By Merrill Witty
Jerry Smith of Smith Shipyard in Curtis Bay represents the fourth generation of a six-generation family business launched in 1905.
“I grew up learning the business with my father, uncle and brother, traveling to different jobs and visiting customers with my father,” he recalled. “The shipyard trade was mainly hauling sailing vessels in the early ‘40s, then Coast Guard subchasers during WWII, then rebuilding war-surplus small landing craft into tugs after the war.”
The Smith family later entered the barge rental business in the 1960s and then gravitated toward the tugboat industry by the mid-1980s.
Jerry Smith’s career at the family yard began after he earned a business degree from Loyola College in 1969. His career was interrupted by two years of military service in the United States Army Corps of Engineers.
“I continued my education by obtaining a commercial pilot’s license in general aviation on weekends in multiple aircraft with flight instructor ratings using VA benefits after the service,” he said. “Besides working in the shipyard, I was able to work my way up to a master’s license in towing for tugboats.
“My wife Claudia and two boys, Kevin and Timmy, helped me sail my uncle’s sailing vessel, a Chesapeake Bay 53-foot Bugeye, 75-foot-sparred, 1,000-square-foot-sail. That vessel was a good training tool for sailing, handling and learning experiences of the Chesapeake Bay for all of us.”
That tight family bond also translated to the business side.
A small fleet of barges (nearly 20) are the foundation for today’s fourth, fifth and sixth generations of Smiths — all active in the business. As the barge rental fleet grew, customers needed towing service as well.
Jerry Smith’s sons sailed with him on the tugs, mostly running supplies to Poplar Island from 1998 to 2000. His oldest son Kevin now helps run the business with a nephew, Mike, his son Justin and a brother-in-law Matt and his two sons. Jerry’s other son, Timmy, works with a local insulation company.
“My father [J. Willis] knew that the shipyard would not survive on its own, and we needed to diversify,” said Jerry Smith.
The company responded by acquiring tugs, led today by the 1,300-horsepower flagship Rising Sun, all over the Chesapeake and beyond, as well as assisting in dredging operations.
“This work is in our blood,” he said.
Smith Shipyard continues to service coastal tugs, the dredging companies and the Army Engineers in its yard and provide tug service for the Coast Guard yard and tug and barge service for local shipping agents and bridge companies.
“I have been humbled by Mother Nature in various weather conditions in tugs and under sail that I would rather have not been in! I learned from my father and uncle to prepare for the six hurricanes that we endured on land,” Jerry Smith said. “I guess my biggest take-away has been to prepare yourself and those around you for the biggest storm, the biggest job, with the best knowledge that one has learned and can further gather.”