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Undersea Princess : The Louise Will Be Raised, but Only to Be Deep-Sixed Again as an Artificial Reef

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After two weeks of underwater patching and welding on the capsized Princess Louise in Los Angeles Harbor, salvage workers are nearly ready to refloat the once elegant passenger ship and dockside restaurant.

But once raised, the ship that mysteriously sank last October will make only one last, short voyage before it is consigned to Davy Jones’ locker. Workers plan to tow the 300-foot-vessel out of the harbor, perhaps as early as Friday, and scuttle it a mile off Point Vicente to create an artificial reef.

In an unusual procedure, the salvagers are pumping air into the ship’s hull in an effort to refloat it upside down.

Workers also have cleared the lower half of the ship of all ballast and expect that the ship will roll upside down when it is pulled into deeper water at high tide, said Willem G. Boelman, owner of TriNav Shipping, one of two Vancouver, Canada-based companies engineering the $1-million salvage operation.

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“This has been a very challenging and interesting operation,” Boelman said. “We may have T-shirts made up saying, ‘I Survived the Salvage of the Princess Louise.’ ”

After years as a popular floating restaurant moored beneath the Vincent Thomas Bridge, the Princess Louise fell on hard times in 1988 and was repossessed by the Bank of San Pedro. The ship, which the bank hoped to sell, was undergoing repairs at the Southwest Marine shipyard on Terminal Island when it began listing and abruptly sank last Oct. 30. Salvage workers said this week they still don’t know what caused the ship to founder.

Some workers on the ship Tuesday said climbing in and around the doomed Princess left them with an eerie, otherworldly sensation.

“I came down in here right after it went over,” said Mike McKeown, yard manager for Southwest Marine. “It was really weird, like the Poseidon Adventure,” he said, referring to a book and 1972 movie about a capsized ocean liner.

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The 67-year-old ship, which once plied the seas between Vancouver, Canada, and Puget Sound and spent nearly 20 years as a floating restaurant in Los Angeles Harbor, has lain half-submerged on its side since it sank. Although most of the vessel had been sealed off to help refloat it, workers Tuesday were still climbing down into the main bar and restaurant salon plugging newly developed air leaks.

The floral carpeting in the main bar now smells of mildew, broken glasses sparkle beneath green water, and the mahogany woodwork is overgrown with algae. A mannequin’s head--tossed into a water-filled hallway by a salvage worker with a morbid sense of humor--stares back through a porthole.

Salvage workers said they would probably let the boat float a day before towing it out to sea.

“We want to check that hull several times over to make sure it’s OK,” Boelman said. “Besides, we want to get at the Dom Perignon. We know where the bottles are.”

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Local diving clubs and sport fishermen have long lobbied for creation of a reef in the area because it would attract fish, said John Grant, a marine biologist with the state Fish and Game Department. Fish and Game officials already held the necessary permits to scuttle a ship when Grant decided to pursue the Princess Louise last winter, he said.

“It is a pretty boat,” Grant said. “We thought, ‘What a shame to melt it down.’ There was not enough money to restore it, so we thought, why not use it for something people can benefit from?”


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