Couple's renovated tugboat has comforts of home GETTING BACK TO THE WATER

April 25, 1995|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

It has to be the only tugboat in Baltimore with a clothes dryer vent rigged up to the smokestack.

The Wildflower, a 55-year-old work tug that started moving barges around the Patapsco after World War II, is now docked among fancy yachts and sailboats on the Canton waterfront. It belongs to a dreamer named Brad Pumphrey and his wife, Jennifer, who have made it their home for about half the price of a modest Owings Mills townhouse.

"It's got a lot of character and it's going to last forever," said Mr. Pumphrey, 26, who fell under the spell of shipboard living on childhood fishing trips with his father. He pays the bills with a digital imaging job at the University of Baltimore library and runs a harbor taxi on weekends.

"No one thought it was doable," he said of the unlikely transformation of a squat tub of double-plated steel into a custom home paneled with Honduran mahogany. "But it's easier to take an empty shell and build an interior than try to upgrade an interior you don't like. This isn't your average tugboat anymore."

Not quite.

The Wildflower sports a full bath with standard tub.

A laundry room.

All but one of the old steel hatches are now Plexiglas windows with miniblinds.

The master bedroom slopes up under the bow, the top deck will soon bloom with a bed of plants and flowers, and there's a Jenn-Aire range and espresso machine in the galley.

Mrs. Pumphrey, a 27-year-old social worker for the city, said the Wildflower was her husband's vision, but one she never doubted. The Pumphreys, who wanted to keep private what they paid for the tug and its renovations, bought the boat in July and moved aboard in February.

"Brad's the dreamy type, I'm more practical," said Mrs. Pumphrey, who laid the kitchen and bath tile. "But I saw it as realistic because he works hard, and when he starts a project he finishes it."

Mr. Pumphrey is, in fact, obsessive about his passions.

It's not enough that he did most of the renovations himself -- he's putting together an Internet "page" about the Wildflower so folks out in cyberspace can tour the tug from anywhere in the world.

"There are people who have done the exact thing we have," he reckons. "We just don't know who they are."

Built for the Navy by the Avondale shipyard in New Orleans, the vessel was launched Dec. 27, 1940. After six years of government service, the tug began plying the Patapsco River as the A. J. Harper, guiding coal barges to Bethlehem Steel in Sparrows Point until 1971.

A local ship chandlery, the next owner, changed the tug's name to Martom and used it to ferry supplies to anchored ships. Kai Hansen, a Baltimore captain who ran away to sea from his native Denmark as a teen-ager, bought the Martom in 1990, renaming it the Wildflower in honor of his wife's work with the species.

The Wildflower's last voyage was a short one, a few blocks north from Clinton Street to the Anchorage marina, where Boston and O'Donnell streets meet at the mouth of Harris Creek. The Wildflower had to be towed there and won't be up and running for at least a year.

Mr. Pumphrey took out the original steering gear because it would have run straight through the kitchen and living room, which were built above the engine. When he and his wife get enough money -- a constant theme in their project -- Mr. Pumphrey will install hydraulic steering.

To make living quarters in a boat designed as a floating engine, Mr. Pumphrey had thousands of pounds of metal burned out by welders, making him a favorite among scrap metal scavengers who comb the waterfront. So much steel came out that some was mixed with 30,000 pounds of concrete and poured back into the hold to keep the tug from riding too high in the water.

Mr. Pumphrey acknowledges he doesn't know much about the tug's 400-horsepower Detroit diesel engine. But he got a pair of fat operating manuals in the deal with Mr. Hansen and intends to pore over them the way he studied pilot books to earn his captain's license for inland waterways.

"This is a slow boat, she can do 9 1/2 knots," he said. "But I wanted a boat we could travel in and this thing is solid."

Mr. Pumphrey bought his first houseboat in 1990 for $7,000. In fixing it up, he said he discovered talents in yacht carpentry and marine repair. He sold the boat for $11,000, repaired yachts for a Pasadena boatyard, and lived with Jennifer for awhile on the yacht of a wealthy man too busy to enjoy it.

He and Jennifer have known each other since they were 14, and after their 1992 marriage they lived in a rowhouse near Patterson Park. "I was miserable on land," Mr. Pumphrey said.

In the Wildflower, he sees a life in which he'll only have to join the landlubbers for as long as it takes to make enough money to keep his family afloat.

"Our work will never be done, but it's livable," he said. "After a long hard day in cyberspace, you want to come home and touch wood, you want to be on the water."

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