Both Craig and I have written before about Army watercraft. The heyday of Army watercraft operations was World War II. The Army, knowing it would need to transport enormous armies across both the Atlantic and the Pacific, stood up the Transportation Corps. Responsible for all army “wholesale” transportation efforts,* the TC realized that many of the ports it would supply troops and logistics through were very austere. Rather than directly unloading cargo ships from the hold to the wharfs, lighterage would be needed. That is, ships anchored in the harbor would unload into smaller vessels, which would then carry the burden to shore. And in an austere port environment, there were a lot of other chores that small craft were needed for as well. Boats were needed for ferrying people to and fro, firefighting, and a lot of light towing duties.
The Army came up with a design for a small craft that could fulfill all these roles. At 65’ long, the “T-Boat” was assigned to Harbor Craft Companies of the Transportation Corps. Built of wood, a couple hundred were built, and used hard during the war, both in the US and overseas.
As it turned out, however, most of the roles of the T-Boat could more easily be accomplished by the vast fleets of landing craft such as LCMs and LCTs, and so the T-Boat pretty much faded into oblivion. Almost. After victory in World War II, the services were slashed to the bone, and downsized drastically.
But with the war in Korea in 1950 finding US forces woefully ill prepared, suddenly the funding taps were wide open, and all the services went shopping. Among many, many other things, the Army updated the T-Boat design from wood to a steel hull, and promptly contracted for 86 of them. Three shipyards, Higgins, Missouri Valley Steel, and NASSCO, cranked ‘em out.
But landing craft were still handier for most of the tasks envisioned, and as the T-Boats came off the ways, most of them were immediately “laid up in ordinary.” That is, they were basically just held in reserve. Soon after the Korean war ended, being surplus to needs, most of them were offered for sale. Being built to high standards, virtually new, and dirt cheap, they were snapped up, mostly as working vessels.
In the 70s and 80s, most of these boats were still floating around. Some were used for fishing, and others were put to use as research vessels by universities and government agencies. Others became training vessels for the Coast Guard or the various state maritime academies. Several were converted to live-aboard yachts.
They also quickly became popular with the Boy Scouts of America’s Sea Scouts program. And that’s where I come into the story.
When my family moved to Washington state in the early 70s, both my sisters became active in the local Sea Scout ship. Back then, the ship was a surplus US Navy 42’ torpedo retriever.** Now, the 42 boat was a good boat, but less than optimal for a Sea Scout ship. It was small, not intended for overnight accommodations, had very limited galley and head facilities. Gas powered and made of wood, it was also relatively expensive to maintain and operate. So in the late 70s, the locals tracked down and bought a steel-hulled T-Boat. After a quarter century of hard use, the T-Boat was almost derelict. Virtually every part of it had to be restored in one way or another for the ship to be seaworthy. It spent a couple years pierside while Scouts and local volunteers worked to put her back into shape. By the time I was old enough in 1982 to join, she had been restored and christened the SES Whidby, and was often seen plying the waters of Puget Sound and the beautiful San Juan Islands.
SES Whidby (SES-58, formerly US Army T-482) circa 1985- Picture courtesy of MushDogs
Let’s first take a look at her in regards her original role, then we’ll discuss the changes made to her over the years.
From fore to aft- the crews quarters, galley, and head were in a small compartment forward. The crew of four consisted of a Master, and Engineer, and two deck hands. Immediately aft of the crew compartment was the cargo hold, serviced by the mast and boom seen forward. Up to 24 long tons of cargo could be stored in the hold. Aft of the hold, we see the slightly elevated pilothouse, and behind that, the saloon, where bench seating was provided for passengers. Two heads were also provided for passengers, with a manual seawater flush system that required a degree in mechanical engineering just to figure out. You can’t see it, but between the saloon and the pilothouse was the entrance to the engine room. The large engine room housed a single main engine (either a Buda or a Cat diesel of about 270hp), a 5kw DC generator, and a fire pump to charge four 1-1/2” fire hoses. Aft of the engine room, below the main deck, the final compartment was a small lazarette, a storage compartment for the odds and ends and supplies and whatnot that every ship needs.
The all steel hull was 1/4” plating, reinforced with treated wood beam ribs. The single screw provided a cruising speed of about 8 knots, with a theoretical maximum speed of 11 knots, though I never saw anything close to that. Two 500 gallon main tanks and a 100 gallon feed tank provided a cruising range of just about 1000 nautical miles, with a fuel burn of about 10gal/hr. There was a 400 gallon fresh water tank at the very fore of the ship, under the crew quarters compartment. Twin Danforth anchors were provided, though only one anchor chain was in the chain locker. If you needed to run out the other anchor, it had to be on a line (that’s rope to you lubbers). The original design had provision for radar, and on top of the aft saloon was small rowboat to serve as the ships tender. On the aft bulkhead of the saloon was a towing bit.
