tkitching (tkitching) wrote,

The Iron fleet of Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca holds the claim to be the world's highest navigable lake. Exactly what that means I'm not entirely sure, after all, one could take a small dingy to a higher lake and float about for a bit until the man from the record book comes huffing over the ridge to recognise you. Perhaps in its favour is the famous Titicaca iron fleet. 5 genuine ships that worked the lake in various jobs, and at 12,500 ft above sea level, have plenty of stories of their own that set them apart from shipping elsewhere.

My first sight of this vast, high lake is from the bus in the dead of night. Actually, my first impression of nearly everywhere in the Andes is from a bus in the middle of the night. That's the best way to cram so much in, when distances are so great. It's exhausting, but it's allowed for an incredibly rewarding fortnight.

This is a pretty decent first view though, as we come over the last hill and descend into the rough and ready town of Puno. We're well above the lake, and I can see the reflections of the city as it curves round with the sweep of the bay. Still water making a perfect duplicate of the land. We leave the bus and grab a few hours extra sleep in the hostel. I've arranged a meeting at 10am, a meeting that is my main reason for being here.

At 9.30am, showered and actually fairly well rested, we get a taxi and a sandwich, and drive out of the northern edge of the city, along ribbon settlements for a couple of miles, until we come to a gated causeway with a security guard. Waved through, we proceed down the long drive of what can only be a Bond Villain's lair. A white fortified castle shaped hotel has been built on this island. Imposing, grand, with lawns, gardens, a winding road to the front door, discrete guards, its opulence completely out of character with everything I've seen in Peru so far.

We get out of our taxi, and the driver rushes away, glad to be paid and clear of this place. A smartly besuited young man with a walkie-talkie appears, "Mr Kitching? We have been expecting you." and we're ushered into the building, and made to sit at a desk, where an immaculately dressed lady is completing something important on her computer. The reception of this hotel is vast, spotless, and empty. We're provided with a hot drink. She turns her attention politely to us.

Money is handed over, forms are completed, and we're escorted out again, and chauffeured in a huge four by four the few hundred metres to the jetty. Our bags unloaded, we stand in the bright sun, alone, as the hotel has now finished with us, and wait. After a few minutes, a small wooden launch with an outboard comes our way across the sparkling water. A rounded, pleasantly worn man with a broad smile introduces himself as Teodocio, and hands us life jackets to wear. We load our bags onto the rocking, unstable boat, and head out into the lake.

This is why I've come to South America. Actually there are loads of reasons why I've come. My old school friend, Jess, has been teaching here, and invited me to visit. There's so much to see and do out here, and so few chains binding me to home that the decision wasn't hard. Who wouldn't want to see the Bolivian salt flats, the grand volcanic ranges of the Northern Atacama desert, and Machu Picchu, perhaps the most famous view in the world? Cusco, city of red tiles and fine dining, La Paz, dark hearted canyon dweller, so much more besides, not to mention picking up a friendship and writing a great new chapter.

But this was the topper, the thing that made it a certainty I wanted to be here. Something I first heard about as a child, back when it was derelict and might never work again. Something so far away, but with a strong personal interest. And now we were heading towards it, moored out on the lake.

The Yavari is a retired gunship, and one of the most extraordinary vessels in the world. Commissioned by Peru in 1864, it has had the most amazing story. Normally when you commission a ship, the shipbuilder will make you one and sail it to where it is required. At 12,500 feet up in the sky, right in the top of the Andean Altiplano, this was not a possibility. Consequently, this ship was created in London as a kit of 2600 parts, each small enough to be borne by a mule, crated up, shipped to the coast of Peru, taken by rail a short way inland, and then carried by mule train for 180 winding, epic miles up into the interior. By the time it was reassembled and launched it was 1870.

Fuel was a problem. Far from any coal deposits, and with the cost of bringing such a bulky fuel so great a distance being prohibitive, it ran with a llama dung steam engine till 1914, when they commissioned a state of the art crude-oil engine from Bolinder of Sweden. Here's my connection. I have a share of an old working boat on the UK canals, with the classic 15hp single cylinder Bolinder engine. These engines are highly sought after, and the remaining examples always popular with enthusiasts. The Yavari's is the largest in the world at a staggering 320hp, a unique engineering solution to a unique set of circumstances. We're a small and disparate club, united by marine oil engines!

The increased power that the oil engine brought allowed for a significant upgrade of the ship, and being fundamentally modular, they were able to add another hull section, bringing this vessel to over 140ft in length.
So yes, I've travelled half a globe to find the world's largest semi-diesel engine.

