“The DUKE”

I always wondered what ever happened to “The DUKE”? You see I have some history with this CA paddle-wheeler. Not just any paddle-wheeler, but one with a historic and troubled past. Found this video on YouTube and will share my story and pictures afterwards.

You see, she wasn’t always called “The DUKE”, that was the name she was given when I came to know her in 1998. I was the Assistant GM and a Captain for a company called Western River Charters. At that time the company owned and operated a paddle-wheeler called the “Petaluma Queen” (later changed her name to the “Grand Romance” seen at top of page) operating on the Sacramento, Napa, Petaluma Rivers and Upper Deltas. “The Duke” had been purchased by our company after she had caught fire and burned to her main deck in downtown Sacramento. She was at that time called the “The Spirit of Sacramento”.

The owner of Western River Charters was an incredible “Idea” guy who could see value in things and wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty to make them come true. You see Bill Barker knew the history of the vessel and believed he could put her back to her glory, plying the rivers she had been operating on for almost 100 years. He also knew that she was once proudly owned by actor John Wayne after she was highlighted in his 1955 film “Blood Ally”. That is why he decided to rename her “The DUKE”. She started her career as an Army Corp of Engineers vessel, before private charter. After the film John Wayne used her for private charter before selling her into a career of sightseeing and dinner cruises.

When I fist came aboard her she had been towed to downtown Petaluma CA and was moored behind a steel company. Bill had replaced all her super structure that had been damaged during the fire and had actually improved upon her looks with his design. She was all steel and primer see pictures below. I did not spend a lot of time with “The DUKE”, because I was mostly managing the day to day operations of our other vessel and the office. Until….

I believe the date was 21 December 1998, a day my wife will not let me forget. I had driven to SFO airport to pick up by in-laws and brother-in-law, who had flown out to spend the Holidays with us from Florida. As I was driving them back to our apartment in Walnut Creek, I received a call from Bill that “The DUKE” had sunk in the Petaluma River. Apparently she had broke her mooring during the night and had come to rest beam to the shore at high tide. When the tide went out she heeled over on her starboard side and began to take on water, forcing her to come to rest on the bottom at a 30 degree list.

After I dropped my family off I raced to Petaluma as fast as I could. Upon arriving it was utter chaos, news teams, helicopters, USCG, just nuts. Somebody had the bright idea to get a semi-tow truck with winch, to try and straighten “The Duke” out. My first reaction was to confront the driver that the only thing he was going to do was get someone killed when the cable snaps and hit’s someone. I let him know that the vessel before being full of water and stuck in the mud weighted 750 tons and had he ever pulled that much weight? After hanging out for a couple of hours trying to help Bill, I finally left. I knew he had some big decisions to make and there was to many people causing confusion, I didn’t want to add on.

0530 the next morning Bill called me saying that the salvage company wanted $75K to refloat “The Duke”, what could he do, what are his options. I said let’s meet up and brain storm the situation. In our brain storming session he said he thought that at low tide, some of the main deck and hull were visible on the port side. If we could plug up the starboard side fills for all the tank-age which had been left open during construction. We could get some commercial high speed pumps down into the holds and at low tide let them start pumping away. They just needed a diver. Well he got his diver and this is were Leah wanted to kill me.

That afternoon I spent with Bill in a john boat lining me up along side the starboard hull, to dive done in zero visibility to cap off all the tank fills and prep the vessel for re-floating late that afternoon. It was tough work doing everything by feel in extremely cold water for about 2 hours and the vessel leaning over us at 30 degrees. But we were successful with this portion of the plan. The second I was done and before it was time to start the pumps I had to race home not to miss plans we had made months in advance with her family. Tickets to the Nut-Cracker at the San Francisco Opera House. Luckily I am stilled married today so I pulled it off.

I received a call from Bill later that evening that it was a huge success and the vessel was safely re-floated. I was sad to hear that she had sunk again just a few years ago 2016 in the Delta. It is a shame that such a historic vessel has had to en-dour multiple sinking and a huge fire that all most made her history. My greatest thrill as a Captain was to operate her sister vessel “The Grand Romance”, up and down the waterways of Northern California. Their is something magical about these vessels from our past, plying the waters today. I hope this is not the end to this wonderful vessel, I never had the opportunity to be her Master, but at that time in my life was looking forward to that day. Hopefully someday I can have a chance, to at least ride a river upon her.

-Captain Tripper

Published by tvincent2014

Over 25 years as a mariner and maritime industry professional.

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