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Sunday, November 25, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Going nautical on Lake Union at bunk-and-breakfast tug

Seattle Times Northwest Weekend editor

Lake Union is freshwater, it's true, but a night aboard the Challenger, a 57-year-old tugboat moored there, is about the saltiest Seattle stay you'll find.

Let my colleague Carol Pucci have lattes on the hill. And don't even talk to me about the luxury pig at the Four Seasons. This place has seaplanes taking off in the back yard.

Cool.

On a Friday after work, I stepped inside the fireplace-warmed salon of the floating B&B — that's "bunk and breakfast" — and caught the faintest whiff of Eau de Diesel ( yes, there's a big engine downstairs) accented by the slightest teasing air of Dank Old Boat, a scent Chanel quit carrying a long time ago.

The bottom line

• MV Challenger
, 1001 Fairview Ave. N., Suite 1600, Seattle, WA 98109. It's docked at Yale Street Landing, behind TGIFriday's restaurant. Note: The owner recently won a court judgment blocking the city of Seattle from closing him down for operating an on-the-water hotel.

Admiral's Cabin is $185 per night in summer; when I booked anonymously early this month, I got it for $150. Winter rates are "flexible" and "significantly lower," depending on length of stay and day of week, the owner says.

The tug's eight cabins vary in size; five have private bath. Summer rates: $55-$185. Breakfast included.

For more information visit the tugboat Challenger Web site. Reservations: 206-340-1201 or 800-288-7521.

But hey, it is what it is: 96 feet of retired U.S. Army tug, with lots of character and a humble working past. Much has gone into making it comfortable, but the atmosphere is more maritime than Marriott.

The captain and owner, Jerry Brown, said my wife had already arrived — we'd come from opposite directions on the Route 70 bus.

He pointed me up a ladder. A helper boosted my bag after me.

I stepped out along an open deck to a wide-angle view of lake and city, with just a refreshing chill off the water. Near the stern, my wife, Barbara, opened a door to welcome me into the Admiral's Cabin, our cocoon for the night.

A queen-size four-poster bed filled most of the room. Flanking it were big, brass nautical running lights in red and green. ("The captain told me those make good nightlights," my spouse said.) At the head of the bed, four large windows with lacy curtains curved around the stern of the boat, framing a view of the Space Needle, Queen Anne and downtown. Marinas full of big, white yachts filled the foreground.

The cabin was tarted up a bit — a mirror above the bed made the room look larger (and I'm sure that's why it's there) but the effect was more Aurora Avenue North than Fishermen's Terminal. A cherry-red bathtub for two occupied an alcove. A sink with a brass faucet perched below a mammoth bronze porthole, which opened to admit a whisper of fresh air. A small TV, VCR, a mini CD player (should've brought tunes!) and a little fridge filled out the room.

The accommodations aren't for large people, and I don't mean tall. The door to the head opened only halfway before bumping up against a bedpost.

Also less than perfect if you're fussy: one cracked window; drips from the last paint job on another; water-stained curtains.

Ah, but the nauticality. How many hotels have wallpaper of yellowing marine charts — the real thing, not phonied up? You can sit on the, well, you know, and choose next summer's anchorage on Clayoquot Sound.

And that view.

We stowed our bags and walked 15 minutes around the lake, past the houseboats, to Pete's market, Seattle's best wine shop. We picked up a spicy $8 chardonnay from Monterey to sip before dinner.

Back in the cabin, we watched a big boat under sail, just ghosting across the lake, glide into the sunset's blinding path on the water and cast on a perfect, sail-shaped shadow in the line of glittering silver.

Just beyond, a sailboat crossed behind a small, classic motor yacht that was pluckily dodging a landing seaplane. Who needs people-watching?

For dinner, we strolled 50 yards up the dock to Yale Street Landing's BluWater Bistro, with jazzy music and a fireside table.

Jerked chicken as an appetizer, a steak for Barbara, grilled ahi with lemon caper sauce for me. Really good, for $50 plus the wine bill.

At 7 the next morning, we peeked out as two long shells full of rowers etched the first filigree of ripples on the quiet lake. The sky was a wash of pale blue and streaky cloud, and early sunlight glinted off downtown high-rises.

After coffee in our cabin, we climbed down to a fully laden breakfast buffet set out by the captain, doubling as cook.

Fresh pineapple, melon, an egg dish, bacon and more — good grub, not exactly gourmet (with the exception of the chocolate-drizzled cinnamon rolls), but lots of it.

Jerry Brown has had his tug here since 1985. If he has time to chat (don't make his pancakes burn), he'll fill you with dock stories: who owns what boat and which one has been repossessed how many times — all the good skinny about lake life.

As you visit, toss a ball down a passageway for the ship's mascot, Scupper, a rag mop of a Bouvier.

My wife had to run an errand after breakfast. I stepped along the dock to Moss Bay Rowing Club for an impromptu kayak outing.

For an hour's rental ($10), I explored South Lake Union and poked around the moorage at the Center for Wooden Boats, admiring a waterline view of the classic ketch Martha's mirror-finish transom. Ducks quacked at me and a grinder buzzed in a floating workshop as a man shaped a wooden tiller.

Back ashore, I walked to the bus stop. I felt relaxed, well-fed and well-steeped in Seattle heritage.

Brian Cantwell can be reached at 206-748-5724 or bcantwell@seattletimes.com.

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