Baby boomers may well remember their parents or grandparents reading them the tale of Little Toot. Bound in cardboard and colorfully illustrated, this 1939-published children's story tells about a little tugboat that grew up to save the day.
Flash forward to December 16, and anyone watching the boat being launched in Krum Bay, St. Thomas, would surely have thought that Little Toot had come to life. However, this spiffy, blue, 20 foot-long tug that now moves yachts around at Offshore Marine started life as a sailboat.
"It was an Albury 16 built in 1943 by 'Uncle Will' Albury in Man-O-War Cay in the Bahamas," tells Dick Avery, who ran Avery's Boathouse in Frenchtown, St. Thomas, for many years and was Little Toot's second owner. "They called it a traditional Bahamas dinghy."
George Neathery, a skinny giant of a man, shipped Little Toot to the Virgin Islands in the early 1960s. "The first time I ever saw it was when George powered it through Haulover cut," says Avery. "It had a little 5 HP inboard engine and small cabin. George named it Phoebe and he lived on it while he set up shop in a shipping crate in my boatyard. He was an electrical genius."
Everyone who saw it loved the look of the boat, with its clipper bow, trail boards and bowsprit. Neathery sailed her throughout the Virgin Islands for several years until the vessel got old and started to fall apart.
"That's when Augie Hollen made two hulls from it," says Avery. "He used garbage bags to separate the fiberglass from the wood and build two fiberglass copies. I bought one of them."
Avery fashioned the little sailboat into a traditional looking tug, with a fantail and wheelhouse, adding four feet of length in the process.
"I'm a tug nut," he says. "I lived along the Hudson (in New York) as a kid and loved to watch the tugs go by."
Little Toot, or what Avery then dubbed A.F. Mainland, for his Uncle Frank who imbued him with the tug-loving spirit, certainly pulled its weight at Avery's Boathouse. In fact, its biggest job was towing a motor-less 40-foot yacht from the harbor to mangrove lagoon on the southeastern end of the island.
Perhaps Little Toot's most fun "job" was when Alan Richardson, former head of the Water and Power Authority (WAPA), borrowed her from Avery, attached two barges by tow and turned her into a tug towing water to the WAPA plant for the Carnival Parade where she took top prize as a float.
Then, Hurricane Hugo struck in 1989 and Little Toot sank. "It was on the bottom of the harbor, half way to Hassel Island, for two months before we could do anything about it," Avery says.
Eventually, Avery's son Morgan, today a talented boat builder, free-dove down 12 to 14 feet to the tug and attached a bow line. Slowly but surely, the two pulled her out of the water and onto dry land with the help of a pick up truck.
"Mike Greaux was with us," says Avery. "He took all the external stuff off the 16 HP Yanmar, changed the oil, put in a new filter and the engine cranked over within two hours of us getting it out of the water. It was a miracle."
However, Little Toot was far from jumping back into the water and resuming her old job. A huge hole in her side led Avery to tow her home and wait until he could fix her up.
A dozen or so years later, Abrie Cilliers, owner of Offshore Marine, heard about the sturdy little craft and thought she'd be an ideal workhorse for his St. Thomas business.
"We wanted to use it in place of inflatable dinghies for moving the boats around and up to the dock," says Cilliers.
Cilliers towed the broken vessel to his Sub base location and enlisted the professional services of Robert "Bobby" Danet. Danet may be most famous on the boating scene for building the gorgeous French West Indian sloop, Seanonda Rose, a perennial class winner in Foxy's Wooden Boat Regatta.
"It was in bad shape when I saw her," Danet says of Little Toot. "The 7.5 foot long by 1.5 foot wide hole in her side meant almost the entire broadside was gone. The pilothouse was 80 percent gone and all the wood was rotted. I said to myself, 'there's a total re-do.'"
Danet worked part-time for 13 months. He took off the entire deck, re-fiberglassed the inside, beefed up the hull with several 2×6 stringers, added five bulkheads where before there were none, and completely re-did the pilothouse with laminated mahogany. He finished the vessel this fall.
Cilliers waited until Avery returned to the island from his second home in Maine, and then announced the launching. Little Toot took the seas like a duck to water.
"It's wonderful," says Avery. "The story keeps going."