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Art deco ferry sinking, but owner still buoyant

The 276-foot ferryboat Kalakala lists in its mooring on the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma on Thursday. (Associated Press)
The 276-foot ferryboat Kalakala lists in its mooring on the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma on Thursday. (Associated Press)

Neighbor calls 76-year-old boat a ‘menace’

TACOMA – Steve Rodrigues’ dream for the MV Kalakala is starting to look more and more like a nightmare.

The old 1935 ferryboat, famous for its streamlined, art deco design and tied up in Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway for the past 6  1/2 years, is taking on water, causing it to list precariously and raising concerns that it’s about to sink.

“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” said Jeff Barney, Bay Patrol director at the environmental watchdog group Citizens for a Healthy Bay.

Barney, who patrols Commencement Bay and the tideflats, tracking down pollution, said that at low tides last week, the 276-foot ferry has been listing more than 25 degrees – enough to put openings in its hull below the water line.

“Every time she grounds out, she breaks off pilings and lists farther to the port side and then takes on sea water,” he said.

Water pours in the holes, Barney said, until the rising tide floats the boat again and rights it – at a constantly lower level.

“I’m throwing up the red flags,” Barney said. “It’s taking on an immense amount of water. It’s time to do something, before this becomes a multi-multimillion-dollar cleanup problem.”

Rodrigues, who bought the ferry in 2003 for $135,560 and has championed several creative ideas for restoring and marketing it – including restaurants, a carousel and an ice-skating arena – says the boat is not going to sink. “We’re going to have it righted again in a matter of hours,” he said Friday.

Rodrigues and another man were at the dilapidated dock, sliding a large pump onto the steeply sloped deck of the Kalakala along a cable tied off to an abandoned feed storage silo on shore.

Electric power to the boat was provided by a string of extension cords running along the remains of the dock. “We have a lot of plans,” Rodrigues said.

According to the corporation registry at the secretary of state’s office, Rodrigues’ nonprofit foundation, The Kalakala Alliance Foundation, which he’s been using to try to raise money to save the boat, became inactive Jan. 31.

Rodrigues has estimated costs for renovation at $14 million.

The U.S. Coast Guard was at the dock on Friday, too, trying to assess the risk.

“We’re here to see if there is a structural integrity issue with the hull, “ Chief Warrant Officer Tim Macon said. “The question is: Is it going to sink?”

Barney and other environmentalists say that if the Kalakala sinks, it will release decades worth of fuel and hazardous chemicals into the Hylebos Waterway.

The Kalakala is connected to shore at its stern with a single, frayed, 2-inch rope. Several of the pilings holding its bow are split or broken. Last month, Barney said, a cluster of pilings to which the Kalakala had been attached broke off and floated down the waterway.

Marki Allen, an employee of Tri Pak Inc., which leases upland property immediately adjacent to the Kalakala, says she’s run out of patience with Rodrigues and his dreams, which she sees as farfetched and unrealistic.

“I believe in preserving our past and antiques and stuff,” she said, “but this thing is just a menace right now. It’s rusting right into Puget Sound. It’s crap.”


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