Saturday, September 25, 2004, 12:00 A.M. Pacific

Kalakala ferry heading south to its new home

By Erik Lacitis
Seattle Times staff reporter

The Kalakala ferry, forlorn and unwanted, is on the move again.

Yesterday at 9 a.m., two tugboats started taking it some 128 miles from Neah Bay to an industrial property in the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma.

The 276-foot, silver-painted boat, with a rounded nose that gives it a 1940s spaceship look, is scheduled to arrive at its new destination this afternoon, according to the www.kalakala.org Web site. The owner of the boat, Steve Rodrigues, could not be contacted.

John Veentjer, chief of vessel inspection for the Coast Guard's marine-safety office, said Rodrigues provided the agency with an approved towing plan, proof of insurance and a lease agreement with the owner of the Hylebos property at 1801 Taylor Way.

The state Department of Natural Resources also had demanded that Rodrigues tell them the boat's new location because the state owns aquatic land over which the ferry might have been moored. The state was worried the old ferry might sink.

But the Hylebos Waterway is private property, and "at that point we didn't really care," said Joseph Panesko, an assistant attorney general.

The departure of the Kalakala from Neah Bay came none too soon for the Makah Tribe, which had allowed the ferry to dock there. Previously, the ferry had been moored in Lake Union for five years, and the owners of that property wanted it gone.

The Makahs were sympathetic to the boat's plight and said they were swayed by Rodrigues' promise of nine jobs restoring the rusting ferry. That sounded good to a tribe with an unemployment rate of more than 45 percent.

But the jobs never materialized, and shortly after the Kalakala arrived in March, high winds blew it into the dock, ripping out a piling. The tribe eventually sued Rodrigues, demanding he leave and pay for damage.

Ben Johnson, tribal chairman, said the tribe would still pursue legal action even though the Kalakala is gone, saying dock repairs could reach $20,000 and the tribe's attorney's fees could double that.

It's not clear what Rodrigues' next plans are for the ferry, which had its heyday on Puget Sound from 1935-66 before being abandoned at a Kodiak, Alaska, mudflat after being used as a fish cannery.

He bought the boat for $136,560 last October at a bankruptcy auction, after a previous effort to restore it failed.

Rodrigues has talked about his dream of returning the ferry to its old splendor, when on summer nights it cruised Puget Sound with a live dance orchestra and the lunch counter used china.

His problem has been money. One shipyard estimated repair work would start at $1 million and could reach $25 million.

Yesterday morning, the Makahs watched the old boat disappear.

"It went out into the fog, like a ghost ship," Johnson said. "It's somebody else's headache now."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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