A Tangled Web of Deceit
It’s appropriate to start the story of the SS Princess Louise, like the film “Sunset Boulevard,” at the end and with the victim dead and under water.
The police would register the facts as follows: On the afternoon of 30 June 1990, the SS Princess Louise sank in 900 feet of water off the Southern California coast, somewhere about 33 degrees latitude and -118 degrees longitude. A bit more, a bit less. To most people it doesn’t matter.
Except that the wreck is located very specifically adjacent to a huge underwater toxic waste dump. And although the supposed intent was for the Princess Louise to have a life as a dive wreck, its location in a toxic field makes that impossible for all but the foolhardy. And its depth makes it an impossible skin dive for all but Superman.
It all started out better than that for the old ship, and for most of her years she was generally free of controversy. It was old age, exacerbated by intrigue and greed, that eventually killed her.
The Princess Louise was launched August 29, 1921 in the Wallace Shipyards in North Vancouver, BC. At the time, all of Europe’s shipyards were fully booked constructing new tonnage to replace that lost in World War I and she gave the British Columbia ship builders a chance to show that they could compete with the best in the world.
The 2,300-ton 317-foot vessel was built as a combination passenger and cargo ship and originally had 133 first class staterooms (all with running hot and cold water) and 26 single berths. Later some cabins were enlarged, bringing the number of cabins down to 126. She was the second Princess Louise in the Canadian Pacific fleet.
For more than 40 years she was known as the “Queen of the Northern Seas,” cruising the straights from Vancouver, BC to Skagway, Alaska with a top speed in sea trials of 17 knots from her four cylinder triple expansion steam engine
By 1964 she was an old ship and was sold to Vancouver interests, which later sold it to a company called Shoreline Holdings, bringing her to Los Angeles Harbor.
And there she was a popular restaurant and banquet facility, moored first on the Terminal Island side of the Main Channel, underneath the Vincent Thomas Bridge, and after 1979 at Berth 94 (current location of the preserved and operating World War II Victory ship SS Lane Victory) on the west bank of the Channel.
She operated with little controversy, hosting family occasions, business meetings, social club soirees, wedding receptions, and the assorted events that call for a unique location.
And, in fact, she was more than just an attractive location; her cuisine was judged to be excellent, as evidenced by a greater Los Angeles gastronomy organization holding its 20th anniversary dinner on board in 1983.
But that may have been the ship’s high water mark as a dining facility—or even as a resident of Los Angeles Harbor.
In 1984 Marion Perkov, a member of a legendary San Pedro restaurant family, bought the ship and—he thought—the Harbor Department lease for its mooring. Unfortunately, the Harbor Department had other ideas.
And that’s where matters surrounding the ship become tangled and confused, a point Mr. Perkov made in court documents four years later when he filed for bankruptcy for the ship, with a later lawsuit charging conspiracy among a number of operators.
Mr. Perkov bought the ship from two developers, Steven Podesta and Bill Moller. They had owned the Princess Louise for two years.
But, Mr. Perkov charged, Podesta and Miller had included the $10,000 per month lease from the Los Angeles Harbor Department, along with the ship itself, in the sale. The Harbor Department, however, said that its leases couldn’t be sold. While the department claimed it did consider transferring the lease to Mr. Perkov at the time of the sale, one official was quoted as saying, it decided against it. The Harbor Department’s reasoning was that it wanted Mr. Podesta and Mr. Miller to continue to be responsible for the ongoing lease payments because an analysis showed the ship’s business operations might not be able to support the monthly charge.
Unfortunately, by 1988 Mr. Perkov was unable to pay his monthly rent on the ship and Mr. Podesta and Mr. Miller were four months behind on their payments to the port. Mr. Perkov filed for bankruptcy and soon thereafter filed a lawsuit charging that he had been the victim of a conspiracy.
In his suit, Mr. Perkov said, among several charges, that Mr. Podesta and Mr. Miller had sold him the lease, which they couldn’t do; that Podesta, Miller, and the Bank of San Pedro (the bank that loaned Mr. Perkov $1.2 million to buy the ship and supposedly its lease) had misrepresented the Princess Louise’s revenues; and that all three had conspired with the Harbor Department to force transfer of the lease for a different company that was to offer dinner cruises from Berth 94.
He had filed the bankruptcy petition in an effort to continue operating. “I’m not here to close,” Perkov told the Los Angeles Times.
Unfortunately, the situation was pretty much out of his hands. The Bank of San Pedro repossessed the ship and had it towed to Southwest Marine, a shipyard now closed on the west bank of the Main Channel, where it began undergoing repairs in preparation to be sold.
On October 30, 1989, in the middle of the day the Princess Louise capsized at her shipyard berth. A harbor tour of city officials was nearby when it happened and they watched as she just went over on her starboard side at Berth 241.
