Soon to Be Shipshape

A 107-Year-Old Chesapeake Bay Tug gets a new lease on life
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In early July last summer, I watched as our crew aboard the schooner Heritage dropped anchor in Rockland Harbor, Maine. Another three-masted schooner maneuvered nearby. “That’s the Victory Chimes,” said Heritage skipper Capt. Doug Lee. “She’s the only Chesapeake ram schooner left. They hauled lumber, grain, coal, you name it.” Though Victory Chimes was a beautiful vessel with a neat Chesapeake tie-in, I didn’t give her much more thought at the time. Five months later, just last December, I was walking across the campus of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland, with shipwright Duncan MacFarlane, who is leading a two-year rebuild on the museum’s 107-year-old Chesapeake Bay-built tug, Delaware.

“She was built in 1912 by William H. Smith in Bethel, Delaware with white oak frames and pine planks,” MacFarlane said, adding, “Have you ever seen or heard of the ram schooner Victory Chimes?”

After nearly 30 years of working in the marine business, I was once again reminded of how small the boating world can be. More times than I can count, I’ve found myself in a remote location on one vessel or another, only to return home to discover a local connection here on the Chesapeake Bay.

Duncan MacFarlane points out some rotten timbers

Duncan MacFarlane points out some rotten timbers

According to MacFarlane, Delaware and Victory Chimes worked the Nanticoke River together; they are the last two remaining boats built at Smith’s Bethel Shipyard. In fact, since both boats worked the same waters, it’s likely Delaware towed or assisted Victory Chimes many times over the years. Tugs like Delaware were used primarily to assist sailing schooners and other cargo carriers with loads of lumber, produce, grain, canned goods and other commodities, up and down the Chesapeake’s winding tributaries.

Delaware was designed to tow versus pushing or motoring alongside,” MacFarlane said. “She’s had many different engines over the years, including a 25-horsepower Moco, a Sterling, a Standard and a 125-horsepower Buda diesel. We recently removed her GM 6-71 diesel, which we intend to have completely rebuilt as part of the refit.”

The last time I saw Delaware was when she was up on the museum’s railway for structural work to the cabin and hull. That was the last major maintenance work completed on the nearly 40-foot tug. Eight years later, Delaware’s hull, deck and cabin house were largely consumed by rot, metal sickness and old age.

Delaware comes out of the water.

Delaware comes out of the water.

“By the time we’re done, we’ll likely have replaced 95 percent of her,” MacFarlane said as he dove a knife deep into a rotten pocket where a frame met Delaware’s keel. “She’s badly hogged at her stern and bow, and the galvanized fasteners they used didn’t do her any favors.”

The tug was donated to the museum in 1989 and has endured several modifications and repair efforts over the years. Despite the challenging amount of work to be done, the old-age problems present great teaching opportunities. Part of the rebuild effort centers around using Apprentice for a Day volunteers, as well as shipwright apprentices who can learn specialized techniques.

The tug lies at the museum’s bulkhead in this photo taken in 1971.

The tug lies at the museum’s bulkhead in this photo taken in 1971.

Her aging bones notwithstanding, Delaware’s hull still has lovely lines that are far more graceful than you’d expect to see on a hard-working tug. “There are a lot of clues that lead us to think she was possibly built first as a pleasure craft,” MacFarlane said. “First, she’s relatively lightly built for a tug; we’d normally see heavier timber used. Also, we found some detail work in some of her interior moldings that are rather ornate for a working boat. The biggest challenge facing us now is finding the right lumber for the rebuild. She was built with white oak frames and planks hewn from local pine. The keel presents the biggest challenge; we need a 32-foot piece of continuous timber that we can shave down to a 10-inch-by-18-inch piece. We’ve become pretty good at finding lumber, though, so hopefully, we find what we need fast.”

MacFarlane expects the project to continue for the next two years in full public view at the museum’s boatyard. If you’re into traditional boatbuilding, it’s well worth a day trip to St. Michaels to see her at the museum. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.