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The River: Recent grounding of AMERICAN JAZZ spurs memories of similar incident on DELTA QUEEN

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.

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

All the gossip flying around the river on the “electronic sternline telegraph” this past Thursday concerned the AMERICAN JAZZ, an overnight passenger “ship” belonging to the American Cruise Line, ran atop a sandbar and was hard-aground on the Cumberland River. The 190-passenger JAZZ, the latest of the line’s several ship-looking riverboats, was on a seven-night Music Cities Cruise from Memphis to Nashville when the riverboat plowed into the sand.

“The AMERICAN JAZZ is currently being assisted off a sandbar in Lake Barkley. There is no damage to the small riverboat, and both guests and crew aboard have been informed of the temporary delay,” American Cruise Lines said in a press release.

AMERICAN JAZZ on Lake Barkley (Photo provided)

Officials of the Louisville Coast Guard said they were notified at 8 a.m. Thursday and the event happened at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

By 4 p.m., Eastern Daylight Saving Time, Thursday, 08 July 2021, the JAZZ remained stuck, as the late Captain Harry Louden often described, “tighter than a bull’s hind parts in fly time.” Cap’n Harry, however, was far more descriptive of the bull’s posterior anatomy than I dare mention on a page deemed “second-grader friendly.”

Grounding a vessel on the fluvial substratum has plagued riverboat pilots and captains for as long as arks have plied the inland waterways. Before the first European interlopers nosed their way across the Appalachians and “discovered” the Western Rivers, Indigenous folk’s watercraft often tangled with the bottoms of the streams beneath their keels. Similar situations existed for later wooden-hulled flatboats, keelboats, and steamboats. However, after the introduction of the first iron-hulled steamboat, the CLYDE, in 1870, groundings on sandy and muddy river bottoms lost much of their peril. With the acceptance of iron and steel hulls, losses attributed to groundings became more of an inconvenience than a life-threatening menace compared to the days when wooden hulls prevailed.

AMERICAN JAZZ aground in Lake Barkley (Photo by Shane Hilliard)

Running aground on a large passenger boat reminds me of a certain day aboard the DELTA QUEEN during the Summer of 1965 while the QUEEN was heading downbound above Brandenburg, Kentucky. Earlier, while the QUEEN made a shorestop at Louisville, I went ashore shopping for a pair of comfortable shoes. I’d always admired Bass Moccasins, a shoe popular with the young men at my college who usually came from further downstate in the Commonwealth. So when I returned to the steamboat, I was packing a pair that I vowed to try on before I started walking my nightly watchman rounds on the QUEEN.

It was still light outside my room as I began prepping for the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. excursions around the decks “punching the clock” with my partner, a venerable steamboatman of note with more years on the river than I’d been alive, Mr. Bruce Edgington. As soon as I tied the last shoestring, I stood erect to see how well the moccasins fit and how comfortable they felt.

Bruce Edgington (Painting by Frye)

Immediately, the deck beneath my feet shod in the new Bass footwear moved from side to side and back and forth. As the room started swirling round and round, I held onto the top bunk to avoid falling against the wooden bulkhead. Within several moments, the motion ceased. The DELTA QUEEN felt eerily still as the jangle of engine room bells clanked a deck below while the pilot suddenly called for different increments for the stalwart steam engines driving the 44-ton paddlewheel.

As quickly as possible, I opened my cabin door and stepped onto the canvas-covered outer Cabin Deck where other crewmembers living on “Skid Row” were standing and wondering what was transpiring

Soon, someone volunteered, “Seems like we ’re a’ sittin’ on the bottom.”

Skid Row, located at the aft end of the Cabin Deck, the second level above the water, was situated overtop the engine room where we residents were treated to the sounds of engine order telegraph bells, hissing steam, straining pistons, and the churning red sternwheel as the pilot and Captain Ernie Wagner demanded the most out of the vapor-powered hardware to coax the DELTA QUEEN off the hidden obstacle in front of Brandenburg-town. Eventually, the QUEEN worked her head out of the sand, straightened up, and continued toward Kentucky Lake, still a couple of days away.

Although the new Bass Mocassins lasted several more years until they were finally discarded while I served in the U. S. Air Force, I’ll always remember the time I first tried them on to feel how well they fit.

By 7 p.m. on Thursday, 08 July 2021, as I write this column and attempt to keep in touch with river folks in the vicinity of the grounded riverboat, the AMERICAN JAZZ remains solidly attached to the bottom of the Cumberland, where, as a riverman described, “it used to be a farmer’s cornfield” before Barkley Dam flooded the river valley and created the lake named for Paducah’s favorite son, the Honorable Alben W. Barkley, the country’s 35th Vice-President who also served in both houses of the U. S. Congress.

Adrian Sutton Gwin (Photo provided)

At the end of the P. A. DENNY Sternwheeler’s first cruise season during the nation’s Bicentennial Year, 1976, the New Orleans Steamboat Company chartered the paddle wheeler to run bayou tours during their busy winter season in the Crescent City. I was on board as one of three boatmen. The fourth fellow was a Charleston, West “By God” Virginia newspaperman, Adrian Gwin, a feature writer for the Charleston DAILY MAIL. Of course, Adrian was along for the story. Still, he also cooked, cared of the scullery duties, and kept everyone regaled with his many animated and entertaining tales of his eventful life.

