Captains prep for today’s Sternwheel Festival opening
MARIETTA — There’s a certain language among river folk.
“We can talk boats, and places and parts no matter what,” said Bill Richards, 68, of Oak Grove.
Richards and his brother-in-law Paul Flagg, 75, of Florida, were excited to tour a couple of the paddleboats down at the Ohio River levee Thursday, as the city geared up for the Ohio River Sternwheel Festival this weekend. The festival has its opening ceremonies at 6 p.m. today and runs through Sunday afternoon.
Richards said the language comes with owning your 30 feet of waterfront property and knowing plenty about dry-docking and cutting your hull in half. Both he and Flagg are sailors, but Flagg has never witnessed the majesty of the city’s end-of-summer festival, which brings in about 30 to 35 sternwheelers each year.
“I used to charter when I lived in Boston and have sailed, kayaked and paddled, but we don’t have these kinds of boats on the ocean,” Flagg said as he took photos of wheels, horns and engine rooms.
And despite the heat of the week leading into the festival, Jack and Kathy Bedeck, and Rick and Debbie Burden were happy to welcome both visitors onboard.
Captain Jack, 74, of Pittsburgh is a retired draftsman, and built the E.L. Thumper in the family’s front yard, then one year cut the boat in half and widened it by four feet.
“You see it was prone to tip, so I drew a line down the middle and handed a chainsaw to the guys helping me,” he explained. “They were just laughing, and one said ‘you know this will fall apart right?’ But it was fine.”
The Bedecks have been pulling into the levee for the festival since 1978, only missing a few here and there.
“We just end up spending the week sitting and talking with old friends like Rick,” he added.
Captain Rick also has built his boat, the Jenny B, as a home to eventually retire within.
“It’s the second one here I built,” he explained as he tried to catch a breeze in the shade of the front deck, pointing out the Frankie Jean down the levee, which he built first. “There are no blueprints, you just do it.”
Debbie said the pair owns a machine shop in Newark, where they live during the week.
“So we built most of this there in the shop,” she added before heading inside to showcase the spacious full kitchen, living room, engine room and at the very back, captain’s quarters. “That was Rick’s idea, because back here with those doors closed you can be carrying on with the party up front and it’s still silent for sleep.”
The Jenny B was built in 1991 but the couple has also been on the levee on and off since 1984.
“This festival is very hospitable,” said Debbie, showing off the pilot house, and the essential industrial ice maker sitting on the top deck where fireworks will be viewed this weekend. “Most of the time when you’re traveling by boat you don’t have a car where you go though so ice is very important to have with you until the nights of the festival.”
The Thumper is run off of an old truck engine, with car batteries on hand to start it up, while Debbie explained their boat is run off a much larger, 471 Detroit diesel engine.
“It’s really like a mobile home on the water,” she chuckled. “We have all the amenities of a home if we ever fully retire.”