After the SES Whidby was restored to seaworthiness, in virtually its original Army configuration (including Army colors of grey hull and deckhouse), we began a series of modifications to improve its suitability to haul 10 or twenty 14-18 year old students around the islands for a weekend or even a two week cruise.
Since she would not be hauling cargo, the first step was to ballast her to give her a better ride. 13 tons of concrete were poured into the bottom of the cargo hold. The cargo hold was then turned into the quarters for the Sea Scouts by hanging pipe and canvas bunks three high on the bulkheads. Rather than fiddling with mattresses and bedding, we just brought along a sleeping bag.*** The original crew quarters forward still housed the galley and head, and served as the quarters for the adult supervision such as the ship’s skipper, and any chaperones aboard.
The plywood and canvas cover over the hold was eventually replaced by a steel overhead, with a hatch and ladder as well as two skylights to serve as escapes. The interior was also compartmented with some plywood bulkheads to both provide some privacy (the Sea Scouts were co-ed, and teen girls really should have a bit of privacy from time to time).
The galley was… archaic even by the early 1980s. The stove/oven was diesel fired, and had two settings- stone cold or cherry red. The refrigerator was small and not terribly efficient.Most of us were pretty poor cooks in the first place, and feeding was on a shoestring budget. Adding in the constraints of a poor galley meant the meals were consistently awful. Eventually, in the late 1980s, after I left the Scouts, the galley was gutted, increasing space in the forward quarters. A new galley was installed in the saloon, with modern appliances including a microwave and a cofffeemaker. A coffeemaker! Back in my day, we had to make it the old fashioned way with a percolator on top of the stove!
Given that a large part of Sea Scouts was devoted to teaching seamanship, the pilothouse had been restored with that in mind. While it wasn’t terribly large, it was fairly well equipped by the standards of the early 1980s. A nice refurbished wooden wheel with a very high quality surplus US Navy magnetic compass was the primary control, with throttle and transmission controls alongside. A chart table immediately aft of that let Scouts learn the intricacies of navigation on inland waterways. On the starboard (right) side, a tall chair was reserved for the Skipper, who kept a watchful eye over the Scouts actually steering and navigating the ship. On the port side, a door lead aft to the engineroom and the saloon. The whole time I was aboard, we had a radar mounted, but it wasn’t until very near the end of my time in Scouts that we actually got it to work. By the time the pic above was taken, a second, modern radar had been added. A marine VHF radio and a CB radio gave us our communications to the outside world. Rounding out our electronics was a fathometer, telling us the depth of the water. In spite of that, I can think of several times we managed to lightly ground in the shallow waters just east of Whidbey Island. Eventually, a GPS receiver was added, but the SES Whidby never received anything like todays integrated ship control systems.
Aft atop the deckhouse, a davit serviced the ships small boats. The davit was Armstrong powered (that is, pulleys and the arms of several Scouts hauling on the line). We had a variety of small dinghy’s and skiffs in my time, but eventually we settled on the two small fiberglass boats seen in the picture. They too were Armstrong powered.
The ship was organized very roughly along naval lines (though nothing like naval discipline was enforced- alas, no rum, sodomy nor the lash!). The Skipper was a licensed master, and served also in a role analogous to a Troop Master in the Boy Scouts. Various other adults were the Mates, analogous again to Assistant Troop Leaders in Boy Scouts. Unlike the Skipper, they usually weren’t licensed masters. Since we were co-ed, we also always had aboard a female chaperone on any overnight cruises.
The Scouts themselves provided most leadership, with a Bosun and various other leadership positions elected by the crew. The crew was divided into two watch sections, Port and Starboard. At sea, the crew was also divided into functional areas- Deck, Engineering, and Operations/Navigation. Underway, each Scout stood watches, from helmsman or lookout, engine room watch, to navigation watch (that is, providing the navigation by working the charts and recommending courses to the Skipper). New Scouts generally started out in Deck, learning to man the helm, stand lookout, and linehandling as the ship came into or left her berth.
