Sunken tugboat emerges with a story

Thomas Donovan has always been fascinated by The Murph, an old Navy tugboat that sank in Quartermaster Harbor in 2007.

Thomas Donovan has always been fascinated by The Murph, an old Navy tugboat that sank in Quartermaster Harbor in 2007.

An attorney living in Tacoma, he  went scuba diving there often, exploring The Murph’s hallways and the sea life growing on it. He researched the 70-year-old tug’s history and wrote an article about it for The Beachcomber. And when he was married in 2009, there was only one place to hold his wedding reception — on a flotilla of boats above The Murph.

Last week, however, the 100-foot tugboat was raised from the water in a two-day effort by the state Department of Natural Resources, which considers the sunken boat a hazard.

“It’s tough to see it go, and much of the diving community is going to miss it as well,” Donovan said. “But it’s for the better and for the greater good.”

The Murph is the fifth sunken boat that DNR’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program, funded by boater registration fees, has removed from Quartermaster Harbor since summer of last year. But those involved in its retrieval say the tug is unique in its large size and in the time it spent underwater.

“We don’t normally pull up ones that have been down for this long,” said Melissa Ferris, who manages the program.

The Murph was abandoned and sank in shallow water near the mouth of Quartermaster Harbor in 2007. At the time, the Coast Guard responded and removed oil from the boat, but Ferris said some oil still leaked afterwards and the state was worried more might eventually be released.

“We felt it was important to get it out of there before the tanks rusted through and we ended up with an oil problem in Quartermaster,” she said.

What’s more, she said, the boat was close to the surface — it could been seen sticking out of the water during very low tides — and was considered a navigational hazard. Lighted buoys were placed around it to warn boaters coming in and out of the harbor.

Last Tuesday, Nov. 4, The Murph was hoisted up by crane in a project that cost the state around $622,000, including the cost to salvage the boat as scrap metal.

It took several hours to bring the tug up, as the contractor, Global Diving & Salvage, repeatedly raised it, pumped water from its bilge and raised it a little more. The boat was covered in sea life, and workers tried to scrape off and return to the water as many creatures as they could.

That sea life, many say, was one thing that made The Murph an attractive spot for scuba diving.

“We don’t have that many wrecks in Puget Sound, and that one was really nice,” said Rick Myers of Bandito Charters, a scuba diving charter based in Tacoma.

Myers said The Murph was one of about a dozen shipwrecks that Bandito regularly took trips to. He understands why the state removed it, he said, but he is sad to see it go.

“What constitutes garbage to others, it creates life,” he said.

Donovan said The Murph was considered a good dive not only because of its sea life, but because it was so near the surface, allowing for more natural light and making an easier dive for beginners. It also sank perfectly upright — unlike many boats that settle on their sides — making it easy for divers to navigate the tug’s halls and rooms.

“It actually sank like you’d think a shipwreck would sink,” he said.

Decades before it wound up at the bottom of the harbor, The Murph started its life as a Navy tugboat, built in 1944 in Jacksonville, Florida.

“They made a lot of ships then for the war effort,” Donovan said.

Originally called The USS Wingina, the tug never saw action, but was stationed for most of its life at the Bremerton Navy Yard and in Astoria, Oregon, where it assisted large ships crossing the Columbia River bar.

The boat was sold by the Navy in 1985 and went through several owners — including Seattle Central Community College — before its last owner, an Olympia man, abandoned it in Quartermaster around 2007.

Accounts as to what happened next vary.

Donovan has heard that an “eccentric individual” lived on the boat for a time before it sank. Metal pieces were salvaged off the body, and Donovan believes it was scuttled to avoid disposal fees.

Ferris, with the state, said she is unsure how exactly The Murph sank, but said it’s also likely that as parts were removed from the tug, it ultimately sprang a leak and sank.

One person posted on a Seattle-area diving forum that The Murph was clearly scuttled, as it appeared its doors and windows had been tied open.

Troy Kindred, a local sailor, said rumors about The Murph have made their way through the Vashon boating community, and he also heard that it was the stripping of the Murph that ultimately did it in.

“I don’t think that they sunk it on purpose,” he said. “I think they probably were careless in the way they were cutting out the valves.”

Kindred and a friend were on the water in his sailboat last week to watch The Murph come up.

“It’s probably the biggest boat to sink around here,” he said. “It’s pretty interesting.”

As for Donovan, he now travels for work more frequently and hadn’t been diving as much at The Murph. It was a shadow of its former self, he added, as divers have continued stripping pieces from the boat, taking latches, door handles, even the anchor. But still, there’s nothing like diving a shipwreck.

“They’re time capsules from a different era of history,” he said.