Vibrating with excitement, we're given the tour. I say vibrating, I certainly was. Jess, whilst suitably enthusiastic about this fine old ship, was perhaps a notch or two less wound up about it than me, but was happy to indulge this long standing anorak fantasy of mine. The tour goes right round the various decks. Not a big ship, but spacious to my eye, and in fantastic condition. A full restoration that took two decades was completed last autumn, and not a thing is out of place. All the brasses shine, and the paint is new and bright. Being fresh water, the lake has contributed to her survival, as the hull had hardly rusted at all over the years.

Finally we're led down into the engine room. The heart and sanctum of this place. The first thing to say is that it's big. My engine is big enough, with a flywheel it takes two strong men to lift, 1 cylinder you can just about get your arms round. It can propel a 40 ton loaded boat, whilst towing another. It's not trivial. And this thing completely dwarfs it. The size of a small parish church, the engine room is focused on the four giant cylinders that in pairs make up this unique contraption.

Part of the deal is that they're going to run the engine for me. In communication with them beforehand, I sent videos of my boat and engine, including when my friend and band mate, Edwin, and I took her through the ice to the Radio 2 Folk Awards. They've watched them, and get that I'm not just a normal tourist when it comes to this thing. The lack of language between us is more than compensated for by a mutual enthusiasm. I spend a merry hour poking all over their engine room, explaining what everything does to Jess, who does an excellent job of pretending to be interested. After lunch we will start this thing. Silent, it waits for us to come back.

We catch the little boat back to land, and get a lift into town. An hour, then, to consider Puno. Most tourists pass straight through, preferring to avoid the low rise concrete and lack of any obvious tourist attractions. You can get a boat out to the floating islands, but many people consider them too tacky, being a device simply to transport you to a floating market with no escape until the appointed hour. Puno is a hard-working, busy place, with a market aimed at the locals. We get a set menu lunch, always the best option, and load up with goodies for the evening. Back to the ship we go, through the gates of the supervillain's masterpiece, down to the jetty.

Back on the ship, the full team have assembled. Teodocio is joined by Chief Engineer Maximo Flores, his wife Antonia, and a lad called Luis who is learning the ropes. We descend down the steep steps to the sacred space.

Starting an engine like this is not simple. You have to remember that it was pretty much the first meaningful attempt at marine diesel engines, and needed to outperform steam. Steam engines, whilst powerful, have two big drawbacks that this machine fixed. Coal or other solid fuel is much bulkier than oil, and steam engines, especially big ones, take hours to get up to pressure. This engine can be started in a single hour.

If anyone is interested, I've written up the running process in gory detail elsewhere, but for the sake of normal people standing a chance of getting to the end of this article, you can imagine the phone app advert where it says 'Sequence shortened'. Suffice to say that there are many, many things to oil, grease, set, heat, position, turn over, gauge, top up, empty, assemble, calibrate. No wonder the invention of push button engines fifteen years later put Bolinder well and truly out of business.

First task is to get the huge flywheel into position for starting the engine. It's been a while since it ran, and with a six foot bar attached to it, they can't generate enough force to unstick it. Eventually, I volunteer my fifteen stone of beer-belly to the cause, and bounce on the end of the bar for maximum leverage. Five of us together free the engine, and it turns over with a mighty whooshing sound, as air rushes out of the open valves on the four cylinders.

The main item in the sequence though, is lighting the four huge paraffin blowers that heat the tops of the four cylinders. Not having great compression technology in 1914, these cylinders don't get enough heat through their limited compression to produce combustion, and must be heated at the point of injection till cherry red to help the process. The paraffin blowers are hard to make work, sometimes firing flames the wrong direction, or going out. Luis and Teodocio have to stay with them, taking care. It's dangerous and subtle work.

After half an hour, the engine is hot, and suitably oily and we can begin. I know it must be nearly ready when Antonia unbolts the escape hatch in the ceiling. Compressed air is used to start the engine, and through the dexterous working of a valve, Maximo is able to start the monster. Slowly at first, it doesn't want to go, then it picks up, and the fuel must be reduced. Complex taps, handles, and governors control the system. The engineer must always be on hand to respond to what the engine asks for. Things that are automated on modern engines, like how much air it gets per stroke, are all manually set and constantly adjusted. This is why us enthusiasts love them so much, the feedback and personality. You feel like you are working in tandem with some sentient force, and that by pleasing it, you will be rewarded with better performance. Neglect it, and it'll go out, and sit sullenly to remind you to pay more care.

