The Victorian ‘gunboat’ Yavarí is the oldest of her kind in the world. A truly remarkable ship and a tribute to 19th century shipbuilding prowess.
Designed as a steam-sailer her 100ft (30.48m) iron hull was constructed by the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Co. in 1861/2. Her original steam engine – custom-built for high altitude – was built by the James Watt Foundry in Birmingham.
She was commissioned by the Peruvian Government as a gunboat to protect the country from Bolivia and as a general cargo and passenger vessel to operate around Lake Titicaca. But how did she get to the lake 3,810m up in the Andes? Answer – in small sections accompanied by a Chief Engineer and seven skilled British shipwrights and boiler men.
First she was totally assembled in the British shipyard. Then broken down into 1,383 components and shipped in packing cases around Cape Horn to Peru. There she was off-loaded and transported by train across the Atacama, the world’s driest desert, to Tacna, 65 kms inland.
The crates containing the Yavarí and her sister ship Yapura, another 1,383 items, were then unpacked and dispatched on the backs of mules and porters to the Lake. This was only 350 kms away but the route rose from 550m to 3,810m over passes of 4,800m. It was daunting and fraught with delays. A second invasion attempted by Spain (resulting in the Yavarí ‘s guns being diverted for use on the coast), civil war, a crooked contractor and a local peasants’ revolt were among the reasons it took six years for enough parts to arrive in Puno to build one of the two ships.
Meanwhile, the British engineers rode up to the Lake in nine days. Their task was to build machine shops and a slipway where the Yavarí was eventually reassembled and launched on Christmas Day 1870. Three years later the Yapura (now BAP Puno) followed, and together they plied the Lake. Their steam engines ran on dried llama droppings.
In 1898 the Yavarí‘s hull was extended by 50ft (15.24m) and in 1914, the steam engine was replaced by a Swedish hot bulb, 4-cylinder semi diesel Bolinder. Today it is the world’s oldest and largest Bolinder extant and thus a collector’s piece. Grown men have been moved to tears by the nostalgic sight, sound and smell of this leviathan.
By 1983 the Yavarí had long been abandoned and lay waiting to be scrapped. This was when English woman Meriel Larken searching for the ship which she believed had been built by her great grandfather, the eminent Victorian shipbuilder, Alfred Yarrow, found the hulk and resolved to rescue it. In 1987, greatly encouraged by a letter of support from His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, she founded two charities: The Yavari Project in the UK and La Asociación Yavarí in Peru, and bought the ship from the Peruvian Navy.
BBC TV ‘Full Circle‘ 1996
Thanks to the efforts and support of her Anglo-Peruvian sponsors, crew, volunteers and visitors from around the world, the Yavarí now offers the unique experience of Bed & Breakfast on a Victorian vessel floating gently on the highest navigable waterway in the world – the Incas’ Sacred Lake, Lake Titicaca.