HISTORY:Rescuing the Rescuer

Tuesday, January 28, 2003
According to the Baltimore Sun last April 21, 100,000 visitors came to town the day before, just to see the boats. Most had arrived for the Volvo races, an endurance test of sorts. But without so much press, from as far off as Seattle, another 48 came for a ship whose endurance was legend already. For a near half-century with the Coast Guard, the Tamaroa fought famously bad seas - and before that, enemy fire. Her quiet admirers arrived Balto with scrapers in hand, wrenches at the ready, plans in mind. Tamaroa had taken world wars and nature's wrath in stride. But civilian life got her down. Her preceding nine years were spent in near-isolation, open to intruders and the elements, gathering rust. April 20 was the day all that would change.

Some of the 48 came to relive, some to renew. For one, it might be, "this is where I found out what I can do." For another "I thought things would get bigger after this, but they didn't."

"I came of age here," said Doug, sorting through the wires in the ceiling of the bridge, trying to establish where each went. Someone had changed things, in the 30 years since his quartermaster days. And it wasn't just the wiring.

"That's where the old man's bucket was -" he points to the deck beside the chart table "- and there's where mine was. This wing tipped over 50-degrees and touched the waves -" his clippers wag toward the bridge extension out starboard "- then we rolled back, and that wing did." The ship carried about 80 crew through those rolls, and "only five could get up and stand." Doug's not describing the "no-name" or "Halloween storm" of 1991 or anything near as spectacular. Just life aboard Tamaroa, WMEC-166, on a routine Atlantic patrol.

Most of the 48 were ex-Coasties, but ship-loving civilians and even an ex-Marine got involved. "We got an e-mail from a former skipper," said Tom Robinson, the ex-Marine and Executive Director of the Tamaroa Maritime Foundation, "who said we should quit bugging him, he's too old to work on the ship, he's sending us a check for $50,000."

Getting it Right

Every so often, shipbuilders really get it right. Tamaroa was designed as a tugboat, on a world-class scale. Extra-tough, extra-strong. Meant to move the damaged or injured away from shells and torpedoes, through the angriest winds and seas. Built as Zuni (ATF-95) in 1943, she was described as a Cherokee-class salvage tug, 205-ft. overall, 38.5-ft. beam, with four 750-hp GM 12-278 diesel-electric systems, driving a 3,000-hp Farrel-Birmingham propulsion motor to turn a single 12-ft. screw.

Built to haul. Through 500 miles of unfriendly waters in one case, lashed like a pontoon to the stricken cruiser Reno. She broke her keel at Iwo Jima. Was first at the Andrea Doria sinking, in her early Coast Guard days. And yes, was the real-life rescue ship in the story of "The Perfect Storm." In the movie, she's mentioned by name.

"I used to bunk down there," said Harry, pointing out the lowest in a stack of three racks in the crew's quarters. He means "down there" figuratively. He served on the Quapaw, one of Tamaroa's 70 sisters. Just after the war, six altogether went to the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard boasts that these ships' replacements have quarters designed by Raymond Lowey. There were few creature comforts on a Navy ocean-going tug at Harry's time. If you slept on your back "down there," the bunk above could be inches from your face.

A Tug as a Cutter

A tug as a Coast Guard cutter? It challenges preconception. Tugs are designed for power above speed, tend to be beamy with extra draft to house the large engines that define their role. Don't we think of Coast Guard cutters as sleek?

Maybe we shouldn't. "Cutter" in Coast Guard parlance means any ship over 65 feet, waddling workboats as well as ocean greyhounds. The medium-endurance cutters that replaced the Tam and her sisters are slimmer, but some of their specs are close - 5 ft. longer, 2,000-hp more powerful, 2-mile faster top speed. So on paper, at least, the Tam's 40-year-old architectural premise had plenty to suit even recent Coast Guard standards. There was speculation aboard, on that Saturday last April, that her tuglike characteristics were prominent assets to her most famous mission, in those seas of '91. We recently asked John W. Waterhouse, P.E., President of Elliott Bay Design Group, Seattle, what he thought.

"Any tug boat fan can tell you," he writes, "that a tug can survive weather all out of proportion to the size of the vessel. If the hull is buttoned up tight, the tug has lots of power to handle wind and waves, a nice big rudder to give steering authority, and a low center of gravity so there's no tendency to lay on her beam ends when struck by a wave. By comparison most patrol type vessels such as cutters have larger superstructures with their greater windage and higher center of gravity, propellers designed for speed, not bollard thrust, and relatively smaller rudders to reduce drag at speed. The tug might make you seasick from the motion but she'll likely bring you home."

Going over the math, Mr. Waterhouse concluded, "These numbers tell me that the Tamaroa's design is between a typical cutter and a typical tug. She is heavier for her length than most cutters. She is relatively underpowered by modern standards but this is compensated somewhat by her single, large diameter, propeller."