The room is now vibrating those big solid vibrations that come from seriously chunky machinery running well. It becomes normal. The governors clack in rhythm, arcs of metal rocking back and forth over tables. Oilers slowly rotate round, flywheel back in its cage, a blur. Antonia is running the main controls whilst Maximo takes temperature readings. Peru is not, if I'm honest, the most progressive country I've been in with regard to gender, but I'm delighted to see Antonia take a full role in the operation of this. She's not just making the tea and cutting rags, but clearly has a deep and detailed understanding of the engine. Makers of 'Robot Wars' take note.

Me? I'm in heaven. I've always wanted to see this thing run, and now it's happening. The room is full of smoke, noise, and oil, but I don't care if I get crud and shite all over my travelling clothes. I'm allowed a go, and get to use the reverser. This engine doesn't have a gearbox; it's directly connected to the propeller, when engaged. If you want to go backwards, you have to get the engine to turn the other way. It does this by disengaging the fuel pumps and engaging a different pump, out of sequence, calibrated to fire a shot of fuel just before it would stall. Madness. This is the same as my engine, but on a much bigger scale. To control this, and watch a collection of lumps of metal this large, as they stop, and instantly start up again in reverse is quite a thrill. Like our engine, this process is not 100% reliable! I count 5 from 8 as successful, with the others picking up in the same direction. Antonia says that this feature makes her a little nervous when they head into port. This sounds familiar!

Anyway, the next hour of tinkering need not be described in detail. You can imagine me, gradually getting covered in oil, poking bits of this magnificent engine, quite oblivious to anything else. Jess has had enough engine, hard though it may be to believe, and is out enjoying the sun on deck. Eventually, it's brought to a halt, and a long cleaning process begins. After a while, we're all on deck for the goodbye. I'm enormously grateful to them for an ambition achieved. We recognise that whilst separated by half a world, culture, language, we share something in common that transcends any of that. Plenty of tourists come to this boat and museum, but almost none have any interest beyond dropping by. I promise to put up videos and pictures and promote them, and offer them a luxury trip on an oil tanker next time they're in the UK. Then they're all off in the little launch, heading for land.

And we're still here, because the business plan they've made is through the hotel, for B+B on the ship. I've got the Captain's cabin, and Jess has the First Mate's. We make salsa and bits of food in the galley, and open a bottle of red wine, bought at random in Puno. It's incredibly sweet, so we pretend it's port. We sit out on deck and watch the sun come down over Puno, a bird of paradise in pastel shades, from bright yellows and reds to darkness drawn from amber and brown, every five minutes, a completely new picture. Peru has the best light I've ever seen. From 4pm every evening, the colours and shadows are beautiful, and with a mile of water between us and the town, the picture is one of total calm, the bustle of the city masked by falling shades and distance. Puno is at rest, a breath gently held.

I joke that breakfast will probably arrive on the launch, held aloft on a silver tray by an immaculately uniformed waiter. Darkness is complete now, and the great barking of the hounds begins. Night time belongs to the dogs, and they start their conversation now, all along the shore, each bark carrying clearly across the flat water. Chinese whispers of bones, lady dogs, good piles of rubbish, intruders, all up and down the curving shore, until I have 180 degree arc of bark. It's the opposite of the dawn chorus. I sit out until I realise I'm cold. The hotel has sent a security guard to watch the ship overnight, and he makes a hot water bottle out of my old wine bottle and a sock.

I wake early, having left the porthole in my cabin uncovered so the rising sun would hit me. I head out onto deck and practice my fiddle. At 6am, a launch sets off from the hotel, in which an immaculately dressed waitress is holding our breakfast aloft on a silver platter. We dine at the Captain's table on sausages, bacon, eggs, breads, jams, coffee. The waitress insists I sit in the Captain's chair, which embarrasses me. Jess thinks it's funny.

Finally, it's time to leave. I've never really been one for 'Bucket Lists', as mine consists of a dozen buckets I'd really quite like, but if I did, this would be one of the biggest ticks to get. There's something incredibly human about the realisation that wherever you go, there are nutters just like you who get covered in oil, and play with engines and boats. Finding that bit of common ground erases all the cultural and language differences. I'm home here. It's not just a beautiful object. It's a beautiful feeling. One that makes me so happy to be alive, and to be here.

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