WYSO

Sinking Ship? Saving The Historic Kalakala Ferry

Jan 5, 2012
Originally published on January 6, 2012 1:21 pm

There's an old joke: The two happiest days in a man's life are the day he buys a boat and the day he sells it.

That's certainly been true for the owners of the Kalakala, a historic art deco ferry that currently resides in Puget Sound. Launched in 1935, the vessel's trials and tribulations have become the stuff of legend in Seattle.

First, it was an icon; a steel-bullet-shaped ship with round portholes that earned itself a mention in the Bing Crosby and Andrews Sisters song "Black Ball Ferry Line." You can still find pictures of it cruising past the Space Needle, looking like it belongs to Buck Rogers.

Steve Rodrigues has spent eight years trying to restore the Kalakala, and calling him an enthusiast would be an understatement.

"It was silver; the sun made her glow in the light," he says. "Nothing exists like the Kalakala in the world. It is art deco. There is nothing that ever followed that ... looked like it again."

But that futuristic beauty has faded. Today, the Kalakala is tied up in an industrial waterway near Tacoma, Wash. Under the leaden winter skies — despite the efforts of Rodrigues and some volunteers — the rust is what most stands out.

"We have kept her afloat," Rodrigues says. "We have worked with the government and made proposals for waterfront moorage for the Kalakala and preserving it to her glory and sharing it with the community. But it failed."

Still, Rodrigues isn't the first to fail. He bought the Kalakala at a bankruptcy auction from the previous group of would-be restorers. For the past decade, the old ferry has been something of a sad joke around Puget Sound, getting evicted from one potential home after another. Some say it's not worth saving; it may have looked cool, but it was hard to maneuver and kept running into things.

Now, the Kalakala has overstayed its welcome in Tacoma. Last year, the Coast Guard set a deadline for Rodrigues to repair the boat's hull and arrange for it to be towed. They've also declared it a "hazard to navigation."

"It has to go," says Coast Guard spokeswoman Regina Caffrey. "If the Kalakala sinks, it would block the entirety of the waterway, and it could impact up to $23 million worth of commerce in one month."

But Rodrigues denies that the Kalakala is a hazard. He gets angry at the very idea, accusing the media of conspiring with the government to smear the ferry's reputation.

Right before the Coast Guard's December 2011 deadline, Rodrigues announced he'd sold the ferry for $1 to an "anonymous billionaire." He insists the mysterious patron has committed to spending the necessary millions for a proper restoration.

Many in Seattle have grown to be skeptical of such Kalakala comeback announcements, but Cheryl DeGroot of Tacoma is still sentimental. DeGroot grew up riding the Kalakala in the '50s, and then, after the ferry's retirement, she stumbled across it again in the '70s in Kodiak, Alaska. It had been towed there to house a fish cannery, and DeGroot got a job onboard shelling shrimp.

"I'm getting some pictures today, because it's so special," she says on a recent visit to the Tacoma dock. "It looks better than I thought it would, actually. Not too bad — it's still floating!"

Despite all the setbacks, the Kalakala does seem to have a tendency to stay afloat.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now, to a true one of a kind in the waters of Puget Sound. The Kalakala is an historic Art Deco ferry. And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle, the vessel's trials and tribulations have become the stuff of legend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK BALL FERRY LINE")

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Launched in 1935, the Kalakala was a Seattle icon. It even rated a mention in a song by Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters. You still see pictures of it: a steel bullet with round portholes, cruising past the Space Needle. A car ferry for Buck Rogers.

STEVE RODRIGUES: So beautiful. It was silver. And the sun made her glow in the light.

KASTE: Steve Rodrigues has spent eight years trying to restore the Kalakala; to call him an enthusiast would be an understatement.

RODRIGUES: Nothing exists like the Kalakala in the world. It is Art Deco. There is nothing that ever followed that anything looked like it again.

KASTE: But that futuristic beauty has faded. Today, the Kalakala is tied up in an industrial waterway near Tacoma, and under the leaden winter skies, what you notice most is the rust, despite the best efforts of Rodrigues and some volunteers.

RODRIGUES: We have kept her afloat. We have worked with the government and made proposals for waterfront moorage for the Kalakala and preserving it to her glory and sharing it with the community. But it failed.

KASTE: And Rodrigues isn't the first to fail. He bought the Kalakala at a bankruptcy auction from the previous group of would-be restorers. For the last decade, the Kalakala has become something of a sad joke around Puget Sound, evicted from one potential home port after another. Some say it's not even worth saving. It looked cool, they say, but it was hard to maneuver, and it kept running into things. Now, it's overstayed its welcome in Tacoma.

LIEUTENANT REGINA CAFFREY: It has to go.

KASTE: Regina Caffrey is a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard, which has just declared the Kalakala a hazard to navigation.

CAFFREY: If the Kalakala sinks, it would block the entirety of the waterway, and it could impact up to $23 million worth of commerce in one month.

KASTE: Rodrigues denies the Kalakala is a hazard. He gets angry, accusing the media of conspiring with the government to smear the ferry's reputation. Right before a Coast Guard deadline last month, he announced that he'd sold the ferry for $1 to an anonymous billionaire. And he insists that the mysterious patron will spend the necessary millions for a proper restoration. Maybe. People in Seattle have learned to be skeptical, but there's still plenty of sentiment left here too.

CHERYL DEGROOT: I'm getting some pictures today because it's so special.

KASTE: Cheryl DeGroot grew up riding the Kalakala in the 1950s. And then after the ferry's retirement, she stumbled across it again in the '70s, in Kodiak, Alaska. It had been towed up there to house a fish cannery. And now, here it is again, near her current home in Tacoma.

DEGROOT: You know, it looks better than I thought it would, actually. It's not too bad. Still floating.

Given all that the Kalakala has been through, that's no small achievement. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK BALL FERRY LINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.