog and rain. I did notice some strong crosswinds, but no clear existential threat materialized. Yet, at one point through dozens of minutes of slow-motion action, watching the boat teeter or pull its head out – threatening to be lost in a spin – I was sure we were going to literally keel over. But, I just thought about taking things as they came. I thought if I had drowned, in all the things that I looked back on, those that gave me hope to see them again were simple thoughts of home, and not grand future plans of “being someone” someday, or falling in love, or any youthful whim that stories tell drives people to climb over mountains and across deserts. So, I think the experience helped me in appreciating small and simple things, for a time, and to reevaluate what plans of mine were realistic.”

I couldn’t have summarized our collective, potentially lethal adventure half as well.

The final log entry for the day: “8:05 pm. All Fast-Waterways Marina, Aurora. Jon did a great job steering — Wasn’t That Storm Something?”

Stormy CLYDE (Art by I.N. Harry)

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. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Here’s another amazing ‘True Life on the River’ tale. Thank you Capt Don for taking us along & the added highlight of Jonathan’s viewing of the storm. I’m so glad he’s inherited your calm & insight. I can’t wait to see what you have to share next. Perhaps other adventures small or large with Jonathan?

  2. Jo Ann Schoen says:

    WOW! I think the CLYDE is one special boat and glad she survived that storm – along with you and Jonathan. I loved Jonathan’s comments. What a mature young man, even then. I read this to my 9 1/2 year old granddaughter who is visiting me this week. She thought it was “exciting and scary”. Thanks for sharing another adventure

  3. Charlie Ipcar says:

    Thanks, Don, for another great story!

  4. Ken McLemore says:

    The good Cap’n never disappoints! Hoping that one day all these River experiences can be bundled between covers and be made into a book. A sure fire best seller!

  5. Great Introspective and Father Son Time; I believe only ‘moments of Unusual Interest’ ( we don’t have Crisis) that only the water can provide.

  6. I would say that #2 Son Jonathan proved rather rapidly to be what We call ‘a Natural.’ Not very often nor very Many, but every now and then.

  7. Connie Bays says:

    Exciting story of a harrowing experience. You and Jonathan make a great team! Thanks for more of your memories. Much enjoyed!

  8. Ted Cowell says:

    I love your stories so much!
    Thank you,ll
    In all sincerity,
    Ted M. Cowell

  9. Suzanne Varnell says:

    Thanks Donald

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