Mr. Waterhouse added, as some do in surprise, "She's a good looking vessel to my eye."

Like many fine ships, Tamaroa will be remembered - or at least promoted - for her brushes with history. Iwo Jima's in the history books. There are photos of Zuni at that battle, and at least one picture postcard. The second ship to reach the Andrea Doria, finding the Tam already at work, probably took a few snapshots, too. Everybody knows "the perfect storm," and can hear her name called in the soundtrack. Nothing can take away from the fact that she was in all those places - and in the hands of good people she saved lives.

But how much of her glory was luck of the draw? If Tamaroa hadn't been stationed on the Coast Guard's Atlantic, some other ship would. Would that ship have failed, where Tamaroa succeeded? The reputation and memory of a ship can focus sharply on a couple events. But what kind of ship would Tamaroa have been, if she'd been elsewhere on those days?

More than most ships, Tamaroa has an answer. As one of a fleet of near-clones, she was in 70 elsewheres on most days. Tamaroa probably could have done everything her sisters did. And her sisters did do everything.

Ships off the Old Block

The Cherokee-class ships were built between 1939 and 1946. Records show concurrent builds with nearly identical specs under other class names, including Apache and Navajo. They were the product of a stated intention to make the best ocean-going salvage tug in this man's Navy. This ambition had plenty to go on. The navy used tugs as far back as the Civil War. The very first ocean tugs, or ATs when the designation was established in 1917, were not always purpose-built, like their Cherokee descendants. But the mid-30s design drew on collective experience, which seemed to suggest that of all the things tugboats do, the thing they do most is to improvise.

A salvage tug, by definition, confronts situations that have already sunk ships. A Navy salvage tug faces the additional prospect that someone wants it sunk, too. The ATFs' collective activities read like an encyclopedia of the random and miscellaneous things that happen in war. Besides hauling damaged ships, targets, and whatever needed towing for the big Allied invasions, ATFs opened fire on enemy aircraft and, altogether, downed dozens; fired upon enemy shore positions, sometimes wreaking severe damage; captured enemy subs. Although armed lightly, the ships collectively proved tugs can do more than push barges.

Winning World War II was their initial ambition, but the Cherokee and related ATFs outlived that goal. Korea and Viet Nam were in store for some in the U.S. Navy. Others, as early as the 1960s, were transferred to navies worldwide; Italy, Turkey, Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, and Argentina are among those that received ex-ATFs and put them to use. "They have been the navy┬┤s hidden card for everything," wrote Ignacio Amendolara, a 13-year veteran of the Argentine navy. Argentina received four of the ships beginning in 1961, and still runs three.

The USCG got their six beginning in 1946, while they were still quite young. All, of course, are by now retired. One apparently entered commercial service, and then there's the Tam. The rest of the lot faced their final missions as gunnery targets. Maybe that's the measure of their breed. Maybe they were so tough, it took friendly fire to sink them.

Survival, Body and Soul

A ship has no senses, no wits, no concerns. It's her crew that fills-in these parts, and the sentiments they add up to. A ship doesn't care if it sits and rusts, but the guys who knew her do. The National Association of Fleet Tug Sailors (NAFTS) knows ATFs as well as anyone. When the Coast Guard decommissioned Tamaroa, NAFTS' members raised the few thousand required to have her towed to New York. That was in the mid-1990s. It was to be the Tam's last good luck for almost a decade.

An idea arose to display the Tam at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum, on the North River. An ex-Tamaroa helmsman, Bill Doherty, proposed forming a group of Tam veterans to undertake restoration. Doherty writes that he was initially well-received. "Then I was told that she did not belong to the Intrepid Museum at all but to the Hudson River Park Trust," a joint project of the City and State of New York to develop and operate a five-mile public park on Manhattan's North River Shore. "In late 1999, as I was driving down West Street, I saw her again tied up to pier 40, a real wreck, her starboard side looked like hell.

"All I got from HRPT was that their plans to use her as their floating headquarters fell through, and they had no idea what they were going to do with her. I pointed out that she needed to be maintained regardless, but they would not allow me on board. I'd hooked up with another Tamaroa shipmate, Serge Obolensky, a wiz at Web based stuff. We decided to put together a website [www.tamaroa.org] based on the history of the Tam to bring her plight to the public."

Before much could be done, the ship turned-up at auction by the GSA. The HRPT did not reply to our requests for clarification of the circumstances. Winning bidder was Maritime Equipment & Sales, Inc. of Peterson, Alabama, who had the ship towed to Baltimore for resale. "We bought the vessel with every intention of repairing and selling it for somewhere around a million," said the company's L.L. Stewart, who did not see the ship as an heirloom. "It's just a normal tug," he told us, "the Coral Sea had a lot more history, and was cut up anyway." Nevertheless, Mr. Stewart was sympathetic to the objectives of Doherty and Obolonsky, and "tried to help the New York group find someone to buy it for them" through ads.

