Why is it so hard to save our maritime heritage?


1935 ferry Kalakala in Tacoma. Photo by Joe Follansbee.

The news I dreaded for years arrived this week. The 1935 Kalakala, the only art-deco ferry ever built, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is headed for the breakers. Its death was slow, painful, and probably inevitable. It’s passing should not be a surprise. I listed it as endangered in 2011 and 2012 on my old Fyddeye website. The ferry is one of a handful of decaying large historic vessels, which include USS Olympia and SS United States, both in Philadelphia. Our national patrimony is rusting away.

For a generation in Seattle, Kalakala’s sleek design and quirky behavior stood for a city of chance-takers and idea-evangelists long before the Space Needle was built in 1963. I got to know her after the sculptor Peter Bevis rescued her from oblivion on tide flats in Kodiak, Alaska in 1998. That was the beginning of her end. I was at the auction when the 276-foot “silver slug” was taken away from Bevis in 2003. The new owner, Steve Rodrigues, had big dreams, but no money and even less political savvy. He blames her final disposal on a “conspiracy” among the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, the State of Washington, and the cities of Tacoma, Seattle and Kodiak. The facts are simpler: He neglected to pay her bills, and ownership fell to Karl Anderson, a Tacoma businessman. He’s had enough of her; she’ll be shards of metal by the end of this month. Continue reading

Restoration Work on Lightship Swiftsure

Lightship Swiftsure

The lightship Swiftsure is undergoing restoration and hazardous materials abatement in Seattle.

Northwest Seaport Maritime Heritage Center in Seattle is in the midst of building a new and historically accurate upper deck on the lightship Swiftsure, which is a National Historic Landmark. Nautical archaeologists have generate blueprints by documenting existing structures on the lightship’s upper deck. They have spent hours removing artifacts, such as the ship’s wheel, deckhouse windows, and the ship’s bell.

The vessel, designated Lightship No. 83 or “LV-83” when it was in service, is currently at the Lake Union Shipyard in Seattle, where it will undergo a survey. Rotted deck wood and the deckhouses will also be removed. “The shipyard will conduct hazardous materials abatement and cleaning of the steel deck framing,” says Shannon Fitzgerald, Northwest Seaport board president.

Launched in 1904, the lightship is is need of significant restoration, says Nathaniel Howe, Northwest Seaport vessel manager. “When the ship returns to the Historic Ships Wharf [at Seattle’s Lake Union Park], the deck rebuild project will be on display for the public to observe as shipwrights and their apprentices lay, fasten, and caulk the new wooden deck.”

The Swiftsure shipyard project is one of Northwest Seaport’s top priorities. The organization also owns the 1889 tug Arthur Foss.

Historic Hawaii Boat Broken Up

Kula KaiPreservationists in Hawaii have lost a battle to save Kula Kai, the last wooden fishing sampan in the state. The 80-foot vessel, launched in 1949, was a locally designed and constructed fishing vessel that was the backbone of the state’s aku fishing fleet. Sampans caught tuna for canneries and fresh fish for local consumption. The design is one of only two indigenous to the state. (The other is a canoe design.)

“Sampan fishermen were also a distinctive breed,” according to a 2011 report. “Builders, crew and captains were a highly respected part of our local community.”

An effort in 2006 to refurbish Kula Kai for commercial use failed, and in 2011, the U.S. Coast Guard rescinded its certification, which meant owners could not operate the ship. Plans were proposed to preserve the vessel at Kewalo Basin Harbor in Honolulu, and it was drydocked last year. Instead of repairing the vessel, the owners decided to break it up at the end of 2012. It’s unclear if any artifacts were saved.

Kula Kai was listed in 2011 as one of my 10 Most Endangered Historic Ships in 2011.

Navy Inspection of USS Wisconsin

USS Wisconsin

A US Navy inspection found a number of ‘manageable’ problems in USS Wisconsin.

Norfolk, Va. — An inspection by volunteers from the U.S. Navy’s Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV) found a number of “manageable surprises” during a recent visit to the USS Wisconsin, a World War II-era battleship under the care of the Nauticus museum.

“The best thing about the results was there were no big surprises, but there were some manageable surprises,” said Capt. Mark Metzger, INSURV director of craft and auxiliary force inspections. “The focus on a few discrete issues that we absolutely need to address will help us in preparing to open more of the ship. The berthing compartments are not ready yet. Rack lamps need attention, both for lighting and for safety. Sharp edges need to be smoothed. Loose racks and lockers need to be secured.”

John Elliker, Battleship Wisconsin project manager, said the city of Norfolk initially contacted INSURV to ask them about surveying the ship. The conversation progressed into the INSURV team volunteering their off-time to conduct an inspection to assist the museum in developing a plan to open more of the ship and identify potential hazards that could impact visitor’s health and safety.

“What we want is for your grandkid’s grandkids to enjoy this ship in a meaningful way, and we can’t do that if we’re constantly battling rust and deterioration. This is the beginning of a unique partnership between the active duty Navy and the city of Norfolk for the preservation of the battleship,” Elliker said.

The INSURV volunteers conducted the inspection January 25. The battleship received its last official INSURV inspection in 1992, before becoming a floating museum on the James River.

Metzger said INSURV will likely visit again. “This is a huge ship. There are still areas that haven’t been accessed for years and are without power, lighting or active ventilation,” he said. “So we’re excited about making this a long-term partnership.”

Source: Nauticus Museum