Old Ferries Never Die
By Holly Hughes
November 5, 1986, The Weekly
For people who lived in the San Juan Islands, the Vashon was more than a link with the rest of the world; she was part of the family. If the history of Puget Sound is woven of sky and water, then she was the needle, stitching an endless pattern of comings and goings, each deep-throated whistle announcing another arrival, another departure. Babies were trundled home aboard her, grew up, and left on her as life in the islands went on its steady course. She seemed part of a life, timeless as salmon.
Micki Ryan Clemens was married in the Vashon‘s wheelhouse on a regular run up Wasp Pass in 1980. “We loved her,” Micki says. “She was a part of the major events in all the islanders’ lives. There was an intimacy about her, a feeling you got when you heard her whistle,” she continues. “When you are making the journey from the mainland to the islands, there is something so special about being separated like that. You are separated from everything but the Vashon. But when you were on the Vashon, you were home.”
When the Vashon slid down the ways at the Lake Washington Shipyard on May 10, 1930, she was the largest ferryboat of her class in Puget Sound. She was built for the Kitsap County Transportation Company under orders from Captain John L. Anderson, a Swede with a pioneering spirit who had a reputation for never resting on his oars. He built a ferryboat every winter and hand-picked the fir that shaped her sleek hull. Constructed at a cost of $250,000, these 200-foot double-ended ferryboats were precursors of the super-ferries, built to carry 90 automobiles and 1,500 passengers. With her Washington Iron Works diesel engines, she was wholly a product of Puget Sound.
In 198O, 50 years after her launching and two days before Christmas, the Vashon pulled into the ferry landing at Eagle Harbor for the last time. Captain Russell Cofer rang down to the engineer, “finished with the engines,” and the Vashon‘s days as a ferryboat were over. She was the last wood-hulled ferryboat retired from service with the Washington State ferries. One chapter was closed, but another had begun: the Vashon‘s melancholy search for a home. Old ferryboats never die. The Vashon now lies on her side in the mud in a cove in Southeast Alaska, the sea washing in and out of her with each tide, her elegant lines slowly sagging.
The Vashon blew onto the beach during a storm in early June. According to her owner, she had three anchors down and was facing into the prevailing winds. A williwaw caught her broadside, however, and her superstructure acted like a sail, driving her onto the beach. She was anchored in Johnson Cove, 30 miles southwest of Ketchikan, on the threshold of a new career as a floating lodge for sport fishermen.
Her owner, Ray Armitstead, is a retired Merchant Marine master. He is a solid man with a crew cut, a tattoo on his right forearm, and a soft spot in his heart for old wooden ships. These days, he is a dispirited man. Working with a salvage company in Ketchikan, Armitstead has tried repeatedly to float the Vashon. Whether or not the Vashon will be salvaged now depends on Armitstead’s insurance company and the state of Alaska, for Armitstead is out of money.
How the Vashon ended up like a beached whale in Alaska is a story that really began in 1980 when she was retired by the Washington State ferry system. She may have been nicknamed “Old Reliable,” but compared to the new breed of superferries, she was small and slow and needed constant maintenance to keep ahead of the insidious dry-rot that plagues all wooden boats. In October of 1981, she was sold to Errol Cowan of the Doe Bay Ferry Association, who intended to use the Vashon as a historic tour boat in the San Juan Islands. His plans never materialized, however, and the Vashon rocked gently on the Seattle waterfront for four years, facing an uncertain future.
When Ray Armitstead bought the Vashon in 1985 for $26,000, she had literally sunk at the dock. The buoyancy of the massive amount of wood in her hull kept her afloat, but water was surging through her engine room. Armitstead dried her out, got her engines running, and replaced the roof. He then added 40 bunks, planning to put her back to work as a floating hostel on the Seattle waterfront.
On May 10, 1985, exactly 55 years after the Vashon was launched, champagne flowed over her bow again in celebration of her new career. Instead, the celebration was just the beginning of more complications for the $12-a-night hostel venture. As the months passed, it became apparent that there was no room on the waterfront for the Vashon. Moorage is tight on the Seattle waterfront, especially for a 200-foot vessel. Armitstead first applied to the city parks department for a permit to moor the Vashon at Pier 64 as part of the maritime history exhibit. He was turned down because the Vashon was “too big and would dwarf the other craft.” He applied, again to the parks department, for permission to moor the Vashon off Gas Works Park.
