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'It's not easy to let go of something that was your dream': Unique theatre ship with epic history for sale in Vancouver

To understand just how unusual Amara Zee is, one has to first understand who built it and why.

The Amara Zee is a unique ship.

It's likely there are none similar to it around the world, and it's floating in Vancouver's waters right now, waiting to be sold.

From playwrights to shipwrights: The story of the Amara Zee

To understand just how unusual the Amara Zee is, one has to first understand who built it and why.

Paul Kirby and Adriana "Nans" Kelder founded the Caravan Theatre, which operated in its original form from 1972 until 1992. And that original form was rather unusual.

"We used to travel and do theatre with five big wagons pulled by Clydesdales," says Kirby. "We performed in tents."

In 1992, they concluded they were done with horses and tents and decided to head to the sea...which meant going to Kingston, Ont.

For four years, the pair, along with some knowledgeable helpers, built the Amara Zee.

"We ended up with three really fabulous amigos in Kingston; one was a sailmaker, one was a British marine engineer and surveyor, and the third was the owner of the Kingston Marina," says Kirby.

Unlike pretty much any sea-faring ship you'd see around Vancouver, the Amara Zee is based on a Thames barge. They built it using this design and some improvision with the goal of turning the deck into a stage whenever they pulled into port.

"It took four years in Kingston," says Kirby. "We finished in 1997 and then we toured up the St Lawrence and then down south into the States."

"Then we established a base in St Petersberg, Florida, and then toured out of there for a number of years."

A theatre company that doesn't need a stage but does need a place to anchor

The Amara Zee wasn't just the stage for Caravan Theatre, it was the home for Kirby and Kelder, and many of their collaborators. Some stayed for a season, others for years.

"We did extensive touring all throughout the U.S. and the Great Lakes until about 2004," says Kirby. "And then we went to Europe."

A German shipping company shipped the ship in a bigger ship. And then, for almost a decade, they toured through more than 20 countries, travelling to seaports and up rivers.

In 2013, they put their ship in a bigger ship again and came back to North America, travelling around the Gulf of Mexico until 2017, when the City of Vancouver lined them up for some shows for Canada's 150th birthday. They set up under the Cambie Street Bridge.

Since then they've travelled Canada's West Coast and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. However, now in their 70s, the Kelder and Kirby says their time aboard the Amara Zee has come to an end; the docked the ship and put it up for sale.

Their final shows aboard their homemade theatre ship were in September 2022.

"We're in our late 70s and this is a lot of work," says Kelder. "It's not something you take lightly; we decided to go for a smaller boat and do just smaller shows to make our life easier before we set sail to our last destination."

But what exactly is the Amara Zee?

In technical terms, it's a 90-foot steel-hulled vessel inspired by the Thames barges that plied the rivers around London, England.

Its deck is set up for stage performances and includes LED lighting, video projectors, and audio equipment. A theatre ship may sound like an antiquated idea from a bygone era, but Kelder and Kirby made sure the technical aspects of their shows were up-to-date.

And that flat, steel hull means it can withstand being run aground on a gravelly bottom for a couple of shows.

"It's an exceptionally strong vessel," says Kirby.

It's also a home. And not just for a couple of people.

"The boat can sleep 20 people comfortably," says Kirby. "There's a huge salon and galley; we've had 25 people sitting comfortably at our large table in the galley."

It's also a tall ship (it has a 90-foot mast) and has powered engines as well.

Hopeful for a continued life around Vancouver

The pair are hopeful the Amara Zee will stick around the area with new stewards dedicated to the performance aspect of the ship.

"Our first choice have it remain and stay in Vancouver as an event vehicle; there are probably a number of places that could do that," says Kirby. "It's just a case of some people coming forward."

He adds that it's a boat, so it needs to travel still, if only a little bit, to other areas on Canada's Pacific side, like the Gulf Islands or Sunshine Coast. He also notes it could work somewhere in False Creek.

Right now they have it listed for $690,000 (though they believe it's worth more than that). They've had a couple of people come forward, but those deals have fallen through.

"It's not easy to let go of something that was your dream and your devotion and your commitment for all these years," says Kirby. "We hope that we will find a group of people that will continue it."