Stalwartship sails on through the years

Published on Thu, Aug 18, 2005 by ack Kintner

Read More News

Stalwart ship sails on through the years

By Jack Kintner

The aging but still graceful iron-hulled luxury yacht El Primero, moored in Blaine for the past few years, is 112 years old this month. Though the paint is peeling and the once proud hand-carved bowsprit is gone, perhaps knocked off by a clumsy skipper trying to maneuver around it, the 131-foot iron hull with the rakish masts and clipper bow is still a thing of beauty.

Well past the century mark, it’s an old boat but when that’s put into perspective by comparing it with other events of 1893, the year proudly emblazoned on its stack, it doesn’t at all look its age. Hawaii was still an independent country when 1893 began, and Thomas Edison was about to open the first movie theater. Rudolph Diesel’s new heat engine – no spark plugs! – was patented that year but a practical working model was still a few years off. Also born in 1893 were Andrés Segovia, Mao Zedong, Jimmy Durante and college basketball, in a Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, contest between Geneva College and the New Brighton YMCA.

It was born a true luxury yacht, launched at the Union Iron Works in San Francisco with ceremonies appropriate for the pride of a gilded age orchestrated by its first owner Edward Hopkins, one of the richest men in California as heir to his uncle Mark’s vast fortune. It carried a paid crew of 10 men for its first 63 years, and has had at least four sitting presidents on board – William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding and Herbert Hoover.

Its hull is made of wrought iron plates flush riveted together with methods repeated almost 20 years later in the ill-fated British liner the Titanic.

Like a canoe it has a very shallow draught for its size, needing only four feet of water at the bow and less than five feet at the stern. The “Clipper” bow and hull, with the trademark concave arch to the bow easily seen in profile (a duplicate of the angle used for millennia in ocean-going native canoes) is a direct descendant of earlier sailing hulls, designed to be easily driven.

In fact, it originally carried stand-by sails in case the 225 horsepower triple expansion steam engine failed. The two masts have a heavy wire antenna rigged between them, set to the long wave length used when the boat was new for ship to shore communications, done not with voice but with a teletype machine the size of a small refrigerator.

There were two guest staterooms aft of the 8 by 12 foot teak and white mahogany paneled dining room, and an owner’s stateroom in the stern that had its own fireplace. It could sleep 22, a dozen plus the crew who lived in the bow. Messages were sent with bells and speaking tubes, and with a full load of fuel, 36 tons of coal, it could go almost 3,000 miles at its hull speed of 13.4 knots, or 15.4 mph.

The boat sold in 1906 to Chester Thorne of Tacoma who brought it north to Puget Sound. Five years later a newspaper publisher named Sam Perkins won the boat in a high stakes crap game, the same year he bought the Bellingham Herald. Forty-four years later Perkins died, and his fleet of newspapers passed on to his heirs as did El Primero.

That year the boat lost her full-time crew and live-aboard captain when it was acquired from the estate by Sy Devening for his fleet of small passenger vessels he operated as Puget Sound Excursion Lines. One of Devening’s boats, the steamer Virginia V, is still in operation out of Seattle. A young Keith Sternberg, now a resident of Lopez Island and source for much of this material, hired on a few years later as a fireman on the Virginia V and found living quarters on the El Primero. He still has a copy of the original plans.

The boat was sold again in the late 60’s to a group of owners from Bellevue, who carried out one of several recent restorations. In 1985 it was purchased by Trudy Kalke, a Canadian who had plans to turn it into a floating B&B.

“I was last aboard two years ago,” said Sternberg, “and much of the restoration work that was done in recent years really needs to be un-done. She’s still a fine old ship, though.” Sternberg said that at least one of the old lifeboats that hung on long davits was still around a few years ago, “a wine-glass stern 16-foot steel hull with three rowing stations, built by the Tregonning yard in Ballard.” The lifeboats were of lapstrake construction using “planks” fashioned out of steel that were then riveted together. The keel, transom, seats and some other parts were made of wood, a construction technique that was last widely used when El Primero was new.

Last month Kalke sold it to another Canadian, Ken Hammin of Vancouver. It’s still in Blaine, though, and can be seen from the far end of the visitor’s dock, accessible from the entrance near the marina office where the Plover picks up passengers bound for Semiahmoo.