A classic Seattle super-yacht, now buried at sea

Yacht Dorothea.

Dorothea on fire in the Pacific. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

We lost a boat of local renown late last month in a moment with two defining traits of a newsworthy story: sad, and spectacular.

First, the spectacular. We’re talking flames, cries of “mayday,” a five-person crew abandoning ship and fearing certain death, a satellite alarm that brings in tracker aircraft, a Panamanian tuna boat, and a guided missile frigate. Your usual rescue at sea. Like I said, spectacular.

No one was injured, but there remains a sad part that’s pretty striking. In losing the Dorothea, we lose one of those artifacts that can define for the ages a chunk of what makes this a great place.

In the barest of terms, Dorothea was a 107-foot motor yacht. For some that is a boat for rich people, the type of vessel J.P. Morgan said you can’t afford, now that you ask. Some dictionary editors hold that a yacht is a recreational vessel; I include in that the 10-foot rowboat I built at The Center for Wooden Boats for a few hundred dollars. Dorothea was all that, owned by a former CEO of Samsonite and used for fishing excursions. But that’s not the half of it.

The boat was a local icon, up there with the rusting ferry Kalakala and the rotting schooner Wawona, but immaculately preserved. She was built, like Boeing’s first airplane, on Lake Union, the largest boat to come out of the fabled yard of Vic Franck. Her designer was Montlake’s own William Garden, one of maybe a handful of local boating geniuses adept at marrying the demands of seaworthiness with the desire to look at something nice. Garden, who now lives on an island near Victoria, B.C., was once a fixture of the Seattle waterways, designing work boats, tugs, trollers, sardine boats, pile drivers, and, yes, yachts. When Dorothea, née Kakki M, slid down the ways in 1967, she was what some consider the first mega-yacht.

Outsized yachts have since been taken to new lengths by the likes of Paul Allen, whose 416-foot Octopus travels with a submarine and two helicopters. They are a fixture of the boating world, with their own magazines and major manufacturers who include Seattle’s Delta Marine and Westport. Last month, as Dorothea was burning in the Pacific, I was editing a Pacific Yachting PNW piece on the Shilshole Bay Marina renovation and how it will make it easier to accommodate the bigger boats.

I also edited a short piece on a recent rendezvous of Garden boats in Victoria, B.C. “Garden has an eye for traditional lines and just the right proportions,” said Dick Wagner, founding director of The Center for Wooden Boats.

Dorothea returned to her Seattle roots in 2006 and 2007 for a major refit that included a new coat of paint on her Alaska yellow cedar hull and eye-popping teak joinery and varnish. It turned a Ballard dock into a one-boat business boom. For those who would view such things in economic terms, she brought more than $10 million to the state, using mostly Washington state products and talent, and paying local taxes.

But for the legion of local craftsmen, 80 of whom worked on her at one time, it was more than that. “Every craftsman that worked on this boat had a huge amount of love and loyalty to the Dorothea,” said Malcolm Munsey, who managed the project.

Southwest of Costa Rica last month, the crew noticed the GPS system was out and saw smoke and flames coming from the mast. They quickly set out tenders and life rafts. Capt. John Crupi worried about a propane tank near the mast, 400 nearby gallons of gasoline, and more than 7,000 gallons of diesel below. And when the pilothouse filled with smoke, “the only option was to abandon ship,” he said from Florida on Friday, Nov. 2.

The crew had time to get only their passports. It was grim.

“When you’re 220 miles offshore and you step off a boat, there’s only one thing on your mind,” said Crupi. “You’re dying.”

But emergency locator beacons activated a network of Customs and military personnel. Owner Steven Green, who was not on board, enlisted the help of an Air Force friend from his days as former U.S. ambassador to Singapore, said Crupi. Less than seven hours later, the crew of five was on board the USS Halyburton and headed for Panama.

Crupi would now like to see the owner build a new ship along the lines of a 140-foot boat that Garden drafted about 10 years ago. Which is not to say Dorothea will ever be replaced. “There’s a portion of all of us that went down with that boat,” Crupi said. “Because of the boat it was – it was timeless.”

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