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Originally published June 16, 2013 at 5:13 PM | Page modified June 17, 2013 at 12:16 PM

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Seattle’s historic fireboat lights no fire of future possibilities

Could the 1927-vintage Alki become “the next Kalakala” after failing to attract a viable offer in an online auction?

Seattle Times staff reporter

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After failing to attract a viable offer in a 10-day online auction earlier this year, Seattle’s 1927-vintage fireboat Alki faces an uncertain future:

Will a wealthy individual or organization step forward to purchase the historic boat, possibly at a second auction in August?

Or could the 123-foot vessel, once billed as the “world’s largest fireboat,” be on its way to becoming — as one local boatyard owner fears — “the next Kalakala.”

“It’s possible it could be at the end of its useful life, or maybe beyond that,” said Dan Franck, third-generation owner of Vic Franck’s Boat Co. on Lake Union.

Although Franck said his expertise is not in commercial boats, he’s familiar with the Alki, and was once aboard it. He said an aging, “purpose-built” vessel such as the Alki could be difficult to maintain as a fireboat or to convert to any other use.

The Kalakala, to which he compared it, is a 1930s-vintage art-deco state ferry that, after a succession of owners, has deteriorated so badly it’s been declared a hazard to navigation in a Tacoma waterway.

That’s not the future Seattle officials envision for the Alki, which is docked at Fishermen’s Terminal near the Ballard Bridge.

Katherine Schubert-Knapp, spokeswoman for the Seattle Department of Finance and Administrative Services, said the city wants to sell the boat to someone who can afford not just to purchase it, but also to move, moor and insure it.

“It has passed its useful life for the Fire Department, but it’s still a seaworthy boat,” she said.

Schubert-Knapp said the city will be seeking a marine surveyor to examine the Alki and report on its condition. Potential buyers in the earlier auction, she said, said they’d have trouble getting insurance for the boat without such a report.

Insurers often require a survey of a boat changing hands. Sometimes the seller pays for the report; sometimes the prospective buyer pays, and sometimes the cost is shared.

Schubert-Knapp said the city initially hoped to avoid the cost of such an inspection. Industry sources say its cost, in the thousands of dollars, would depend on how thorough an examination is performed.

In the March auction, a high bid of $71,100 was made by a prospective purchaser whose identity was not disclosed.

But before the sale was finalized, the potential buyer backed out. At the time, Schubert-Knapp said the bidder who withdrew “wanted to transport the boat a long distance and ultimately decided that would cost too much.”

The city then offered the boat to lower bidders, but none proved to be viable options, she said.

Instead of offering the Alki at auction as it did, the city could have engaged a boat broker to search out potential purchasers.

But Martin Coombe, a broker with Marcon International, based on Whidbey Island, said finding a buyer wouldn’t be easy.

“It’s a hard sell because it doesn’t have a great deal of commercial value,” said Coombe. “You might have to find someone who wants it as a museum piece or would convert it to a live-aboard,”

A potential purchaser, he said, might be “someone with deep pockets. A collector, a buff, a nonprofit, maybe a foreign buyer.”

Coombe said he doubts any city would want to use it as a hand-me-down fireboat, because of the “public-relations nightmare” that could result if it ever malfunctioned in an emergency.

The Alki’s retirement was set in motion by a levy Seattle voters passed in 2003, providing $167 million to upgrade Fire Department stations and equipment.

Even as the city plans a marine survey of the boat, there’s no guarantee it will make the Alki easier to sell.

One Seattle-area marine surveyor, who asked not to be identified, said it could have the opposite effect.

“There’s a good chance it would queer any interest that you’d have at an auction,” he said. “Because at that age you’re going to find some problems.”

Schubert-Knapp said she doesn’t know what would happen if no qualified buyer is found.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Jack Broom: jbroom@seattletimes.com

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