Riverboat racing controversy

In July, the American Duchess, the American Queen and the Belle of Cincinnati squared off for a riverboat race that many people are still talking about.

This was the first riverboat race to be held in Cincinnati since the Tall Stacks riverboat event in 2006. A throng of spectators crowded both sides of the Ohio River to witness the spectacle of these three majestic sternwheelers racing side-by-side.

As the race got underway to the sound of a steam whistle, passengers aboard the sold-out vessels cheered on their crews while hurling insults and catcalls at the opposing vessels.

Controversy has always surrounded riverboat racing and this race was no different. Good natured cheating and cajoling during riverboat races dates to the early days of steamboating on the inland rivers, where riverboat owners would do almost anything to get a leg up on competing boats. In the old days, crew would stoke boilers to gain more speed. The boilers of yesteryear are long gone. Today it is not the fastest steamboat that wins the race, but the one that can outmaneuver the others, not always tell the truth, and perhaps not exactly follow the rules. In simple terms, it is the one who can lie, steal, and cheat the other competitors who usually ends up winning the race.

The Belle of Cincinnati was in the lead for most of the race until the American Queen overtook the boat about three miles into the race.

There was really no controversy until the Belle of Cincinnati arrived at the designated turning point only to find the American Duchess had turned early effectively cutting it off and allowing the American Queen to take the lead and cross the finish line first. Interference from the American Duchess allowed the American Queen to win the race.

When the crew and I arrived at the judge’s area, we filed a complaint against the American Duchess, hoping that the Belle of Cincinnati would be declared the rightful winner. Unfortunately, our complaint was disallowed and the American Queen was ruled the winner of the race.

Nonetheless, everyone involved had a great time and we look forward to the rematch, with the Belle of Cincinnati coming out on top next time.

About the author

Capt. Alan Bernstein

Alan Bernstein, owner of BB Riverboats in Cincinnati, is a licensed master and a former president of the Passenger Vessel Association. He can be reached at 859-292-2449 or abernstein@bbriverboats.com.

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