Bart Lematta proudly stands in the engine room of his ferry, the Evergreen State, a former longtime state workhorse that he purchased at auction in 2020 for $290,000. “I can picture all the work that’s gone into it and all the hands that have been part of building it, the artistry and craftsmanship,” he said. “It’s a beautiful piece of artwork.” (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Bart Lematta proudly stands in the engine room of his ferry, the Evergreen State, a former longtime state workhorse that he purchased at auction in 2020 for $290,000. “I can picture all the work that’s gone into it and all the hands that have been part of building it, the artistry and craftsmanship,” he said. “It’s a beautiful piece of artwork.” (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

He’s the guy who bought a boat — a big old $290,000 state ferry

Bart Lematta has plans for the retired Evergreen State ferry, docked in Langley since October.

LANGLEY — Bart Lematta is living a ferry tale.

What’s up with that?

He’s the guy who bought a boat. Not just any boat. A 310-foot decommissioned state ferry, the Evergreen State.

“It’s a massive windup toy, to use a bad analogy,” said Lematta, a former helicopter pilot and Oregon coast toy shop owner.

The green-and-white ferry has been moored at a private dock in Langley since October, stirring up curiosity about why it’s sitting there, especially with the long waits on the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry route these days.

Lematta paid $290,000 as-is at auction in 2020 for the workhorse that was operated by Washington State Ferries from 1954 to 2015 and was then the system’s longest-serving vessel.

The days of hauling cars and commuters are over for this rig. Both the boat and its owner are getting major career changes.

Lematta, 54, has made renovating Evergreen State his full-time job, with a crew composed of an electrician, welder and a retired ferry engineer.

“This is some prime floating real estate,” Lematta said. “It’s just shy of a half-acre of floating land.”

For $290,000, he could have bought a pretty sweet 30-foot yacht and not had to worry about finding a place to park it.

“Where’s the fun in that?” Lematta said.

The ferry came with about 20,000 gallons of old diesel fuel in its belly, which raised some concerns. In October, the boat was tugged from the Port of Olympia to Whidbey Island. The plan is to dry dock the thing in Everett by summer to examine it from bottom to top.

Bart Lematta’s ferry, the Evergreen State, has been docked in Langley since October. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Bart Lematta’s ferry, the Evergreen State, has been docked in Langley since October. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Lematta wants to convert the vessel to be fully electric, with diesel motors as a backup in a pinch. He said batteries, along with a cooling system, will fill two 20-foot shipping containers housed on the car deck, in addition to 3,000 solar panels.

“The solar panels can be floated around the boat,” he said. “The boat can be kind of a hub.”

Renewable energy is a priority for the vessel and in his life.

He bunks on the boat weekdays, and on weekends he drives his Tesla to his solar-powered home in Vancouver, Washington, to see his wife and 14-year-old twin daughters.

“It’s literally a vessel for change,” he writes on his website, joinevergreennow.com. “The project tethers together a coalition of causes and organizations to transform the historic 1950s-era vessel.”

Bart Lematta sits inside the decommissioned Evergreen State ferry he bought at auction in 2020 for $290,000 and discusses the intricacies of how the vessel works. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Bart Lematta sits inside the decommissioned Evergreen State ferry he bought at auction in 2020 for $290,000 and discusses the intricacies of how the vessel works. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

The Evergreen State has a colorful past. Electric drive motors were pulled from a World War II-era Navy destroyer escort for use in the boat, which was refurbished in 1988.

“When it started it was the pride of the fleet,” said Ian Sterling, Washington State Ferries spokesperson. “It served the state several times. It would get retired and they’d need it and haul it out of the mothballs.”

The aging boat was a pain to repair. A sister ship, the Tillikum, built in 1959, is the last in this ferry class in service and serves the San Juan Islands.

The Evergreen State was on the auction block three times.

The ferry first sold for $300,000 in March 2017 to a Florida man who renamed it “The Dream,” with plans for it to be an event venue in the Caribbean Sea. The boat was moored in Olympia in preparation for its move to Florida when its owner failed to make the dock payments.

Bart Lematta discusses the potential of his ferry, which has about a half-acre of floor space. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Bart Lematta discusses the potential of his ferry, which has about a half-acre of floor space. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

It was listed on eBay in January 2020 and after many bids sold for $205,100 to a buyer hoping to convert it into an art studio. A screaming deal, but it fell through.

The boat went to auction again in November 2020, for the third time. Lematta heard about the auction that morning. He won within five minutes of bidding.

“I got it and here I am,” Lematta said.

He isn’t the only “guy who just bought a boat,” to steal from what was a recurring joke on “Saturday Night Live.”

Life imitated art in January when “SNL” actors Pete Davidson and Colin Jost purchased a former Staten Island ferry, the 300-foot John F. Kennedy, for $280,100.

“We bought a ferry, the windowless van of the sea,” Davidson said on a recent show.

“Yes, it’s very exciting. We thought the whole thing through,” Jost added, joking.

Most people can’t just wake up one morning and decide to buy a ferry.

Instruments in the wheelhouse of the Evergreen State, operated by Washington State Ferries from 1954 to 2015. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Instruments in the wheelhouse of the Evergreen State, operated by Washington State Ferries from 1954 to 2015. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Lematta had the vision and the means.

He got lucky with Beanie Babies when he had the toy shop and bought Tesla stock at the right time.

“Heavy investment with Tesla got me more into the batteries and technologies,” he said.

He was a commercial pilot for Columbia Helicopter, started by his parents, well known philanthropists in Oregon. After the company was sold, he invested in Tesla.

“I have my fingers crossed that I bought this boat at the right time,” he said. “This is the right time to put the batteries aboard this boat.”

Lematta gave The Daily Herald a tour of the watercraft, which has a capacity for 87 vehicles and 981 passengers.

The high-ceiling car decks could hold over 1,000 people at a concert or be a virtual reality platform or walled into lodging, he said.

“You can have 15 condos down one side here and 15 condos on the other side, and two or three larger condos at one end and maybe a whole greenhouse at the other end, and if you timeshare this and give everyone a week of time on the boat per year and sold those for $20,000 — and do a weeklong trip,” he said.

“That’s one idea. There are so many things you can do with this.”

The passenger deck could be floating office space, he said.

Bart Lematta boards his ferry, the Evergreen State. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Bart Lematta boards his ferry, the Evergreen State. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

For now, some booth tables are computer desks with panoramic views of the water and ever-changing skies. It looks hard to get any work done.

On the top deck, he said, a Chinook helicopter could be parked, if so inclined, on the two pilot houses. Staterooms sleep a total of 16, mostly in bunk beds.

Lematta said he was “giddy” the first time he walked into the main engine room.

“I can picture all the work that’s gone into it and all the hands that have been part of building it, the artistry and craftsmanship,” he said. “It’s a beautiful piece of artwork.”

Though “The Dream” seems an apt name, Lematta plans to retain Evergreen State and the state color scheme.

“I like that forest green look,” he said. “I might add a touch of some other color. Nothing fancy.”

He doesn’t have a target date to get it operational.

“Like Walt Disney said, ‘Disneyland will never be done,’” he said.

On the commute between his Vancouver home and his ferry, Lematta has to take a working one.

At times he has had to wait two to three hours at the Mukilteo-Clinton terminal.

“The irony,” he said.

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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