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Saturday, February 19, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wawona is set adrift into unknown waters

Seattle Times staff reporter

Should she stay or should she go?

The historic schooner Wawona, with its three towering masts long a fixture at South Lake Union Park, is going. The city sent a letter to the owners a few days ago that the boat must leave by November so work on the park's grounds can be completed.

Right now, there are no sites to relocate it where restoration can continue.

"Of course we're upset," said Wayne Palsson, board member of Northwest Seaport, the nonprofit group that owns the Wawona. "I thought we were making headway with the city. But that letter has a definite finality to it."

Palsson knows it sounds like a familiar story.

"We would joke ... 'We're not the Kalakala.' Maybe we are. Maybe the joke's on us," he said.

The Kalakala is the art-deco ferry that was unwanted at its moorage at Lake Union, then unwanted by the Makah Tribe at its moorage at Neah Bay before it finally found a friendly location on a private waterfront on Tacoma's Hylebos Waterway.

Palsson said he didn't know what options are left for the Wawona to stay at the lake.

"Maybe there will be other cities more friendly to preserving our city's past," he said. "We need to find a friendly berth."

Northwest Seaport thinks the prime South Lake Union site, next to the Center for Wooden Boats and its collection of historic vessels, is an ideal location for the public to see the restoration work on the Wawona.

There are spots where visitors can poke fingers through some of the rotted wood.

The public has been able to see work using old-style saws and axes and the fabrication of wood parts as craftsmen did 100 years ago, said Joe Shickich, president of Northwest Seaport's board of directors.

"It's fascinating for people to come and watch," he said. "We believe the park should be a maritime-heritage park. The history of the Wawona is tied to the history of Seattle. Back in the '20s, '30s and '40s, she used to come back to Lake Union at the end of the fishing season every year to dry dock to be repaired. She belongs in the city."

The wind-powered, 165-foot Wawona was launched in 1897, first used to haul lumber and to catch cod in the Bering Sea — as many as 10,000 a day — filling up its cavernous hold with salted fish.

The city's letter from Ken Bounds, superintendent of Parks and Recreation, says the boat "must be permanently relocated." It says that a "busy public park cannot share space with industrial-shipyard activity." The letter says that "if and when" the schooner is restored, it would be welcome for visits.

The city has proposed having the Wawona moved to a county-owned Metro Transit dock at the north end of Lake Union, near Gasworks Park. In a letter Feb. 11 to King County Executive Ron Sims, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels proposed turning the site into a "historic shipyard" where old boats could be restored.

But yesterday, Carolyn Duncan, a spokeswoman for Sims, squashed the proposal. "Ron is real clear: He doesn't want a working shipyard. He wants it to be public access for people to enjoy the shoreline," she said.

Meanwhile, the city's letter also laid down rules for four other historic boats moored at South Lake Union Park — three owned by Northwest Seaport and one by the Puget Sound Fireboat Foundation. The city will allow them "short-term moorage" but the nonprofits will need to provide proof of "liability coverage, accessibility to the public, interpretive signage, and scheduled period when the boats are open to the public for tours with informed docents aboard. We will also need to establish a moorage fee schedule ... ."

Former King County Superior Court Judge Horton Smith, head of the nonprofit that moors the fireboat Duwamish at the city park, said about dealing with the city: "When it comes right down to it, you got to dance the tune that the fiddler has."

Victoria Schoenburg, the city's manager for the South Lake Union Park, said that perhaps the city could exchange moorage rental for some undetermined public programs.

But as for the Wawona, it's history as far the Parks Department is concerned. The city plans to get rid of "scrap, spare parts, truck tires" by the boat's moorage.

Palsson worried that what the city considers junk might be valuable restoration material. For example, some of those pieces of wood in the water aren't scrap, but are being "seasoned."

"You don't go to Home Depot and buy wood and put it on the boat," he said. "Sometimes you soak it."

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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