CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A longstanding tradition on the Kanawha River, the sternwheel boats are what gives the Sternwheel Regatta its name.

Captain of sternwheeler Donna Ray, Jim Kranz has been showing off and racing his boat at the five-day Regatta since it returned to the Capital City three years ago.

Kranz said he and his wife love to take part in the Regatta with their boat that they’ve had for ten years.

“You know what, we come here, we hope people enjoy seeing the boats on the river, some people like to come down and ask questions about them and we’re more than happy to talk, this is our community down here and we just have a good time,” Kranz told MetroNews.

He said he and fellow sternwheel boat owners are a tight-knit community, participating in a multitude of events together for most of the year, and are all members of the American Sternwheel Association. 

Kranz said they often take part in many other regattas as well, many of which are on the Ohio River. He said most are in September and include places like Point Pleasant, Parkersburg and Marietta, Ohio.

However, Kranz said while all of the regattas are unique in some way, he said for Charleston’s, it’s the musical entertainment that makes it special.

“It’s big entertainment, I think last night if you saw pictures of the number of people up there on the street, it was crazy,” he said. “So, I think that’s Charleston’s thing, because, you know, everybody’s got a thing, and so for Charleston it’s definitely the entertainment.”

The sternwheel boat racing on the Kanawha is a longstanding tradition dating back to the early 1970s when a son of a prominent river family approached former Charleston Mayor John Hutchinson about holding a race between five sternwheelers on Labor Day.

After the first race was held, it only began to expand into a full blown festival a couple years later, adding music, fireworks, food vendors and everything that is a staple of what the Regatta is today.

However, of course the history of sternwheelers themselves goes back way further, first rising in prominence in the 1800s and early 1900s when they were steam powered.

Kranz said like the regattas, each of the boats are unique as well.

“Not only physically with the shapes and the colors people use, but they are absolutely not the same, so if you’ve seen one sternwheel boat you have only seen one,” he said.

Some of the sternwheelers are passenger boats while others are commercial pushing barges, Kranz said.

He said some are built specifically for recreational purposes, others are over 80 to nearly 100 years old and spent their lives as those commercial tow boats.

However, he said they have now found another life.

“The companies that owned them found them at their useful end of that life and then thankfully, somebody comes along with the money and the will to bring them back to life,” he said.

Kranz said while the boats are pretty to look at, powered by a wheel on the stern, he said they are also a lot of work and upkeep.

“More than just having the boat, a person has to enjoy all of the care it takes, it’s a house, with an engine, made of steel sitting in the water, there’s just something happening all of the time to take care of,” Kranz said.

He said the boats often come complete with a living room, kitchen, a bedroom or two and a bathroom much like a regular house. Kranz added that some people even choose to live in their sternwheelers full-time.

Kranz said Sunday during the Regatta is a big day for them as they set sail out on the river for the annual boat races.

He said boats will start pulling out around 11:30 or noon and will head up to the capitol in an organized fashion and wait for the races to commence. The races themselves will actually start up at 1 p.m. Sunday.

Kranz said with the number of boats, it’s expected that there will be about three to four races that are broken down into different categories with the fastest boats always going last.

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