December 17, 2004

Old soldiers — and Army Tugs — never die

By J.D. Hawk

It’s old and shrouded in mystery. Former US Army tugboat known only as The LT 1967, now docked at the San Diego Harbor is, to borrow a quote from Winston Churchill, “A riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

All records of the boat have mysteriously disappeared through a series of transfers of ownership. And the military can’t say what the history of the boat is. Can’t, or won’t. After all, this is the same government that has changed its version of what really happened in Roswell New Mexico in 1947 on several occasions. (Dead space aliens and a flying saucer.)

So what campaign, what theaters of war, could the mystery boat have been a part of that has government officials scrambling to take cover? Perhaps we’ll never know.

But Captain Jeff Bentley and wife Roseanne, founders of a nonprofit group called Coordinated Maritime Services, wanted it. “You’d look at pictures of it and wonder,” Jeff said about his decision to take over the responsibility of the army tug. “You have to have the ability to discern quality.”

Captain Jeff, probably more than most, has the gift of discernment as he’s been working with tugboats for over 20 years. He believed the tug, which uses a locomotive engine, could be refurbished and could serve multiple benefits: It would be a proud monument to the US Army — that actually boasts more boats than the US Navy — in a predominately Navy city, and it be used by CMS to teach students and volunteers in repair and maintenance. And once the tug is up and running, Jeff said it could be used as a fireboat and salvage vessel and work in oil-spill response.

CMS strives to repair donated boats in need of restoration. The donated boats are then refurbished by volunteers seeking an opportunity to learn seafaring skills, network with like-minded people, and to satisfy their curiosity. The volunteers, usually averaging two to 12 people, meet in front of the tugboat on Saturdays at 8 a.m. at San Diego Harbor, just north of the Star of India.

A chart in front of the tug illustrates all the basics knots — the eye splice, the timber hitch, the clove hitch, etc.— giving a hint of the educational nature of the program.

For land-lovers with limited experience of the ocean, volunteering is just an enjoyable way to escape the hum-drum of everyday life. “I sit in a cubicle all day,” Hewlett Packard computer engineer Chris Rau said. “When I come here, I get to have grease on my hands.”

Rau was working on some type of portable generator or heat exchanger for the boat. Captain Jeff watched Rau with quiet concern, an eyebrow slightly raised as if trying to figure out what exactly Rau was trying to do. (Perhaps another unstated benefit of volunteering is that you may experiment and break things without fear of recourse.)

Others seem to like to just hang out around the tug and exchange stories. Such was the case with a mysterious salt-of-the-sea type visitor known only as Wayne.

Wayne apparently had seen most things that could possible happen at sea. He even had his own experience on a ship that sank off the coast of Africa years ago. Wayne had to swim ashore and walked with his crew 52 miles inland to get help.

I was hoping to hear a good story from Wayne — somethin’ along the lines of the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. “Yaaaar, the boat she did sink; Yaaaar, the ocean water we did drink. Yaaaar, 52 miles of Africa we walked — no eatin’, no drinkin’, no sleepin’ a wink!”

Okay, maybe he didn’t say it just exactly like that, that’s how I like to remember it.

But before you allow yourself to be whisked away with the idea of sailing the waters like Russell Crowe, don’t get too excited. If you’re not used to the swaying motion of the harbor, you may continue to feel that swaying sensation hours after you have left the harbor—in your car, in the shopping mall, and when you try to fall asleep that night. Much of the work and training involves jobs you might already be familiar with: sanding, painting and general housekeeping. It’s somewhat naive to believe you’ll be able to steer the tugboat or learn how to read a compass your first day. And a giant mousetrap lying in plain view splashes the fanciful from their poetic haze faster than saltwater stings eyes. Then there’s metal. Metal everywhere — floors, walls , ladders — rusted metal on top of metal.

Still, you can’t dissuade Jeff, who’s been working on the project for two years and estimates another two years of work, or his army of supporters that include the US Army. “ They’re the best,” said US Army Major Marie Pauley, the San Diego recruiting commander.

Pauley (AKA: The Tug-Lady) serves as a board member of the CMS and said she has helped the Bentleys try to research the history of the army tug. She has also put the Bentleys in touch with some others in the army who can help. Since the US Army, according to Roseanne, has already helped in the funding, Pauley is obviously doing a great job. Pauley also sees the potential that having an army tugboat in San Diego Harbor may have with recruitment. “I’d love that tugboat to be a thorn in the side of the Navy,” she said.

Pauley said that the army/navy relationship in San Diego is “Friendly/competitive.”

Pauley said that many of her recruits love the idea of being on a boat, but don’t want to belong to a huge navy ship with thousands of people on it. Plus, in the Navy “They know they’d all be swabbing the decks.”

During the restoration process, Captain Jeff invoked the right for artistic license and got rid of the battleship gray that most likely was the color for the army tug since it was originally built in 1951. Jeff’s choice of replacement colors were black and white with a yellow smoke stack. Army-yellow that is, which has remarkable resemblance to yellow-yellow — but it’s not, because it’s a tough military tug. So it’s Army-Yellow.

Though the intent of many volunteers is to ultimately land a job, Captain Jeff quickly points out that he’s not making any promises for employment. It all depends on each individual. “Nothing is guaranteed, it’s all about aptitude and performance.”

For more information on CMS call (619) 200-5085 or go to www.sdmaritimeinformationcenter.org

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