Published: Tuesday April 11 2023, 9.00pm BST, The Times
Lady of the Lake
Two great struggles; two great ladies of a certain age whose lives became intertwined; but one is 163, while Meriel Larken can’t be half that age.
I had lunch with Meriel last Wednesday. Forty years ago this sea captain’s daughter fell in love with the world’s oldest iron-built lake steamer on the world’s highest navigable lake. It’s no exaggeration to say Meriel has since rescued the Yavari — lying rotting, as she was, in the mud shore at Puno on Lake Titicaca in Peru.
In her wonderful book The Ship, the Lady and the Lake, Meriel tells the story of the other lady, commissioned by the Peruvian navy for their lake in 1860, built in West Ham in east London, disassembled into 2,776 pieces, shipped to the Peruvian Pacific, sent by train to the foot of the Andes, transported on mules and llamas up the Andes to 12,507 feet, reassembled (Ikea flatpacks are for softies) and launched in 1870. For more than a century, adapted to burn llama dung, she sailed the lake and was then abandoned. Meriel found her. It’s not long since Meriel took a posse of underprivileged boys from West Ham United supporters’ club on a sponsored epic Andean walk retracing the ship’s climb.
She’s a floating museum piece (the Yavari, not Meriel) and beautifully restored, engine and all — I’ve visited her. But now she’s caught up in Peruvian bureaucracy, can’t earn her keep and Meriel is desperately worried. Any retired admirals out there? Marine philanthropists? Peruvian ambassadors? Two ladies need rescue.