With the smell of fish wafting from the kitchen and the sound of sea lions barking in the distance, a walk down historic Pier 39 is timeless. But nothing takes visitors back like the maritime oddity anchored nearby.
For the first time in 113 years, El Primero has returned to Astoria. The 137-foot ship’s white paint and rustic wood stretches alongside the pier, and its long, narrow shape attracts the eyes of locals and tourists alike. Last time the yacht crossed the bar, it was 1906.
The El Primero, one of the oldest luxury yachts still sailing today, returned to the mouth of the Columbia River earlier this month.
The yacht was built in San Francisco in 1893 by Union Iron Works. The original construction cost just under $250,000. After inflation, that is roughly $7 million today.
But the investment paid off.
“This boat is one of the most important remaining yachts in the world,” said Capt. Christian Lint, who owns the El Primero and the Astoria Ferry. “It exemplifies the transition of sail to steam and of wood to steel.”
In 1906, El Primero passed through Astoria on its way north toward Seattle. The ship remained in Washington’s waters for more than a hundred years, docked most recently in Blaine, until Lint caught a glimpse of it 10 years ago.
“I saw under the tarps, this rustic, beautiful long hull,” he said. “The lines of the boat are absolutely spectacular. The design of the boat is phenomenal. The structure is, to this day, a lost art.”
The sight grabbed Lint’s attention. He tracked down the estate owner and volunteered to help get the boat running for the sake of history. Less than a week after Lint began work, he said, El Primero was gliding through the water again for the first time in a decade.
Shortly after his first ride, Lint bought the yacht and set his eyes on navigating El Primero south.
“It went north in 1906 and never returned,” he said. “Now, it’s on its return trip home to San Francisco.”
The boat’s steam engine has been converted, and now a twin-engine diesel fuels El Primero.Lint has dreams of making the ship a bit “greener,” with solar sails and batteries.
The yacht moves through the sea with ease, and has no wake until 14.5 knots, according to Lint.
“It was made to marry with the sea,” he said.
The polished floors and extravagant light fixtures of El Primero apparently hosted a number of historic guests, including four U.S. presidents — Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Warren Harding and Herbert Hoover. Other celebrity guests include Babe Ruth and William Randolph Hearst, according to a small sign displayed at the pier.
With an extended sun deck, wooden fireplace and two antique bathtubs on board, the inside of the yacht is as marvelous and historic as its exterior.
“It’s a palace afloat,” Lint said.
Lint hoped to organize tours of El Primero during his time docked in Astoria, but he said he was denied local dock space. The ship is now anchored a few dozen feet away from the edge of the pier.
“I love that it looks so rustic,” Sonia Hansen, who pulled over on the pier to take a photo of the yacht, said. “Nowadays, it’s hard to find things that are preserved like that.”
“It’s still on the water,” Lynne Aspin, a tourist who had made the trip up from Cannon Beach, said. “That’s amazing.”
Tourists like Hansen and Aspin may have a few more months to gawk at the oddity. Lint is not sure when he’ll head back out to the Pacific, so El Primero may stay in Astoria through the winter.
Eventually, the captain plans to guide the ship under San Francisco’s landmark bridge, but, according to Lint, the Golden Gate may not be El Primero’s final destination.
“I’d like to take it around the world.”