The soldier sails a tugboat

Will sails the Tugantine.

Will sails the Tugantine with Capt. Steve Briggs.

Only one boat, NORFOLK REBEL, could simultaneously meet a young Iraq veteran’s two dreams: to sail and to drive a tugboat. Thanks to the kindness of Captain Steve Briggs, Will Williamson piloted the “Tugantine” on the Elizabeth River while under power, and then under sail.

Will is a 25-year-old soldier who is battling leukemia, a veteran of Iraq, whose wish is to learn to sail, buy a boat, and go off sailing. I have the privilege to serve as Will’s “sailing angel,” meaning that I find and arrange ways for him to start living his dream. Will had his first three sails aboard Quantico Yacht Club boats, a Beneteau 49 and a Catalina 310. The young man took to sailing quickly and with much enthusiasm, and he wishes to be a tugboat pilot, so sailing NORFOLK REBEL was an appropriate next step.

Accompanying Will was his friend, 22-year-old Branden Bodah, who is staying at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where his father is being treated for a serious medical condition. The two young men rode to Norfolk with Pete Ahearn, a Transition Officer at Walter Reed. The four of us met Capt. Steve Briggs at the Rebel Marina dock on Friday, December 20, 2013, an unseasonably warm day. Local boat owner Scott Rueppel served as NORFOLK REBEL’s First Mate of the Day, while I played deckhand and photographer.

Capt. Steve gave the safety talk and assigned tasks in advance of going under way. Once out on the Elizabeth River, he turned the helm over to Will. While the soldier drove the boat past huge Navy ships, container ships, enormous cranes, and coal depots, Pete regaled us with the jokes of many colors that are his trademark.

Steve showed us a piece of the special bonded metal—aluminum to steel—that was used in attaching the aluminum pilothouse to the steel deck. Launched from the Rebel Marine Services yard in 1980, NORFOLK REBEL is the world’s only Tugantine, or sail-assisted tugboat. Bearing a schooner rig, she was built to plans drawn by naval architect Merritt Walter. This unique vessel’s overall length is 51.5’, a beam of 15.25’. She draws 5.5’ and the sail area of her gaff schooner rig is 750 SF.

We motored about 1.5 hours, around 12 miles down the river under power of the Tugantine’s 871 V8 320 HP Detroit diesel and single four-bladed propeller. After taking us near to view the battleship WISCONSIN that is berthed at the Nauticus maritime-themed science center, Steve briefed us on raising the sails.

Will, Scott and Branden raise the main.

Will, Scott and Branden raise the main.

Various combinations of hands worked as teams to raise the main sail, the fore, and, finally, the head sail. Naturally, I took the wheel when I found myself alone in the pilothouse immediately after the sails were raised, so I ended up being the first at the helm. I had long wondered how a Tugantine handles, and now I know. It is like much sailing a schooner, but different; kind of like sailing a tugboat, too.

Before long, Will came into the pilothouse, so I turned the helm over to him. Steve showed Will how to read the wind indicator to avoid an accidental jibe while sailing on a broad reach. As we headed back down river toward Willoughby Spit, we stayed on a broad reach, making over 7KT most of the way, and hitting a maximum speed of 7.9 KT under sail, just 1/10 KT below hull speed of 8KT.

Branden takes his turn at the helm.

Branden takes his turn at the helm.

When Will was ready for a break, his friend, Branden, took a turn. This was Branden’s first time sailing. He picked it up quickly, and discovered that he likes it very much. Steering the boat was “harder than I thought,” Branden said, but also, “awesome!”

Just in case it worked out for Will to sail NORFOLK REBEL, Steve had left the sails on long past the normal end of the season. As the date grew nearer and it looked like we might have a “go,” he blocked out the entire day and enrolled a First Mate of the Day. Finally, Steve made a run for provisions and provided a most excellent spread to feed the hungry sailors aboard his boat: two kinds of ham, two kinds of cheese, turkey, three kinds of bread, and all the fixin’s, plus chips, cookies, and every kind of beverage. If anybody went hungry or thirsty, it was his or her own fault. Steve was not worried about his effort. He said he had noticed that Will “smiled nearly the whole time,” and that, “seeing the smile on Will’s face was worth it.”

As we neared the marina, we began to lower the sails: jib first, fore next, main last. Steve asked me to fold the fore as the others lowered it, which meant I had the pleasure of enjoying the view from the top of the pilothouse. Will, Scott, and Branden lowered the main and Pete neatened the folds as Will helped lower the gaff.

We approached Rebel Marina to dock in a different location, one that was fairly tight for such a big boat. Steve’s skill in docking shone through. From the helm, he gave orders for handling lines and the boat squeezed right into its place—though it did churn up the muddy bottom a bit.

The boys and their beers: Capt. Steve Briggs, Will Williamson, Branden Bodah, Pete Ahearn, and Scott Rueppel.

The boys and their beers: Capt. Steve Briggs, Will Williamson, Branden Bodah, Pete Ahearn, and Scott Rueppel.

With the boat tied up and engine shut down, the six of us enjoyed a celebratory beer before Steve’s guests thanked him and Scott and bid them good-bye. Will, Brandon, Pete and I then proceeded to my friends’ house, where we were warmly greeted, enjoyed a delicious home cooked dinner of homegrown food and a little bit of wine, and some delightful dancing before my three sailing companions went on to their next destination.

Will said that sailing the Tugantine “was super awesome! I can’t put it into words.” He also noted that, “sailing a tugboat going 8 knots gives me bragging rights from here out.” Indeed, it does. [See the full photo journal.]

What is up next for Will, the soldier-sailor? Stay tuned. There is more sailing ahead!

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