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Historic ferry in dire straits

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

Coast Guard: Boat too fragile to move

TACOMA – Once an icon of Puget Sound, the historic ferry Kalakala is in such fragile shape it may not withstand being evicted from a Tacoma moorage and could have to be scrapped, the Coast Guard and other agencies say.

Owner Steve Rodrigues disagrees. He’s still committed to restoring the 77-year-old vessel to its former glory, even though he says owning it the past nine years has left him impoverished.

“I don’t have a penny,” he said. “I’m homeless. I’ve given everything for this.”

He’s sacrificed his career as a civil engineer to the effort, he said, as well as a house he owned in Tumwater. He’s spent about $500,000 on the Kalakala, the News Tribune reported Tuesday.

The last stop may be the Hylebos Waterway, where the Kalakala has been moored for eight years.

The 276-foot vessel began listing last winter and the Coast Guard declared it a hazard to navigation in December. That gave the Corps of Engineers authority to seize the ferry and dispose of it.

The problem is, there’s no place to take the vessel, and even if there were, the Coast Guard says it’s too fragile to move.

Despite meetings and teleconferences over the past few months by the Coast Guard, the Corps, the Port of Tacoma, Citizens for a Healthy Bay, the state Department of Ecology, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and worried businesses along the Hylebos, nobody’s been able to come up with a solution.

Even the cheapest possibility – fixing up the Kalakala just enough to tow and cutting it up for scrap – is estimated to cost between $2 million and $3 million.

“It’s a piece of junk,” said Bill Anderson at Citizens for a Healthy Bay.

Capt. Scott Ferguson, commander of the Coast Guard’s Puget Sound sector, was less blunt about it, but he essentially agreed.

“There isn’t enough good steel on the vessel,” he said. “We would have to be very careful when we touch her because the steel is so paper thin, it’s very delicate.”

“I know there’s historical value here,” Ferguson said. “Ultimately, what I would hope is that critical pieces – memorial pieces – could be taken from the vessel and displayed somewhere. The idea of actually trying to fix the Kalakala is going to be pretty far-fetched.”

The Kalakala went into service in 1935 and crisscrossed Puget Sound between Seattle and Bremerton for more than 30 years. Its streamlined design with round windows was the postcard picture for the region, compared in fame to the Space Needle as a city symbol for its time.

It was auctioned in 1967 and repurposed in Alaska as a fish processing ship before being grounded in 1972 as a cannery. It was towed back to Washington in 1998 with the idea it would be restored, but every fundraising effort has failed.

After wearing out its welcome in Seattle, the Kalakala went to Neah Bay, where the Coast Guard threatened to sink it in the ocean as a hazard to navigation.

It was moved to Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway in 2004 and moored on property owned by Karl Anderson, who encouraged restoration plans. Now he’s had enough.

Anderson filed an eviction suit against Rodrigues on March 21 in Pierce County Superior Court, asking for back moorage fees and penalties. Rodrigues has no way of paying.

Rodrigues isn’t giving up.

I’m going to win. I have no doubt,” he told the News Tribune.

“Give me a home for the Kalakala and I’ll show you the money,” he said. “It would be a success anywhere.”