Kalakala owner has a vision for old ferries

OLYMPIA — The owner of the star-crossed Kalakala wants to add four more mothballed ferries to his fleet.

Steve Rodrigues wants to meet privately with Washington Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond before divulging too many details about his vision to buy the state’s Steel Electric-class ferries.

“They want to know my plan. They want to see my plan. We’re not going to give them proprietary information,” he said this week.

Rodrigues did share that he’d like to outfit the boats with new hulls and deploy them as ferries powered by wind and solar technologies.

“We have a new ferry design that the state of Washington does not have,” he said.

Another option is to station them at existing state-owned terminals — he doesn’t say which ones — and converting them into museums.

“They can represent 100 years of our maritime history,” he said. “We are doing the same thing with the Kalakala that we propose to do with the Steel Electrics.”

The Kalakala, with its storied past, isn’t there yet.

First christened the Peralta, it carried its first passengers in 1927 in San Francisco Bay – just like the Steel Electrics.

In 1933, the Black Ball Line bought the Peralta, brought it north and it was re-engineered and renamed the Kalakala. The same ferry line acquired the Steel Electrics. From 1935-67 the Kalakala ferried cars and people between Seattle and Bremerton.

The Kalakala was known for its unique streamlined Art Deco design. For the past 40 years, its restoration into a tourist attraction has been the unfulfilled dream and financial undoing of several owners.

Rodrigues bought the Kalakala in 2003 in a bankruptcy sale. Since then it’s been evicted from moorings in Seattle and Neah Bay and is now parked in waters off Tacoma awaiting a 2010 date in dry dock for work on its hull and superstructure.

It’s going to be a while before state ferry officials decide how to unload any or all of the Steel Electrics, even longer before they consider Rodrigues’ pitch.

“Right now we’re focused on vessel replacement for the Steel Electrics and focused on making sure the rest of our fleet operates safely,” said acting ferries director Steve Reinmuth.

“When time allows we’ll look at the best ways to dispose of the Steel Electrics,” he said.

Rodrigues isn’t the only one pursuing the vessels. Washington Scuba Alliance wants to sink them and turn them into artificial reefs.

Reinmuth said the state will be looking to make as much money as possible in disposing of the 80-year-old vessels that were pulled from service in November because of concerns about their safety.

None would be sold for use in a private venture that is not environmentally sound or conflicts with ferry system operations, Reinmuth said.

Of Rodrigues’ plan, he said: “We’d have to listen carefully. Unless he was willing to pay a whole lot of money to make it work with our system, I don’t see that as a starter.”

Rodrigues is as patient as he is impassioned.

“These Steel Electrics deserve respect for the service they have given the state,” he said. “They deserve to receive a historic landmark designation. They deserve the respect of the people.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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