Again, he was turned down “because the ferry would block the view from the park.” He moored her off the Sea Crest Marina in West Seattle, but was asked by the parks department to leave after three weeks. According to Bud Girtch, director of operations for Seattle Parks and Recreation, Armitstead’s choice of location for the Vashon was “inappropriate” because it “impeded water traffic and interfered with the use and plans called for by other activities.” The parks department’s response, said Girtch, was to suggest that a request for proposals be put out. “It’s against the law for any of us to make an arrangement with him or with any other private individual.”
Next, Armitstead tried the Port of Seattle. Moorage was available, but with a catch: the Vashon could not operate commercially because of the liability risks. Because yearly maintenance on a wooden vessel requires a steady infusion of cash, Armitstead figured the Vashon had a better chance for survival if she could keep working. If the moorage problem could be overcome, Armitstead was sure the hostel would be a viable business for the Vashon. “With permanent moorage and a good hostel business, the summer trade could keep her going well into the next century,” he hoped.
Armitstead finally found moorage for the Vashon at Pier 70, a privately owned dock. But even then, it wasn’t clear sailing. A city ordinance barring the establishment of a new hotel on the waterfront so the Vashon had to maintain “visiting vessel” status in order to do business; that meant she had to leave three times a month. That was fine, Armitstead said, her engines ran well, no problem.
In June, Armitstead moved the Vashon to Port Townsend because the dock at Pier 70 needed repair. Armitstead says the harbormaster had invited the Vashon to tie up at the old ferry dock for the summer. When she arrived, his plan to use her as a hostel was greeted less than enthusiastically by the local motels and bed-and-breakfast establishments. She operated as a hostel the rest of the summer, but when Armitstead inquired about returning, the response was no. The Vashon returned to Seattle at the end of the summer, but Pier 70 had changed hands and the new owner didn’t want a 200-foot ferry tied up to his dock. The homeless Vashon spent the winter of 1985 moving from dock to dock while Armitstead investigated moorage in every waterway in Lake Union and Lake Washington. Finally, he gave up. “The problem with moorage for big boats is that no one wants it in their front yard,” he said. “They say that’s a nice thing, but not in my front yard.”
By spring, Armitstead was desperate and he began to consider taking the Vashon to Alaska and using her as a floating sport fishing lodge. When he couldn’t find moorage in Puget Sound, he says he had no choice but to leave.
In May, the Vashon took on diesel, loaded up with food stores and linens, slipped her lines, and left Seattle in her wake, perhaps for the last time. The old ferry was traveling under her own power and Armitstead sat back and enjoyed the trip, all the while thinking that if he could somehow find moorage in Seattle, he would bring her right back down. On June 7, when the Vashon blew aground, his options were narrowed drastically, and the fight changed from one for moorage to one for plain survival.
Armitstead is now back in Seattle to talk to his insurance company, admittedly bitter about the treatment the Vashon received in Seattle. Nonetheless, he says he can sympathize with the city’s predicament. He knows the city has been soured by having to deal with several old wooden vessels which sank or became derelict. He understands the difficulty the city faces in operating a commercial venture in these days of rampant lawsuits. “Everyone wanted more liability insurance than I could possibly get for the vessel. Even Lloyd’s of London turned us down,” he says. “In the end, I was left with a vessel I couldn’t insure,” Armitstead finally offered to give the Vashon to the state so she could be covered under their umbrella insurance policy. The reaction? “They weren’t interested,” he says. “I don’t know; I guess they are looking for millionaires. The trouble is,” he adds reflectively, “the Vashon has never had an angel.”
The Vashon may not have had an angel, but at least Armitstead wasn’t fighting the battle all alone. David Black, who used to pack his lunch and ride to school from Bainbridge Island on the Vashon, was one ally. When the state announced its plan to surplus the Vashon, Black and a small group of like-minded folks formed the Vashon Foundation, hoping to acquire or at least be involved in preserving the vessel. A seriously committed group of individuals, they nonetheless weren’t able to raise any money to assist the Vashon, though they were responsible for placing the Vashon on the National and State Historic Registers in 1982. Since Armitstead bought the Vashon, the Vashon Foundation has been, in Black’s words, “waiting in the wings to see if we could act in a supportive role.” They tried to assist in finding moorage, but came up blank as well.
The obstacles which the Vashon encountered are the same obstacles which every historical wooden ship encounters: a bureaucracy that balks at what doesn’t fit the rules. As Black sees it: “The problem with using the Vashon as a hostel was that she was neither fish nor fowl. The Coast Guard considered her a moving ship. The city thought if she didn’t move three times a month, she was a permanent structure. In the end, she got all tangled up in the bureaucracy!”
