Skipper saves 'piece of Baltimore'

September 15, 1990|By Rafael Alvarez

When Vernon "Pete" Johnson was growing up in the 800 block of Fort Avenue in Locust Point before World War II, he enjoyed swimming in the neighborhood pool -- also known as the Baltimore harbor.

And frequently, as he and his buddies swam in the waters off Key Highway, a steel-hulled police boat named the Charles D. Gaither would motor by and the cops on board would "scare the hell out of us yelling, 'Get out of that water.'"

Yet, said Mr. Johnson of the memory, "As a kid it was so impressive to look up from the water at that boat."

It was just as impressive yesterday to see Mr. Johnson at the wheel of the Charles D. Gaither as it sailed from Stony Creek to the Inner Harbor on the 50th anniversary, to the day, of its launching from the old Spedden shipyard in Canton.

Mr. Johnson, a Pasadena restaurant owner, has spent about $20,000 of his own money, the free time of a dozen friends and the past five years restoring the 51-foot Gaither, built for the city Police Department in 1940 at a cost of $25,000.

"Baltimore has done so much for me," said Mr. Johnson as the diesel-powered Gaither passed under the Stony Creek drawbridge. "It makes me feel good to save a piece of Baltimore."

Named for the city's first police commissioner, who served from 1920 to 1937, the Gaither became the department's first all-steel boat when it replaced the old George J. Henry.

It was used for police work until 1967. For the next two years it served in the Fire Department's fleet, and then the city auctioned it off, sending the Gaither on a steady decline as it battered around the waterfront as a workhorse for private companies.

According to Mr. Johnson, the Gaither eventually became the property of an old-timer named Capt. Ralph Ford, a Baltimore seafarer of manifold legends who lives from time to time in a shipping container in the shadow of the Hanover Street Bridge.

"I negotiated with Captain Ford for three years before he finally sold her to me," said Mr. Johnson. "Buying the boat was the cheapest part of restoring her."

The only thing that doesn't work on the boat today is its original Bendix radar, which Mr. Johnson said he would fix if he could find someone who knew how to repair or replace the old vacuum tubes.

For most of its career, the Gaither patrolled Baltimore's 40-miles of waterfront, outfitted with machine guns and making frequent stops to fish bodies out of the water, like that of 72-year-old Fells Point woman pulled from harbor on Dec. 5, 1960, with $3,146 sewn inside her clothes.

And once, in July 1947, the boat was dispatched to fish a human arm out of the water.

It turned out to be the dismembered limb of a rubber suit.

A section of the Gaither's railing on the stern is removable to make it easier to haul such items on board.

But today, with new plates in the hull, a new transmission and a bright paint job, the only items going on board the Gaither are friends and guests of Pete Johnson.

"We changed her from a tugboat into a hug-boat," he said.

A hug-boat?

"Just a party boat," said Mr. Gaither, wearing his commemorative Charles D. Gaither "Goodwill 1990" T-shirt, baseball cap and wristwatch. "That's all we do, just party.

"We take her out during the summer, and at Christmas time we put her in the Inner Harbor lights show with a Christmas tree and a snowman, and we decorate her for Thanksgiving, and if the weather is good we run her out on New Year's Eve."

When the Gaither pulled alongside the Harborplace promenade yesterday afternoon, where it is expected to be tied up at least through this afternoon, a man named Thomas H.G. Bailliere, Jr. just happened to be walking around after eating lunch.

He couldn't believe what he saw.

"Do you know who Charles D. Gaither was?" he asked.

"Sure, he was the old police commissioner," said Mr. Johnson.

"Yeah," said Mr. Bailliere, "he was my great-uncle."

Mr. Bailliere, marveling at his good fortune, said he hadn't seen the boat since he was a kid.

"I thought she was gone," he said, "... long gone."

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