Tuffy Tug
early dreams, early childhood

Dr. James Sanders, editor of Gaff Rig


I was born near water. Our home was a small town on the shores of Lake Michigan. Whiting, Indiana may have been a steel mill town, but Whiting was a picturesque town, the kind you might see in a Norman Rockwell painting. I well remember the cold waters of Lake Michigan, and I remember the park near those waters. For a small child, everything is large, and the Whiting park seemed to go on forever. It was a wonderful place with a high hill and a white bridge. There were painted benches on the top of the hill, and from those lofty heights, I could climb up on the bench and look out on the vast blue waters of the lake. On Top of Ole’ Smokey was a popular song. Once while our family was riding in a car, I asked my mother what a mountain was. She explained it was similar to the hill in our park. From that time on, whenever my short legs would climb the hill in Whiting Park, I stood on top of Old Smokey.

Park bench


I was around three or four when my uncle built a sailboat. He was the first boat builder in our family (and until I began building my own boat, he was the only boat builder in our family.) I never got the chance to ride on his boat. You had to be able to swim to do that, and I had enough trouble walking. At the time, I could easily walk under our kitchen table. My uncle and another relative launched his new boat in a nearby placid lake. It took them a few beers, but they managed to get out on the lake. One of them fell off, but no one drowned. My uncle’s sailboat was a marvel to my childhood eyes. I thought that one day— maybe I could build such a boat as well.

I liked building things. My father had given me a set of Tinker Toys for Christmas. You could build all kind of things with Tinker Toys, nothing very useful, but I enjoyed working with the wood and displaying my new projects to my mother. She seemed quite interested, or so I thought.

My prize possession, though, was not a toy hammer, or even Tinker Toys. It was a book. I could not read, but I could look at the pictures. Sometimes my mother would read me the story, and then, I would practice reading the story back to her. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel was my first book, and what a book it was. The steam shovel could smile and even had feelings. In a nearby sand lot, I often dug at the dirt with an old spoon my mother had given me. If I only had a steam shovel like Mike Mulligan’s, I could really smooth the dirt and dig a hole big enough to stand in.

Scruffy book cover

My favorite book, though, was the one about a boat, a tugboat named Scuffy. I really loved this book. For those of us who may not be well read, Scuffy the Tugboat is the story of a child’s small boat and the adventures the boat encounters on its way to the ocean. One picture in the book that really alarmed me was the night scene, complete with an owl. Perhaps, it was this story (and my uncle’s adventure) that gave me the love of boats. Instinctively, I knew someday I would build a boat.

Scruffy, owl, moon

Years past and I became a young boy. We moved to Florida. Again, we lived in another small town, and again we lived near water. There was not much to do in Pace, Florida, but by this time I had heard of the story of Tom Sawyer. I was quite surprised to learn that someone else had lived a similar life to mine. My best friend was Chipper Barbas, and as two bare-footed boys in jeans with rolled-cuffs, we explored the creek and nearby woods, looking for adventure. We even built a tugboat . . . well, almost.

Chipper and I found a pine board, and we cut and filed the wood into the shape of a Scuffy tugboat. We even painted our little boat, and then put it out to sea in a large washtub. Our mouths dropped open when we saw our boat turn on its side. We had only cut the profile of tugboat in a plank, and try as we could, we could never make our plank tugboat stay upright in the water. We shook our heads in disappointment, and went fishing.

I still have the notion of a tugboat in the back of my mind. In fact, just the other day, I ran across a worthy successor to Scuffy tugboat. In a book called Wooden Toys, I found the tugboat I had Toy tug wanted to build as a child! It was perfect, a toy that any child would be proud to own and proud to launch.

I immediately thought of a grandson in Florida who might treasure such a wooden toy. In fact, I think, I ‘ll build the toy tugboat I had always wanted and just send it to him. He’s too little to talk right now, but in my heart of hearts, I know he will love having a tugboat all his own. Nothing makes bath time better than having a wooden tugboat all your own.

I looked around further and to my surprise, there are larger tugboats you can build, large enough even for a father (or grandfather) to accompany a child on a lake adventure. In fact, the Glen-L Tubby Tug folks have a little boat they call Tubby Tug. I keep looking at photos of what other people have built, and I keep thinking of a grandson in Florida. Put a small trolling motor on that tugboat, and that would just be about perfect. It’s a nice size boat, too— 9 feet over all, and 4' 8" beam.

Tubby Tug 2

I searched a bit more, and to my amazement, found a period boat, a larger tugboat. (I suspect that someone at Glen-L must have read the same child’s book I had read.) This tugboat even has sleeping quarters and a galley. The Glen-L folks call her Bo-Jest . She approaches an 18 foot waterline and 8 foot beam. Maybe once I finish building my sailboat, I might . . .


Wait, wait. How did I ever get off the subject of tugboats and the like? I think it must be in the recesses of my childhood. This whole notion of building a boat has been with me for a long time. Some day I may build a tugboat, but for now my heart and dreams belong to a period sailboat I have been working on for these last two years.

"Never leave a job until it is finished", my father would say. I have no regrets in having started to build a boat. I do wish, though, I could have started it sooner. I think my uncle would have liked my sailboat. I think he would have. My aunt has promised to sail with me when the boat is finished. I have promised to keep her to her word.

Park entrance

P.S. Barry,
I may give the little tugboat a try even before I finish the sailboat. . .

Best regards,
Dr. Jim

Dr. James is the editor of Gaff Rig, at www.byyb.org.