The closer the DENNY got to New Orleans, the more we wanted to get there the quickest, especially that the trip, running during daylight hours only, had lasted nearly two weeks. So above White Castle, Louisiana, and Point Clair, Bayou Goula Towhead, a rather large island where I’d seen ships running the point way in high water instead of going around the 180-degree bend way, seemed a likely shortcut to save both time and distance.

As I was behind the controls, I throttled back the paddlewheel and slowed the DENNY to a walk while keeping an easy distance off the towhead. About one-third of the way through the inside channel, the DENNY suddenly ground to a halt and stuck tight in the sand about the time the late autumn sun was setting. A quarter-hour later, after Adrian called the crew for supper, I left the paddlewheel backing while we gathered for the evening meal inside the cabin on the Main Deck. While we ate, I kept watching a light on the far distant shore close to White Castle. Before the meal was half-finished, I yelled that I saw the light move. Immediately, we all jumped up from the dinner table and ran for the pilothouse.

Now that the DENNY was astir as the paddlewheel washed the sand from under her hull, it only took another 30-minutes, or so, before the sternwheeler was afloat. Then, as one of the crewmen sounded the water ahead of the bow, we slowly paddled into deep water, tied off for the night, and went below in time for Adrian’s special dessert.

American Jass aground on Lake Barkley July 6 (Photo by Seth Davis)

Captain Ted, the New Orleans Steamboat Company senior representative, asked reporter Gwin to keep that segment out of the story he was writing for the paper. He was, he said, afraid that because the DENNY had ground, the Coast Guard might require his company to drydock the boat to inspect the hull plates. I was especially happy that I would not have to shoulder the blame for such an expense.

At this time, half-past 8 p.m., Thursday, 08 July 2021, the internet has gone silent regarding the grounding of the AMERICAN JAZZ. I’m sure the sudden tranquility is the result of the encroaching darkness of nightfall, a fact soon confirmed by a deckhand on-scene who added via the electronic sternline telegraph:

“Coast Guard approval is for 10 a.m. (Friday morning). No trying until then.”

By now, my story must end, but the grounding event will still be unfolding after my weekly deadline. According to Madison Berry, my riverboat source in Paducah, Kentucky, the JAZZ has “122 passengers and 60 crewmen and women onboard.” Additionally, another source reported, “The vessel is 400-feet inside the red buoy line in shallow water.”

The last I heard, three towboats are on scene, and so are the Coasties and local rescue units. All involved in the extrication will be doing everything possible to safely free the JAZZ and all those aboard from where they are firmly in the grasp of the Cumberland River.

Our expectations and prayers go to everyone involved, both aboard the AMERICAN JAZZ and those standing by to aid them. Hopefully, by the time this column is published, all matters will have been adequately resolved, and the memory merely an interesting footnote in river history.

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.

(EDITOR’S update: After 50-plus hours, all 120 passengers and some crew of the American Jazz were taken off the ship and transported to Nashville by bus. No injuries were reported. The boat remained stuck on the sandbar Saturday night; work continued to get the ship loose.)

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  1. Christine McCarthy says:

    Such an informative and entertaining article. Was I reading Mark Twain or Captain Don Sanders? Thank you for sharing your stories with us. Always look forward to the next one!

  2. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Another awesome tieing of past & present river situations. I could feel the shudders the boats make when they encounter such obstacles. Thank you Capt Don for shedding light on this & helping us live past experiences

  3. Two Jobs: Do NOT Run into things. Stay Afloat. Usually Newsworthy when something Happens.

  4. Suzanne Varnell says:

    Great story Donald

  5. Connie Bays says:

    Interesting story, and I will continue watching for follow up on the Jazz and her unfortunate circumstances. I also enjoyed the tidbit about the P. A. Denny and her instance of grounding. This was the first time hearing that story! I hope things transpire the same with the Jazz and that there is little to no damage suffered. Keep the stories coming Capt! They are always interesting, educational, and entertaining!

  6. Cap'n Don Sanders says:

    Thanks, everyone, for your inspirational comments. As my editor, Judy Clabes, added, all the passengers were taken safely off the AMERICAN JAZZ and brought safely ashore. Although the “walking freight” is clear of danger, “it ain’t over till it’s over.” Many of the crew remain aboard, and everyone will breathe easier when they, too, are out of harm’s way. There’s no such thing as a “routine” emergency.

  7. Pete OConnell says:

    Love the “ Bass story “, when was the last time a pair of shoes gave you that feeling?

  8. Capt. Don says:

    The AMERICAN JAZZ was afloat and off the bottom at 1530 (3:30 pm), Friday, 16 July 2021.

  9. Dwayne Oxford says:

    Who investigates these deals? Coast Guard? Who was captain/pilot who ran it aground? Was there engine/equipment failure? Seems to be secret?

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