Cumberland River Adventures

Charles Wilsdorf


A vessel restricted in its ability to maneuver meets a vessel not under command

When I was a young boy, my family home sat on a small bluff overlooking the Cumberland River in Nashville, Tennessee. Our river frontage had a great sandy beach.

Many a day, I remember sitting on the beach when a barge would go by. The wake hitting the beach seemed like ocean waves rolling in. That was my cue to walk downstream, wade out and collect the boats that the barge waves had floated off the beach.

When I lost my father, my mother decided to move for fear of me drowning in the river while she went off to work. I missed my dad and that river.

Nearly 10 years later, we moved again for my mother’s work. Once again, we moved close to the Cumberland River, though much further downstream.

My mother worked for a family-owned water heater manufacturer, and the management had a few perks—a houseboat built from water heater tanks and a 1959 Owens 15-foot outboard runabout. As a 14-year-old living on the Cumberland River, I could use both whenever I wanted. Life was great.

Rendering assistance

My friends and I spent many days and nights on that river—waterskiing by day and anchoring or docking in the evenings on the houseboat. We’d waterski through the barges’ large wakes (often over 15 feet high). Sometimes, we would lose sight of the skier with the towrope partially under the wave.

One day, while towing a skier through a tug’s wake, I was closing in on the boat’s stern much faster than usual. The tug was in astern propulsion! I immediately turned around to pick up my skier while thinking I had seen another boat like ours when we came down the river earlier. Oh no! I hope they didn’t get run over.

Barge on the Cumberland River

After picking up the skier, I headed upriver to find two men in the water. It was their boat I had seen earlier. My friends and I pulled them both out and brought them aboard. They explained that their engine had stopped. When they couldn’t restart it, they jumped overboard and swam for their lives to avoid being run over by the barge. The barge would have been impossible to stop or even maneuver around the small boat.

The barge operator (tug captain) saw that I had retrieved the men and motioned for me to come alongside. Many questions were asked. By this time, the two men claimed that they had large sums of money and tools onboard the boat they wanted to be compensated for in addition to their sunken boat. The barge captain took down all our names and addresses. I told him where the boat would be docked for the next few days.

An hour after sunset, a gentleman jumped aboard our houseboat, knocked on the door and inquired if I was the one who retrieved the two men from the river. The man, a contract diver working for the barge owners, asked me to meet him the next morning to help him recover the boat. He said I’d be compensated.

Boat salvage

I knew the accident’s approximate location, so the diver and I towed a dragline between our boats to snag the sunken vessel. Over the next three hours, we snagged many objects. Each time, the diver would dive only to surface and say, “No boat yet.” After another half-hour, we finally snagged the boat.

After the diver attached lifting lines to the sunken boat, the tug used its crane to lift it to the surface. Then, the crew pumped out the boat and brought it aboard. Surprisingly, the boat didn’t look too damaged. Only the windshield and motor cover were missing. They concluded that the barge’s bow had gently pushed the boat under the water. No tools, billfolds or money were recovered.

Afterward, my friends and I got back to waterskiing. That evening, the diver came aboard and gave me a $175 check for helping with the salvage, which was more money than I had ever made. I felt rich!

While chatting with the diver, I learned that the barge company had settled with the two men. The barge caused the boat to sink, but I believe those two men should not have crossed in front of that barge and should share some of the responsibility. The U.S. Coast Guard “Navigation Rules and Regulations Handbook” states that in determining which boat is the stand-on and which one is the give-way, dependencies must be considered:

  1. The situation: meeting, overtaking or crossing
  2. Rule 18: vessel type pecking order

Rule 18 specifies that a vessel with restrictive ability to maneuver is the stand-on vessel (the tug and barge in this case) except when a vessel not under command (the boat that wouldn’t start).


The little Owens became my first powerboat after I purchased it from my mother’s company a few years later. Before I had even finished paying for the boat, the company asked me to let one of its customers use it for a week. Unfortunately, the guy hit something, and the boat sank in 20 feet of water at the dock. The company returned my boat a few days later with a check for my original purchase price minus $1. After a day of repairs, I was back on the Cumberland River skiing with that little boat and had a little more money in my pocket.

Charles Wilsdorf

Charles Wilsdorf is a past commander of South Carolina’s Golden Isles Sail & Power Squadron/26 and is a past Chapman Award winner. Charles is a senior navigator with Offshore Navigation certification.

United States Power Squadrons, America's Boating Club logo

The Ensign magazine is an official channel of United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, a volunteer organization whose members teach boating skills and best practices to help improve the safety of our nation’s waterways. Learn more.

Leave a Comment