Mary Kline, a Northwest author and past director of Northwest Seaport, a nonprofit organization formed to preserve historic ships, has been involved in the struggle to preserve the Northwest’s historical vessels for more than ten years. Kline acknowledges that Armitstead’s experience with the city is not unique. It is often difficult for city officials to adapt building codes to the ship, she says. The building inspector goes down there looking for the things he always looks for and they simply aren’t there. “The city has not necessarily opposed historic ships, but it has found it very difficult to know how to cope with them, especially when the ship is owned by a private individual, when there’s not a community behind them.”
The federal agency set up to help preserve historic sites sometimes makes it even more difficult. While the idea behind placing ships on the National Register is to preserve their original character, the condition is made that the exterior cannot be changed, explains Kline. “It becomes a real challenge to adapt the vessel for another use without interfering with the physical exterior of the vessel!”
David Hanson is the State Historical Preservation Officer in Olympia. When the state sold the Vashon in 1981, a provision was written into the sales contract specifying that she had to be maintained in her original shape and if not, would revert to the state. According to Hanson, it has been difficult to know how to handle this condition. “For one thing, we have found it very difficult to keep track of the Vashon,” he says. “The owners are interested in the vessel, not in the terms of the contract. According to this clause, if a vessel is allowed to deteriorate, it is supposed to come back to the state. But if it does, why would the state want derelict property?” asks Hanson. “How much can we do? We don’t have any money to put into the vessel.” It’s another catch-22.
Still another surprising hitch lies in the fact that the investment tax credits available to renovators of historic buildings do not apply to boats. According to the legislation, if you are restoring a structure to its original use, you can receive up to a 25 percent tax credit, depending on the cost of the rehabilitation. The legislation had originally specified only that the investment tax credits applied to structures. In the last ten years, the issue of preserving ships has come up repeatedly and the government had to decide how to interpret the language in the provision. They decided that “a structure is a structure and a boat is an object.” According to one woman who works in historical preservation, the reasoning goes like this: “a building can be a structure but a boat can’t be a building.”
Preservationists are trying to change these absurd laws, but meanwhile, as the Vashon lies on the beach, the tide may be slowly going out for some of the Northwest’s other historic ships. Take the Virginia V, the steam-powered ferry that is the last surviving member of the mosquito fleet. From the outside, she looks good: she has moorage, she is working as a historic tour boat, and she has a strong foundation supporting her. But for Michael Boston, executive director of the Virginia V Foundation, even her future is tenuous. “She looks good and she’s operating, but she’s not exactly a success story,” he says. She does have moorage for the summer through the owner of Trident Imports, but Boston has to scramble to find moorage in Lake Union each winter. “I start looking in April for the following winter,” he says. With winter moorage at $1,000/month and insurance a whopping $35,000 a year, there’s not much left over for maintenance.
Northwest Seaport is a nonprofit organization originally formed in 1964 to save the 165-foot lumber/codfish schooner Wawona. The Wawona was purchased and saved for the time-being – partly through a loan from Ivar Haglund that later became a gift. Since then, the organization has acquired the 235-foot ferry San Mateo, the tug Arthur Foss and the iron-hulled Lightship #83 Relief.
The history of Northwest Seaport is laced with the same thread of frustration the Vashon encountered: the difficulty finding permanent moorage. At one time, all Northwest Seaport’s vessels were moored in Kirkland, explains executive director Kay Bullitt. In 1979, the Wawona was moved back to Lake Union to begin restoration. Northwest Seaport had obtained a federal grant from the Maritime Heritage Task Force to fund the restoration, but when they put her in dry dock, they discovered that their original estimate of $380,000 was off by a few million dollars. “It turned out that the lowest estimate was $2 million,” says Bullitt. Because the grant stipulated that the vessel be completely renovated, they were forced to forego the funds.
Meanwhile, Northwest Seaport acquired the California-built San Mateo from Historic Seattle, a city agency which had acquired her from the state. In 1978, the San Mateo was “temporarily” moored at the Naval Reserve Dock in Lake Union. She has been there ever since, much to the chagrin of the Naval Reserve and city officials. No doubt the city’s experience with the San Mateo has colored their reaction to the plight of the Vashon. As Bud Girtch wryly put it, “Our experience has been that temporary moorage becomes permanent.” In the San Mateo‘s case, moving from dock to dock is not possible, because her steam engines have been removed.
About that time, Northwest Seaport was realizing that the only way the vessels could be renovated was if they were all together in one place where volunteers could work almost daily. They hired a consulting firm to find an appropriate location for the historic ships and the firm selected the south end of Lake Union because of its visibility, access, and fresh water, which destroys wood-boring worms. “It looked good” remembers Kay Bullitt. “At that time, it even looked as though the Navy Reserve would be deactivated shortly.” It didn’t happen, though, and six more years passed. In the meantime, Northwest Seaport chose to maintain a “low profile,” keeping the vessels open to the public but performing little restoration. Both the Wawona and the San Mateo continued to deteriorate for lack of funds, but ultimately, for lack of secure moorage. “We’ve never asked the city for money,” repeats Bullitt. “We feel that the vessels could be restored by volunteers if they had a permanent location.”
