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From the River Thames to Lake Titicaca


In the heat of the engine room, huge copper-coloured cylinders hiss as Capt. Carlos Saavedra pulls hard on the accelerator lever of the oldest working ship in the Americas.

Four decades after Peru’s navy abandoned the 144-year-old Yavari on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Englishwoman Meriel Larken has rescued the Victorian-era vessel from its wretched state.

Larken hopes to begin cruise trips from next year, taking advantage of South America’s boom in adventure and luxury tourism. “You couldn’t leave a ship like that to die. She needed to be saved because she’s unique,” said Larken, who discovered the ruined Yavari rusting and listing in the mid-1980s while working in southern Peru.

The world’s oldest single propeller-driven iron passenger ship still in operation, the Yavari was commissioned in 1861 by the government of Peru as a gunboat for Lake Titicaca, on the border of Peru and Bolivia.

Built in London alongside the River Thames, the Yavari was dismantled and shipped in kit form to Peru and transported by mules over the Andes to the lake, the world’s highest navigable waterway at 3,800 metres above sea level.
The 310-km journey along steep winding trails at high altitude was too arduous even for the local porters.

Desertions, sickness, an Indian revolt, an earthquake and a short war with Spain delayed the delivery, meaning the task lasted six years, while British engineers and Peruvian tradesman took another two years to reassemble the ship. The Yavari, initially with a steam engine fueled by llama dung, was eventually launched on Christmas Day 1870, plying minerals, llamas, coffee, coca and passengers between the Peruvian and Bolivian sides of Lake Titicaca.

The ship’s canons were kept back at the coast, however, because of the threat of war in 1865 with former colonial power Spain, which refused to accept Peru’s independence of 1821.

The Yavari was later joined by several other British-made, iron-hulled ships on Lake Titicaca, including her sister ship the Yapura, which is still used as a hospital vessel by Peru’s navy, and the Coya, built in 1892, which was run aground in the floods of 1984 and was converted into a tourist restaurant.

The Yavari’s steam engine was replaced in 1914 with a Swedish Bolinder four-cylinder semi-diesel engine, today the oldest of its kind in the world.

Reviving the Yavari, which in the early 1970s served as a place of detention for sailors, started after Larken paid 5,000 US dollars for the ship from the Peruvian navy.
Despite the Yavari’s apparent slow death in the mud of Lake Titicaca, the high altitude and fresh water meant the hull had not seriously corroded and was worthy of restoration.

“You’d never find a ship in salty seawater lasting so long,” said Capt. Saavedra.

Larken was also aided by a chance meeting with President Alan García, who was just beginning his first term in the mid-1980s and who helped the Yavari project thrust through the country’s burdensome bureaucracy. “García called me over at a rally in southern Peru and said to me: Young lady, we will do whatever we can to help,” Larken recalled.
In 1999, with its restoration almost complete, the Yavari sailed out of Lake Titicaca’s port of Puno for the first time in over 40 years.

With García back in power two decades later, many in Peru’s tourist industry hope his government can maintain the political stability in the southern Andes that has allowed tens of thousands of international tourists to visit the Yavari over the past five years.

Filled with its original navigational tools including a telegraph from Deptford in southern England, a capstan and a Scottish-made compass, the ship’s library, narrow cabins and dining saloon are decked out in varnished Canadian pine.

A congratulatory letter from Britain’s Prince Philip and copies of the ship’s original contracts and insurance documents hang on the walls.

Tourist donations help the Yavari cover its 2,000 US dollars -a-month running costs.

But to fit the ship out to meet modern passenger safety standards, the project is short of 350,000 US dollars before being able to start regular day trips for tourists around the lake — an attraction peppered with ruins from pre-Columbian cultures and which the great Inca civilization believed was the birthplace of their god creator.

“Now, when Peruvian naval officers come aboard, they wonder why they sold her,” said crewmember Maximo Flores, who has worked on the Yavari’s restoration for over a decade.(BAH)