The Tamaroa survived the World War II battle of Iwo Jima and the winds of one of the fiercest Atlantic hurricanes on record, but the fight to preserve the historic tugboat seems all but becalmed by the endless doldrums of bureaucracy.
The boat has been spurned by Richmond, Norfolk and even the town of West Point, and nagged by Coast Guard regulations. Tom Robinson, the very frustrated director of the Tamaroa Maritime Foundation, has done everything short of search the Seven Seas for a place to dock the Tamaroa. The former USS Zuni was made most famous by its prominence in author Sebastian Junger's historical novel "The Perfect Storm."
"Every time we have a port to go to we get a letter from the city manager saying 'Uh, never mind,'" says Robinson, who was preparing his latest presentation last week in hopes that some Virginia locality would listen. "We've gotten thrown to the wolves every time."
Back in 2003, Robinson had high hopes the ship would be docked at the old Intermediate Terminal building on the James River just east of Tobacco Row, becoming a moneymaking tourist attraction for the city by highlighting its famous maritime history.
But the city declined the offer, citing an incomplete business plan and concerns about the long-term safety and upkeep of the 60-plus-year-old ship.
"None of it made sense we didn't ask the city for a dime. The city came in with all these reasons why they didn't want us here," Robinson says. "The state of Virginia said the ship would bring $12 million in tourist revenue to wherever it goes."
Similarly, attempts to dock in Hampton and West Point washed out at the last minute.
In the summer, a planned move to West Point was within 48 hours of being a reality, Robinson says. Tamaroa Maritime Foundation still holds a 10-year lease on two acres of property there donated by Norfolk Southern Corp.
At the last minute the town called to say stay away.
"We got a stop order from the town of West Point, and we got a stop order from the Coast Guard," says Harry Jaeger, the foundation's director of operations. "They told us they were going to get the sheriff."
Whether or not the sheriff of King William County was equipped to impound a 200-foot-long former Navy tugboat was not the issue, Jaeger says, worrying about further eroding relations with Coast Guard and municipal officials. "We don't need to throw any more fuel on the fire," he says.
Which brings Robinson back to Richmond, Robinson's first choice as the Tamaroa's final port of call.
Back in 2004, then-Deputy City Manager William Harrell told Style he was "very interested" in the ship, but hadn't received a detailed financial plan and other assurances from Robinson's group. Robinson at the time called the requests unreasonable, indicating he'd submitted a preliminary business plan that should have been adequate.
Now Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's administration has taken over, and Harrell has moved up to the post of chief administrative officer. Though Harrell is familiar with the proposal, city officials say that Robinson's business plan must be resubmitted to be considered.
"This administration has been in force for almost two years," city spokesman Linwood Norman says. "I would suggest he submit [a proposal] to the current administration."
Robinson insists the city has everything it needs.
"They give money to all these snake-oil sellers every year," Robinson says, trashing the myriad failed revitalization efforts the city funds each year. He points to his own successes as a redeveloper of downtown projects such as the city's now-vibrant tobacco warehouse district. "I have been credited with single-handedly bringing Manchester back. I put all of Rocketts Landing together.
"As somebody who has done as many successful projects in this city as I have, this is embarrassing."
Meanwhile, the Tamaroa languishes in Baltimore Harbor at a cost to the foundation of $100 a day in dock fees. S