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Planning for Thunder Over Louisville

By, Capt. Eric Grubb


Have you been contemplating seeing "Thunder" by boat? It can be a day chocked full of fun for the whole family, and the view is one you'll never forget. Having said that, there are some things to watch out for when you hit the water with spring currents in your freshly summerized boat. Based on my experiences, following are some things to consider in your preparations for "Thunder":


Above, the view from a Sea Ray 280 from the old downtown Jeffersonvile docks. Photo by Capt. Eric.

Weather and River:

Start checking several days in advance, although you know the forecast is only a prediction. If you have a cruiser and you know it'll be cloudy with a chance of rain, that chance of rain isn't a big deal. In an open boat, however, cold and rain could ruin your day.

Pay attention to the river conditions using the link to the left. During the day, note the amount of debris present to help plan your max speed for your return at night. If there is too much debris, consider leaving during the day and driving downtown for the fireworks.

Where to View to Show:

Obviously, the closest parking is at the Louisville Waterfront. Those slips are auctioned in late winter every year, and fetch high dollar figures. I would suggest talking to somebody who's done it before if you think you are interested. There is another group of boats that parks at Tumbleweed, but, again, those slips are accounted for long before the event. For everybody else, that means establishing anchorage on the river.

Typically, after noon a "picket line" is established just north of the Big Four railroad bridge. This line is adjacent to Tumbleweed and the south tip of Toehead Island and runs across the river toward Jeffersonville. Once the line is established, the river will be closed to recreational traffic below that point.

There will still be commercial traffic throughout the day, so north of the picket line you'll want to anchor on the Indiana half of the river. If you anchor too far out toward the middle, the authorities will ask you to move. When people start anchoring out, you'll hear unfamiliar commercial traffic start complaining on the radio. I wouldn't anchor out in the middle until you see more and more boats out that way.

As of this writing, there are no longer docks at Buckhead Mountain Grill, and the city of Jeffersonville no longer has public docks.

Above, the "Picket Line," as observed from the old Jeffersonville docks.


Above, a closeup of the area just upriver from the Big Four Railroad Bridge. I've seen variations in where they'll let you anchor, so follow instructions that the authorities pass on.



Who Patrols Thunder?

Everybody. You'll see the US Coast Guard, assisted by the USCG Auxiliary. The Louisville Metro Police will be there, and the Jefferson County boats will come up from their usual patrol area south of the locks. You will also see the Indiana DNR. You should be able to reach authorities for Help on VHF ch. 16, but be aware that individual patrol boats may be busy working another frequency when you call them the first time.

Above, a few members of the USCG Auiliary Patrol during Thunder 2009.


Event Duration:

The airshow typically starts at 3 p.m., but there are some practice runs starting after noon. Unlike a 3-hour airshow at an airport, the airshow is spread out throughout the day. You may see some fighters go by then wait 20 minutes for the next event. There will be aircraft flying right up until the beginning of the fireworks display. You can expect the fireworks to end by approximately 10:30-11 p.m.

Above, a B-52 "thunders" down the river.


When to Arrive?

Depends. If you want to get a great parking spot close to the picket line, I'd suggest you get there early. On the other hand, many of the boats don't show up until late afternoon or early evening. In 2009, I was anchored far up from the picket line, with hopes that boats would not completely fill in around us. By 4 p.m., the river was getting pretty-well filled in, even where we were anchored. What we thought would be the northern edge of the activity became the middle.

Whenever you get there, please be courteous to your fellow boaters and give them some space. Space permitting, try to minimize your impact on boaters who have already been in place for hours.

Above, a large yacht manuevers to set anchor.


How Long Will You Be Out?

If you put in a Duffy's at 6 p.m., and return after the fireworks, you're only looking at about five hours out. That doesn't sound like a long time in a runabout until you factor in the weather. If it cools into the 40's after the sun goes down, it will get very cold on the water. Are you prepared for an unexpected shower? What about sunscreen? Unless you've been in Florida, you've become less tan over the winter and can get sun-burned pretty easily in April.

If you have a larger cruiser, you have the advantage that people can stay indoors if it gets cold or wet. Do you plan to run your generator all day, or just every now and then? Make sure everybody has warm clothes for the trip home and that you have extra blankets handy.

