The Renaissance of the Cuyahoga Riverfront Means Commercial and Recreational Interests Must Co-exist, Come Hell or High Water

Share the River,
Share the River, Photo courtesy of Jim Ridge

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The Cuyahoga opens up a bit to port (the area right off Settler's Landing, where the fountain gleefully spurts), and Franklin is able to guide the ship easily around the turn. Like most ships of its class, the Sam Laud is equipped with both bow and stern thrusters. These are tunnels, essentially, that run athwart the ship at the bow (front) and stern (back). Inside each is a variable pitch propeller that rotates to help the boat maneuver. The thrusters' effects are loosely equivalent to that of the omnidirectional wheels on a grocery cart (compared to, say, the fixed wheels of a skateboard). And they're critical on the crooked river.

The bridge tender at the Center Street swing bridge — all these river bridges have human tenders operating them 24/7, by the way — alerts Capt. Franklin that he's all clear. The Sam Laud pushes through, 12 measly feet of clearance on either side.  

Up ahead, to port, is the Cleveland Rowing Foundation. Children and rowers gather outside to wave hello to the Sam Laud. Franklin is a father himself and says he loves to see people so excited when the freighters pass by. Especially kids. When they shout out from the shore to ask what he's transporting, he tells them candy bars.

As soon as the Laud clears the area, angling into a turn that will be transected by the Columbus Road lift bridge, a scull of rowers pushes back out into the water. The rowers are accompanied by another small boat, equipped with a VHF radio, so that the scull can be kept apprised of the area's marine traffic in real time. They knew the Laud was coming and they got out of the way, so she could pass.   

That's what's supposed to happen. But sometimes glitches occur.


The communication issues between industry and recreation on the water were most publicly dramatized in September 2013. Two freighters blocked the Cuyahoga and forced a national rowing event to cut its course in half.

At the time, the quotes from the rowing community (and the popular conspiracy theory from onlookers) ascribed ill will to the freighters. The suspicion, though it was later walked back, was that the boat captains intentionally disrupted the Head of the Cuyahoga race to send a message.

Jim Ridge tells Scene that there had been a lapse in communication and the Canadian-flagged vessels simply didn't get the memo. At any rate, the Coast Guard determined that the "blockade" had been an accident.

The Lake Carriers Association, Glen Nekvasil's outfit, opposed the race and the closure of the river in 2013, but his organization didn't represent the ships in question. He, too, said it was an honest mistake and that a Memorandum of Understanding now exists specifically for that race.

"What we continue to ask for is a window of time," Nekvasil says, of other events and races. "Even if you want to close the river for 12 hours, we'd like a window to be able to transit."

Much more recently, there was another incident on the water, one that could have had catastrophic results. On June 6, three days after the Shooters collision, an 8-man scull (crew boat) full of adult rowers became entangled in the pylons along Irishtown Bend. The colossal barge Ashtabula and the tug Defiance approached, and the Rowing Foundation coach told the rowers to exit the scull.

"That's an absolute no-no," says Jane Goodman, who (like almost everyone interviewed for this story) is a member of the Cuyahoga River Safety Task Force and received a memo about the incident. "He put the rowers at risk and it wasn't necessarily the presence of the tug that did it. It was the panic. They shouldn't have been there."

Jim Ridge says the coach in question is a great coach and a great guy, but "a series of dominoes fell" in order for the incident to happen.

"Folks freaked out a little bit under pressure, and next thing you know you've got an 'abandon ship.'" Ridge says. "It's a little bit of a story, but there's been a really clean record between recreation and industry on the river, and the last thing the Cleveland Rowing Foundation wants is a big headline. That organization is nothing if not safety aware."  

Kirk Lang, the executive director of CRF, said that immediately after the incident, he gathered his coaches to discuss safety protocol.

"It was essentially a re-certification," said Lang, "Every coach in our adult program was required to attend. If they didn't, they were removed."

After a swift investigation, it was determined that the coach responsible didn't use his best judgment and was fired.


