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Saturday, September 30, 2023
Sept. 30, 2023

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Clark Asks: So far, yacht remains a mystery

We can't pin down full story of abandoned boat at old Kaiser shipyard

By , Columbian staff writer
6 Photos
A seemingly abandoned yacht has been sitting along Southeast Hidden Way in the Columbia Business Center for at least 15 years. While rumor links the vessel to a fire at Christensen Shipyards in 1990, the story of the nearly-completed boat — including its current owner — remains a mystery.
A seemingly abandoned yacht has been sitting along Southeast Hidden Way in the Columbia Business Center for at least 15 years. While rumor links the vessel to a fire at Christensen Shipyards in 1990, the story of the nearly-completed boat — including its current owner — remains a mystery. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

What’s with the abandoned white yacht at the old Kaiser shipyard?

There’s an abandoned yacht up on cinder blocks at the Columbia Business Center, between the Columbia River and Southeast Hidden Way. Frankly, it’s a bit of a bummer.

It could be a beautiful boat, but the windows are boarded up, and the black paint on the hull is fading. It’s unfinished, though it looks about 80 percent complete from the outside. And it’s been there for a long, long time.

One observant reader, Charles Stookey, submitted a question to Clark Asks: What’s up with that?

Great question!

“We moved here from Oklahoma 14 years ago,” he wrote in an email. “About once a week, we take a drive downtown and visit the shipyards, the Amtrak station and make it out to Frenchman’s Bar.”

The old boat caught the attention of Stookey, a Navy veteran and railway buff.

“We have seen the abandoned yacht almost weekly for 14 years and always keep an eye out,” he said.

Our Clark Asks tool cuts to the core of what we do as journalists — answer readers’ burning questions, and this was a fun one. I called dibs on the story, figuring we’d have the answer by the end of the week. In retrospect, I was just asking for a wild goose chase.

The hunt started Oct. 2 with a call to the business that runs the Columbia Business Center, the industrial park that replaced the old Kaiser Shipyards in the 1990s. Simple enough. The Columbia Business Center is owned by Killian Pacific, a developer of industrial, residential and mixed-use properties headquartered in Vancouver.

After a bit of back-and-forth, I hit a wall.

Killian staff knew who owned the decrepit yacht, but they’d contacted the owner, and he told them he didn’t want to talk to a reporter. If a private person isn’t comfortable speaking with the media, it’s their prerogative to decline, and so that lead — the one that could have taken us to the most direct answer — was dead.

Next, I went to the industrial center to poke around. The first stop was the boat itself. I looped around it a few times, looking for clues. There are no identifiers on its exterior, no names or numbers, or signs posted nearby.

I visited nearby businesses to see if anyone had any tips.

The first handy bit of information came from Christensen Shipyards, where a helpful employee said that the abandoned yacht had lingered on the lot for as long as she’d been coming to work. She’d heard it was somehow connected to a fire that ignited at Christensen decades ago and that the company may have sold the damaged hull to a new owner, who used it to start building the vessel that still haunts the shipyard.

Yacht-zee! (Sorry.)

Now, I had a few keywords to guide the search. With the help of Columbian editor Craig Brown, I scoured our old paper archives to track down a story on the October 1990 fire at Christensen Motor Yacht Corp. that destroyed the 125-foot vessel Emerald Isle.

I also put in a call to Byron Hanke, who served as the CEO of the Port of Vancouver from 1985 to 1998, and who, according to Brown, knows everything about everything.

His information was vague, as decades-old information tends to be, but it corroborated what I’d learned so far, including that the yacht has been there for at least 15 years. I was on the right track.

“Apparently, it was purchased by somebody, and they were outfitting it, and there was a fire on it,” Hanke said. “Then, there was a period of time when they were repairing the fire damage.”

That would have contradicted an Oct. 12, 1990, report in The Columbian, in which the shipyard’s then-owner Dave Christensen called the Emerald Isle “a total loss.” But it’s been 28 years, and information like that has a way of getting garbled. It’s possible, I figured, that Christensen had meant the Emerald Isle would never set sail, but the vessel could still have been scrapped for parts, including a hull.

“The word is that whoever had it ran out of money,” Hanke said, adding that the yard for some reason “wouldn’t let the boat go away,” creating a stalemate.

Tiger Woods’ ‘Privacy’

Then, I put in a call to Pat Jollota, a local historian who also falls into the “knows everything” category. She couldn’t recall much about the abandoned yacht, but she did remember the 1990 Christensen Shipyards fire, as well as some other hurdles the company hit over the years.

“He had some really strange things happen there for a while — the fire. (Then) they advertised a yacht that belonged to someone like Michael Jackson, and he got all bent out of shape.”

