The 37th annual Ohio River Sternwheel Festival doesn't officially start until Friday, but for the captains of 28 boats docked along the levee in downtown Marietta, one of the main attractions is already underway.
"I'm writing a little story and just relaxing, visiting with the boat captains up and down the river," said Parkersburg resident R.C. "Heck" Heckert, aboard his boat, the P.A. Denney. "It's a unique family, river family. And the magical draw seems to be those friendships that are spread out across the country. And it all culminates in Marietta every September."
The festival is the largest gathering of paddlewheel vessels anywhere in the world, according to the website for the American Sternwheel Association Inc., which is headquartered in Marietta and will hold a meeting on Saturday.
EVAN BEVINS The Marietta Times
Boaz, W.Va., resident Roxie Hughes, left, follows her grandson, Isaac, along the Ohio River levee Wednesday as he looks at the boats that have already docked for this weekend’s 37th annual Ohio River Sternwheel Festival.
"In my opinion, when Harry Robinson and the initial Sternwheel Festival committee put this together, they kept it simple and they kept it oriented around the boats," Heckert said. "Big cities can't do what Marietta, Ohio, accomplishes. Their foundation was so well developed and their concept was so simple that it works."
Robinson was a local businessman who helped start the festival and contributed to the community in numerous other areas. The annual fireworks display - one of the highlights of the event - bears his name.
Boats began arriving at the levee over the holiday weekend, and the owners plan to spend the days leading up to the festival swapping stories, visiting the city and doing some repair work. On Wednesday, Heckert, 64, was recording some memories from his peers.
2012 Ohio River Sternwheel
6 p.m. - Opening ceremonies.
7 - Steve and Bev Pottmeyer.
7:30 - Little Miss and Mr. Sternwheel Festival Pageant.
8 - Arrival - The Journey Tribute Band.
9:30 - David Nail.
11:30 - Introduction of queen candidates.
Noon - Marietta High School Wall of Sound Marching Band.
1 p.m. - Marietta High School Show Choir "Premiere."
2 - Monday Calling.
3 - Eric Himan.
4 - The Chase.
5 - Monday Calling.
6 - Eric Himan.
7 - Coronation and recognition of past queens.
7:30 - The Chase.
8:30 - Stayin' Alive - One Nite with the Bee Gees.
9:30 - Harry J. Robinson Memorial Fireworks.
10 - Stayin' Alive - One Nite with the Bee Gees.
8 a.m. - Sunrise Service
9 a.m. to 4 p.m. - Car show.
10 - Alfie and the Omegas.
11 - Jennifer Simmons.
Noon - Hadden Sayers Band.
1 p.m. - Captain James E. Sands Memorial Sternwheeler Races.
2 - Hadden Sayers Band.
2:30 - Phil Dirt and the Dozers.
"We're all getting older, so we thought we ought to write some of this stuff down," he said.
Among those he was speaking with was Ike Hastings, 88, who spends about three-fourths of the year aboard his vessel, the Pickett Hastings, named for an ancestor who was court-martialed during the Civil War for swearing at officers.
"This one's boat No. 47," said Hastings, noting that tally includes hunting boats, scull boats and more.
He started building the 100-foot boat with an aluminum hull in 2003, completing it in 2007.
"I'm going to live 'til it rusts," he laughed, before adding, "I'll only make 108 probably."
Hastings has a bit of cleanup to do on board after a mishap while leaving a regatta in Point Pleasant, W.Va., Sunday. The Pickett Hastings struck a bridge pier while a friend was piloting it, dumping dishes and glasses from his kitchen cabinets onto the floor and shattering many of them.
"The only brakes you've got on a boat is reverse," Hastings said. "He put it in reverse, the engine killed. You got no brakes."
On down the levee, Newark resident Debbie Burden described days like Wednesday as the "calm before the storm" as she and husband Rick visited with other captains and their families. They were aboard the E.L. Thumper, docked next to their boat, the Jenny B.
"It's just a friendly atmosphere. The hospitality here is fantastic," she said.
Making sure that's the case are members of the Sternwheel Festival's hospitality committee, led by Barb McFarland and Bonnie Parks.
"We get items from the merchants, anywhere from coupons to small gifts to Broughton's gives them a whole cooler full of items," McFarland said. "It's a thank-you to them for coming."
Hospitality committee members will bring boat owners groceries or take them shopping. Last year, they took one captain to the hospital for tests.
"We're here to meet their needs and see if they have a good time and answer their questions," Parks said. "If they weren't here, obviously we wouldn't have a Sternwheel Festival."
The presence of the boats drew several onlookers to the levee as well on Wednesday. Among them was Marietta resident Ray Treadway, 63, who said the nice weather provided a good opportunity for him to try to chat with some of the captains.
"I knew there'd be some idle time here before the actual festival," he said.
The boats attracted several youngsters, including 3-year-old Nathan Jones of Marietta, walking along with his mother, Kathleen.
"I really, really, really want to go on a boat," he said.
Boaz, W.Va., resident Isaac Harris, 3, was excited about the boats as well, even if he was a bit confused after seeing the massive American Queen sternwheeler in town recently.
"He thought they were all going to be as big as the American," said his grandmother, Roxie Hughes, 56. "He said, 'Where's the big one?'"