Tacoma’s tall ship Odyssey needs a hand

For 25 years, Tacoma’s tall ship — the Odyssey — has paid its own way.

Every summer, the Tacoma Sea Scouts charter the 90-foot-long yacht to other Scout groups around the country for eight weeklong San Juan Island cruises.

Money made from the trips — plus weekend and single-day charters — has pretty much covered the unrelenting costs of maintaining the 1938 wooden sailboat.

This year, however, the Odyssey is stuck at its dock on the Thea Foss Waterway, scuttled by a pair of back-to-back emergencies. In December, heavy winds destroyed the yacht’s 1,872 square-foot mainsail. Less than a week later, its World War II-era diesel engine died.

That’s put the Sea Scouts in a hole that soon could get deeper. If they don’t get the Odyssey in shape fast, they’ll miss income from this summer’s cruising season, which is critical to maintaining the nationally recognized youth program.

“We’ve put away money for maintenance, but we haven’t put away enough money to have two major things go bad simultaneously,” Senior Skipper Bud Bronson said onboard the Odyssey last week. “Getting a new mainsail and landing a new engine at the same time is completely overwhelming for us.”

On behalf of the Odyssey crew, the Youth Marine Foundation in Tacoma has launched a fund-raising campaign, hoping the community will help get the ship powered up and sailing again.

“The Odyssey is idle, and there’s a great threat that we could miss the busy season for the Odyssey both in Sea Scout training and our annual income-generating charters, which pay for her annual upkeep and expenses,” said Malcolm Russell, the foundation’s executive director. “That multiplies the challenge.”

The Odyssey typically sails 150 to 180 days a year, Bronson said, creating a floating classroom where young men and women learn not only nautical skills but also lessons in character: self-reliance, confidence, teamwork and leadership.

“It lets them learn that they can do stuff,” he said. “Here’s a 16-year-old whose parents won’t even let him sit in the front seat of their car, and then here they are, steering a 90-foot boat.”

Currently, 68 Tacoma-area youths are signed onto the Odyssey sailing program, which is run by a half-dozen adult volunteers.

A new sail big enough for the Odyssey’s 100-foot-tall mast normally would cost upwards of $30,000, Bronson said, but a sympathetic sail maker is willing to make one for $20,000.

Cascade Engine, a local diesel manufacturer, has agreed to let the Scouts have a new John Deere engine at cost — about $23,000. The normal cost, with installation, would be closer to $40,000, said Bronson, a retired engineer and marine architect.

The tall ship was built in 1938 as a private yacht, a larger version of the Manitou, which later became John F. Kennedy’s presidential yacht. The U.S. Navy commandeered it during World War II for acoustic research.

The boat stayed with the Navy until 1979, when it was declared surplus at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. It wound up with the Sea Scouts, thanks to Frank Erickson, who at the time was a district executive with the Scouting program.

Since then, the yacht has been in a state of constant renovation and repair, aided by Tacoma’s close network of boat builders and marine suppliers.

“They love to work on boats, and they love kids,” Bronson said. “And they know what the value of this program is.”

The Sea Scouts have contacted those repeat benefactors in their drive for funds, Erickson said.

“We’ve tapped our resources, and we’ve tapped a lot of people,” Erickson said. “We still need $20,000.

“We hope people will call us and say, ‘Is there a way to help?’ This really is a community resource.”


To help the Odyssey Campaign, call the Youth Marine Foundation, Malcolm Russell or Bud Bronson at 253-572-2666.