Tiny tug makes Harbor Days debut

Though Harbor Days celebrates maritime history, one of the tugboats on view at this weekend’s festival was just launched last week.

The boat, the 15-foot-long Kathy M, is a one-sixth-scale replica of a Pacific Northwest tugboat, built by harbor master Bob Peck.

Kathy M won’t be the smallest tug at Harbor Days, though: That honor goes to Peck’s previous creation, the 10-foot-long Smitty J, a one-quarter-scale replica of an East Coast harbor tug.

The Smitty J, owned by the Kiwanis Club of Olympia, has become the festival’s mascot and is a popular sight at parades all over Western Washington. It was named best small boat at the 2013 Wooden Boat Festival in Olympia, and has twice been invited to Seattle’s Lake Union Wooden Boat Festival.

“The Smitty J has been an eye-catcher, and I must confess that’s part of the reason I have this kind of hobby,” said Peck, president of the South Sound Maritime Heritage Association. “Since I don’t do a lot of boating anymore, I can build boats that people like to look at.”

He plans to take Kathy M to parades, too. “It’s not the sort of boat you go fishing in,” he said. “It’s a showboat.”

Both tugs are too small to compete in Sunday’s tugboat races. “They’d be swamped in a race,” Peck said. But he’s joked with the skippers of the other boats that he plans to race. “I told the skippers they had to give me three hours’ head start, that I wanted to be off the course and home before they started.”

But they are real tugs and can pull their weight, so to speak. The Smitty J once rescued a little powerboat.

“They’re not just toys,” he said. “They are way overpowered, because I wanted to make sure that when they’re running free, they’ll look like genuine tugboats with great big bow waves.”

While he’s been building boats for more than 40 years, Peck identifies himself as an amateur. “It’s just a hobby,” he said. “It keeps me out of the sleazy bars.”

Amateur or no, he’s a master boat builder, said marine historian Chuck Fowler. “He builds boats the old-fashioned way,” Fowler said. “He’s very meticulous about being accurate as far as he can.”

The two met in 2004 after Fowler spotted the then-unfinished Smitty J on a trailer.

“I’m going down Harrison Avenue toward the water, and I see this Jaguar sedan,” Fowler said. “It’s pulling a trailer with the Smitty J’s 10-foot hull. It didn’t have a house on it at that time. I took a U-turn and followed him down to West Bay Marina.”

Fowler wound up writing an article for Sea Magazine about Peck and his tiny tugboat, and the two have been friends since.

Peck has been focused on boats since he retired in the 1990s, but his career was in academia, beginning as a professor of philosophy and religion and ending as president of the since-closed Phillips University in Enid, Okla. He did doctoral research at Oxford University in England.

“I’m one of your first-class academic eggheads,” he said.

And he’s a lifelong lover of boats and boating since he started sailing in Wisconsin at age 15.

“In the tugboat world, he is a Renaissance man,” Fowler said.