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The Kit Jones: Her history, namesake, service, the record and crew…

McIntosh Life Magazine Spring/ Summer 2017

Her history…

The Kit Jones is a wood-hull 60-foot tugboat built in 1938-39 on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Richard J. Reynolds, Jr. commissioned this boat along with other vessel designs by yacht firm Sparkman & Stephens, Inc., of New York City; however, the Kit Jones was the only one crafted with local skill and materials. Shipwrights, Axel Holger Sparre along with Emmett Johnson, Sr. were the boat builders on Sapelo Island who built the Kit Jones. Emmett Johnson, Sr., was a resident of the Hog Hammock Community on Sapelo. As a younger man, he helped built two boats, the Cabretta and the Neptune, for Howard Coffin in the early 1920s. Sparre was from an aristocratic family in Denmark. His father was a noted ship builder and shipyard owner who was granted a knighthood by the King of Denmark.

The old girl is built with heart pine timbers used for the hull planking and live oak for ribs both harvested and milled on-island. These local resources are the heart of the Kit Jones and are what makes her a treasure for McIntosh County! She is “home grown” in every way possible! From her materials to the local craftsmanship and knowledge that help create her history. The Kit was woven into our community by the local families and friendships that were developed during her career in coastal Georgia.

Sparkman & Stephens, Inc. has a vast library of their boat designs, and has provided the original blue prints for the boat design. A second copy turned up in the fall of 2016 in the University of Georgia Hargrett Library archives. This copy will be exceptionally special as it includes the original local builder’s notes and adjustments made during the construction phase of her life. These historical documents will be instrumental for determining the restoration plan for the Kit Jones.

The Name sake and the lady behind it!

In March of 1939 she was christened by, and named for, Katharine “Kit” Talbott Jones, wife of Alfred W. Jones; cousin of Howard Coffin the founder of the Sea Island Company. Katharine “Kit” Houk Talbott was from an influential family in Dayton, Ohio. At the age of 25, Katharine “Kit” joined her new husband “Bill” on Sapelo Island after their wedding in June of 1928. Bill held the position of Island Manger, employed by his cousins Howard E. Coffin.

The Coffins were most likely mentors to the young Jones couple in the early years of their marriage. During their residents in the 1930s and 1940s on Sea Island, Kit and Bill Jones were friends and frequent guests at the “neighboring” Sapelo Island home of R.J. Reynolds, Jr. The Coffins were captivated by the serenity of coastal Georgia a decade earlier and were heavily entrenched in purchasing land and creating sportsmen based paradise resorts on their coastal Georgia properties. On Sapelo Island, exotic game birds were introduced, as well as water impoundments dug for wildlife enhancement during the Coffin/ Jones era. The roads were paved with oyster shells from local Native American middens on the island, some of these roads are still used today on the island. The sale of Sapelo Island to R.J. Reynolds was negotiator by Bill Jones with the final purchase of the island in 1934 for the cost of $700,000, including the Zapala for an additional cost of $50,000. This began a new chapter for Sapelo Island. With R.J. Reynolds’ financial support as the new owner, Sapelo once again had a new course of change and economical support during and post WWII era.

Her service record and crew…

Sapelo Plantation 1938-1953

The “Kit Jones” was commissioned for services for the Sapeloe Plantation, Inc.; a resort created by R.J. Reynolds in the late 1930’s. The “Kit” served as the primary transport for guests, employees and local residences to and from Sapelo Island. The late 1930’s and early 40’s, prior to WWII, the Kit Jones was the workhorse for the island’s daily activities. During this era the Kit Jones made daily runs to transport the mail and school children, and served as a freight hauler, fuel barge, and vehicle transport for the working community living on the island. The lifeline she provided was critical, as there were more than 500 residents of the island in the 1940s. The Kit was a vital link in the daily operations of the fourth largest barrier island in coastal Georgia.

Bennie Johnson was the first captain of the Kit Jones for R.J. Reynolds, Jr., and Sapeloe Plantation, Inc., signing his master’s oath for license on May 23, 1939. Louis Olsen (known by the nickname of "Chief" throughout his career) came to Sapelo Island in 1925 as the chief engineer of the Zapala, the yacht owned by Howard Coffin that was sold along with the island in 1934. In 1939, these men took the helm of the Kit, along with primary crew-member, or “striker” Glasco Bailey in the early years of service. Olsen skippered the Kit Jones for R.J. Reynolds, Jr., and Sapeloe Plantation, Inc., until 1957 when the title was transferred to the University of Georgia and for the University until his retirement when he turned the ship over to Captain B.J. Rouse. Johnson transferred over to the Janet in the 1960’s, a boat also owned by R.J. Reynolds. During Captain Rouse helm three members of the Sawyer family were mates; along with Paul Glenn, Tracy Walker and George Walker. These men served in varying capacities under Captain Rouse throughout her service at UGAMI.

Fire Boat US Coast Guard 1942-1946

In June of 1942, the War Shipping Administration for Service in World War II requisitioned the Kit Jones along with numerous other coastal vessels. She was painted deep red, outfitted with pumps, and put to work as a U.S. Coast Guard fireboat based out of the port of Savannah. The Kit Jones remained a Coast Guard vessel until October of 1946 when she was decommissioned and returned to ownership and service to Sapeloe Plantation, Inc. She was in operation for the Sapeloe Plantation from 1939 – 1957.

