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Then ~

She is 60 feet long, 17 feet wide, 18 feet tall, and weighs 60,000lbs. She’s a historic, wood-hull vessel built on Sapelo Island, GA and launched March 1939 by island owner and tobacco company heir R.J. Reynolds, Jr.  Her name is Kit Jones.


From blueprints by the esteemed yacht designers, Sparkman & Stephens of New York, the Kit was uniquely constructed of native heart pine and live oak timbers which were harvested and milled on Sapelo.  Under the direction of Danish shipwright Axel Sparre, many Sapelo residents – Gullah-Geechee descendants of slaves brought to the island prior to the Civil War – assisted in the construction. In subsequent years, a number of other McIntosh County residents served as masters and mates on the vessel as well. 


She is rich in Georgia history and is a remarkable surviving example of the coastal wood-boat building tradition.  But she almost didn’t survive…luckily, she became the focus of a rescue mission! 

She was named for Katharine Talbott Jones (Kit), the wife of Alfred W. (Bill) Jones; friends of R.J. Reynolds, Jr.   Bill Jones had come to Sapelo Island in 1923 to work for his cousin Howard Coffin, a vice-president of the Michigan-based manufacturer of the Hudson Automobile Company, and then-owner of Sapelo.  Jones was the manager for the many projects and enterprises that Coffin had initiated on the island.  Married in 1928, Bill and Kit Jones moved immediately to Sea Island where they were deeply involved with Coffin in the newly created Sea Island Company and the renowned hotel, The Cloister.

A most malleable watercraft, over the course of her life, the Kit has served as a tugboat, a ferry that provided a lifeline to the mainland for the more than 500 residents of Sapelo Island, a freight hauler, and later, a fireboat during her military service in World War II. 

Most notably though, is her long and stellar career in the service of coastal scientific research - employed by scientists and students from universities and research institutions worldwide.  In 1953, Sapeloe Plantation began leasing the Kit Jones to the newly established University of Georgia Marine Biological Laboratory, which later became the UGA Marine Institute. This lease reflected an increasing use of the vessel for research and teaching purposes. 

The Kit Jones was transferred to full UGA ownership in 1957, and she was subsequently outfitted to improve her capability for longer stays at sea and work in deeper waters.  For almost three decades she served the UGA Marine Institute and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography in scientific exploration of the rivers, estuaries, and nearshore continental shelves of the Georgia coast.  Among the most celebrated users of the Kit Jones during the 1950s and 1960s were Dr. Eugene Odum, known as the “Father of Modern Ecology”, Dr. Milton (Sam) Gray, for whom Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary is named, and Dr. Orrin Pilkey, now Professor Emeritus at Duke University, and globally renowned for his work on coastline preservation and protection.

By the early 1980s, the Kit Jones had fallen increasingly out of use and further into disrepair.  No longer of use to the University System of GA, she was acquired by the University of Mississippi in 1985, refurbished, and moved to her new home port in Biloxi, MS. The Kit Jones supported a wide variety of marine research projects in both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean for another 25 years.  

Capsized and nearly sunk in Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she survived to continue her years of research vessel service.  But by 2013, the University of MS was no longer able to maintain or operate the vessel, and the Kit Jones was pulled from the water a final time.  She was put into drydock in Biloxi, and for several years, faced an unknown future that seemed increasingly grim.

With a near-certain destiny of salvage; she was to be dismantled for scrap if a purchaser could not be located. Dorothy O’Neill, a former crew member and researcher on the Kit, desperately searched for someone to take over the vessel.  Aimee Gaddis learned of the plight and joined in the quest. In November of 2016, the Kit Jones was put out for auction. The McIntosh Rod & Gun Club, Inc. of Darien, GA learned of her availability, took an interest in her future, and organized a successful last-minute bid; acquiring official title to her in January 2017.  


April 2017, the 501c-3 Non-Profit, Friends of Kit Jones, Inc. was formed to acquire her, and aspired to build historic recognition of the vessel in order to accomplish their stated mission:  

The restoration, preservation, and appreciation of the vessel Kit Jones 

as an historic, cultural, and educational resource for McIntosh County 

and other coastal Georgia communities.


