Volunteers needed to keep historic vessel open to public

Approaching its 105th birthday, the venerable tugboat Sand Man could use a few more friends.

Devotees to the old wooden workhorse are seeking a few more volunteers — six would be nice — to help cover the weekend hours that the historic vessel is open for public tours.

In exchange for free moorage and electricity for the Sand Man, the Olympia Parks, Arts and Recreation Department asks that the Sand Man Foundation, the nonprofit group that has owned the boat since 1997, make the boat available to the public 420 hours a year. That’s accomplished by public viewing hours of 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. most weekends, except when the popular tugboat is cruising in South Sound or participating in wooden boat fairs and festivals in various Puget Sound area communities.

“There are three or four others that are reliable docents,” said Sand Man Foundation member Carl Seaburg. “But we don’t have enough people to cover the weekend.”

The Sand Man Foundation expects to sign a new, five-year lease agreement with the city in the weeks ahead. With a few more committed volunteers, those 420 hours called for in the agreement would be a lot easier to oblige.

While there’s no pay involved, volunteers derive some pretty cool benefits, Seaburg said. “You get to meet people from all over the world, and you get to crew on the boat and drive the boat, too,” he said.

The Sand Man has attracted about 45,000 visitors in recent years, said Sand Man Foundation board president Doug Ecklund. Restored and returned to the water in September 2005, it’s the singular floating and functioning piece of Olympia maritime history available for the community to enjoy.

One of the first things visitors learn is that the Sand Man’s moorage at Percival Landing, just north of the Oyster House restaurant, is precisely where the boat was moored around 1910. That’s when Olympia Sand & Gravel Co. owner Arthur Weston began using it to tow barges of sand and gravel mined in Steilacoom to Olympia for construction projects in the capital city. Thus the name: Sand Man.

The docents tailor their talks to the visitors’ interests. They can talk about the boat’s specifications: It’s a shade under 60 feet long and weighs about 37 tons when the 1,280-gallon fuel tanks aren’t completely full. The boat is on its third engine. It’s a Caterpillar D 13000, a six-cylinder, 110-horsepower diesel engine installed in 1944 and currently undergoing an overhaul that should be completed in a couple of weeks.

The volunteers regale visitors with stories of the tug’s colorful history. It’s had six owners, including Delta V. Smyth of Delta Smyth Tug and Barge Co. from 1925 to 1955. Sand Man was one of seven tugboats in the company’s fleet. It sank twice. Once in 1998 when a bilge pump for the tug’s rotting, leaking hull failed. Again in 1999 when it was being towed to Port Townsend for a complete reconstruction job.

The foundation has spent more than $500,000 to restore the vessel and is squeaking by these days on a $5,000 annual budget, half of which pays the insurance premium that allows guests to come aboard.

Many of the dedicated volunteers have personal connections to the Sand Man and Olympia’s historic working waterfront. Seaburg and Eklund shared with me some of their ties to tugboats in general, and the Sand Man specifically.

Seaburg’s father captained a tug boat, Klatawa, for Olympia Towing Co. before World War II, and died in a tugboat fire in 1942 when Seaburg was 8 years old. Seaburg came aboard the Sand Man in the late 1940s or early 1950s, and knew every owner of the vessel, except Weston, who sold the boat in 1925.

“I’ve been around the water all my life,” the retired property manager said.

Ecklund, 65, said his father, as a young boy in the 1930s, would stand on the Fourth Avenue Bridge and look for the Sand Man. When the family later moved to a Cooper Point waterfront home, his father taught him how to watch for the Sand Man’s passing, pulling a load of logs, sawdust or wood chips.

“After all these years, I get to come down here and be a part of the Sand Man’s history,” said Ecklund, a civil engineer.

The Sand Man has a busy spring and summer ahead, beginning with the Wooden Boat Fair May 9-10 at Percival Landing, followed by trips to Bremerton, Gig Harbor, Tacoma, Olympia Harbor Days back at Percival Landing Sept. 4-5 and ending with the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival Sept. 11-13.

In July and August, the Sand Man will be taking its donors and sponsors on cruises to the Boston Harbor Marina for Sunday brunches. Plus, there will be a Sand Man birthday party at Percival Landing Aug. 7-9.

For more information on how to support the Sand Man with donations of time or money, visit the website at or email the Sand Man Foundation at