LOWER TOWNSHIP — When Naval Air Station Wildwood put out the call for help restoring an old U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue boat, there was no problem finding volunteers.
There were plenty of active-duty sailors right at the Coast Guard base in Cape May who had fond memories of the 41-foot, propeller-driven boat retired for a more modern 45-foot craft.
Chief Kimberly Murphy, the executive petty officer at Coast Guard Station Cape May, recalled her days as a coxswain aboard one of the 41-footers. She signed up to lead the sanding and painting efforts.
“I was very excited about the opportunity. It was a workhorse. I had no doubt when I left on it, I was coming back,” Murphy said.
Lt. Cmdr. Scott Rae, of Coast Guard Training Center Cape May, also volunteered to restore the boat that was half buried and used for training recruits in Cape May.
“I served on a 41-footer out of Baltimore in early 1990. That was the platform I learned about boats and search and rescue. That was one of the best investments by the Coast Guard ever. It had size, speed, mobility, strength to tow, storage capacity, fuel economy. I’m particularly fond of these boats and want to keep the memory alive,” Rae said.
The 45-footers may be faster and more maneuverable — Rae notes they are propelled by jets instead of propellers — but there is still something appealing about the old 41-footers built in the 1960s. When NASW Museum Director Joe Salvatore heard the boat was available, he jumped at the opportunity to add the first boat to his collection of military planes, helicopters, Army Jeeps and other exhibits at an old wooden World War II hangar at the Cape May Airport. Salvatore said he saw it billed as surplus on a General Services Administration website, the same one where he found the F-16 now at the museum.
Moving the boat involved a crane and a truck-towing service. Salvatore said it took months to make the special cribbing for the display and hundreds of volunteer hours have gone into sandblasting and painting the boat. Besides active-duty Coast Guard from Cape May, Station Indian River in Delaware, and Sector Delaware Bay in Philadelphia, volunteers also came from the Coast Guard Auxiliary in Cape May and from NASW’s own volunteer work force.
NASW allows visitors, about 35,000 of them between Memorial Day and Labor Day, to actually get inside the aircraft on display. The boat presents special challenges partly because it’s so high off the floor. Railings were installed around it, but the exact method to get visitors to and from the vessel is still a work in progress even as restoration continues.
“The challenge is how to get the visitors up and down safely. We’ll permit it as soon as we can figure out how to make it safe. The uniqueness of our place is you can go sit in the airplanes. That’s where we shine. We’re more liable, but we haven’t had one problem over the years,” Salvatore said.
An airplane traffic control tower from Bader Field in Atlantic City is a popular attraction at the museum, especially with children. It is also high off the ground. Salvatore used steel-pipe railings, chicken wire, and lots of signage to make it safer so he has no doubt the vessel will soon be open to the public.
The display will also have a video showing a Coast Guard search and rescue operation. Salvatore is looking into a video feature where children could turn the wheel of the 41-footer and navigate the boat while looking at the video screen in front of them.
The boat actually did duty at a Coast Guard station on the Ohio River but somehow it ended up as a seamanship training prop at the base in Cape May.
“It was just kind of sitting there, not getting any love,” said Mary Rae, Scott Rae’s wife and a worker at NASW.
The restoration includes changing the boat’s documentation numbers to ones from Coast Guard Station Cape May, giving it some local flavor. Salvatore, who is bringing a Coast Guard component to the museum with several Coast Guard helicopters, said he is not done yet. He has his eye on a Coast Guard Falcon jet.
“The Coast Guard is now declassifying Falcon jets and we’re looking to get one of them but the cost of transportation from Arizona is very expensive,” Salvatore said.
The 41-footer was close by, just a few miles away, and the large Coast Guard presence in the area provided a ready work force. Murphy said it gives her a warm feeling just knowing people will be able to walk aboard the vessel for years to come.
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