Robert F. Schwatka, 71, chief engineer for tugboats


Robert F. Schwatka, a retired chief engineer who worked aboard Baltimore tugboats for nearly 40 years, died Friday of injuries sustained in a traffic accident on Interstate 81 near Christiansburg, Va. The Monkton resident was 71.

Mr. Schwatka was Florida-bound when the Bluebird Motor Coach he was driving had a blowout, causing the vehicle to swerve and hit the jagged mountainside at the edge of the road. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Born in Baltimore, Mr. Schwatka's long-time love affair with the sea began as a 16-year-old growing up in Middle River. It was then that he quit high school in 1943 and ran away to sea.

Joining the Merchant Marine, he served as a seaman aboard a tanker in the North Atlantic and later joined the crew of the War Bonnet, which Nazi U-boats torpedoed on the high seas in 1944.

Mr. Schwatka and the ship's other survivors spent 23 days in open lifeboats before being rescued.

"He used to say, 'When you're 16, you think you're going to live forever,' so he wasn't afraid," said his wife of 18 years, the former Victoria Marks.

After the war, he earned his General Educational Development certificate and later a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in the 1960s from the Johns Hopkins University's McCoy College, which he attended at night.

He began his career aboard tugboats working as a deck hand and fireman for Curtis Bay Towing Co. and for Baker Whiteley Towing Co., where he became a Coast Guard licensed chief engineer.

As chief engineer, he was responsible for a ship's engine room and other mechanical systems.

"He was a very good and knowledgeable chief engineer who was also extremely likeable and well-liked," said Capt. Harold "Doc" Thompson, a retired Curtis Bay Towing Co. tugboat captain who lives in Timonium.

"He spent long hours toiling away in the engine room, but was always willing to help other fellow seamen. He really loved the water and the work," said Mr. Thompson.

"He was certainly a well-known figure on the Baltimore waterfront," said Capt. Charles Rogers of Timonium.

"He was a leader who wasn't afraid to step up. When our daughter Julie, who later died, was suffering from leukemia, he organized a platelet drive, which is part of the treatment. And Bob also donated platelets. He was a good shipmate, and that about sums up his life," he said.

Mr. Schwatka retired in 1984.

A physically robust and adventurous man who enjoyed outdoor activities such as deep sea fishing and working around his homes in Monkton and Alligator Point, Fla., he earned a pilot's license in the 1950s.

Something of a daredevil, he flew biplanes and Piper Cubs and performed at air circuses and ribbon cuttings in which he cut with his rear landing gear.

He was a member of an informal luncheon group composed of people from all walks of life who met everyday at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant in Hereford, where he enjoyed a bowl of soup or poached eggs.

Mr. Schwatka's early marriage to the former Eileen Corso ended in divorce.

Services are private.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Robert D. Schwatka of Dallas; a daughter, Jane Schuch of Bradenton, Fla.; and a grandson, Justin R. Schwatka of Dallas.

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