Vessel that carried Hollywood royalty, doomed aviatrix slated to leave B.C. forever

The Taconite, a 125-foot luxury yacht built in 1930 for the founder of Boeing Aircraft, has been sold to a foreign buyer

She has glided through the Great Bear Rainforest as grizzlies swiped salmon from streams. Amelia Earhart has walked across her warm teak deck, which hosted many extravagant cocktail parties. Her state rooms have welcomed celebrities such as Al Pacino.

But now, the Taconite, a 125-foot luxury yacht built in 1930 for the founder of Boeing Aircraft, has been sold to a foreign buyer, which has mariners worried she could sail out of B.C. waters forever.

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The Taconite’s owner, Capt. Gordon Levett, listed her for sale for $2.5 million in 2015.

Since then, Kristina Long, a Taconite admirer who has captained other classic boats, has been trying to find a local buyer to prevent losing a B.C. treasure. Long had connected Levett with one potential Vancouver buyer who was thrilled by her pitch to re-establish the Taconite as a historical vessel, a sort of floating museum docked in Vancouver and available for luxury charter trips. However, in June, a French buyer swooped in before they could close the deal.

Long was gutted and she contacted Heritage Canada, Canada Border Services Agency and several Greater Victoria MLAs in an attempt to prevent an export permit from being issued.

So far, her efforts have been in vain.

“A lot of our wooden vessels here on the west coast that carry historical value, they get purchased and shipped out and then they’re gone forever,” Long said.

“That ship has always been in Canada,” said Jim Walters, the Taconite’s chief engineer since 1993.

The yacht was built in Coal Harbour in 1930 as a pleasure craft for aviation pioneer William Boeing. The vessel, made out of Burmese teak, has five staterooms, a formal dining room and a salon with a wood-burning fireplace.

Its launch on June 11, 1930, attracted socialites and the well-heeled from across the Pacific Northwest. Amelia Earhart was a guest on the Taconite before her ill-fated attempt to circumnavigate the globe in 1937.

The Taconite carried Boeing’s first series of two-way radio communications, which he developed for his mail-carrying sea planes. It was from Taconite’s radio room, dubbed the “Texan” room, that Boeing carried out tests of initial transmissions, said Long, who has been researching the Taconite’s history through the Vancouver Archives.

Before the Second World War ended, Taconite was the first recreational vessel to operate with a ship’s radar in North America.

William and Bertha Boeing would spend summers cruising to Alaska. Often, William Boeing would take a float plane to catch up with the boat as it floated off Alaska.

“Bertha Boeing was the real boater in the family,” Levett told the Times Colonist. “She loved it, she was away on it from start to finish of the summer season.”

“It’s probably the most prominent pleasure boat [in B.C.]” Levett said.

Long said the ship is a living historical artifact, with original oil paintings and furniture dating to the late 1920s and early 1930s. Also kept with the boat are original build ledgers, work orders, dinner invitations and guest books signed by notable socialite families invited to cruise aboard the vessel.

Walters was hired as chief engineer in 1993 based on his expertise restoring and servicing luxury classic cars. Walters had been enthralled with the Taconite since his 20s, when he spotted her gliding through Desolation Sound while he was in a rowboat.

“I remember rowing alongside it, looking inside the brass porthole and being amazed by it, never believing that one day in the future I’d be running it,” he said.

Walters was the on-board engineer when the yacht was chartered out by anyone who could afford the $37,000-US-a-week price tag.

The yacht would cruise through the Inside Passage to Alaska, which at a leisurely speed of 12 knots, takes about three weeks. “It’s like you’re back in another era,” Walters said. “Time slows down. It’s really something.”

During one venture into the Great Bear Rainforest, Walters and the passengers watched grizzly bears hunt for salmon from a stream just seven metres away.

The Taconite provided a floating hotel for Al Pacino, Hilary Swank and Robin Williams in 2001 when they were in Alaska shooting scenes for the psychological thriller Insomnia.

Walters estimates he spent 700 hours rebuilding the starboard engine, an old Atlas-Imperial diesel engine, after a failure in 1994.

A lot of work goes into maintaining the ship, Walters said. Every few years, the teak floors need to be varnished, and the boat needs to be put into drydock to paint the hull.

The Taconite spent most of her days docked in Coal Harbour and Port Moody, but for the past year has been berthed in Maple Bay.

Prior to the latest sale, the yacht had only changed hands twice since Boeing built it: once in 1977 when the Boeing estate sold it to a man named Daryl Brown, and once in 1987 when it was sold to Levett, the former owner of the Pacific Coast Lines bus company. Levett restored the boat under the guidance of Bill Boeing Jr.

“It’s been in the Pacific Northwest all its life,” Levett told the Puget Sound Business Journal in 2015 after the boat was put up for sale. “And that’s where we hope to keep it.”

Levett acknowledges that the decision to remove the boat from B.C. waters is not a popular one.

“[The new owners] are meeting with quite a bit of opposition, I think, to taking it away from Canada, from this northwest area,” he said.

Levett said he would have liked to see the boat stay in Canada. However, he said there were only a few interested buyers and he sold to the one who made the best offer. The boat was sold for close to $1 million.

Levett, 78, told the Times Colonist he doesn’t know where the new owners will take the boat. Walters has been told that the plan is to take the Taconite to New York for retrofitting before it sails down to the Bahamas.

Both Walters and Long worry the heat and humidity will be harmful to the wooden boat. “A boat like that in the Bahamas is going to be destroyed in a couple of years,” Walters said.

Neither Walters nor Levett have been told when the new owners plan to collect this floating piece of B.C. history.

It’s a day Walters and Long are dreading.

“I’m just sick about it leaving,” Walters said.

“There are very few of the large classics left,” Long said. “This is the last one in B.C.”

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