Stormy port

The stand-off at Ballard's Fishermen's Terminal grows more pitched.

FLOYD DINGMAN, 83, was handling the pressure just fine. Must be that new blood transfusion, he said. "Hope it wasn't from a wino."

A fisherman since age 19, his kindly gaze roved over the faces of supporters, a half-dozen fishers and spouses pushed together in a cramped Port of Seattle office last week. "Stand up to them, Floyd," one said.

The Port had seized and sold his boat, a converted 1948 troller, for unpaid moorage fees. He bought it back from a stranger for $201, a dollar more than its cut-rate auction price. Nonetheless, the Port was going to arrest him if he tied up to its pier again.

Which he promptly did, his Old Glory flapping valiantly on the stern of the Sea Spirit as he sped down a waterway and swung into Fishermen's Terminal.

He strode through icy air into the general manager's office, eyes twinkling with anticipation like the time he grabbed that Coast Guard admiral by the epaulets and said, "I don't understand these new rules!" or the day he caused that international incident, kidnapping a big, bearded Canadian fisheries officer who had boarded his boat, taking him to American waters and telling U.S. authorities on his marine radio, "I have a pirate aboard who I have arrested." At age 75, he got two weeks in jail.

Across the office counter, terminal manager Jim Serrill tilted back, arms folded, letting Dingman have his moment. "I've got my receipts now . . . August, September, October; the Port's been cashing them," Dingman said. "I didn't have them yesterday when that cop told me that you would put me in jail. So, just exactly what's your game, selling my boat illegally and now this."

Serrill stood silent.

"So I'm back in my berth," Dingman said, straightening his jaunty captain's cap. "I just came in to tell you that. Well?"

Serrill didn't move.

"You haven't tried to do anything decent, Jim," Dingman continued. "Why are you trying to drive the fishermen out?"

Serrill finally responded: "I'd like to refer you to our media representative." He listened to a few more questions, pivoted, and disappeared into an office.

"You can't reason with these guys," Dingman huffed.

Later, media representative Mick Shultz would say Dingman owed $1,705 in back moorage and other costs (his monthly rent is $141). "We've been trying to work with him for a year. No, we aren't trying to drive fishermen out of the terminal," he added, referring to the Port's plan to eventually permit pleasure boat moorage at the terminal. The last major American inner-city wharf devoted almost exclusively to fishing boats, Ballard's Fishermen's Terminal was given to Seattle's commercial fishing fleet by Union Pacific Railroad circa 1913, with the Port as caretaker. "We prefer to keep it strictly fishing boats," Shultz says, "but with the vacancy rate, it's hard to make the investments we need to."

That's the official view. Longtime fisher Bret Barnecut says an increasing number of terminal boat owners are involved in moorage disputes. He suspects it's part of the Port's strategy to unwelcome some fishers. He protested by not paying his own moorage and got his boat chained up, he says.

Local fishermen's protest leader Pete Knutson thinks the Port will eventually develop the terminal into a scenic backdrop of fishing boats and yachts to view from a ringing wall of condos. "Floyd is a microcosm of what's happening down here," he says.

Spokesperson Shultz says that's typical fish-tale nonsense from Port detractors. "Do you know fishermen?" he asks me.

"Yes," I answered.

"So it's not a surprise to you that people behave that way," he declares.

But thanks to Dingman's behavior at the office face-off, the Port has now agreed to let him tie up until at least next Tuesday while it negotiates a time-payment plan. He's also suing the Port in Small Claims Court for allegedly selling his boat illegally.

Still, the old fisherman may now hang up his nets for good.

"Last fall I had $8,500 in thefts while my boat was at the terminal," he said, securing lines back at Dock 9. "And I had a fire. I couldn't make the season last year, my first time. I fell behind on the rent and took the first other job I've had in 42 years, driving rental cars around the airport. I had a nervous breakdown. I had the blood transfusion. My doctor told me to quit the airport job. I wrenched my knee and was on crutches. Everything went down the tube."

He patted the side of his boat, besieged, like him, by history. He caught deck loads of fish in the good days, and he, his wife, and daughter lived aboard in lean years. "I'd sure like to get out there one more time," he said. "But I'm better off selling, you know?"

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