Tugboat Sand Man marks 100th anniversary

By Matt Batcheldor, The Olympian, Olympia, Wash.

OLYMPIA — The Sand Man, the venerable wooden tugboat moored at Percival Landing, spent decades pulling logs and oysters to harbor.

It’s poised to tug on the heartstrings of nautical enthusiasts for years to come.

The little wooden boat is marking its 100th anniversary this year, and a big celebration is planned for Saturday. It’s love and labor that has sustained this boat through a succession of owners, two sinkings, a complete rebuild and a nonprofit organization founded to maintain it for another century.

“It’s important to not only preserve the physical structure of the boat, but also the history and the memories that go along with that,” said Kyle Murphy, president of the Sand Man Foundation.

The Sand Man is the last of its historical group of privately owned freight tugs that swarmed the Sound in the early 1900s. Its history is well-documented by the Sand Man Foundation. The tug was designed and built by Crawford & Reid in Tacoma between 1908 and 1910 for Arthur J. Weston of the Olympia Sand & Gravel Co. The boat towed the company’s namesakes, earning the name Sand Man.

From 1925 to 1987, it had a succession of commercial owners — Delta V. Smyth, Fred Chadwick, Franz Schlottman. Bob Powell bought it in 1987 to preserve it, and he sold it to the Sand Man Foundation 10 years later for $10.

But the boat’s future was not yet secure. Its hull was rotting and leaking about a gallon of water a minute, requiring a bilge pump to keep it afloat. It sank in 1998 when the pump shut down, and it sank again when it was being towed to Port Townsend for major reconstruction.

There, at the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op, its Douglas fir hull, deck and cabins were reconstructed mostly with new wood. The restored tug made its debut in 2005 after the foundation spent about $500,000 to restore it, and much more has been spent since.

Though much of the boat is a re-creation, it has many historic touches — what’s thought to be its original helm, an old stove, a compass and some wood from the original boat. It’s still on its third engine — a six-cylinder diesel — that dates to 1944. Someone made off with the boat’s red and green navigational light fixtures in March, a piece of history that can be approximated but never fully replaced.

Since its restoration, it has been moored at Percival Landing, a living museum for South Sound maritime history. (Though much of Percival Landing is being replaced starting this month, the Sand Man still will be accessible.)

Occasionally, enthusiasts take it out for a slow cruise, at 8 knots, volunteer Carl Seaburg said.

“We’ve been up to 91/2,” he said.

Volunteer docents offer free tours on the boat from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Others work throughout the year to maintain the boat.

“We can tell a short story or we can tell a long story, depending on people’s interest,” Seaburg said. “We’ve had people stay on here for a half-hour.”

The organization is always looking for volunteers who wouldn’t mind learning the boat’s history and sparing some weekends to relate it. For some volunteers, it’s deeply personal.

Susan Peterson, a teacher at Meadows Elementary School in the North Thurston School District, recently got involved in volunteering on the Sand Man. Her grandfather, Clem Keegan, worked aboard it.

Seaburg, who was born in 1933, also remembers the boat from a young age. His father was a boat man who died in a tug fire in 1942, and his tugboat-working uncle became a father figure to him, showing him around the boats. Though Seaburg never worked as a tugboat operator himself, he cherishes the boats.

“I’ve been on boats the biggest part of my life,” Seaburg said. “I knew all of the owners (of the Sand Man) except for the original.”

Newcomers love the boat, too, such as Walt Kiley of Olympia. He moved here from Rhode Island in September, and he said he comes by to volunteer on the boat daily.

There’s just something about a wooden boat like this, said George Kurzman, harbor master for the South Sound Maritime Heritage Association.

“Unlike fiberglass boats, (wooden boats) don’t come in a mold,” he said. “They really are a symbol of all the love and attention that’s been devoted to them.”


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