There are theories about why she capsized, but none of them can now be proved. What is known, however, is that while sitting at the berth in the marine yard being prepared for sale the Princess Louise became a treasure trove for divers. Over the course of the several months that she sat at the berth, awaiting a new owner, and even after she had capsized, divers entered the ship and pillaged everything of value. One report said they even threw a party over the Easter weekend, calling it “The Rape of the Princess Louise” party.
Whether the lost artifacts would have made any difference in a potential sale of the ship is unknown. By that time, the bank had decided to just get if off its troubled books and were going to allow it to be salvaged.
But the pillaging wasn’t what the bank or anyone else had in mind for salvaging. Yet, the divers returned time after time to take their pick of fittings, including portholes, mirrors, leaded glass windows, and apparently even two mahogany ship’s wheels, a loss estimated at between $35,000 and $50,000.
The police knew the identities of most of the thieves, but the divers refused to return any of the stolen fittings.
And that’s what galled Willem Boelman, president of Trinav, one of the companies that were to salvage the ship from the Southwest Marine dock. Mr. Boelman said it would have become expensive for him to travel to Los Angeles from his home in Vancouver to testify against the thieving divers, and the costs would have added up through his necessary appearances at potential preliminary hearings and trials. And without his testimony, the cops really couldn’t proceed.
Mr. Boelman had planned to get the vessel floated again and transfer it to the California Department of Fish & Game for $1 to be sunk as a diving reef off Pt. Vicente. But he was not a happy man with the way this whole affair was taking shape. He wasn’t going to make any money off the artifacts that were being pillaged—rather than salvaged—off the hulk. All he would make would be his one-third split of the $1 million Southwest Marine would pay to get it out of its dock so other business could come in.
So he claimed to have an offer of $175,000 from a Mexican scrap yard for the hulk. That way he’d not only make some money, but he’d also deny those divers a great spot to explore on the ocean bottom.
Mr. Boelman eventually relented and agreed to scuttling it as a reef, rather than selling it for scrap. At least that’s how things appeared in May 1990.
Work was moving ahead on refloating the Princess Louise’s remains. The plan was to do things topsy turvy. Workers welded openings shut and used quick drying plastic along the bottom of the hull and main deck openings so the ship would be air tight. They then began removing the ballast from the bottom of the hull so that when she was refloated, the Princess Louise would be upside down. She was winched onto a barge for the journey.
Local dive clubs were looking forward to the opportunity to visit the new reef once the hull made its way out and was scuttled at the designated location, just north of the Pt. Vicente Light House.
Unfortunately, she didn’t make it that far. And she made it too far down—and in a most unfortunate location—to be used as a diving reef.
Enroute to the designated location, the salvagers decided they had to scuttle the ship because they said it was taking on water and was posing a risk to the whole operation and the salvage crew.
She went down in 900 feet of water on the edge of a dump site used to discard material dredged from the harbors in San Pedro Bay. Too deep to dive and in an area full of potentially hazardous material where it would be unhealthy for divers.
And so she sits today, dead, face down in the water.
After the sinking, the Environmental Protection Agency said it needed to be moved. Under 900 feet of water. EPA feared that the nets it drags along the ocean floor to collect samples of fish and other sea life to test for pollutants might become hooked on the remains of the Princess Louise. The Coast Guard said moving the hulk just wasn’t feasible and we haven’t heard anything about that idea being renewed in the better part of 30 years.
The story of the SS Princess Louise and her demise is not one that the Harbor community dwells on, although she’s remembered fondly for her many years as a fine restaurant and attractive location.
It’s the subplots that rile the locals.
There was the Harbor Commissioner who was convicted of conflict of interest for voting for the original Princess Louise lease, even though he had a financial interest, through a loan, in the company that was bringing the ship to Los Angeles.
Then there are the tangled finances of Moller and Podesta, their sale of the lease they couldn’t sell, what some have said was their overstatement of its profits, their eventual ownership of the Bank of San Pedro, which foreclosed on the ship.
And, of course, there are the potentially conflicting interests of two bank officials, Chairman Peter Mandia and Mark Richter, a former employee of a Bank of San Pedro subsidiary, who were also port officials when the Harbor Commission voted to transfer the lease for the Princess Louise berth not to Marion Perkov, who was operating the ship, but to a dinner cruise company that was supposed to begin service in the port.
No one wants to remember—or try to untangle—that web of deceit. They just like to remember the good times they had on the one-time Canadian Pacific steamer that was the site of happy weddings, anniversaries, business and social meetings. The pretty ship that evoked an era gone by and the world class cuisine.
The good memories. Not the memory of something dead, floating face down.