With tape measure and boat schematic in hand, Henry Wong methodically walked from stern to bow aboard the El Primero, the steel-hulled luxury yacht that had been a fixture on Tacoma’s waterfront for over half a century.
It was a cold misty Friday morning on the Thea Foss Waterway, a perfect June day in the Pacific Northwest. Wong and his agency, American Bureau of Shipping based in Houston, Tex., had been hired to determine the size of the long narrow boat with the white hull tied to a dock by the Foss Waterway Museum.
Getting the 121-year-old maritime relic permantly moored in one of the city’s docks as a working and floating museum is why Wong was in town. A group led by Richard Hildahl and Stan Selden is driving the effort. Hildahl is a retired analyst for Ernst & Young, a specialist in energy and transportation. Selden is a local businessman and champion of Tacoma’s waterways.
“This (boat) reeks of Tacoma history,” Selden declares, the swirling breeze on the Thea Foss ruffling his silver hair. “It belongs here.”
Since the yacht had extensive work done on it in Canada, a provision in the Jones Act — also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 — requires the vessel go through a re-admission process. The vessel can obtain a “U.S. built” designation after a U.S. Coast Guard inspection.
“What’s going on up there is part of the process,” Selden said, pointing to Wong who was busily taking measurements of the boat. The exact tonnage has to be established before the Coast Guard can give the historic yacht a classification, and bringing it a step closer to re-admission as a U.S. vessel.
“They have paper on board that says it is legally here in the U.S.,” he said.
The cost of getting the El Primero re-admitted to the U.S. is paid for by donations through the group’s partnership with the Tacoma Historical Society, according to Hildahl.
What the group really wants is to get the El Primero a classification that would allow the yacht to ferry passengers around the Puget Sound on charters or for dockside parties that can help offset the cost to restore and maintain the historic vessel.
“That’s the dream,” Selden said.
So what does Christian Lint, a tugboat captain and the current owner of the El Primero, think about all this?
“He loves old boats,” Selden said. “He is on board if we get all the stuff done.”
According to Hildahl, Lint’s penchant for old boats often has him chasing rusted hunks in boatyards, fixing them, and putting them back in the water. The El Primero was no exception.
“He wants to make sure that the boat has a good home and it’s taken care of,” said Hildahl. “And that is what Stan and I are about — that all the conditions are right.”
But why the El Primero?
“History,” Selden said. “I’m a history nut. The boat was here for fifty years, you know.”
Hildahl’s passion for the 120-foot steel hulled vessel was sparked when he discovered — while researching the maritime history of Longbranch, Wash. — that the El Primero was a regular visitor to Filucy Bay, the body of water that dominates the view from his home.
“This is a treasure,” Hildahl said. “When I first started I thought the boat no longer existed.”
Hildahl’s treasure hunt began in a musty room at the Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room almost four years ago. Then a telephone call to a friend of a friend led him to Lint.
“When I first met Christian (Lint), he didn’t even know about the boat’s Tacoma history,” Hildahl recalls. “So I introduced him to that.”
Hildahl said the El Primero had been languishing in dry storage under tarp in a Blaine, Wash., boatyard when Lint picked her up. There was something about the old boat that spoke to Lint.
“They all have stories to tell,” Hildahl said.
The El Primero’s illustrious career began in San Francisco in 1893, one of the first steam powered yachts built at the time. The vessel was commissioned for Edward W. Hopkins, an avid boater and member of the San Francisco and Pacific Yacht clubs. Hopkins sold the boat to Chester Thorne of Tacoma, in 1906, and thus started the luxury yacht’s extended stay on the Puget Sound.
Shortly after arriving in Tacoma, local lore has the El Primero changing hands once more. Except this time as a wager in a game of chance. Depending on who you ask, Thorne handed over the elegant vessel to Sidney Albert “Sam” Perkins, a prominent local booster and newspaper publisher, in a game of craps or poker for one dollar.
This nugget of trivia fanned the flames of Hildahl’s curiosity. He asked Lint about it. In fact, he asked anyone who might have any knowledge of the boat’s history about the poker game.
Hildahl’s persistent communication with Lint garnered a fortuitous connection: Cathy Langston, one of Perkins’ grandchildren, had found Lint, asking about her grandfather’s old yacht.
“Cathy wanted to see the boat,” Hildahl said. “Christian (Lint) tells me she is coming with documents.”
In Langston’s possession when Hildahl met with her was the Bill of Sale for the El Primero. It shows the vessel changed ownership for $1 on Nov. 20, 1911. Hildahl was ecstatic. He had his boat. He just has to find a way to bring the old lady back to Tacoma.
“Part of my vision is to see (the El Primero) become a floating museum,” Hildahl said. “We are trying to get (the boat ready) in time for the U.S. Open in 2015.”