Dream Boat

Sculptor Peter Bevis's magnificent obsession began nearly 15 years ago aboard his brother's fishing boat near Kodiak, Alaska. On a distant shore loomed the bulbous bow and massively curved wheelhouse of the Kalakala, the once-sleek Seattle ferry that ruled as the queen of Puget Sound for decades until she was sold off in the late '60s to become a fish-processing plant. Finally abandoned, the derelict vessel lay muck-bound and rotting. "Wow, what is that?" he said.

Now, Bevis knows better than anyone. Having spent nearly $850,000 in savings and loans and put in five years of bone-chilling labor, Bevis, 46, has brought the once-proud ship home. Long before the Space Needle, Seattle was known for the art deco Kalakala ("Flying Bird" in Chinook), with its restaurant and dance hall. "The collective memory of the region is wrapped up in that boat," says Larry Kreisman, a Seattle-based architectural historian. "People are floored that any one person had the guts to make this happen."

Bevis launched his effort in 1988, four years after he first laid eyes on the ship, which started out as a San Francisco ferry in 1926. Kodiak officials wanted to cut the Kalakala off at the waterline and turn her into a parking lot. "Ferns, moss and spruce trees grew from its carpet," says Bevis. "Every time you'd open a door, you half expected to find a body." Flush with cash from a commercial fishing trip, Bevis went to city hall and offered $1,000 for an option on the ship, but was turned down.

Then, in 1992, says Bevis, life "torpedoed" him just as he was making a name for himself as a bronze caster. His mother, Mary Pat Sawyer, now 72, was brutally beaten by an ex-employee at her restaurant in Peekskill, N.Y., and a few months later his brother Jock, 42, drowned in the North Pacific when his boat capsized. Reeling, Bevis saw in the restoration of the Kalakala a sort of salvation: "I thought, 'Here is a destiny I can control.' "

By 1995, without permission from Kodiak officials, he and a crew of artist friends had plunged into the seemingly endless task of patching holes, removing tons of debris, and repainting. Bevis, twice divorced and childless, moved into the ship's walk-in cooler with his spaniel Loosie. He discovered that, under Alaska law, if he returned the derelict to sea, it would be his. Still, banks wouldn't lend him money to restore a ship he didn't yet own. Desperate to keep his vision alive, he put up his Seattle foundry as collateral and borrowed $350,000. Finally, last June, Bevis called in a tugboat, and the Kalakala slid out into the Gulf of Alaska "like a dream."

Now that she's back after the 1,700-mile voyage home, where she was greeted by a flotilla of 60 boats, restoration will take at least two years and $7 million, which Bevis doesn't yet have. But even his skeptical mother says, "I used to call him a crazy eccentric. I've upgraded him to visionary."

Bruce Frankel

Johnny Dodd in Seattle

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