But the commercial boats recognize the Cleveland Rowing Foundation's commitment to safety — they've got a 70-page manual that's considered top of class on the Cuyahoga. And in general, rowers tend to be the river's most regular, seasoned recreational users.

It's the novices — folks who sometimes don't even know how to swim, let alone how to behave when a freighter approaches — that worry the big boats. It's often remarked that you need to get a driver's license and pass a road test to drive a car; but to hop in a kayak or to try out a standup paddleboard, all you need to do is sign a waiver of liability. And to operate a boat or jet ski? If you were born before January 1, 1982, you don't need to complete a boater safety certification at all.

"Some of these inexperienced users just don't know the rules of the road," says Nekvasil, on board the Sam Laud. "This is not a playground. When the economy is really humming, we can average four to five vessels a day on the river. At any time, there can be a boat around the next turn."

That's why Nekvasil and the rowing foundation use marine radios. And that's why the Coast Guard encourages people to download Boat Beacon or the Marine Traffic app on their smartphones to monitor boats in real time when they're on the water.

"But those can have issues too," Daniel Franklin says. "A server could go down. It's important to have those tools, but it shouldn't be an excuse not to be cognizant. You've got to use your eyes and ears."

Bill Cochrane runs Nalu Stand-up Paddleboarding and Surf in Rocky River. He says that he takes safety very seriously and, in fact, he doesn't do rentals on the busy Cuyahoga. Though he gets a fair number of novice users on corporate outings and a weekly Paddles and Pints event, which occasionally leaves from Merwin's Wharf, those outings are always led by an experienced guide who's familiar with the river and who knows the freighter schedule.

"The biggest thing is being aware and respecting these boats," Cochrane says of the freighters. "A big boat's going to win 100 percent of the time."   

Jane Goodman says that if you know what to do and how to behave on the water, it makes you a better neighbor.   

"That's what we all are, really," she says. "We're neighbors sharing this incredible resource. And education is the first and last piece of that."

Though the tension between industry and recreation on the water sometimes seems, well, tense, casual onlookers probably don't realize how actively the various stakeholders discuss their issues.

The forum where all this chatter occurs is the Cuyahoga River Safety Task Force. The various stakeholders are assembling the afternoon of June 30 — the June 22 meeting was postponed due to the Cavs parade — at the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit across from the Rock Hall. Everyone's here: Glen from the Lake Carriers Association, Kirk from the Rowing Foundation, Jane from Cuyahoga Restoration, the Foundry, the Water Taxi captain, Shooters, Cargill Salt. The task force was designed to be an equitable forum, facilitated by the Coast Guard, where stakeholders could work out their issues. Today, after Marine Safety Unit commander Mickey Dougherty gives a presentation on the RNC, the big topic of conversation is the June 6 incident.

When Kirk Lang, of the Rowing Foundation, relays the details to the gathered body, they gasp.

"Oh, no!" shouts one, when Lang says the coach instructed the rowers to leave the shell.

"I know, I agree with you," Lang says. "At that point, two additional coaches were called and they arrived on scene in about two minutes. They pulled all the rowers to safety. At this time, there was a lot of congestion occurring — calls from the Ashtabula, calls from the tug Defiance, calls from the coach. It was essentially a complete breakdown in communication across the board."

Lang describes the investigation process and the safety measures taken in the aftermath.

"We are open to suggestions for ways we can improve," he says, "but safety is very important to the Foundation. When this occurred it was a complete shutdown until we figured out what exactly happened."

Glen Nekvasil raises his hand and thanks Lang, on behalf of the Lake Carriers Association, for taking such swift and decisive action.

Stephanie Pitts, of the Coast Guard, smiles and thanks Lang on behalf of the Coast Guard and the body at large.

"This is what we're here to do," she says. "Things are going to happen. Nobody's perfect. But sharing this information and coming together helps prevent things like that from happening in the future.

"And just a reminder, from the rowers to the big guys, we're getting a lot more traffic on this river. We already have new commercial vessels out there — the Water Taxi, the Brew Boat. We're really building up here. It's a great waterway, but we've got to keep an eye out for each other."

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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