Secret Admirer

Harry Jaeger, the former Quapaw crewman and president of NAFTS, saw the ads and started thinking. Tom Robinson independently heard about the ship "from the Captain of the Annabel Lee Cruise Boat in Richmond. I contacted L. L. Stewart to see if he might be interested in donating the ship to be used as a museum in Richmond. He immediately said HELL NO."

Mr. Robinson writes, "About 10 days later, Stewart called me to ask if I were available to have dinner in Baltimore. I told him it was a long distance for dinner. He replied that I may get a ship out of it. I mentioned that he must have had a change of heart, to which he replied HELL NO!"

But Mr. Stewart did say he'd been contacted by a possible donor (who requests anonymity) who expressed interest in saving the ship if it could be used for youth activities. Meetings were scheduled.

"I met with the donor and made my proposal," continues Mr. Robinson. "That's when I discovered that another group was also interested. That group was represented that evening by Bill and Serge."

Mr. Stewart admits his willingness to write-off a $300,000 mark-up he thought he would make on the sale. The New York group had been involved with the ship longer, he told us, but the Richmond group had the written-up plan. "I spoke with them," writes Mr. Robinson, "and we combined forces. A few days later I received a call from Harry," who signed-up as Director of Operations.

Aboard the Tam that day last April, all forms of educational missions were in the air for the ship, once restored and berthed in Richmond. Future mariners of all kinds could sleep aboard, start her up, taste a living ship. The City of Richmond, acknowledging the tourism and commercial potentials of a hero on its waterfront, "has engaged consulting engineers to prepare plans and specs" for a site for the Tam, according to Chief Jaeger (NAFTS is officially uninvolved, Mr. Jaeger's presidency of that organization notwithstanding).

Dwindling Numbers

Though Tamaroa is not quite the last of her kind, she's well on her way to becoming that. Now entering their 60s, the ATFs may be forgiven signs of wear. One of the four that went to Argentina foundered off Antarctica. Those that went to the Colombian Navy have been scrapped. Two yet in U.S. Navy mothballs - including Quapaw - are likely to be scrapped this year. How long before the Tam is, indeed, the last?

Of course, the Naval Dictionary lists several of the ATF sisters with "fate unknown," and any one of them could drive in proudly almost anytime, flags snapping in the breeze. But Tamaroa is here now, and - as the deafening reverberation through her steel engine room proved last April - her four engines work. However, "cranking up a ship's service generators so we can have lights is one thing," wrote Chief Jaeger in an e-mail to his volunteers, "but being underway is a big responsibility."

So big that the Coast Guard has "forbidden" the Tamaroa from leaving Baltimore until the restorers satisfy a list of conditions. Plenty of well-intentioned museum ships in transit have gone to the bottom. And it might really annoy the Coast Guard if a navigational hazard had once been one of their own.

L.L. Stewart's personnel, themselves CG-trained, infused their expertise into many of the volunteers during those days in April. "Their military-style training has served well so far," said Tim Ivory, a diesel-electric specialist and chief engineer of the museum fireboat John J. Harvey, and a member of the original New York group. "Everybody knows what to do because everybody is interchangeable. But that wouldn't necessarily cover what switch to throw for which surprise underway." Ivory said he's mulling-over a return to Baltimore to pitch-in some more. Nearly one-third of the original 48 show-up regularly for the scheduled work weekends, of which there have been 21 so far, and a three-month campaign has yielded 50 more paid-up members to the Foundation.

"We have already been to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and expect to continue salvaging material from the Seneca," wrote Mr. Jaeger. "We have recovered more than 60 different items adding up to over 200 individual pieces. Repair Parts, spare parts, missing equipment and a lot of wish list stuff. Still need a lot of material, especially original equipment that was removed for souvenirs. Inactive Reserve Fleet ships in the James River will be our next area of attention."

Tom Robinson has been writing grant proposals, and "I also received a commitment from the U.S. Navy Training Command, recommending that the TAM be utilized by all NJROTC Cadets throughout Area 5 as their training ship. The NJROTC program is suffering nationally since 9/11, when most active-duty ships were placed off limits to visiting cadets.

The Foundation also forwarded to its members an e-mail from Emily Moses, Associate Producer for National Geographic Television and Film, stating "we plan to film a recreation of the Perfect Storm on the boat with any coastguardsmen who are available (and might still have their uniform) either the weekend of February 1 or February 8." This would be a promising cinematic debut for the old ship, which was played by a stand-in in the Hollywood version.

"From the sands of Iwo Jima to the waves of The Perfect Storm" is the slogan Tamaroa's supporters have coined. It's a good one. It symbolizes the great travel - through time and purpose - a good ship can cover. But "The Coast Guard will not give us permission to move until we have an address to go to!" said Mr. Jaeger. So Tamaroa's longest trip may yet be ahead. A full 150 miles. That's the distance from Baltimore to Richmond.

Maritime Reporter August 2014 Digital Edition
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