Saving a Lifeboat

Hessel’s E.J. Mertaugh Boat Works restores a Coast Guard beauty
Coast Guardsmen stand watch over the old lifeboat prior to its restoration. Photo Courtesy of E.J. Mertaugh Boat Works

In the movie based on real events, The Finest Hours, 32 men rescued from the stricken tanker S.S. Pendleton sit crowded on a small boat while the sea continues to rage around them. Although the rescue boat’s compass was washed overboard on the harrowing trip out to sea, Coast Guard Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernie Webber states calmly, “She’s a good boat. She’ll get us home.”

The boat, a U.S. Coast Guard Type T motor lifeboat, played an integral part in the success of what is considered the most daring and heroic small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history — and countless others — during its nearly 50 years in service.

In the early 1930s, U.S. Coast Guard lifesaving stations in the Great Lakes were equipped with the first five of these newly designed Type T motor lifeboats. Measuring 36 feet in length with a 10.5-foot beam, Type T lifeboats were powered by a six-cylinder gas engine capable of pushing the boats up to 9 mph over a 280-mile range.

The Type T, which evolved into the Type TR and TRS, replaced the aging and failing oar-powered vessels that had been used for decades.

Weighing more than 19,000 pounds, Type T model lifeboats waited on cradles in a station’s lifeboat house until rescue operations were necessary. At that time, the boats were launched by rolling the cradle and boat down rails into the water.

In 2016, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum acquired a Type TR lifeboat for display in the Whitefish Point facility, originally a Coast Guard station on Lake Superior near Sault Ste. Marie.

Identified by its serial number, CG36381, this motor lifeboat is only 10 numbers away from one of the original vessels stationed at Whitefish Point. It was discovered on the New Jersey shore, where it sat outside for nearly a decade, slowly deteriorating until it was scheduled to be burned to easily recover any metal hardware.

Now housed at E.J. Mertaugh Boat Works in Hessel, the lifeboat’s own rescue is underway. Home of the annual Classic and Antique Wooden Boat Show and Festival of the Arts, Mertaugh has been working with wooden boats since 1925, so the staff was excited to undertake the extensive restoration work needed on CG36381.

“It’s pretty cool; it’s definitely different,” says Shipwreck Museum Executive Director Bruce Lynn. “It’s almost like an ugly duck sitting between all of those streamlined classics.”

The boat was a hardy, reliable workhorse. Designed to be self-righting and self-bailing, it could roll itself right-side-up, and any water that washed onto the deck in rough seas would drain completely away in about 20 seconds.

The first phase of the restoration project was to clean out all the junk that had accumulated over the many years the vessel sat outside. Leaves, branches, trash, and old parts had to be cleared away before any restoration work could begin.

Although the hull needed little more than sanding and painting, the Mertaugh crew replaced the decking and rooftops on each of the housing structures before turning their attention to other jobs, such as rebuilding the rub rails that allow the vessel to bump against things without damage.

The restoration crew decided to sandblast the Type TR’s hardware, which revealed an unexpected treasure: Beneath years of paint were bronze components used in the boat’s original construction.

Many other pieces had been stripped from the boat over the years, but the Mertaugh crew was able to borrow the missing hardware from other boats to have patterns made and parts recreated by an East Coast foundry.

Most, if not all, of the Mertaugh employees have had some involvement in the restoration of the Type TR motor lifeboat, making the project that much more special. “Not a lot of people in the world can go to a museum and say, ‘I put the roof on that,'” says Geoff Hamilton, Mertaugh’s general manager.

Work on the Type TR has progressed fairly well over the past few years, but the team had hoped the boat would be on display sooner. “COVID-19 really backed us up,” Lynn says. “(If COVID hadn’t happened), we would have had it on display already in our lifeboat house.”

The restoration has also taken time for financial reasons. “It’s all being done through donations, so we break it up into chunks,” Hamilton explains.

Type TR motor lifeboat CG36381 will be displayed in the Shipwreck Museum’s 1923 Lifeboat House, which is also undergoing restoration work, along with the reconstructed cradle and rails. Both the Lifeboat House and motor lifeboat CG36381 are expected to be ready for visitors this spring.


Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum

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