As the skipper, keep in mind your time "on duty" as well. Let's say you plan to head out at 11 a.m., watch the entire show, then return at 1 a.m. after the long cruise through the no-wake zone. You'll most likely start your day on the boat before 10 a.m. getting things ready, so at 1 a.m. you'll have been "in command" of your boat for 15 hours. That can be a long day, so plan to get your rest the night before. I would also suggest putting somebody else on anchor watch in the afternoon to catch a good nap during a lull in activities. I also like a GPS anchor alarm--I don't have to waste as many brain cells wondering if the anchor is holding throughout the day. For more tips on anchoring, check out this article: link

How many people will be on your boat? While it's tempting to fill it up with all your friends, keep in mind that you'll be out for quite a while. If you're going out for the long-haul, try to leave enough space for everybody to be comfortable. In our case, we limit the number of friends our kids can bring to help make last few hours of the day more manageable. If you invite guests, how well do they like boating? A long day on the river may not be the best time to introduce them to your hobby. Take your friends on progressively longer trips out to make sure they'll be happy on a boat all day. For kids, bring some new games to keep them occupied.

For the trip back, plan ahead--have somebody make you a cup of coffee to help you with your alertness for the cruise back. The most challenging part of the day could easily be at the end when you have to navigate the river at night with the concerns of other boats and possible debris. It's been my experience that almost everybody falls asleep on our long ride back to Prospect. I find a volunteer to help keep watch on the bridge. That keeps me alert, and the extra set of eyes always comes in handy.

What about alcohol? With such a long day, you'll maintain your best alertness and endurance by not drinking. There are enough authorities on patrol that you don't want to risk getting their attention, either.

The river is considered a public place just like a park, so use your best judgement in letting your friends get too crazy with the police circling about. Many of the bizzare stories I've heard about boaters colliding at Thunder or using poor judgement while anchoring have involved alcohol.


Vessel Operating Condition

Since we sometimes get snow at the end of March, and Thunder is typically in mid-April, many people summerize their boats right before Thunder. With the combination of uncertain weather, spring currents and lots of river traffic, the last thing you need on Thunder day would be mechanical problems. I would suggest that you get your boat out a few times prior to Thunder and test all the systems. With guests onboard, the last thing you need that day are surprises.


Special Items to Consider:

Adequate fenders and lines: For rafting with your friends. Even though the area should be no-wake, there will be wakes and you need to be cautious rafting up.

  • Nav Lights: I can't think of a better night to have everything working. I know one fellow who went out knowing his green nav light was inoperative. I had to take evasive action to miss him on the way home because I couldn't see him until the last minute approaching off his starboard beam. It was after I told a friend the story that we figured out who it was.
  • CO Detectors: Even if you don't run a generator, your neighbors might.
  • Water System: Take the time to sanitize and run a tank of fresh water through the system before the trip. No reason to have your friends smell the pink fluid every time they run the water.
  • Lav: Make sure your system is working properly. Also, make sure to visit the pump-out station before starting the day. Take the time to properly educate your guests on the use of your system. It helps to show the kids how to avoid filling your holding tank by not flushing for 30 seconds at a time.
  • VHF Radio: Do you have one? If you have a fixed-mount system, do you have a back-up handheld VHF? Does it have good batteries? Have you tested its operation recently? (Don't call the CG on 16 for a radio check).
  • Emergency Equipment: Make certain you have enough PFDs for your passengers. Remember that the water will still be cold, so a person in the water could quickly turn into a hyperthermia emergency. Are you equipped to rescue somebody should they fall in? As technique, when the show is over and the boats start going by, I put on a PFD before heading out onto the bow to retrieve the anchor. I also assign somebody to watch me. It would only take a second to lose balance and fall overboard, and at night I want to make sure I have the cards stacked in my favor.


Food and Ice

Rather than wait until the day before Thunder to go shopping, start planning in advance. Think about how long you'll be out and how many people you'll need to feed. If you are a guest, ask what you can bring, bring more than enough and plan to share. Also, don't wait until the day before to buy ice, as half a million people will also be packing a cooler that day. If you serve food trays, plan for an occasional wake. Be sure to have enough beverages to keep your guests from getting dehydrated.

