VALLEJO -- Bob Smith likes to say he's seen Mare Island from top to bottom. He's been to the crown of the island's tallest cranes and also to the lowest depths of its dry docks.

These days, Smith is also getting a good look at the former shipyard's storied past as a volunteer for the Mare Island Museum. There, he's done everything from building shelves for artifacts to restoring machines and helping to create a ham radio display.

Smith is among a cadre of volunteers, many of them former shipyard workers, who help maintain and keep the Mare Island Historic Park Foundation's museum running at Railroad Avenue and Eighth Street.

"What I enjoy most is getting together and working with the same guys," Smith said of his time at the museum. "We work well together, and we're a team. It's enjoyable to accomplish a display and get it out there. When we do something, we do it 100 percent so that it reflects well on the museum and Mare Island."

The latest project for the 73-year-old is to help restore the Vietnam-era Special Boat Unit 11, a PBR (Painted Boat, River), which had sat on the north end of Mare Island for nearly two decades. For several years, the boat, which has a giant smile painted on the front, was located outside the museum.

Smith likes the work. He is a self-described "River Rat," the designation given those who served aboard PBRs, particularly in the Vietnam War.

His goal is to restore the boat to its original appearance, though it will never go back into the water, he said. When he took on the restoration work, Smith said he would do it only if the PBR were brought inside so it wouldn't endure any more damage from wind, sun, rain and, possibly, vandalism.

Today, the boat occupies a spot near the rear of the museum, where Smith and other volunteers are replacing the boat's floor and sanding and doing other work.

Eventually, an informational display on the boats will give viewers a more comprehensive view of the PBRs, the Navy's designation for the small, rigid-hulled patrol boats used particularly in the Mekong Delta, where U.S. military forces patrolled.

The PBR was part of Special Boat Unit XI stationed at Mare Island. The unit trained crews on the boats and then shipped the crew to Vietnam to serve as part of the Brown Water Navy, according to the museum. Those who served on them were called "River Rats."

While Smith did not serve on the boat he is restoring, he did serve on a different one during his Vietnam service, 1967-68. After his year overseas, he returned home to Sonoma and began working on Mare Island. From 1968 to 1995, he worked as a machinist and mechanic and later in planning and estimates.

"It was a very busy time for Mare Island. It was the tail end of new construction, and there were two more submarines we were building," he said.

"Mare Island had a lot of good talent," Smith said. "They lost it all when the shipyard closed" in 1996.

Some of that talent is still evident in the volunteers, many of whom build displays, help with tours, greet visitors or do a number of other tasks related to storing and caring for Mare Island artifacts.

Smith said he's working as hard as he can before age catches up to him but figures he has at least 10 more years left in him. He also does some part-time work at the California Maritime Academy, where he repairs various equipment, reminiscent of his work after the shipyard's closure.

For now, Smith, a Sonoma resident, will keep plugging away on his various projects. A Native American from the Karuk tribe in Northern California, Smith said his children are working hard to record the Indian language and study and catalog art and crafts.

While volunteering brings him a lot of enjoyment, Smith said the work on Mare Island is "never ending." "We're all getting older, and we all want to know what's going to happen when we run out of steam," he said.

Contact Sarah Rohrs at srohrs@timesheraldonline.com or 707-553-6832. Follow her at Twitter.com/SarahVTH.

Bob Smith
Former Mare Island worker, current Mare Island Museum volunteer
Age: 73
Family: Wife, Mary; three adult children, Robert, Susan and Carolyn.
Quote: "It's never ending (volunteer work for the Mare Island Museum). We're all getting older, and we all want to know what's going to happen when we run out of steam."