On a cool and misty morning Friday on the Thea Foss Waterway, Henry Wong — with tape measure and boat plans in hand — methodically walked from stern to bow aboard the El Primero, a 120-foot luxury yacht that has been a fixture on Tacoma’s waterfront for more than half a century.
Wong and his agency, Houston-based American Bureau of Shipping, were hired to determine the size of the white-hulled boat, which was tied to a dock near the Foss Waterway Museum.
Wong was in town to help get the 121-year-old maritime relic permanently moored in one of the city’s docks as a working and floating museum. A local group led by Richard Hildahl and Stan Selden is trying to make the idea a reality.
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 declared, the swirling breeze on the Thea Foss ruffling his silver hair. “It belongs here.”
To support the effort to preserve their great-grandfather’s vessel and its colorful history, members of the Perkins clan traveled to Tacoma on Tuesday. They giddily boarded the old boat, smiling broadly and taking photos.
The pleasure cruise took them through the Tacoma Narrows and all the way to the southern tip of the Key Peninsula — a favorite destination of the late Sidney Albert “Sam” Perkins, a prominent local booster and newspaper publisher.
“It’s a beautiful old ship,” said Andrew Brown, a banker from New York and great-grandson of Perkins. “It’s a classic, and I’m glad people in Tacoma are taking an interest in it.”
This was Brown’s first cruise on the El Primero, but he said he had a picture of the boat in his room as a child.
Hildahl’s group wants to get the El Primero a classification that would allow them to use the yacht to ferry passengers around the Puget Sound on charters or for dockside parties that could help offset the cost to restore and maintain the vessel.
“Part of my vision is to see it become a floating museum,” Hildahl said. “We are trying to get (the boat ready) in time for the U.S. Open in 2015.”
Because of the extensive work done to the yacht in Canada, a provision in the federal Jones Act — also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 — requires the vessel to go through a readmission process. It can obtain a “U.S. built” designation after a successful U.S. Coast Guard inspection.
“What’s going on up there is part of the process,” Selden said last week, pointing to Wong, who was busily taking measurements of the boat. The exact tonnage must be established before the Coast Guard can give the historic yacht a classification and bring it a step closer to readmission as a U.S. vessel.
The cost of getting the El Primero readmitted is being funded by donations through a partnership with the Tacoma Historical Society, Hildahl said.
“At the moment, we do not have any information posted about the El Primero project,” said Dale Wirsing, vice president of the historical society’s board of directors. “That will change soon.”
Local historian Ron Magden said the boat would be an “easy sell for a small museum grant.”
“It’s a dinosaur come back to life,” he said. “I haven’t heard about it for years.”
“You came aboard to be with presidents,” Magden said, underlining the boat’s historical relevance. “(William Howard) Taft practically lived here,” he added with a chuckle.
The El Primero’s current owner, Christian Lint, a Bremerton tugboat captain, is working in Alaskan waters and couldn’t be reached for comment about the plans of Hildahl’s group.
Lint is “just a working stiff” who loves old boats, Hildahl said.
“He is onboard if we get all the stuff done,” Selden said.
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. It had been languishing in dry storage under a tarp in a Blaine boatyard when Lint picked it up.
Something about the old boat spoke to Lint.
“They all have stories to tell,” Hildahl said.
Lint wants to make sure the boat has a good home and is properly taken care of, Hildahl said.
“And that is what Stan and I are about — that all the conditions are right,” Hildahl said.
Why focus on the El Primero?
“History,” Selden said. “I’m a history nut. The boat was here for 50 years, you know.”
Hildahl’s passion for the steel-hulled vessel was sparked when he discovered — while researching the maritime history of Longbranch — 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 he didn’t even know about the boat’s Tacoma history,” Hildahl recalled. “So I introduced him to that.”
The El Primero’s illustrious career began in 1893 in San Francisco. One of the first steam-powered yachts built at the time, the vessel was commissioned for Edward W. Hopkins, an avid boater and heir to the Hopkins fortune.
Hopkins sold the boat to Chester Thorne of Tacoma in 1906, and thus started the yacht’s extended stay on Puget Sound.
Local lore has the El Primero changing owners again shortly after it arrived in Tacoma — this time as a wager in a game of poker. The card game was played on the stern deck of Thorne’s sleek vessel. Magden said aces and eights was the hand that won Perkins the boat.
This nugget of trivia fanned the flames of Hildahl’s curiosity. He asked Lint about it. In fact, he asks anyone with knowledge of the boat’s history. His love for its mythology is greater than for the boat itself.
Hildahl’s persistent communication with Lint garnered a fortuitous connection: Cathy Langston, one of Perkins’ great-grandchildren, who had become interested in her great-grandfather’s old yacht and found Lint.
“Cathy wanted to see the boat,” Hildahl said.
When Langston met with Hildahl she had the bill of sale for the El Primero. It shows the vessel changed ownership for $1 on Nov. 20, 1911.
Hildahl was ecstatic to finally confirm the deal that brought the El Primero to Tacoma.
Now he just has to find a way to keep it here.
El Primero history
Length: 120 feet.
Beam: 18 feet.
Built in 1893: For Edward W. Hopkins of San Francisco as one of the first steam-powered vessels in the United States.
1906: Bought by Chester Thorne, who brought it to Tacoma.
1911: Thorne lost the boat to Sidney Albert “Sam” Perkins in a poker game.
David Montesino: 253-597-8265