The Ohio river has one thing going for it. It is easy to spell. The rest you can keep. Other than Paducah. We like Paducah.

We have 58 miles on the Ohio. Upstream. Two locks. We did over 40 miles and two locks on the Mississippi in one day. 60+ miles on another day. This should be an easy two day cruise with time for a late lunch at each stop. Other than the ‘late lunch’ part, this was not particularly easy.

What we didn’t account for was the aging infrastructure (i.e. “Locks”) on the Ohio. Only two locks, but both 52 and 53 have been up/down for repairs this year. And both only have one chamber they can use; the others are broken not used. And there is a a glut of tow traffic waiting both up and down bound and the locks can’t put one up and then one down like other locks. They do 3 or more up bound, then the same amount down bound. The queue for the tows is in hours/days not minutes.

We knew some of this but it was in the ‘theory’ category in our brains, not the ‘reality.’ And there is nothing we can do about the above…unless we want to continue down the Mighty Mississip’ (which we do not).  So up river we go.

We leave our anchorage 7 miles up the Mississippi at first light and it is less than an hour to the Ohio/Mississippi confluence. Our last quick trip for a long, long time. When we get to the intersection, we continue down the Mississippi just a bit and then turn to the left (port if you are on a boat) and our speed goes from 9mph to FOUR! Four miles per hour. And the engines are chugging with all their might to get there! This is not going to be fun.


Our plan was to get to Paducah, KY which was 45 miles from the entrance to the Ohio. We put together a rooty pooty table that gave us the distance and approximate arrival time at each lock/dam along the way as well as our time to Paducah. The time we put it together was 0800. If we could make 6 miles per hour (ridiculous) and hit no stoppage at the dam (way more ridiculous), we could be in Paducah at 1530. At 5mph it would be 1700, 4 mph 1900. Dark is at 1830, so we have to be off the water by then or we turn into a pumpkin, or get run over by a tow. Or something equally as bad. Dark is bad. It was looking like Paducah was going to be tough.


Eventually the engines remembered how to go upstream and we were averaging just over 5mph; good enough perhaps. The three obstacles, in order, were the Olmsted Lock/Dam. Lock 53. Lock 52.

The Olmsted Lock/Dam is the replacement for both Locks 52 and 53. They are not aging gracefully and causing the aforementioned backups on the river. It has been under construction for going on 30 years, is about $3 Billion (with a B) over budget and will be done next week. Or in four years. Depends on who you ask.1 The lock is a big construction area and it is a pass through–you simply motor through the lock or over the dam (if the water is high enough) and on to Lock 53, one mile up river. As we got close, we heard a guy on the radio from Aaamstead, and after a while we figured out we were pronouncing it all wrong…we though Olm in Olmsted sounded, you know, like it is spelled. Not so. We call the lock master who controls both Aamstead and Lock 52. He gives us a series of arcane instructions in a language that resembled English, that were probably clear to a tow operator, but not so much to us. What we did glean was that we should follow the tow in front of through Aaamstead and then on to Lock 53 and tie off on the small wall on the left (“you will know it when you see it”). And we would wait for a couple of hours until he could get us through.

So we puttered through the Aaamstead and onto 53 where there was indeed a secondary chute which was permanently temporarily closed (read that “Broken beyond all repair”) and we tied off on the wall. And for the next six hours, more and more pleasure craft tied off to the wall until there were 13 of us waiting to lock through. The ‘couple’ hours was indeed over six and at the crack of 1730 we were told to come on through. So we did…all 13 boats dropped their lines off the wall, raced into the lock and then we all floated in the lock as we rose a whopping 6 feet. In 35 minutes. We were nervous about floating in a lock by ourselves; it was something special to have 13 boats ping ponging in the lock. Fortunately there was no current and no wind AND we were at the back so had lots of room to maneuver around.

Doors open and three boats put the proverbial pedal to the metal and take off to go the 23 miles to the next lock. The remainder of make a left turn and another left turn and tie off on the other side of the lock door on the same lock wall we were tied up to all afternoon and spent the night at lock 53. We had asked and they had granted permission for us to do so, which was good because the next good anchorage was 3 hours up river and we would have been hoping the full moon provided enough light to show us the way.


We all crammed into the lock interspersed between the Army Corps of Engineer equipment. Not a lot to it, but it was free, we didn’t have to move at night and we have been in a lot worse places! The only downside was that the work lights were burning in our window and the radio from the dudes working in the lock was invading our dreams, but none of us complained; we weren’t on the river.

Thursday morning was another early morning. Up at 6am, walk the dog, turn around and head out on the water by 0645. We wanted to make the 26 mile trip as ‘quickly’ as we could. Or at least get there as early as we could. Of the boats at the lock for the night, over half were fast movers; 5 of us were slow movers. We all moved out at more or less the same time and the fast movers quickly diminished in the distance. It was an uneventful trip. Upriver at 5 mph. The scenery is not much to talk about. Shores lined with rocks/sand/mud and barges. Industrial plants interspersed in the trees. Lots of tows/barges. The romance of being on a scenic river is dead, at least here on the Ohio.

We could hear the first group talking to the lock master and it sounded like they were going to lock through early, well before we got there. But when we got within line of sight of the dam we could see all the fast moving boats bobbing at anchorage waiting for the lock. We arrived at 1100 and the countdown began. 3 hours and 20 minutes this time and then the lock master called. At this lock there was no loosey goosey floating of boats in the lock–we all lined up on the starboard side, threw lines up to the lock dude at the top, he wrapped our lines around a bollard and threw them back to us. The lock doors closed and it. Took. Forever. For. The. Lock. To. Fill. By 3:45pm we were out of the lock and it was a quick four mile trip to Paducah.


The dock at Paducah is brand new. It can hold at least 10 boats, so no issue with our group getting in for the night. They have fuel, but are still working through some kinks, so no gas (for us) and the diesel was pumping at a gallon/minute. The docks are a block from downtown and it is a really cute place. All of us loopers headed down to the Paducah Beer Weeks restaurant/brew pub for dinner. Our astute waiter, looking at his audience, asked if anyone would like to try moonshine and the loopers jumped at the offer like the carp jumping at the sound of our outboards. The pizza was great, beer better and according to those who tried it, the moonshine was fantastic. The Canadians were plotting ways to get the stuff back home.


Tomorrow we finish out our short run up the Ohio to the Cumberland River, where we turn and head to Lake Barkley for a couple of days of shower.

1 It ain’t next week. Maybe in a year. Or two. And it will be, according to some bean counter who got a raise for this talking point, will be four years ahead of schedule. For a project that started 30 years ago.