Through grant writing, they met this goal by purchasing her, and subsequently offering the restored Kit Jones as a distinguished maritime resident in downtown Darien. The historic and current working waterfront of the city, as well as the vessels that made (or make) it their home, have always been a true draw to the community, so the fit is perfect! 


The Kit Jones is a 2018 Georgia Historic Trust ‘Places In Peril’ designee, but is no longer in danger of a tragic demise. From the very hands that crafted her, to those who captained or worked upon her, she has a following far beyond McIntosh County.  This is a great opportunity to bring the diverse people in the community together by honoring her Gullah Geechee/Sapelo Island roots as well as the families whose ancestors and relatives served as builders, masters, and strikers on the Kit.  


The Move ~


In early 2019, intensive preparations were made over several months to get her ready for the 544-mile overland trip home. Through coordinated efforts on two different coasts, the time had come for the Kit to journey again.

Kit Jones Steering Committee member, Maxine Woolsey, oversaw the details of the Kit’s de-construction in Biloxi, MS in order to be ready for the trip. Maxine’s late husband (and former Captain of the Kit), Bob Woolsey, was the last person to pilot her from Georgia to Biloxi, Mississippi.  As fate would have it, Maxine escorted Kit back home to Georgia.


Paul Bodin of Bay Marine in Biloxi had tended the maintenance of the Kit for several decades and was also hired to manage her disassembly and prep work. The pilothouse and handrails had to be carefully removed to meet the height requirements for transportation. Rigging, winches and hydraulic cylinders were removed from the aft deck.

Once the pilothouse was lifted, the engine and generators were removed, which, due to their decrepit condition, could only be scrapped.  All the carefully detailed work was focused on the goal of safely transporting the vessel intact. She was moved by a travel lift and placed on a specialized 68’ trailer by Russell Marine Transport. It required major coordination to lift all straps at the same time to prevent splitting the hull. The straps were placed on the ‘ribs’ of the hull - which are the strongest supporting points.


June 28th, 2019, she returned to McIntosh for her 80th birthday! Two escorted tractor-trailers were used to bring the Kit, her pilothouse, and additional parts back to Darien. Her 844 mile cross-country trek temporarily ended in the IDA Tidewaters Industrial Park. Boykin Crane expertly lifted and then settled her into her new home. The site was graciously donated by the McIntosh Industrial Development Authority to accommodate the 60-foot long vessel while she went through the restoration process.  Ammons Fence Company lent us the security fence that surrounded her during her stay.


McIntosh businessman, Bill Wallace, removed the massive brass prop and rudder for safekeeping and will reinstall once the Kit is settled. He will also assist in placing the pilings that will aid in displaying the vessel.



The Restoration ~


She won’t have the familiar look she’s had for the last several decades. There will be no steel outriggers, railings or anchor, no mid-century pilothouse with electronic helm that guided her way through southern waters for 75 years. Her mantle is chipped and worn and rust stains stream down her hull. But her unmistakable lines will make her recognizable to those who know her. 


The restoration process was delayed, like everything else, during the COVID pandemic, but local volunteers Davis & Laurie Poole never gave up. More grant work was needed to fund the project, so they did what needed to be done to keep the effort moving. Both serve on the FOKJ non-profit, and through the whole pandemic event, they persevered looking for an experienced carpenter/craftsman who could help with the restoration. Davis finally found that person in the form of McIntosh resident Steve Ellis. A working waterman from Massachusetts, he has decades of knowledge and craftsmanship to draw from. 


In 2017, when Steve first read about the Kit coming back to Darien, he volunteered to help. Ellis reflected, “I love old wood boats much more than fiberglass boats. Wood boats have a heartbeat that starts when the keel is laid. As the boat is being built, her personality starts to emerge. The curves, the shapes all start to blend together…I'm stopping here because my words won't do the rest justice.”   


