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El Primero and Aquilo – Early Steam Yachts on Puget Sound

16 Nov 2020 4:41 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Rick Etsell, N.A.

Steam Yacht El Primero, c. 1910 El Primero

Built in San Francisco in 1893, El Primero was the first steam yacht built on the West Coast. At 120’, and very luxurious, she was a mega-yacht of the era when she arrived on Puget Sound in 1906. She had a 5000-mile range, steam heat, an ice machine and accommodations for 30 including 8 crew. In 1911 she changed hands when her owner, prominent Tacoma civic leader Chester Thorne, lost her in a card game to S. A. Perkins, Tacoma capitalist, newspaper publisher, philanthropist, and Commodore of the Tacoma Yacht Club.


Steam Yacht Aquilo,
at SYC Dock 4

Aquilo was built in Boston in 1901. In 1910 she sailed 17,000 miles around the Horn to San Francisco, before ending up on Puget Sound and British Columbia under a variety of owners. She was also quite luxurious, and boasted a crew of 15. Both steam yachts had triple expansion engines, El Primero’s at 8 x 12 x 20” with a 12” stroke, and Aquilo’s 11 x 17 x 27” with an 18” stroke. Both hulls were built of riveted steel.

The Big Race

In 1919 Aquilo was owned by H.F. Alexander, president of the Pacific Steamship Company. Alexander was also a TYC member, and he and Perkins were well acquainted. One night while Perkins was dining aboard Aquilo, one of Mr. Alexander’s guests wagered $1000 that Aquilo was a faster ship than El Primero. Then, according to an article in Pacific Motor Boat Magazine (Dec 1919):

The EL PRIMERO skipper laughed and declared he did not want to rob anyone but someday he would show them what his craft could do. Now be it said that the EL PRIMERO was going to cruise to Hoods Canal [sic] and the AQUILO to Victoria. The word was passed among the crew and when the EL PRIMERO came out of the Canal she found the AQUILO waiting for her with the result the AQUILO sped by the PRIMERO and then the PRIMERO took after her.

There is an engineer by the name of Miles Coffman running the PRIMERO and it is said he has raced boats in old days and he did not forget to pat the PRIMERO on the back on this occasion.

From Foulweather Bluff to West Point the craft raced and in that distance, the EL PRIMERO had overtaken the larger boat and cut a complete circle about her. The skipper of the EL PRIMERO modestly claims that his ship is the fastest steam yacht on the coast and that while he usually runs his boat at economical cruising speed, she can get out and step 18 m.p.h. when necessary.

The 1919 race between El Primero, l, and Aquilo, r. [Photo-shopped by R.E.]

Aquilo’s Fate

Alexander sold Aquilo in 1934, and she kicked around the Sound for many years. Eventually, in 1962, an eccentric physics professor named John Campbell bought her to reside aboard while teaching at the University of Washington. (Campbell’s 1999 obituary is quite an entertaining story: John Campbell; Eclectic Teacher, Writer, Inventor and Composer - Los Angeles Times (latimes.com))

At the time, my grandfather, Professor Bryan T. McMinn, was a thermodynamics specialist in the UW Mechanical Engineering Department. (He was also the owner of the well-known Lake Union Dreamboat Orba.) Campbell consulted with him regularly on maintenance and improvements to the steam power plant aboard Aquilo, which was then moored at South Lake Union, near the City’s steam power generation facility, where my grandfather also was a consultant. I was a young teenager then but I remember my grandfather telling me about his “nutty professor” friend who owned and lived aboard the steam yacht Aquilo. His big idea was to create giant billboards on Aquilo, and cruise up and down Southern California beaches for advertising revenue.

The rest of that story comes from The Seattle Times, 7 September 1966:

The yacht AQUILO, which had been plagued with trouble for nearly two weeks, caught fire, and sank about 2 miles off the N. California coast, near Fort Bragg, 6 Sept. 1966. The four men aboard were rescued without injury by a Coast Guard cutter which responded to an S O S from the 150-footer.

The CG said it had assisted the AQUILO three times in recent weeks. The first time was 25 August, when she was taking on water at her moorage in Lake Union, Seattle. On 4 Sept the vessel reported she was disabled 10 miles west of Rogue River, OR, and a CG lifeboat was dispatched. However, the AQUILO said the steering difficulties had been repaired and she would continue on her own. Later that day the CG was asked to escort the vessel into Crescent City, CA because the operator was not familiar with the waters of that area.

Save A Classic!

Surprisingly, El Primero is still afloat, and she is currently in Astoria, Oregon, and listed for sale. There have been a number of restoration attempts in recent years, but there is still much to be done.  How great it would be if she could be put back in near-original arrangement and show up at Classic Yacht Rendezvous around here! Check out her listing at https://www.apolloduck.com/boat/motor-boats-classic/651448  

Such amazing histories! Let’s hope El Primero finds a new caretaker who can set her up for another 100 years!

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