UGAMI 1953-1972

R.J. Reynolds took a strong interest in his marine surroundings while serving as a Lieutenant Commander in the South Pacific Theater aboard the US Naval ship Makin Island. His time at sea created a passion for boating and the ocean that cared throughout his life time. This passion for the sea is the raison d'être for his founding and funding what is today the University of Georgia Marine Institute.

The Sapelo Island Research Foundation was established in 1949 as a private, charitable, non-profit organization. R.J. Reynolds, Jr., and the Sapeloe Plantation, Inc., began leasing the Kit Jones to the newly created foundation in 1953. In January 1957, the Kit was transferred to the University of Georgia to serve as a science-based research vessel, under the new name the”Kit Jones R/V”. A grant from the National Science Foundation in 1957 enabled the replacement of the Fairbanks-Morse engine with a 200 horsepower main diesel engine and a 3000 watt AC diesel generator. Both units were installed in February of 1958.

In 1959, a new charter and title for the foundation was formed, the Georgia Agricultural and Forestry Research Foundation, and was then amended to become the University of Georgia Marine Institute. With the creation of the new research program, came addition funding sources for her. The vessel underwent intense redesigns to meet new Coast Guard standards, which allowed for offshore exploration. The UGA Marine Institute used her for over two decades of marine research for near shore and offshore coastal Georgia.

Dr. Eugene Odum, known as the “Father of Modern Ecology”, conducted groundbreaking research on the Kit, helping to establish the importance of the salt marsh environment in the cycle of marine life. Other prominent users of the vessel during the Sapelo Island years included Dr. Milton “Sam” Gray, for whom Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. Dr Orrin Pilkey, a professor at the UGA Marine Institute at Sapelo in the mid-1960s is renowned for his work on coastline preservation and protection.


In April 1972, the Kit Jones was moved from its home port at the UGA Marine Institute on Sapelo Island to the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography (SkiO) on Skidaway Island near Savannah. Captain Jimmy Rouse was the long-time master of the R/V Kit Jones, and during the transition of title between the two Institutes’s. He served as skipper following Richard “Chief” Olsen, on Sapelo and he continued his guardianship while she once again she was updated and repurposed for service with new funds for exploration with a home port at Skidaway Institute of Oceanography on the Skidaway River.

Dr. Robert A. Ragotzkie and Vernon J. Henry were Directors at the UGA Marine Biological Laboratory during her tenure at SkiO, and her Captain’s included Jimmy Rouse and Paul Glenn. She operated out of Skidaway Island for a decade or more, but by the early 1980s she began to fall increasingly out of use and into disrepair.


In 1985, J. Robert “Bob” Woolsey rediscovered the Kit Jones, Bob was first introduced to her as a graduate & research assistant for University of Georgia while living on Sapelo Island. Bob conducted his marine research aboard the Kit; she was the platform for his doctoral research and his furture funding sources. In the mid-1980s, Bob obtained funding from the U.S. Bureau of Mines to establish the Marine Minerals Technology Center for his Gulf Coastal explorations. Bob learned that the Kit Jones was no longer in regular operation at SkiO, so he convinced the University of Mississippi that she had value, by purchasing her they would greatly increase the fledgling marine research institute fleet. The Kit Jones title was once again transferred, this time to another state.

The University of Mississippi purchased her and she moved west in 1986. Before departing the east coast, she was railed in Valona and over hauled to make her long journey around to the Gulf of Mexico. Dr. Woolsey, along with his funding for marine minerals exploration extended the longevity of this remarkable wood-hull vessel for another almost three decades in the Gulf of Mexico.

Monty Simmons joined the University of Mississippi’s Marine Minerals Technology Center in 1987. He captained the Kit Jones until 1995. Based out of Point Cadet by then, the Kit Jones was used to support a wide variety of marine research projects on the Gulf Coast. During her time with the University of Mississippi crew she traveled throughout the coasts of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana waters, from Biloxi, through the Florida Cut and up the east coast to Atlantic City, NJ, San Louis, DE and Ocean City, MA.

She was capsized and nearly sunk during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but ultimately survived to enjoy several further years of service as a fully operative research vessel. In June of 2013, the Kit Jones was pulled from the water a final time. At present and for the past 4 years she has been under the care of Paul Bodin, owner of Bay Marine Boat Works in Biloxi, MS.

Final Days… to Restoration Plan

Due to looming yard fees and no research funding for her to continue service, the University of Mississippi felt they could no longer keep her on their inventory, and began a bid process for the Kit Jones. On December 15, 2016, a new owner who could see the value of her worth as a historical maritime resource for McIntosh County saved her in her final hours. Thankfully, the McIntosh Rod & Gun Club made a successful bid to acquire the Kit Jones from the University of Mississippi, and the paperwork was completed for title transfer in January 2017. The vision is to stabilize the Kit for ground transportation, and then bring her back home to McIntosh County. Plans are under way for some much-deserved TLC by dedicated volunteers who share a love of old boats, and a complete restoration to her former glory so she can rest high & dry and become a historical maritime landmark for all to enjoy.

A ‘Friends of the Kit Jones’ Foundation has been established along with a Steering Committee for the project. Members and responsibilities are as followed: Davis Poole, CEO; Laurie Poole, Marketing Coordinator & Secretary; Maxine Woolsey and Paul Glenn, Restoration Plan Coordinators & on-site logistics team for Biloxi and Darien; Dorothy O’Neill, Historian; and Aimee Gaddis, CFO & local county residence contact.

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