Slowly the Charles N. Curtis was easing stern-first out into the channel of the Foss Waterway in Tacoma, Washington, departing for a trip with local high school students who were to conduct scientific tests enroute on Commencement Bay. Manning the controls on the bridge were two veterans of the ship. Working the ancient brass throttles on the starboard side was Tom Rogers, 82, assisted by Terry Paine, 80, at the helm.
“We’re getting set by a strong current,” Rogers reported, popping his head out of the side window to check for cross traffic and working the levers with an expert’s touch as Paine calmly worked the wheel. Thrusters? No, sir. This is old school.
Operating the 91-year-old boat that’s also known as Sea Scout Ship 110 is second nature to both men, who have a combined 125 years of service on her. Paine started in 1957 and ended active captain’s duty in 1988, but he still fills in as a volunteer. Rogers, now the senior skipper, joined in 1964 and manages operations of the vessel, but also of Commencement Bay Marine Services, where the Curtis is docked. The boat, which does more than 150 trips a year, is run by volunteers who donate about 20,000 hours annually.
She matches the description of a workboat to a tee. From Olympia to Bellingham and many points in between, the Curtis is an icon on Puget Sound and beyond, logging thousands of miles every year to teach students about ships and the marine environment, and to give them a chance to find their sea legs. The vessel owes her longevity to her astonishing adaptability. Built for the U.S. Coast Guard as CG 78302 with pine planks on oak frames in 1931 at Southern Ship Yard in Newport News, Virginia, this 78-foot, 9-inch-long vessel with a 14-foot, 8-inch beam was one of a half dozen 400 Series Fast Patrol Boats to chase rumrunners during Prohibition. She filled that role on Chesapeake Bay and Long island Sound until 1937, when she and her sisterships were transferred to the West Coast for patrol boat duty during World War II. She was then sold to the Mount Rainier Council (today the Pacific Harbors Council) of the Boy Scouts of America in April 1946 for $10 (about $148 in today’s money). She was renamed Charles N. Curtis after the Scout Executive in charge.
However, because she was armed with a one-pounder on the foredeck, a .50 caliber machine gun and two racks for depth charges, she hardly fit the bill of an educational vessel, so changes had to be made. The old Sterling Viking II 8-cylinder gasoline powerplants that produced 1,130 horsepower and 24 knots of top speed were donated to the Tacoma Fire Boat No. 1 and replaced with two GMC 6-71 diesels with 235 horses that are good for 12 knots of maximum speed. To make her suitable for overnight or extended trips, a galley and mess room were built in the 1950s on the aft end of the wheelhouse. For safety reasons the bulwarks needed to get raised, which necessitated rebuilding, elevating and moving the wheelhouse forward for better visibility. Her two diesels are sharing space in the clean but somewhat cramped engine room with two gensets of 20 and 30 kW, respectively. She can sleep up to 24 crew belowdecks in the “insane room,” while officers have their bunks behind the nav station, in a place known as the “sane room.”
“She was built for a service life of 10 years, but now she’s past 90,” Rogers says. As the president of CBMS, a full-service yard with fuel dock that also is home to the Tacoma Youth Marine Center and the Sea Scout base, he has a hand in drumming up funds for the vessel’s operation and maintenance, as well as the educational programs. Those were developed by the Youth Marine Foundation, a maritime educational non-profit that partners with the Tacoma Public School District, the Sea Scouts, Metro Parks Tacoma and local universities and colleges.
Matt Lonsdale is a science teacher at the Science and Math Institute in Tacoma, who has been taking 75 to 100 students in grades 10 to 12 on field trips with the vessel since 2014. “For the past six years she has moved me all over the sound and I have really gotten to love her as a boat. On our last trip out, I gave her a hug and thanked her for all the work that she had done for us. I know this feeling is shared by many.” That includes the students. “Going on the boat is their favorite thing,” Lonsdale adds.
Megan Jacobsen teaches at the School of the Arts and takes her students out on the Curtis to examine water probes for dissolved oxygen, plankton types, turbidity, depth of visibility, phosphate, copper, nitrates, salinity and pH. “The goal of these experiments is for the students to get a better idea of the overall health of the ocean around us,” she says. “These are art students, so they have to warm to the idea of going out on a boat. Yet many cite time on board as one of their favorite things about the course. What makes us successful is the opportunity to provide students with experiences they don’t usually have much access to.”
All these trips put a heavy workload on the Curtis. “These old boats are classics, but it takes a lot of money to keep them running,” Paine says. “A boat needs to be worked and it needs to be workable. Back in the day when fishing boats were still around, things were easier. We worked on her in Gig Harbor. I got a bunch of Sea Scouts to scrub her down and paint her, but that changed when the Coast Guard got involved.”
For a licensed Sub Chapter-T passenger vessel, stringent safety and structural requirements are mandated. To address these needs, the Curtis used to get hauled in Port Townsend, Washington, one of the few remaining locations where aging wooden workboats can get repairs done. At times, invasive surgery was on the menu—bulkheads were replaced, along with frames, planks, tanks, floors and rubrails. Then backing plates for a prop strut were installed, and a false stem.
“She needs work to keep the Coast Guard happy, but not all at once,” observes Shipwright Mark Stout, who has worked on the boat. “She has good maintenance procedures, so [the jobs] can be spread out.”
Rogers takes the long view. “We are on the fourth generation of [the old] engines,” he says, adding that it is hard to find replacement parts. Other imminent work concerns the fuel tank room—a messy, complex and expensive job that might take more than two months of dry-dock time and cost north of $150,000. Replacing her old powerplants with Tier-IV compliant models adds another hefty amount to the tab, which Rogers pegs at a total of $500,000. “It would extend the life of the Curtis a number of years, but may not be the best investment of resources,” he says.
Recently, the nonprofit acquired a 110-foot aluminum vessel in Texas that was adapted for training purposes, and it changed the educational dynamics, meaning the Curtis is about to head into retirement. Just how this might shake out remains to be seen. Turning her into a museum piece on the waterfront like the old Fireboat No. 1, or selling her, don’t make much economic sense, due to secondary liability and insurance concerns, according to a document Rogers prepared for the Boy Scouts’ Pacific Harbor Council. He has suggested removing items of sentimental value, including the helm and the brass throttles, before breaking her up at an estimated cost of $75,000 to $100,000.
His reasoning “to invest in youth not history,” is guided by practical thinking, not wooden-boat romanticism. Not everyone agrees, but on this afternoon as the Curtis returns from the first of two student trips, it’s good to see her still on the job.
“The current is pushing us in, so let’s take a high angle,” Rogers says to Paine at the helm. And Paine does just that with the confidence that comes from a lifetime of experience. He allows her to gently drift into her berth, waiting for the skipper to give a short thrust in reverse to stick the landing, just as he’s done for the past six decades.
This article was originally published in the September 2022 issue.