Los Angeles TimesNEWS

Monday, May 4, 1998

SOS for a Steamer
Man Mounts Quest to Save Slowly Sinking SS Catalina
By DEBORAH BELGUM, Special to The Times
 

For 33 years, David Engholm has had an unrequited love affair. And now the love of his life is sinking off the coast of Baja California.
     Engholm is enamored with the SS Catalina, a Great White Steamer that plowed the channel between San Pedro and Santa Catalina Island for more than 50 years until 1975.
     After a series of legal battles and failed business ventures, the 301-foot Catalina ended up in the Port of Ensenada, where it began sinking late last year. Now 50% of it is underwater.
     Engholm, who traveled on the ship in the 1960s and 1970s, was the ship's caretaker for one year and was married aboard it in 1989, is trying to save the Catalina before it ends up as a pile of scrap metal in some Mexican junkyard. "All my memories are tied up there," said Engholm, who has made numerous visits to the vessel, now sitting in 20 feet of water.
     But there is one problem: money. At least $100,000 is needed to refloat the fabled steamer and bring her back to Southern California. Millions more will be needed to restore the vessel to its original condition and maintain her.
     From his home in Coos Bay, Ore., the 33-year-old Engholm, who sells used police cars and tapestry rugs, recently started a nonprofit organization called the SS Catalina Steamship Fund to collect donations for the project. So far, $940 has been raised.
     That's a far cry from the millions of dollars needed to complete Engholm's dream, which is to refurbish the 1924 vessel and make it into a floating museum docked on the edge of the Port of Los Angeles.
     The city of Los Angeles has offered to let the old ship be moored in Wilmington next to Banning's Landing, where a new community and cultural center will open next year. But Adolfo Nodal, general manager of the city's Cultural Affairs Department, who extended the invitation to keep the boat next to the center, warned that the city is not willing to spend any money on the steamship.
     "If we can find a group to bring this ship up and come up with a development plan for it, we would be interested in having it dock at Banning's Landing because we feel it is another way to bring some life to Wilmington," Nodal said. "But we don't want to get stuck with something that starts sinking again."
     For 14 years, the Catalina has been docked in Ensenada. It began sinking four days before Christmas. By January, 15% of the ship was underwater. Now it is 50% submerged, listing 15 degrees to port side.
     Filiberto Estrada, the harbor master for the Port of Ensenada, is so anxious to get rid of the ship that he is willing to retire the $45,000 debt the former owners owe the port. "This ship was of no interest to us when it was floating and even less so now that it is sinking," he said in a phone interview from Ensenada.
     But there is one glitch. In a 1996 court decision in Mexico, the Catalina was turned over to eight Mexican workers for back wages incurred from 1986 to 1988, Estrada said.
     Engholm is trying to negotiate with the workers to give up their right to a sunken ship. Meantime, the harbor master has started paperwork to declare the Catalina an abandoned vessel so Engholm can take it out of the country.
     During its heyday, the steamer transported as many as 2,000 passengers at a time. The 2 1/2-hour trip was more an adventure than a mere ferry ride. There was a bar, orchestra, clowns and magic acts for the children. But smaller and faster ships eventually took over the Catalina cruise route.
     After her final voyage in 1975, the steamer was mothballed until Beverly Hills real estate developer Hymie Singer bought it two years later as a Valentine's Day gift for his wife, Ruth.
     The ship eventually ended up in Ensenada, where in 1988 it was converted for a short time into a floating bar and restaurant. The Catalina has been foundering ever since, because saving ships is an expensive proposition.
     Save Our Heritage, a San Diego-based preservation group, has put the Catalina on its list of 11 most endangered California landmarks and is trying to help Engholm preserve the vessel.
     Bruce Coons, vice president of the San Diego group, believes it would be sad to see a chapter in California history be dismantled. "The Catalina is the last coastal steamer we have," he said. "You can read about history, and you can look at photographs, but it is not the same thing as experiencing it."

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