Gordie Levett’s first job was paperboy, dragging a canvas bag full of afternoon editions of the Vancouver Province around his West Vancouver neighbourhood. Levett had his regular customers, the tippers, the cheapskates and the in-betweens, but the most memorable was Perth McIntyre, a slim, slow-talking, white-haired sea captain. McIntyre’s home overlooked the water. The boat he captained was the Taconite, the finest private yacht in the Pacific Northwest, commissioned by William Boeing, the Seattle aviation pioneer whose company built seaplanes — and classic wooden yachts — in the old Boeing plant on Vancouver’s waterfront in the 1930s.
“When the Taconite was coming and going it would go right by the McIntyre house in West Vancouver,” Levett says. “Captain McIntyre would blow the boat’s horn, as if to say, ‘See you later.’ That memory always stuck with me. My family lived near the water, so I was always around boats, and one day I bought a boat and then I bought a bigger boat — and then a bigger boat.”
The former paperboy grew up to be president of Pacific Coach Lines, a bus service operating between Vancouver and Victoria, and in 1987 he bought the Taconite — for a sum he declines to disclose. Levett sold the boat in June to a mysterious foreign buyer for an equally mysterious sum (rumoured to be $1 million), triggering a panic among Taconite’s old deckhands and classic yacht-loving B.C. captains — including Levett himself — who fear that a West Coast jewel is poised to sail away for good.
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“If we lose the Taconite, we lose a piece of our Maritime history,” says Kristina Long, a captain and yacht nerd with an encyclopedic knowledge of key facts relating to the Taconite. For instance, when she was being built in 1929-30, the Boeings kept 78 Canadians working full tilt even as the Great Depression hit. Long rhymes off some other facts: The 125-foot vessel is made of teak from the South Pacific; it was the first private yacht in North America to have radar; Boeing used the boat to help perfect the two-way radios he would adopt for his company’s U.S. airmail service; the boat cost US$421,000 to build (about US$6 million today) and once welcomed Amelia Earhart, the trailblazing flyer, as a guest not long before she disappeared.
Levett decided to sell Taconite in 2015, listing her for US$2.5 million. He was getting older — he is now 78 — and worried about her falling into disrepair. His wish was to find a Canadian buyer. Long approached Levett, promising him she would try to find a perfect match by leaning on the contacts she has made during 12 years in the luxury charter business, including the Westons of grocery store fame.
Long also pitched local angel investor groups on the idea that if they bought the boat, they could charter it out as Levett had done — only for double the $45,000 he charged. She knocked on every door. “I really thought I could find someone who would share the same enthusiasm and passion for Taconite,” Long says. She didn’t, at least not in time.
One Canadian who always dreamed of buying the Taconite is Jim Walters, an admitted car guy who restores antique vehicles for a living. He also loves boats and was Taconite’s chief engineer for 25 years. Unfortunately, a terrible fire at his car workshop wiped him out financially about a decade ago, and he still hasn’t fully recovered. Mechanically, Walters says, Taconite is a marvel, boasting twin California-made Atlas Imperial engines: grand old beasts, rife with moving parts — push rods, rocker arms and valves — that engine lovers get all lathered up about. “Everything is handmade,” he says. “It is all working — moving — so it’s very kinetic. It is not just some big lump sitting there.”
Walters has heard whispers that the Boeings entertained several U.S. presidents aboard Taconite, but has never been able to confirm it. What he does know is that Bertha Boeing, William’s wife, was a gifted artist, who would sit on deck sketching the B.C. coast and the small Indigenous communities the Taconite stopped at during its annual summer run from Vancouver to the Alaskan salmon fishing grounds. In more contemporary times, funnyman Robin Williams came aboard, during the filming of the 2002 thriller, Insomnia, in Stewart, B.C. Its stars were housed on yachts anchored offshore. Williams had a boat, but his co-star Al Pacino — who drank cappuccino every morning, requesting that Walters, and only Walters, prepare them — had the Taconite. “Robin Williams asked me for a tour,” Walters says. “He was mesmerized by the engines and he was riffing, saying a lot of hilarious things about The Sand Pebbles, this old Steve McQueen movie.”
Walters worries the new owner, rumoured to be French and — according to unnamed sources at Maple Bay, the Vancouver Island marina where Taconite is moored — planning to relocate the boat to the Bahamas, doesn’t fully appreciate what he has bought.
“Taking Taconite from the Pacific Northwest to a climate where there are ship worms and pounding heat and sun is going to destroy the boat,” he says. “Boeing built her to cruise from Vancouver to Alaska, up the so-called Inside Passage, every year, to go fishing and explore. That is what this boat was built for. That is what it has done. That is what it should keep doing.”
The Boeing family sold the yacht in 1977. A decade later, Gordie Levett “stepped up to the plate,” as he likes to say, making her his own. He can’t understand why another Canadian wasn’t prepared to do the same. “This boat belongs in Canada,” he says. “But Canada had its chance, and nobody stepped up.” The mysterious new owner has apparently paid for the boat in full, but she is still moored at Levett’s dock in Maple Bay. “It’s the strangest thing,” he says. “I was told someone would be here for the boat in two weeks. Well, it’s been three months now. I am not really sure what to think.”