Blocked up in a clearing near the edge of Barnegat Bay in New Jersey, an old Coast Guard utility boat is showing her age. But Tony Kopke is on the case.
“I have to clean everything, change the filters,” said Kopke, showing a visitor around his patient, a 40’ Utility Boat Mark IV going on its 60th year. “I’ve already got the transmissions.”
Powered by a pair of GM 6-71 Detroit Diesels, these 40’x11’2”x36’2” boats were a Coast Guard workhorse of the 1950s and ‘60s.
“They were built at the Coast Guard Curtis Bay yard near Baltimore,” said Kopke. “This one was stationed up in the Great Lakes, in the Coast Guard from 1959 to 1982. They lasted a little longer up there in fresh water.”
Like other Coast Guard veterans, Kopke, of Barnegat, N.J., shares an affection for the old boats they served on. Ken Sutherland, author of the book “USCG Harbor Patrol Fleet 1924-1980” and fellow Coasties in the group Forties Forever had had restored this boat in Staten Island, N.Y., and ran it around the New York Harbor area.
Then Hurricane Sandy hit at the end of October 2012.
“We never thought the water would get that high. She was hauled out and the surge just knocked her over and filled her with mud,” he said.
The recovery and cleanup were slow. But Kopke finally got the boat south down the coast to Barnegat, for a new refuge with Denny Dyer, a local boatbuilder and restorer well known on the Jersey Shore’s speed garvey racing scene.
Despite its knockdown in Sandy, the utility boat still has its bones and hull intact, needing further restoration in the small forward cabin, new paint and work on the helm. But with the original wheel and heavy-duty Morse controls, Kopke sounds confident the Detroit Diesels will be running once more, under their original clamshell aluminum engine covers.
The old Curtis Bay boats were Coast Guard designs that evolved over years until the 41’ utility boat came into production from 1973 to 1982, said Kopke.
“The early ones in the 1950s, they were called the Mark Ones. Up where the anchor is, they had a shorter bow. They extended it on the Mark IIs to make them handle better.”
Kopke has a snapshot of one Mark IV in its prime, probably the late 1960s judging from the crewman at the rail in old style Coast Guard blues and sailor cap.
“This is a 1st District boat from up in Buzzards Bay. She was out of Woods Hole (Mass.), and out of Gloucester before that. Lots of equipment and radar. She was the queen of the fleet.”
Around the same time the 40’ utility boats had a role in the Vietnam War. Two dozen had been supplied to France and saw action in the first rounds of fighting as the French tried to hold on to their pre-war colony.
“Those 24 that were given to French Indochina, in ’55 the French left and they became part of the South Vietnamese navy,” said Kopke.
Forty years after that war ended, geopolitics have turned once more. Today the Vietnamese coast guard is using U.S.-built boats again, recently delivered by Metal Shark from its Franklin, La., yard.
And Kopke is trying to get this bit of history back on the water.
“There may be one of these in Florida, I’m not sure,” he said. “I’ve got the only one in Jersey.”