(For the curious: It wasn’t Michael Jackson. It was Tiger Woods who in 2004 filed a lawsuit claiming Christensen had violated a confidentiality agreement and disclosed that the company had built the golf star a $20 million yacht. The yacht’s name was “Privacy.” You can’t make this stuff up.)

Jollota also spoke about the company’s financial woes in recent years.

“They went bankrupt,” Jollota said. “That was all part of that whole thing that went down.”

That part was much easier to research. In 2015, The Columbian reported that Christensen Shipyards filed for receivership, similar to bankruptcy, and was purchased by Tennessee businessman Henry Luken.

A year later, the former owners Dave Christensen and Joe Foggia agreed to pay $4.5 million to the subcontractors, suppliers and lenders who’d received the short end of a financial shortfall that nearly sank the luxury yacht builder. Most of the money came from the $5.5 million that Luken paid for the shipyard and its assets.

I wondered if the yacht could somehow be tied up in the messy process of declaring bankruptcy, or of the company changing hands. Maybe some vendor had placed a lien on the vessel and created a paper trail somewhere that I could follow? Unfortunately, according to the maritime attorneys at Bohonnon Law Firm, secret liens on boats are the norm in Washington: “The liens are ‘secret’ because they do not need to be recorded at either the county or state level.” Rats.

The Emerald Isle angle

In another twist, it turns out the Emerald Isle had survived the 1990 fire, or at least the name did. Some good old-fashioned Googling led me to a 2010 article on a nautical news website dubbed, bluntly, “BOAT.” The article reported the auction of a 125-foot Christensen motor yacht named Emerald Isle. The yacht had been completed in 1992 — two years after the shipyard fire — and had since been renamed the Afterglow. Those similarities couldn’t be a coincidence, right?

We have a boat destroyed in a 1990 fire, except a boat from the same company with the same name and same specs apparently set sail two years later. And while I’ve heard from multiple people that the hull from that fire had been repurposed into the unfinished yacht at the Columbia Business Center, I was still missing the fundamentals: Who owns it, and why is it still there?

By Oct. 10, I started lurking around the shipyard, asking random passers-by if they knew anything about the ship. I solicited tips on Twitter, to no avail.

Really, I needed to talk to the old guards at Christensen, who were around during the 1990 fire and may be able to help me draw a clearer line to the decrepit yacht. I put out feelers for contact information.

The story stalled. Losing momentum, I turned to other projects that don’t make me want to repeatedly bang my head against the keyboard. Then, on Oct. 15, the phone rang. I’d put out a cold call to an employee at the Port of Vancouver trying to find the contact information for former Christensen co-owner Foggia, and it came through.

But in a sad coincidence, that was the same day Dave Christensen died at 87. Foggia was his son-in-law. I decided against calling him right away — he didn’t need a reporter pestering him with obscure questions from 1990 while his family was grieving. And it had become abundantly clear that the yacht wasn’t going anywhere, anyway.

No license required

Trying a new angle, I reached out to the Washington State Department of Licensing to find out if a boat that had never sailed would still need to obtain a license or registration number. Nope — no licensing required until a boat touches the water.

Next, I tried John Rudi, owner of Thompson Metal Fabrication, which is situated on the adjacent lot near Hidden Way. I imagined they’d have to maneuver around the yacht. Has he ever interacted with the owner?

Negative — he’s not sure who owns it. Maybe, he suggests, I should try the property manager with Killian Pacific, you know, the company that manages the Columbia Business Center.

Then, I called the Vancouver Fire Department, on the off chance it kept an inventory of the properties around the Columbia Business Center. It was a stretch, but there had been a major fire there once before, so maybe the agency kept tabs on potential hazards. I got a call back from Fire Marshal Heidi Scarpelli, who clarified that it did not.

Out of options, I bit the bullet and sent Foggia a carefully crafted email Friday: “I’m writing you with a bit of an oddball question — I’ve been tasked with finding out the origin of a nearly completed yacht that’s been sitting, apparently abandoned, at what is now the Columbia Business Center for more than a decade,” I wrote. “I’m reaching out to you because rumor is the hull of the boat was reclaimed from the Emerald Isle, the boat destroyed in the 1990 fire at Christensen Shipyards. I’m hoping you may know something about that reclaiming process, or about who currently owns the boat.”

To my surprise, he wrote back right away. I held my breath and opened the message — was this it, the key that would solve our mystery?

“Hi Calley, I do not know… Please call Christensen Shipyards… Thanks.”

Well, then.

I’m officially out of leads, and I’m starting to feel a little nuts. At least the Flying Dutchman cameos haunting my dreams are just in time for Halloween, which is festive.

But I’m writing this now as my last chance to fulfill the fundamental role of a local reporter: To satisfy Mr. Stookey’s curiosity and answer his excellent question.

Do you, reader, know the story of this yacht? Do you know someone who might? Call me. Write me. 360-735-4558, calley.hair@columbian.com.

Columbian staff writer