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Chesapeake T-boats, happy in retirement

During World War II, the Army Transportation Corps needed a vessel that could serve a multitude of purposes on every body of water, in every theater of the war. Some were borrowed, some were bought, and some were created. One of the latter was the T-boat, a vessel that served in several capacities, including as a tugboat and lighter. It was designed by the legendary Eldredge-McInnis Co. of Boston and laid down with a 64-foot, 10-inch LOA, a 16-foot, 6-inch beam and a 6-foot draft.

Patapsco, seen motoring past Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. These Korean War-era steel boats require a lot of effort to maintain, but they are sturdy, maneuverable and easy to operate with minimal crew.

In the Army, the “T” designation means “coastwise passenger freight vessel.” One current owner of a T-boat, Randy Jordan, compares the payload of the T-boat to that of the ubiquitous C-47 Skytrain air transport, known in civilian life as the DC-3, because it could carry the same number of fully equipped troops and tonnage of cargo.

After the war, the wooden ships were shunted to reserve duty or sold. A few survive today, most notably the Laura B, which lives on as a ferry in Port Clyde, Maine. The Laura B, or T-57 as the Army called her, was used during WWII as a lighter in the Solomon Islands, had a crew of 15 and carried two 50-caliber machine guns forward and a 20mm cannon aft. In her last skirmish, the pilothouse was shot to pieces. She was brought to her Maine home in 1946 and was used for hauling lobsters to New York before becoming part of the Mohegan Boat Line.

When the Korean conflict erupted, the United States again needed a utility boat, but this time it wanted T-boats with steel hulls. Higgins Industries, NASSCO and Missouri Valley Steel built 82 of them. Few of these vessels made it overseas before the war ended. They were dispersed to government agencies, and some were later sold to be used as fishing boats, research vessels, training ships and tugs. The Sea Scouts are fond of this type of vessel and have used them for training future mariners. The T-boat also makes a nifty trawler, and here on the Chesapeake several have been adapted as recreational vessels.

One such T-boat is Mi-T-Mo, built by Higgins in 1953 and kept by its owner, retired Maryland pilot Mike Efford, at the Tidewater yard at Port Covington in Baltimore. “It has a tugboat hull except for the square stern,” says Efford. “Below the water its skeg and keel are all tugboat.” Its dimensions are tugboat stable as well, with a 65-foot length, 18-foot beam, 7-foot draft and displacement of 90 tons.

Korean-era T-boats were powered by a 270-hp V-8 Caterpillar or similar Buda engine, but Mi-T-Mo now has twin Detroit Diesel 671s on a single shaft providing 500 hp. The fuel tank holds 1,000 gallons, and the mechanical adaptations have extended the boat’s original range of 1,000 miles to 2,150 miles at 7-1/2 knots. Efford has put 90,000 miles on Mi-T-Mo, having traveled the Great Loop and gone from Baltimore to Florida 15 times and to New England on numerous occasions.

Another T-boat on Chesapeake waters is the Knock Na Shee, built by Higgins in 1952. After government service, this boat was used by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a research vessel, aboard which Harold Edgerton studied the ocean depths and worked on high-speed and underwater imaging methods. Her current owner, Capt.Rick Bauman, refers to her as a “work in progress” and keeps her at Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield, Maryland. The boat was originally powered by a Caterpillar 375, but Bauman replaced the “big, slow-turning V-8” with twin Detroit Diesel 671s working off a single shaft. With both engines running, Bauman says Knock Na Shee consumes 9-1/2 gph at 11 knots. There are two 500-gallon fuel tanks, which give the boat considerable range.

Projects include reinsulating the pilothouse and reconfiguring the cargo spaces. When she served as MIT’s research vessel, the main cargo hold was divided, with half of it used as a bunkroom and the other as a laboratory. Bauman plans on combining these spaces. When finished, Knock Na Shee will sleep six with reasonable privacy and have one head with a shower and a separate head forward.

A shot of Patapsco from 1973, when she worked as a drift boat, cleaning up the Baltimore waterfront. The new owner has kept her historic character intact.

A third T-boat in the region is the Patapsco, kept by its owner, A.R. (Randy) Jordan, at Tidewater in Baltimore. This boat was used by the Army Corps of Engineers as a “drift boat,” clearing debris from Baltimore Harbor.

The engine room is clean, airy and spacious, and the machinery is accessible. Its 1/4-inch hull was built up to a 1/2-inch thickness after the engine room flooded in the 1970s. With that sturdy hull, Jordan has made renovations to maintain the historic character of the boat.

When he began repowering the boat, Jordan took it to Maryland Dry Dock on the Masonville side of the Patapsco River, where he and his friends had access to spare parts and castoff metal, and the necessary environmental renovations could be handled properly. The Caterpillar D-375 engine and gearbox were replaced by a Cummins N 14-liter turbo rated at 300 hp. It has two 500-gallon fuel tanks and a 150-gallon day tank, giving it a 1,500-mile range. It can cruise at 8 to 10 knots, “the sweet spot being just about 1,250 rpm,” and it gets about 1-1/2 mpg.

“It’s not done, but I never come down here to work on it and say I made a mistake,” says Jordan, sitting under the canvas awning in the bow, enjoying the offshore breeze.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue.