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Updated Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 03:46 PM

Make your bid: Historic fireboat Alki up for auction

By Jack Broom
Seattle Times staff reporter

Boat lovers take note: This could be your opportunity to own a piece of Seattle history.

Or just one more way to turn a big pile of money into a small one.

Maybe both.

On Monday evening, an online auction house will begin accepting bids on the 1927-vintage fireboat Alki, the senior member of the Seattle Fire Department’s four-boat Marine Emergency Response Team.

Bidding for the 123-foot boat will start at $1 and continue for 10 days at bidadoo.com, a Seattle-based firm that auctions surplus property from the city and other clients.

For the successful bidder, the boat’s purchase price will be just the first expense, followed by moorage, insurance, fuel, maintenance and whatever restoration or conversion the new owner has in mind.

Dick Chester, senior engineer for the city’s fireboat fleet, said he can’t begin to estimate what it would cost to purchase and maintain the boat.

But he offers this caution: “If you want to keep this boat working, it will take daily care and attention. You can’t just fire it up and take off.”

This sale is a decade in the making.

In 2003, Seattle voters — still rocking from the 2001 Nisqually quake — passed a $167 million levy to make citywide improvements to equipment and facilities that would help Seattle deal with a major emergency.

Among many projects, the levy helped finance a renovation of the fireboat Chief Seattle, along with the acquisition of two newer boats, the Leschi and Engine One.

Those developments paved the way for the retirement of the Alki, which is less maneuverable and requires a larger crew than newer boats.

So who would want an out-of-date fireboat? And how would they use it?

“That’s the hardest thing to guess,” said Chuck Meyer, account representative for bidadoo.com. “Do you turn it into a bed-and-breakfast? Do you turn it into a yacht? Do you keep it as a museum piece?”

Dependable, beloved

For generations, the Alki was a dependable workhorse, fighting fires on Seattle vessels and docks, and at waterfront businesses and homes.

Retired engineer Dennis Broderson has many fond memories of the Alki, including the time it helped save a commercial sea captain’s home below Magnolia Bluff, when firefighters on land had trouble getting to the flames.

“He was so grateful he sent over a case of whiskey,” Broderson said. “We had to send it back and tell him the Fire Department just doesn’t work like that.”

Broderson, who retired in 1997, loved working on the Alki and its 16 diesel engines. “As a kid you might think about being a firefighter when you grow up, and then to be a firefighter and to be out on boats. For me, it was the ultimate dream job.”

The Alki was nearly new when it began proving its worth on a summer afternoon in 1929, when flames engulfed the Union Pacific Dock downtown.

Not only did the Alki help keep fire from spreading to a nearby dock, it got close enough to the burning pier to rescue four land-based firefighters trapped there by flames, unable to get back to their rig.

Of the Alki’s 16 engines, two are used to propel the boat, two run its generator and the other dozen engines run pumps that help produce giant streams of water to fight fires, or create postcard-worthy moments at civic celebrations.

Rough waters ahead

The idea of preserving a noteworthy old boat charms Puget Sounders.

Less glamorous is the prospect of running a virtually nonstop fundraising campaign to restore an old vessel and keep it working,

Consider the Kalakala, the art-deco ferry towed back to Seattle in 1998 after decades of use as a fish processor in Alaska. Never able to generate the funds to preserve it, the boat has become little more than a hazard to navigation in a Tacoma waterway.

Or the massive Wawona, the 111-year-old wooden schooner that lived out its days on Lake Union, waiting for a miracle that never came. It was dismantled in 2009, and pieces of it now live on in a towering sculpture in the new Museum of History & Industry at the south end of the lake.

And then there’s another retired Seattle fireboat, the 1909-vintage Duwamish, also moored at South Lake Union. That boat is owned by a nonprofit group whose president says it needs $5 million in work — and he doesn’t know where the money would come from.

The Alki is in better shape than those vessels, and can’t be directly compared to the Duwamish, which is two decades older.

But the Alki has issues of its own. Its riveted steel hull is worn in places, and every year it gets more difficult to find replacement parts for the engines, which came from the Navy as surplus property in 1947.

Once the auction goes live, prospective bidders will be able to see more than 70 photos of the boat, a spec sheet, video, and a report from the auctioneer describing the boat’s overall condition as good, and noting that all engines performed normally in testing.

The listing will likely be posted on bidadoo.com shortly after 7 p.m. Monday, Meyer said. But there’s no reason to hurry. In a method similar to that used in some charity auctions, bidders will have 10 days in which they can go online, see the highest bid offered so far, and top it — with action expected to peak at the end of the bidding period.

Meyer said the Alki’s many antique fixtures and the fact that the city has kept it in operating shape work in its favor as it seeks a new owner.

Still, he noted, this isn’t a purchase for the casual weekend boater looking to move up to something bigger.

“We’re talking about someone who is familiar with commercial vessels,” he said. “Someone who understands how it works and what it takes to run it.”

Jack Broom: jbroom@seattletimes.com. Material from The Seattle Times archives and historylink.org is included in this report.

Auction of fireboat Alki

On Monday, probably shortly after 7 p.m., interested buyers can look over information about the boat and enter a bid to purchase it at bidadoo.com. The auction will run for 10 days.


Cheryl Hatch / AP, 2001
The Alki leads a parade of tugboats at the Seattle Maritime Festival’s annual tugboat race in 2001.




Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times
The brass fire-pump telegraph at right on the ancient fireboat Alki receives messages relayed from the pilot to the engineers. Senior engineer Dick Chester is in the background. “If you want to keep this boat working, it will take daily care and attention,” he said.




Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times
The 86-year-old Seattle fireboat Alki is showing signs of a life on the waterfront.




Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times
Seattle firefighters Dick Chester, foreground, and pilot Greg Anderson, behind him, leave the fireboat Alki after a brief inspection. Chester, a senior engineer, has been with the Seattle Fire Department for 40 years.




Seattle Times file
When this photo was taken in 1927, the Alki was a new fireboat.








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