Above, a C-130 tanker passes with it's refueling drogues extended.


Hazards at Night:

After the fireworks are over, the temptation is to rush the start-up and be at the head of the line. After some tragic accidents involving wakes over the years, the authorities have established a no-wake zone on the return up-river to the tip of Six Mile Island. I have found that, although it takes more time, I enjoy waiting a few minutes after the fireworks are over to leave. That allows time to safely secure items such as foods and beverages before getting underway. It also allows time to get the guests seated for the cruise portion of the trip home. I make sure that the kids are fully accounted for and have somebody assigned to watch their movements. I've found that after a long day on the river, they usually fall asleep within minutes.

If you aren't familiar with the river at night, a busy night like Thunder is the wrong time to venture out for the first time. Everything looks different at night, and some things are very difficult to see until you're on top of them. Barges can be particularly invisible, and debris can also be hard to spot. Have a spotlight handy, but don't leave your spotlight or docking lights on all the time. If you have radar, use it to help identify other boaters. Last year, for example, I spotted two boats without lights on the radar long before I could see them with my eyes. (Yes, there were boats without lights, and somehow they evaded the authorities). Boaters operate using their night vision, and you will degrade their night vision with a bright white light. For more information on navigating the river at night, I would suggest this article: link


A few editorial notes about Thunder: I know people who have gone every year and wouldn't miss it for the world. I know others who went a few times, had incidents on the water, and swear they'll never go back. You will see people who have never been out there before, in both old and shiny new boats. You can identify them by their lack of planning (50' line with mushroom anchor to hold them in 40' of water), or by their lack of knowledge (fouling your anchor). I know people who had others park too close to their boats, only to get slammed from the side when the wind changed. I know others who came home with scratches in their gel coat when another boat drifted from their anchorage and didn't correct in time.

My objective is to enhance your safety and enjoyment of Thunder by giving you several operational aspects to consider. -Eric


Photo of the 2012 Thunder Over Louisville Fireworks by Capt. Eric



Following are observations forwarded by Rick Schal, USCG Auxiliary:

"I have witnessed numerous incidents at Thunder over the years and they all seen to fall into the same four categories."

  • Mechanical Problems: Since Thunder is toward the end of April, it is the first time out for many boaters. Low batteries, condensation in fuel and other winter lay-up issues result in above average mechanical issues.
  • High Water Levels: This results in above average current and trash/debris in the water causing dangerous boating handling conditions and bent props, damaged rudders and damaged outdrives.
  • Anchoring Problems: Small anchors, too short anchor lines and lack of anchoring knowledge cause boats to drag their anchors and fail to hold position. During high water and current conditions boaters should have a minimum of five-to-one scope with the proper size anchor and at least ten feet of anchor chain.
  • Excessive drinking: This is usually more of a problem at the end of the day and on the way home after boaters spend the day partying and drinking.



Eric Grubb
Founder, Port KY
Licensed Master

Eric grew up around boats, trading summers on board his parents' Sea Rays for many man-hours of swabbing the decks. He grew up by the little town of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, overlooking the the Dashields Locks and Dam. He has traveled the Great Lakes, Lake Huron's North Channel, Gulf of Mexico and several rivers to include the Ohio, Allegheny, Monongahela, Kanawha, Mohawk (Erie Canal), Tennessee, Tombigbee, Black Warrior and Mobile Rivers.

As a commercial pilot, Eric flies jets and is a flight instructor. He has owned recreational boats ranging from PWCs to most recently, a flybridge convertible that he keeps in a Louisville marina (MM 590). You can also find him with his family on the "Escape Pod," an 18' fishing boat. His most memorable journey was aboard the J. S. Lewis, a 155' towboat in service since 1931.

Eric is a USCG Licensed Master with a Commerical Tow Assistance rating, and is a member of the Sons and Daughters of Pioneer Riverman and the Louisville Sail and Power Squadron. After moving to Louisville, he conceived the idea for Louisville's Port KY website while searching for information to help him become a safer and more knowledgable local boater. He has worked hard over the years to educate other boaters by promoting safety classes through Port KY and by hosting captain's classes and related events.



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