The Kit has had many iterations over the years as her workload has changed, but the earliest design is the one to which she will return.  The Friends of the Kit Jones steering committee purchased the original Sparkman & Stevens blueprints and agreed that her maiden configuration will be permanent.


The process began with an incredible amount of deconstruction to get rid of rotten wood, years of patches and repairs, and debris within the hull to get to a point of rebuilding.  Steve Ellis is no stranger to hard work or wooden vessels.  Ellis, Luke Martin and Jamie Pittman rolled up their sleeves and got down to the dirty work.


“The biggest challenge on the Kit Jones,” said Ellis, “was rot, rot, and more rot. It was difficult to use building lumber on a boat that had originally been built out of select native lumber. Hoping that the Kit Jones might last a few more years is something positive for the county and a salute to the men that originally did such an amazing job builder her on Sapelo Island.”


Dozens of artifacts were collected along the way and hundreds of photographs taken to document for educational and historical purposes. 


Sandblasting came next and that revealed an amazing hull underneath! The grain that was uncovered gave insight to massive timbers harvested from Sapelo. Watching them peel away decades of paint down to the structure was amazing to see!


Once the sandblasting was finished and the Kit was clean and ready for restoration, Ellis and his crew went to work repairing the soft wood; patching and filling gaps, replacing large section of boards that could not be simply repaired, and reconstructing sections inside to strengthen the structure. 


“We broke drill bits everywhere, but the stem, which is live oak, was like granite.” explained Ellis. “We treated a lot of the yellow pine with an acrylic stabilizer that binds to the fibers and helps prevent further rot. As far as I could tell, the hull planking had been refastened at least three times and the outside face of the ribs had gotten pretty ‘nail sick.’ A lot of the original work was in better shape than repairs that had been done over the years -- a testament to the craftsmanship of the original builders.” 


They then went to work to reconstruct the upper part of the hull, re-build the deck and re-create the railing according to the original plans. The pilot house was built so that it could be removed during transportation of the Kit to her site in Darien. (This because of the many low power lines to clear during final transport.)


A great deal of sealing and priming was necessary before the last step of painting. Her current color combination reflects back to when she was launched in 1939. Bottom paint at that time was the deep red you will see on her currently. We chose not to cover up all the grain and wanted visitors to be able to admire the history before their eyes, so we left the keel unpainted. The rust spots that are visible now stem from the iron spikes used to originally construct her. They continue to make their presence known despite our best efforts!


It’s been a very long process and an incredible amount of work! Many weekends, Davis & Laurie spent out at the restoration site collecting pertinent artifacts and cleaning up the mounds of debris so that work could resume on Mondays. 


Now ~


Following her ‘face-lift’ and transformation back to her original design, the Kit was once again escorted by McIntosh County Sheriff’s officers, and moved by semi-truck to downtown Darien, where she was once more hoisted with cranes and set into place. July 25th, 2023, she finally found her way to her permanent home. Her solid frame never budged during this process. 


She now resides beside the Old Jail Museum & Art Center at 404 North Way in historic Darien. The site on which she sits was generously donated by McIntosh County.


Now displayed as a landmark attraction, she will highlight the Maritime Heritage of the entire community of McIntosh. Strategically placed facing the Darien bridge, she’s the first thing you notice coming into town. The space around her has become a park for all to enjoy. Commemorative benches have been purchased by her admirers and installed Spring 2024. Interpretive, educational signage will be subsequently added to tell her illustrious story, and walk-paths guide on a stroll through history.


The grain in her hull is now deep and textured. Passing a hand along, one feels the strength and structure of the wood. Without saying a word, it speaks of thousands of nautical miles, dozens of captains, hundreds of crews, years of research work, and of both stormy and calm seas. It speaks of eight remarkable decades of adventures.


Welcome Home, Kit!


Historic restoration is never easy, yet incredibly important! How else can we make a connection between people, experiences, and a place in time?  If you have a story involving the Kit, please reach out to us at We are actively collecting stories to chronicle and archive.



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