“Yes, even I am dishonest. Not in many ways, but in some. Forty-one, I think it is,” Mark Twain said in a letter to Joe Twichell, March 14, 1905.
Had the American literary icon and steamboat connoisseur been alive Wednesday, he might’ve been invited to judge the Kentucky Derby Festival Great Steamboat Race, where the only thing greater than the boats were the tales and accusations spun by the crew and judges from the Belle of Cincinnati, this year’s Belle of Louisville challenger.
Each vessel, packed with hundreds of party goers, hosted two official judges who were onboard to maintain the integrity of the race and to ensure that the silver-plated elk antlers were awarded to the rightful winner. At least in theory.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District Commander has always been a judge in the competition. While judges onboard the Belle of Cincinnati may have been less than honest in their duties, Louisville District Commander Col. Keith Landry never stooped to that level. After all, integrity is one of the seven Army values.
“Nobody tried to influence the judge,” said Landry when asked if Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson or other city officials attempted to bribe the first-time judge. “All they tried to do was to make sure that I knew that it was my responsibility that we win.”
Landry served as wingman to fellow Belle of Louisville and veteran steamboat judge U.S. Coast Guard, Ohio Valley Sector Commander Capt. Hung Nguyen.
“I just stepped in behind his formation,” Landry said.
This year, the Belle of Louisville—the oldest western river steamboat— steam rolled the Belle of Cincinnati in a five-task race that was won on a point system. The Belle of Louisville racked up 55 more points than its opponent.
However, as in all Great Steamboat races dating back to 1963, the Belle of Louisville was constantly being accused of cheating by the opposing team. At one point, Belle of Cincinnati Captain Alan Bernstein accused the Belle of Louisville team of tying the University of Cincinnati Bearcat to a tree during Task No. 3. Here, The Bearcat and the University of Louisville Cardinal waited on shore—along with a barrel of bourbon—for their respective boats to pick them up. Landry denied these accusations, and all others from the team up river. And, he had a few of his own.
“We observed the Belle of Cincinnati start before it got to the starting line,” he recalled. “We saw their smaller boat secure the flag at the turn around point versus going over with the big boat and moving on. But we didn’t have to use those technical violations to claim victory. We were the first ones back, we got our flag without using the small boat, and we had no issues getting our VIP on board. It was a crushing and resounding defeat.”
While Landry firmly had his eye on the mischief perpetrated by the Belle of Cincinnati, he also dedicated himself to telling the Army-- and the Corps’—story.
“It was a great opportunity for me to talk to a number of citizens and members of the community about the Army story and the Corps story on a number of differently levels, and of our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “Everyone was supportive. I lost count of the number of veterans who thanked me for my service. And, I thanked all the veterans for their service. I think I was on the boat for four hours, and it was done before I knew it. It was fabulous.”