As they became proficient, they’d eventually start to stand watches in the engineroom, monitoring the engine gauges, the electrical switchboard, and fuel transfer system, and learning the intricate art of starting the big old diesel. No simple turn of the key here. It involved many arcane steps with the DC power panel, valves turned, decompression levers thrown, ether squirted (but NOT too much or you’ll blow a cylinder head!) and quiet incantations and occasionally a small burnt sacrifice. Other dark arts of the engine room included learning to hide from polishing brass and swabbing decks topside.
Eventually, our young Scout would apprentice in the Operations/Navigation department, learning to use charts, formulae, and dividers to safely plot courses to whatever destination was intended. Some courses were steered so often, I had them memorized (from the dock past Polnell Point, 105 degrees compass) but other routes took a bit more work. As the ship made way, the nav watch was responsible for keeping an accurate fix of where the ship was at any given time. In the age before GPS, this usually meant taking lines of bearing from two or more known points along the shore and finding the intersection on the chart. An easier way, if in a marked channel, was to catch the number of the nearest bouy. Whatever method used, the nav watch could count on being asked often to ensure they were keeping busy, and not reading paperback books and watching the clock for the end of the watch.
We tried to take a weekend cruise at least once a month, departing Friday afternoon or at the crack of dawn Saturday and returning Sunday afternoon. Most cruising destinations were only a few hours away. We very rarely cruised overnight. Instead, most days we’d either anchor out, tie up to a mooring buoy, or pierside, and enjoy a quiet night, doing fairly typical teenage stuff like exploring whatever island or cove we visited, or just sitting around joking and playing cards (no TV on board). All work and no play makes Scouts dull, and that wasn’t the goal. While many cruises were to the various beautiful islands of the San Juans, other popular destinations included Seattle, Victoria, BC, and Bellingham, WA. Many day trips went to Coupeville on Penn Cove, which is a popular backdrop for several movies, including War of the Roses and Practical Magic.
Annually, during the summer months, we would depart on a “long cruise” for two weeks up the coast of British Columbia, spending nights either in sheltered coves, or at small ports along the way, with a chance to wander around small Canadian towns, eating burgers, watching movies, and generally making fun of Canadians, eh.
Running a ship that burns 10 gallons of diesel an hour wasn’t cheap, and we had to earn our own way. In addition to various shore based fundraising activities, since we were a Coast Guard licensed commercial vessel, we could act as a vessel for hire. Various community groups often hired us for outings or day trips (usually at a fair premium, as a means of helping us out). Since the boat would be fairly crowded with passengers on these day trips, only a select crew of “oldsters” would accompany the Skipper. I was pretty proud when the Skipper started asking me along on some of these trips. Very early in my senior year, I remember the Skipper asked me and one other Scout to go on a charter. As soon as we cleared the pier, Skipper and Karl went below to the engineroom to work on some recalcitrant piece of machinery. Skipper’s sum instructions to me were “take us to Coronet Bay, and don’t hit anything.” I’d been left alone on the bridge several times before, but usually only for short stretches, and not often in the restricted waters we’d be sailing in. As long as the Skipper and his license were aboard, we were legal, but if something had gone wrong, it would have been his license the Coast Guard would go after. Putting a 17 year old in charge of a 65’, 65 ton ship took trust. I was pretty proud that such a level of trust had been bestowed upon me. And I did get us to Coronet Bay. And I didn’t hit anything.
Sadly, our wonderful Skipper eventually retired from Scouting, after almost three decades of helping shepherd teens from adolescence into adulthood. Finding another licensed master with the ability to relate to teens, and willing to devote the time and sacrifice needed was a challenge that couldn’t be met. And teenagers also had a much wider variety of activities to be involved in, limiting the time they could devote to Scouting. Eventually, numbers dwindled, and the support just wasn’t there anymore to keep the SES Whidby as a going concern. The organization was disbanded, and the former T-482 sold for a song.
Today, T-482 still sails, though, as the private yacht Kaizen. She’s still a testament to the soundness of the basic design and quality building of the humble, almost forgotten Army T-Boat.
*the Quartermaster Corps still provided the bulk of truck companies to provide transportation at the “retail” level. For instance, after the invasion of Normandy, for instance, the TC provided transportation of supplies from the US to the “Communication Zone” in France, where items would then be transshipped into QM trucks to be moved up to the divisions on the line. There the divisions would use their own organic truck assets to distribute the supplies to the troops.
**After practice firings, torpedoes would float to the surface, the TR would do just that, retrieve the torpedo, so it could be refurbished and used again.
***and a poncho liner! I got my first poncho liner from a fellow scout back in 1982, and I still have it.
As an aside, a couple of commenters here served with me on board SES Whidby, helping to cement friendships that endure to this day.