SEA HISTORY 154, SPRING 2016 ~ Historic Ships on a Lee Shore
Boatyards can be interesting, but oftentimes melancholy, places. Scattered among the newer boats getting fresh varnish or bottom paint, there are always a few rusting, past-their-prime hulks—once somebody’s darling but now derelict and forgotten, liabilities more than assets, a step away from the chainsaw or cutting torch. In every one there is probably a story, but the old wooden tug now at Bay Marine Boat Works in Biloxi, Mississippi, has seen enough characters and drama over both Atlantic and Gulf waters to make her name a fond remembrance to some of the world’s foremost marine scientists.
When launched into the waters off Sapelo Island, Georgia, in March 1939, the sixty-foot tug Kit Jones already was of sterling pedigree. Her design sprang from the draftsmen of none other than Sparkman and Stephens, famed New York naval architects and designers of custom watercraft for yachting cognoscenti. R. J. Reynolds Jr.—tobacco king, bon vivant, and one of the wealthiest men in the country—needed a vessel to carry supplies and passengers to Sapelo Island, which he had recently purchased from northern industrialist Howard Coffin. Reynolds, an accomplished sailor and yachtsman, hired local carpenter and shipwright Holger Sparre to build the tug on Sapelo, using live oak and pine cut and milled on the island. It was not his first Sparkman and Stephens vessel. Reynolds had named his other Sparkman and Stephens yachts Blitzen and Scarlett O’Hara, after the beautiful women in his life,1 and the new tug was no exception. Christened Kit Jones (after Katharine Talbott Jones, the wife of Bill Jones, Coffin’s island manager and business partner), the new boat was a craft of her times, representing the owner’s money, the designer’s art, and the builder’s skill.
As she was launched in 1939, on the horizon were momentous changes that the coming war years would bring—including the advent of polyester resin and Owens-Corning’s fiberglass, and the widespread availability and use of plywood in boat construction, new materials that would signal the decline of traditional, plank-onframe wooden boat construction. When the United States joined the Second World War in 1941, Reynolds enlisted in the Navy, earning a commission as a lieutenant commander, while his vessel, Kit Jones, was requisitioned by the Coast Guard. Her white paint was replaced with deep red, and she was put into service as a fireboat out of Savannah.
Retrieved by Reynolds after the war, Kit Jones spent many a happy day ferrying cargo, residents, and guests to and from Sapelo Island. To help preserve the natural environment of the barrier islands and marshlands, Reynolds founded the Sapelo Island Research Foundation in 1949, and Kit Jones began a new career as a research vessel. The foundation funded research by Eugene Odum, whose 1958 paper “The Ecology of a Salt Marsh” won wide acclaim in scientific circles. Odum’s paper revealed the fragility of the cycle of nature in the wetlands, and his research done on Sapelo and from the deck of the Kit Jones helped launch the modern ecology movement.
When Reynolds left Sapelo for good in the early 1960s, he donated large portions of the island and Kit Jones to the Sapelo Island Research Foundation and the University of Georgia Marine Institute. Kit Jones spent 25-odd years as the primary research vessel for the UGA, her decks alive with the excited voices of marine scientists, educators, and their students as she served as their platform for saltwater exploration. By the mid-1980s, UGA had replaced her with newer, more modernized vessels, and was looking to dispose of the old tug. The University of Mississippi expressed interest; Dr. Bob Woolsey, director of the new Marine Minerals Technology Center (MMTC) at Ole Miss, had done his own doctoral research aboard Kit Jones and knew well her value and capabilities as a research vessel.
When the University of Mississippi acquired the vessel from the State of Georgia in 1986, she was sitting in the marsh of Sapelo Island, partially underwater and in sore need of attention. Several MMTC employees traveled to Georgia and refitted her, while also conducting a series of research projects on the Georgia coast. Within months Kit Jones was fully operational again, seaworthy, and ready for the long trip to her new homeport in Biloxi.
Once in Biloxi, the Kit Jones was transformed into a more spacious vessel to accommodate a crew and equipment for extended oceanic cruises. Improvements included state-of-the-art navigational equipment, a Cummings diesel engine, and a hydraulically operated “A” frame for the deployment and recovery of research equipment.
Ole Miss mechanical systems engineer Matt Lowe recalls some rough times on board the Kit Jones . “We did a core sampling job around Little Lake on the Mississippi- Louisiana line,” Lowe said. “I remember while trying to sail back to Biloxi, we had to endure a nine-hour storm in the Mississippi Sound. It was the worst storm I’ve ever been in, but Kit Jones rode it out.”
Like many vessels in that tempest, Kit Jones was half-sunk and capsized by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but MMTC staff were undeterred in their efforts to salvage and repair her. It was a difficult job, with no services available in far reaches of the bayou where she had been taken to weather the storm. The Ole Miss crew, led by Dr. Woolsey, hauled the vessel out of the mud, righted her, and, after a stint in the shipyard, re-launched her into her home waters on the Mississippi Sound.
“Without a doubt, she’s a very strong, well-built boat,” said Ladd Schrantz, a retired marine technical specialist and former port captain for the Kit Jones . “Even those 18-to-20-foot waves couldn’t sink her. I believe she’ll keep right on sailing as long as there are agencies in need of her services,” he added. But the University of Mississippi won’t be one of them.
Today she sits—high and dry and rust-stained—in a Biloxi boatyard, awaiting her next incarnation, with a rich history of voyages made, and of the celebrities, scientists, and other characters that once trod her decks. Dr. Woolsey and the University of Mississippi rescued her once— but who will do it now?
Heavily built with traditional materials and skills rarely seen in modern times, her aging hull represents the pinnacle of wooden workboat construction in the South, and the birthplace of much Southern maritime research. Though 76 is old for a wooden vessel, there is a window of opportunity to repair the ravages of the years and storms, restore her beauty, and let her continue to help new generations understand and explain the complexities of the Gulf coastline. As the famed naval architect Tom Gillmer, restorer of USS Constitution, once wrote, “Who among us would not want that for themselves”? 2
Author and boatbuilder William C. “Rusty” Fleetwood Jr. is a wooden boat enthusiast, resident of Tybee Island, Georgia, and the author of Tidecraft: The Boats of South Carolina, Georgia and Northeastern Florida 1550–1950.
1 “Blitz” was a nickname used by Reynolds’s first wife, Elizabeth McCaw Dillard. His second wife was starlet Marianne O’Brien, who bore a resemblance to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, played by actress Vivien Leigh.
2 “Old Ironsides: the Rise, Decline and resurrection
of the USS Constitution” (1993, International