Matt Driscoll

Tacoma rallies for Sea Scouts after beloved boat suffers ‘major catastrophic failure’

Engine failure is a learning opportunity for Sea Scouts

Sea Scouts are disassembling one of the diesel engines of the Charles N Curtis, their training vessel, in Tacoma, August 25, 2018. They have turned failure of that engine into an opportunity to learn about diesel mechanics.
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Sea Scouts are disassembling one of the diesel engines of the Charles N Curtis, their training vessel, in Tacoma, August 25, 2018. They have turned failure of that engine into an opportunity to learn about diesel mechanics.

It could have been a bummer.

Instead, it turned into a strong testament to the impact Tacoma’s Sea Scouts program — and one historic vessel in particular — has had in this area.

The Charles N. Curtis —Sea Scout Ship #110 — has served the Tacoma Sea Scouts since 1946. A former Coast Guard cutter tasked with chasing rum runners during the final stages of prohibition, over the years the ship has been a big part of hundreds of kids’ lives.

That’s why when mechanical disaster struck the Curtis earlier this month the community stepped up — in a big way.

A diesel mechanic would later describe it a “major catastrophic failure.” In layman’s terms, the Curtis blew its starboard engine while on a voyage near Sucia Island, outside of Bellignham.

On Aug. 15, officials with the Tacoma Sea Scouts and the nonprofit Youth Marine Foundation — which supports the Sea Scouts and other efforts to get kids on the water — put out a GoFundMe call to raise money to repair or replace the engine.

Eight days later, nearly $20,000 had come in.

“I’m humbled by the reaction. I don’t think any of us really expected to have that kind of reaction from the community,” said Sea Scouts Senior Skipper Tom Rogers, who has been active in Sea Scouts in Tacoma since 1964. “It’s something we’re very pleased with, and it does tell us there are people here who believe we’re a valuable service. It was very nice to see the community come back and give us a hand.”

Daniel Minch, a 5-year veteran of the Sea Scout program, was manning the log book aboard the Curtis when it all happened

In an instant — starting with some strange RPM readings from the starboard engine — nearly everything Minch had learned in the Tacoma Sea Scouts program was called upon.

“All of sudden I heard someone come up the stairs behind me, and it’s a buddy of mine who’s in the engineering department, and he looks pretty scared,” Minch recalled.

Soon, the Curtis was reduced to circling in the water while Capt. Vernon Moore quickly tried to assess the damage. With 22 crew members and officers on board for the just second day of the voyage, their planned week-long trip back from Anacortes and around the San Juan islands was suddenly in jeopardy.

Luckily, the Curtis was able to limp back to Bellingham, where the extent of the damage became clear. With one engine, the crew was able to alter its mission, returning to Tacoma on Sunday, Aug. 19.

With the funding from the community, Sea Scout officials say it will take a roughly two to three weeks to have the Curtis fully operational again. Last Saturday, a group of Sea Scouts hoisted the broken engine out of the vessel to begin repair work.

It’s safe to say no one knows Tacoma’s Sea Scout program better than Rogers. He’s dedicated most of his life to the organization and is more adept than most when it comes to describing what the Sea Scouts can offer.

“Boats are a wonderful tool for young people. They have a lot of structure and discipline to them, without the walls,” Rogers said. “We started in 1924, and our programs continue to thrive and grow and get bigger.

“From the standpoint of just learning leadership and conduct and character and going into the maritime industries, it’s a good foundation.”

While folks might be familiar with the Boy Scouts of America, the Sea Scouts — a co-ed program of the Boy Scouts — sometimes flies under the radar.

Despite this relative anonymity, Tacoma has developed one of the strongest programs in the country. An average of four Tacoma Sea Scouts annually achieve the rank of Quartermaster — the equivalent of an Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts — which becomes even more impressive when you put it into perspective.

Nationally, according to Rogers, fewer than 40 Sea Scouts earn the Quartermaster rank every year.

“Sea Scouts is part of Boy Scouts of America, so the underlying principles are just like Boy Scouts,” explained Malcolm Russell, executive director of the Youth Marine Foundation. “Boy Scouts go camping. Sea Scouts go boating.”

For Jeff Minch, a Tacoma-based IT consultant and now the father of two Sea Scouts, the appeal of the program was instant.

“I grew up in North Tacoma, surrounded by water on three sides. Growing up, the only boat I’d ever been on was the ferry to Vashon,” the elder Minch explained. “I didn’t want that for my kids.”

So far, the experience has paid off. His son Nicholas has now been a Sea Scout for more than a year, while Daniel recently graduated from Bates Technical College and hopes to be a diesel mechanic, working in the maritime industry.

It’s a career path influenced in large part from his time aboard the Charles N. Curtis.

Needless to say, when the Curtis’ engine blew, Daniel jumped into action.

“Normally the crew probably would have panicked, but I think everyone reacted pretty well,” Daniel Minch said. “We just took the news, and the morale just went up, and people were helping each other and it was a great experience.”

A great, unexpected experience that is.