Port celebration flagship may float at Inner Harbor today

Leak takes steam out of tug's move

July 14, 2006|By RON HOLLANDER | RON HOLLANDER,SUN REPORTER

As a sailboat tacked in the gentle haze of the Inner Harbor yesterday, running crisscross patterns under a straight-arrow seagull, Len Brown of Hagerstown raised the green flag of the Baltimore Museum of Industry at the prow of the 1906 steam tug Baltimore.

It was a moment full of delicious anticipation. After a week spent propped in the confines of a blue, rusting dry dock at General Ship Repair off Key Highway while its hull was patched, one of the oldest steam-powered tugs in the country was once more about to go to sea- or at least to the Inner Harbor.

About 150 yards to the west, at the pier of the museum that owns the boat, dignitaries waited to proclaim it the flagship of the port's tricentennial celebration this year.

They waited in vain, because the Baltimore never made it, stranded by last-minute leaks. It is expected that if the repairs are made, the boat will be towed to the museum's pier today.

While the speakers impatiently scanned the horizon, up on the dry dock's superstructure, dock master Rick Rappold, a powerful man with a white beard and glasses who has been doing this for 21 years, shouted commands to his six-man crew as the dock slowly submerged into the harbor in order to set the black-and-white boat float free.

"Take the slack out of it," Rappold called to shipfitter Earl Murray, directing him to make taut the line that would keep the tug centered in the dry dock. Then he muttered an aside: "I don't want to give a ram job to the tug in the next dock."

The lines were secured. The harbor water sloshed over the floor of the sinking dock, bringing with it an errant McDonald's cup. The 46-star American flag - for the number of states when the tug was built by Skinner & Sons in Baltimore - flapped lazily at the boat's stern. The moment was at hand.

And then the Baltimore sat. And sat. And sat.

Belowdeck, a drama worthy of the Dutch children's tale of Peter and the dike was unfolding. Sweating in the cramped, shadowy engine room lit by a bare bulb, his glasses sliding down his nose, the tug's restoration project manager, Stephen Heaver, was doing battle with the relentless water.

A three-eighths-inch hole had been discovered in the Baltimore's wrought-iron hull, and Heaver, who is also at home singing alto in Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Sundays, had his finger in it.

"At least the water's warm," he said, seeking a silver lining in what was turning into a shipwreck of a day for the project to restore the tug, which was raised from the Sassafras River in 1981.

Fumbling with his free hand, Heaver produced a small plastic bag of sheet metal screws that he had bought at Stebbins Anderson hardware store in Towson. Wrapping a scrap of red rag around the threads of the screw as a make-shift washer, Heaver inserted the screw into the hole in a repair about as high-tech as the Baltimore's coal-fired, steam-powered engine looming above him.

For an enchanted moment, the impromptu repair held. Then it started leaking again. Heaver tried a larger screw borrowed from the shipyard. Nothing doing. Finally, using a matte knife, he whittled a plug that he hammered in, much as generations of sailors before him might have done. It worked.

But even with the engine room leak at least temporarily plugged, the Baltimore wasn't out of the water yet, to the gentle amusement of Rappold. More used to dry-docking 400-ton modern tugs than the diminutive and jury-rigged 81-ton Baltimore, Rappold rolled his eyes as the all-volunteer crew started inspecting the forward hold of the boat, which they all scrupulously referred to by the nautically correct term, foc's'le.

Rappold ordered the sinking of the dry dock stopped a foot before the Baltimore would have floated free on its own. "They really should put a new, steel hull on," he said, though he recognized that such historical meddling would be anathema to a crew driven by the desire to preserve authenticity. "It's like a car," said Rappold. "You do the cheapest thing to keep it running."

In the foc's'le, Heaver had found yet more disaster. "Something's weeping," he said of a new leak about three inches above one of the hull's seams.

While Mark Ruhl of Westminster, a volunteer since 1981, passed first a chipping hammer and then a ball-peen hammer down to where rusty water pooled, Heaver tried hammering another matte-knife-carved plug into the three-quarter-inch hole. Finally, even his resolve grew sodden.

"It's no good," he sighed in defeat. Then he called up to Rappold, "Rick, bring it up. We're going to have to weld a plate over it, and the other, too."

But the volunteers wanted it understood that one leak - or even two - does not a foundering make. Seeking to restore the good name of their beloved tug, Earle Jones of Finksburg in Carroll County, pointed proudly to the rows of bolts lining the ochre interior of the iron hull.

Seeking to assuage a visitor's concern about the leak, Jones said reassuringly, "See those bolts? That's just the same technology they used when they built the Lusitania and the Titanic."

ron.hollander@baltsun.com

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