Heritage hunt

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Nautical nut scours world tracing history of vintage craft.

Queenstown mariner Alan Kirker has flown to the other side of the world to trace the pedigree of his vintage craft.

Kirker bought the now 62-year-old Yvalda – a regular sight cutting through Lake Wakatipu – “on the spur of the moment” in 2003 for a hefty price.

The wooden vessel is no stranger to admiring looks, apparently seducing one of the richest men in Scotland – as well as legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

But when Kirker bought Yvalda, she was “a mystery ship” – previous owner Richard Farrar knew only that she’d been built in 1936 in Clyde, Scotland by McGruer & Co.

Not knowing the background of his prized craft niggled away at Kirker.

He’d tracked down George McGruer, son of the original builder, and chatted to him by phone but wasn’t satisfied – so last October the 47-year-old Queenstowner headed to Britain, combining his 25th wedding anniversary with a fact-finding mission.

“When you talk to people by phone on the other side of the world, it’s just not the same as face-to-face,” Kirker says.

He decided on his pilgrimage just two weeks before leaving. “I decided right-oh and said to [wife] Jo, ‘Let’s go’.”

Searching for people with boating pedigrees and links to Yvalda – worth upward of $5 million, says Kirker – he first attended an international boat show in Italy before travelling to Glasgow to meet McGruer.

The 75-year-old Scotsman took Kirker to his boatyard and to the exclusive Royal Clyde Yacht Club, together unravelling Yvalda’s past.

Two Scottish brothers commissioned the boat from designer GL Watson and boatbuilders the McGruers, owning her until the Second World War broke out in 1939 when the craft was commandeered by the Royal Navy.

Yvalda’s wartime exploits are fuzzy – records were “locked up or never kept” – but Kirker got wind of a serviceman who’d sailed in her.

“We heard that an old Scottish chap had the logbook, all of the minutes of the meetings, who was onboard and everything for this particular boat.

“I happened to mention this to George in the small hours on our second single malt and he said, ‘That’s my cousin, he died two years ago’.”

Hopes dashed, Kirker then met a source in England with a remarkable yarn – Churchill had apparently used the craft in wartime.

“He’d seen a photo of Churchill on Yvalda [during the] Dunkirk [evacuation].”

The story was reinforced when McGruer introduced his Kiwi charge to an elderly chap at the yacht club.

“George said ‘Do you remember the Yvalda?’. He said ‘God yeah, I remember when she was launched’.”

The contact also claimed to have known one James Napier, a wealthy Scot who bought Yvalda after the war.

Napier was reportedly friends with Britain’s King George VI and PM Churchill.

Kirker has directly traced his boat’s UK ownership back to 1977. He assumes that’s when she was sailed to New Zealand, first to Wellington before later arriving in Queenstown.

“She sailed out [to NZ] under her own steam,” he says. “With the fuel she carries, the sails, the wind and the tides, she would have hopped from port to port.

“But once she got here, she’d never get back again – the winds would be wrong. So she was obviously sold when she came here and [the owners who brought her to NZ] made their own way back again.”

Home after his heritage hunt, Captain Kirker reckons his mission isn’t over.

“We’ve probably found half the owners so far, now we just have to contact them all,” he says.

“In the next month or two, we’ll be talking to one of the grandchildren of the original owners that had it commissioned to be built.

“It’s going to take years to piece [Yvalda’s history] together. [Luckily] a boat like this isn’t really forgotten.”