The former state ferry was decommissioned years ago and taking up precious slip space for WSDOT. Now it’s in Lake Union, where three business partners hope to turn it into an entertainment venue.
The ferry Hiyu was full of dreamers, young and old, Wednesday afternoon as a tug pushed the boat to a new home — and new life — on Lake Union.
In 10-year-old Riley Wilson’s vision, “it would be purple and it would have a water slide and a hot tub and a pool and a piñata for me to hit. And a dog.”
“It would be pretty,” she added. “Not like this.”
Luckily, Riley has the ear of the ferry Hiyu’s new owner, her dad, Jeff Wilson.
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“The slide we’re seriously contemplating,” he said.
Wilson, an event producer and owner of a tiling business, recently purchased the 162-foot Hiyu from the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for $150,000.
The twin-engine ferry, which was built in 1967 and holds just 34 cars, had outlived its use as a fill-in boat for the state ferry system and was taking up valuable slip space at WSDOT’s Eagle Harbor maintenance yard. Wilson, who had been searching for an arts-and-entertainment venue, was glad to take it off the state’s hands.
At 2 p.m. Wednesday, Wilson and business partners David Crellin and Al Parisi took their maiden voyage as the 1,200-horsepower West Point tug pushed the Hiyu past Elliott Bay, through the Ballard Locks and under the Ballard, Aurora and Fremont bridges at a brisk 8.5 knots.
At the locks, friends waved to the new boat owner. A seal popped up its head to greet the old ferry. Kids cheered from shore as the tug boat blasted its horn in the ship canal.
It was a smooth journey, though not without excitement. The Hiyu had to race to make it past the Fremont Bridge by 4 p.m., when rush-hour traffic prevents the bridge from opening for a few hours.
As the Hiyu cruised into Lake Union, Wilson paced the ferry deck with hired hands and business partners, pointing out where the bar might go and wondering how to set up the stage.
“This happened so fast, we’re still in the design mode,” said Parisi, who ran the Fremont Fair for many years. “It will be fun.”
Crellin, the founder and “ringmaster” of performance art group Circus Contraption, said the trio plan to hold “a circus and cabaret on the high seas” with “cutting-edge performance and live music.” They also plan to offer the boat for rent and special events, like weddings, corporate get-togethers and art projects.
The boat will mostly travel on Lake Union and Lake Washington.
“The vision of what this can be is tremendous — to present art in a visual way that ties people to the community and history and water and all that Seattle has,” Crellin said.
It was once used as a cannery. Artist Peter Bevis campaigned to restore the beloved art-deco Kalakala, but fundraising fell short, and the boat changed hand several times before it was unceremoniously scrapped about two years ago. An attempt to convert the wooden ferry Kehloken to a restaurant was thwarted by an arsonist who burned the boat to the waterline on Lake Washington in 1979.
This is different, Crellin said.
“The Kalakala was so big … and falling apart,” he said. “That was a teardown. This is a fixer-upper.”
The MV Skansonia, which preceded the Hiyu on the Point Defiance/Tahlequah route for the ferry system, should give Wilson and company hope. It’s now a wedding and event facility permanently moored in Lake Union.
Capt. Nic Jinkerson will oversee renovations to the Hiyu, which he said was in “excellent condition mechanically,” but will require some freshening.
“It’s going to be fun. It’s a lot — super overwhelming right now,” he said.
Jinkerson said WSDOT workers gave him a tour of the boat Wednesday morning.
“Every single boat has its own personality. Learning her personality starts today.”
On Thursday, Jinkerson will start cleaning the ferry and inventory its equipment and spare parts. When temperatures rise above 60 degrees and winter’s dreary drizzle ceases, the Hiyu will get a new coat of paint.
“It will definitely not look like a state ferry when we’re done with it,” Jinkerson said.
For now, it’s a work in progress.
“We’re entertaining changing the name,” Wilson said. Sorry Riley, “the jury’s still out” on a new paint color. Purple might not make the cut.
Wilson hopes to have the ferry operating this summer. “We’re shooting for July Fourth,” he said. “Our goal is to be enjoying the fireworks on the lake.”