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
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
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.
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
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
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
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,
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
- 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
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
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.
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.
Founder, Port KY
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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