published Thursday, June 13th, 2013

Water view: Life on Tennessee River offers special Riverbend experience

A 98-foot houseboat, offering 3,000 square-feet of living space, is docked just below the Coca-Cola Stage Wednesday at the Riverbend Festival. Owners Merlin Wagner and Janice Wilkey stand on the upper deck.
A 98-foot houseboat, offering 3,000 square-feet of living space, is docked just below the Coca-Cola Stage Wednesday at the Riverbend Festival. Owners Merlin Wagner and Janice Wilkey stand on the upper deck.
Photo by Tim Barber.
JUNE 7-15 • CHATTANOOGA, TENNESSEE

BY THE NUMBERS

* 100-300 -- number of boats on the river during the second Saturday fireworks finale

* 40 percent -- increase in boat traffic on the second Saturday compared to the nightly average

* 45 -- length, in feet, of the 441 Meridian motor yacht used to ferry headliners to the rear of the Coke Stage

* $1.25 -- daily price, per linear foot, of docking along the riverfront for most of the year

* $1.50 -- price per linear foot to dock during Riverbend and other special events

* 2,100 -- linear feet of docking space along the riverfront

* 65 -- number of boats the pier can fit, at an average vessel length of 35 feet

Sitting on the screened front "porch" of Merlin Wagner and Janice Wilkey's houseboat as overhead fans churned up the sweltering summer heat Wednesday afternoon, it was easy to see the appeal of enjoying Riverbend by water.

Wilkey and Wagner's houseboat, a 100-foot-long leviathan called Miss Courtney IV, tied up at the end of the pier next to the Olgiati Bridge on Tuesday afternoon. Their fourth visit to Riverbend -- always by water -- will culminate in a wedding ceremony at 7 p.m. Saturday, just hours before the fireworks display that signals the end of the festival.

"We decided that since we'll be here and our friends and family will be here, this would make a good time for the wedding," Wilkey said, adding that her future husband loves being on the largest boat tied up at the dock.

Normally stored at Island Cove Marina, the Courtney IV sprawls for 3,000 square feet across two decks, including an air-conditioned lower living area with full kitchen, massive living room, four bedrooms and three bathrooms. Up top, there's a full-service bar with frozen drink dispenser, karaoke machine, TV and a slide straight into the river.

It's a hard enough life.

"Our life's a vacation, pretty much," Wilkey said, laughing over the conversation of her friends and family, some of whom had come as far away as California to celebrate their nuptials.

At Riverbend, the first boat to dock at the festival site is the Coca-Cola barge, which arrived this year on May 15. But for many water-bound guests, such as Wagner and Wilkey, the voyage to the riverfront began months ago.

MarineMax on Riverfront Parkway manages the waterfront for the city and begins taking reservations in late fall for the right to dock vessels during the first and second halves of the festival. On Dec. 7, six months to the day before gates opened to the public, boaters camped out at MarineMax's office with propane heaters to stave off freezing temperatures. Wagner and Wilkey, who were out of town at the time, had a representative camp out for them.

December's chill was but a distant memory Wednesday, when stifling heat well into the 90s blanketed the grounds leading up to the headlining performance by country singer Dierks Bentley.

MarineMax General Manager Scott Manning said boaters from throughout the Tennessee River system -- some as far away as Paducah, Ky., and Muscle Shoals, Ala. -- clamber to secure docking space along the river. So far, with the exception of a couple of rained out nights that lowered boating attendance, the festival has been smooth sailing for boaters, except the usual complaint that there isn't enough space to meet demand, Manning said.

"There haven't been any negatives, per se, but they wish we had more boat dockage for the event," he said Tuesday. "We've still got 35 people on a waiting list for the second half of Riverbend, hoping someone will cancel so they can bring their boat down."

With so many boats on the water at once, safety is a major concern. Security on the water is handled by a coordinated effort between the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Detachment in Nashville.

Throughout the festival, the Coast Guard's 25-foot Response Boat Small and a handful of auxiliary vessels have been running eight-hour patrol days to ensure the boating experience is incident-free, said Petty Officer First Class Shawn McNerney, an 18-year veteran of the Coast Guard.

"We'll be making sure ... no one is creating any kind of havoc on the water," McNerney said. "We've been doing vessel stops and everyone seems to be pretty much in compliance with regulations. We just want to make sure everyone has a safe boating experience."

Some of the primary concerns, McNerney said, are that boaters are using their navigational lights and -- if at anchor -- their anchor lights and that they have their kill switches attached to disengage the engine in case they go overboard. Just like their terrestrial counterparts, boaters may indulge in a bit of drinking, but the same blood-alcohol content regulations -- 0.08 percent or higher -- apply to boaters and drivers, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

Prior to the festival, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it was eliminating overtime funding for its staff at the Chickamauga lock, through which Riverbend boaters must funnel each evening to return to Chickamauga Lake. The newly imposed deadline to get through the lock by 3 a.m. hasn't adversely affected boaters yet, Manning said, adding that the biggest boating night of the festival, this Saturday, was yet to come.

"The lock itself hasn't affected us," he said. "The lock director ... coordinates with us via email and lets us know if there's commercial traffic and whether it's clear. They're doing a great job of making sure we make the best with what we have."

Although the festival is geared toward entertaining its tens of thousands of land-based patrons, organizers at Friends of the Festival said they aim to please the marine component as well.

Since the mid-1980s, the Coke Stage has presented a rear-facing screen so boaters in the channel can watch the headliner's performance. In 2000, newly installed talent and production coordinator Joe "Dixie" Fuller said he found wiggle room in the budget to add a speaker system so the channel crowd wouldn't have to settle for listening to the music with a slight delay as it reflected off downtown buildings.

Even though they don't have to pay to hear the music at anchor, Fuller said, it's only natural that the festival would do its best to keep boaters happy.

"Clearly, there's no revenue there, but it's a riverfront event and it's 'River'-bend, so we want to include the people on the river as well as the people on the bank," he said. "There are several of them out there who have my cellphone number, and they'll call me so I can make adjustments [to the sound and video]."

Once they're on the water, Manning said, the experience is completely different from sitting on the Coke Lawn, if no less enjoyable.

"When you're on your own boat, it's like being at a drive-in movie in your car. You're at what we call a 'dive-in' movie," he said, laughing. "It's like partying from your living room."

And if so many people party on the water, why not tack on a wedding reception, Wilkey asked.

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205.

Riverbend 2013 Schedule
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about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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