Houseboat tugged into the future

The ailing houseboat Wicca is towed out of Eagle Harbor by a Caicos tug Thursday morning. Historic preservationists hope the floating home, now under city ownership after it spent months partially submerged, can be restored in Port Gamble where it arrived Friday. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
The ailing houseboat Wicca is towed out of Eagle Harbor by a Caicos tug Thursday morning. Historic preservationists hope the floating home, now under city ownership after it spent months partially submerged, can be restored in Port Gamble where it arrived Friday.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

The ailing Wicca is moved north to Port Gamble for possible restoration.

Through a fog and steady rain, the houseboat Wicca was towed from Eagle Harbor Thursday, bound for Port Gamble and an uncertain future.

The tug boat Resolute, operated by the Caicos Corp., pulled the cabin-like, cedar-sided vessel up the east side of Bainbridge, past Kingston and around the northern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula. It was the first time the houseboat had left Bainbridge shores in its 60 years.

Bainbridge harbormaster Tami Allen drove to Port Gamble Friday morning and said Wicca had arrived without incident Thursday night.

“She looks exactly like she did when she left,” she said.

The city had taken possession of Wicca in Feb. 7, when concerns about the houseboat’s severe list led to a notice of an unsafe structure code violation. In a letter to the owner, the city’s code enforcement officer cited more than 33 percent damage to its supporting structure and blockage of emergency exits as cause for the notice.

The city originally planned to have Caicos Corp. haul Wicca away on a barge and then demolished in early March.

But since the houseboat’s proposed demise was announced, community members rallied to find ways of preserving Wicca, one of the oldest vessels in the Eagle Harbor live-aboard community. The historic preservation commission formed a task force and applied to have the vessel listed on the city’s register of historic places.

Architect Devin Johnson has offered to pay expenses incurred by the city and become owner of the Wicca, rebuild it and return it to Eagle Harbor. He wants to keep the houseboat as a residence at an affordable-housing rental cost. But anyone hoping to return the houseboat to Bainbridge will face a voyage through city and state codes more daunting than any tide rip.

With interest in a restoration growing, Caicos decided to tow it to Port Gamble rather than risk breaking it up while being slung onboard a barge. The city also decided to temporarily stay Wicca’s execution and the houseboat will be stored by Caico for 30 days while proposals for rebuilding the vessel are weighed.

Johnson had asked that Wicca be allowed to stay in Eagle Harbor and either be rebuilt on the water or at the nearby Strawberry Plant property.

“One of the main things I was pushing for was to keep it in Eagle Harbor or take it out of the water at a nearby location. Obviously, the results of those conversations are floating towards to Port Gamble,” he said in an email Thursday. “I am looking forward to working with the city and bringing the Wicca back to Eagle Harbor.”

Rebuilding Wicca would likely be the easy part of its rehabilitation. It took the Caicos workers just hours to bring the vessel trim by blowing air into existing floatation tanks and adding new tanks for stability. A new float would likely be installed on shore.

Even if parts of the structure are waterlogged and unsalvageable, the cabin can be rebuilt to fit the original design without losing the historic nature of the vessel.

If a private party takes on the project they will have 130 days to return Wicca to Eagle Harbor. A shoreline substantial development exemption would have to be filed with the city to determine whether it meets city shoreline code.

The city currently does not allow floating residences in its waters unless they were present before 1998 and registered with the city.

Though Wicca had been in the harbor for decades it’s “grandfathered” status was never clarified. Among other criteria, a new owner would need to file affidavits to prove that Wicca has been used as a residence for 60 days each year since September 1998, and that it has occupied the same position since November 1996. If the city allows the Wicca to return, it will still need to be approved by the state Department of Natural Resources, Allen said.

Safe for now in Port Gamble, it remains to be seen if the houseboat can weather the month ahead.

Emily Sato, the Historic Preservation Commissioner heading the Wicca task force, said that given the time constraints it will be challenging for a private party to reach an agreement with the city and meet the requirements needed to bring the houseboat back to Bainbridge.

“We were so late to the game,” she said, “it’s hard to say if we can be successful.”

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