The issue of what to do with the south end of Lake Union has long confounded the city, though primarily because of the traffic bottleneck it creates for commuters trying to get to I-5. In late June, the City Council voted to establish a park at the south end of Lake Union. Now it is up to the parks department to come up with proposals and requests for appropriations. Nancy Fox, a policy analyst for the City Council and head of the committee studying the proposed park, says that the resolution specifically asked that the maritime concept be further explored. The parks department is also considering using the park as a location for the Showboat Theater.
As for the San Mateo, “her angel” may be wearing a Ronald McDonald suit. In 1980, McDonald’s approached Northwest Seaport about using a portion of the San Mateo‘s car deck as a restaurant. In return they agreed to finance her restoration. McDonald’s has already paid for a survey and has agreed to help with the permits she needs to return to the Seattle waterfront. Because she will be moored on park property, the parks department has agreed to coordinate the lengthy permit process. In the meantime, the San Mateo will undergo at least $1.5 million worth of renovation and that doesn’t include the restaurant or the planned interpretive center.
Al Elliott is executive director of Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority and is working with the parks department and Northwest Seaport on the San Mateo project. He says the problem is the same as always: do ship rules or building rules apply to historic vessels? “The actual mechanics of getting the permits isn’t impossible; it just requires the tenacity to do it,” he insists. “The hard thing is getting community support and commitment. You need a solid program and lots of vision.”
“You can’t expect the government to take the lead on new endeavors,” Elliott continues. “The government typically follows where there is leadership. Those who want to preserve the vessels have to provide leadership and come in with a feasible plan, not asking for funding. You can’t expect public officials to fight the battle. One person’s dream is another person’s idea of a frivolous waste of money.”
Another actor in this drama is the Center for Wooden Boats, a small craft museum, old-fashioned boat livery, and public education/workshop center which recently moved to the controversial south end of Lake Union. If the proposed maritime focus for the park goes through, the Center for Wooden Boats will be a part of it. Dick Wagner, director of the Center for Wooden” Boats, fought for three years to get permission to use the property. He is still slightly enraged about the battle: “All we wanted was a year-to-year lease on a piece of property the city should have been humiliated to admit to owning,” says Wagner. “Even if we had just offered to clean it up, they should have welcomed us with open arms. I was dealing with people who could only make decisions according to precedent, what was on the books already. It was like beating my head against a stone wall,” says Wagner. “If we followed all the land use ordinances, we’d have a city on the water that looked like Des Moines, Iowa.”
The breakthrough came for Wagner when he realized he could change the law. “Basically, the DNR said you can’t do anything because that’s the law. Finally, we realized we could change the law. We lobbied to allow the waterways to be used by nonprofit organizations for use and benefit to the public.”
For Wagner, all’s well that ends well, but his commitment to preserving maritime craft and history in Puget Sound doesn’t end there. “Ship preservation used to be the responsibility of a few foundations and the federal government. Now the federal funds have dried up and we have to look for new ways of holding onto these boats and this precious part of our past that we all want to keep. This city is schizophrenic. We want to be known for our unique qualities, but we won’t fight to preserve them,” he continues. “Everything this city now prides itself – on the Pike Place Market, the houseboats, Pioneer Square – they were each saved through the efforts of one man fighting the forces that be. When the fight is over, then we embrace them. For once, let’s make it a little easier to save those qualities in Seattle that we all love to brag about. I think the Vashon should be a signal to all of us of what we are in danger of losing. This big maritime city has to have a refuge for maritime craft who can’t find moorage anywhere else.”
Meanwhile, the tide floods and ebbs against the smooth wooden hull of the Vashon. Ray Armitstead still talks of making one last attempt to save her. If the state of Alaska will write a letter to his insurance company requesting that she be removed to prevent further oil pollution, then there is a chance that Armitstead’s efforts to float her will be covered by his oil pollution insurance. Otherwise, it could be the end of the line for the Vashon.
Postscript: In late August, Ray Armitstead’s options ran out. On September 1, he sold the Vashon for a dollar to a young woman named Jan Hoogstra who has agreed to act as a caretaker so the old ferry will not be stripped. “It’s like a passing in the family,” said Armitstead sadly. “It would take a millionaire and a miracle to save her now.”