Boat runs on the love of volunteers

Comanche volunteer Joe Peterson shows off the tug’s rudder angle indicating system. Peterson is one of about 30 volunteers who spends time aboard the World War II-era tug fixing it up.  - Seraine Page
Comanche volunteer Joe Peterson shows off the tug’s rudder angle indicating system. Peterson is one of about 30 volunteers who spends time aboard the World War II-era tug fixing it up.
— image credit: Seraine Page

At the edge of the Bremerton Marina pier floats a piece of history.

While well-worn and aged, the historic World War II-era tug USCGC Comanche is a floating historical museum kept alive by the loving touch of restoration by a team of volunteers.

From fixing engines to giving tours, the volunteers do it all, said Joe Peterson, volunteer director of operations.

Peterson is a volunteer captain of sorts for the vessel, along with about 30 other volunteers. As director of operations, Peterson sees to it that the boat is well taken care of while it is under his watch.

“Everything works. That’s one of the pleasures,” said Peterson. “If it doesn’t work, we make it work.”

A former Coast Guard member, Peterson worked as part of the crew for the Comanche’s twin, the Modoc.

To him, it is important to keep the tug in working condition, and it’s why there are tens of thousands of parts kept on hand to keep the ship in tip-top shape. Once moored, volunteers get to work with original manuals in hand to guide them through.

“We have good volunteers, highly experienced volunteers,” Peterson said. “Everything is in the process of being restored.”

The goal of the volunteers is to get the ship looking most like its original state, which often means consulting one another and many photographs to get things just right.

Many of the volunteers actively served on the boat in their younger years. But some volunteers are teens who have an interest in the restoration process as well. Often, the teens can volunteer to spend the night to continue working on a project that they hadn’t quite finished.

It’s a part of history that should and can remain alive, especially since it frequently moves from dock to dock around the Puget Sound, Peterson said. Volunteers interested in moving the floating museum from marina to marina — sometimes as far as Seattle —  pay for the cost to move the ship so others can jump aboard to experience it.

That cost, however, is steep — $400 per hour steep. But often considered well-worth it by those who get to come aboard for a ride on the historic boat, especially for memorial services for deceased veterans.

Recently, Peterson attended one such memorial. Two Coast Guard veterans passed away, and their families wanted an at-sea burial. When the ashes of the vets were spread, Peterson recalled a “very touching” sight.

“We had four bald eagles circling overhead as their ashes were spread,” he said. “It was pretty outstanding.”

While the tug currently has an important job to do, its prime time years also saw a lot of use in saving lives.

Peterson says the 143-foot long vessel was “built for the anticipation of the invasion of Japan” to do work as a rescue tug.

“They’re very sturdy ships,” he notes, looking around at the inside of the tug. “It did a lot of rescue work; it saved hundreds of lives.”

In 1980 the ship was decommissioned, although, if needed, it could still go out to sea with its original World War II parts. According to the Historic Naval Ships Association website, the Comanche 202 Foundation which owns the tug, was donated on Sept. 11, 2007 to the foundation for restoration work.

While many of the volunteers are original Coast Guard crew that once lived aboard, there’s plenty of training going on for young folks, too.

At 14, Hunter Johnson is the youngest volunteer crew member. One day while riding his bike around Bremerton, he made a stop at the docks “like I normally do,” he said.

Volunteers were giving tours of the Comanche that day, and Johnson decided to hop aboard. He fell in love with “the history of the boat and everything about it —where it’s been, where it was made.”

Once he found out volunteers were needed, the Mountain View Middle School student signed up.

His first task at hand was to paint a staircase that took an hour and a half.

“It was pretty easy,” he admits, but noted that he got hooked.

Whenever he’s not practicing baseball, he’s on the ship, he said. He’s even gone overnight on the ship to Tacoma and Seattle.

When not painting or working on other similar projects, Johnson said he loves to go on the upper decks to relax. But when help is needed, he’ll do it all because of the importance of restoring history, he said.

He also sees the potential like Peterson and other volunteers.

“A lot of those boats just get scrapped or get abandoned or sunk,” he said. “It’s pretty cool that this one is still moving and working. A boat that old can still be that nice.”


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