The discovery of three postcards from the early 1900s at a Parisian flea market in 1999 was the start of a unique journey for Eric Merlin. His imagination was captured by one of the postcards’ discernable paddleboats, Emeraude and he began a quest to uncover her history and build a replica using only these fading images. Merlin, who has since faithfully restored a 1940s minesweeper, Calisto, talks to Angela Audretsch about Emeraude, his first labour of love.

AA: How did your story with Emeraude begin?

EM:I went to the flea market in a suburb of Paris. For me, it was like going into an old bookstore where you browse around, looking for old stuff. My keyword was Indochina. I went into a little shop specialising in old postcards and then I found these postcards. I have always found it fascinating what was happening in that region between 1910 to 1915. I was intrigued to see that at the beginning of the last century, there were tourist boats. My first though was “where are these boats?” My dream was to come back to Vietnam and find these boats in the mud.

AA: What was it about the boat in the postcards that made you want to investigate further?

EM: I really built the story in my head, looking at these postcards for many months. It was on my desk, under a plastic folder. It took some time before I worked on the project. The first real move was some talk with a friend who was in shipbuilding and who could design a boat that looked like the one in the postcard. I started to really think about this in 2001 and I actually pressed the button in December 2002. We started construction in January 2003. The boat was launched December 2003. It took 11 months, building in a boatyard in Haiphong.

AA: Has it all been worth it? Is Emeraude a successful business?

EM: It was quite profitable at the beginning, but we have been copied a lot since the launch, so business is not as good today in truth. Our competitors cut a lot of corners in terms of quality and maintenance, so their operational costs are lower. But we keep on with the way we like to do things. The boat is more beautiful than ever thanks to the strict maintenance schedules we keep. We love the boat, and so many passengers love the boat that we’ve decided that profit margins are only a part of the story.

AA: You have more recently restored an original 1904s minesweeper. How did working on Emeraude compare to Calisto?
EM: A thread that is common to both Emeraude and Calisto is the tremendous back-story that each of these vessels had. For the entire time I worked on both, the stories of the people and the voyages played over and over in my imagination. I’ve always felt a responsibility to the heritage of these vessels, and to the people who would cruise on them. I feel like a caretaker of a great story, as much as the owner of a vessel, and so I have this responsibility to produce great chapters for tomorrow!

AA: Do you have any more plans to rebuild classic vessels like this? What about the other sister ships to Emeraude to make a fleet?
EM: The original plan - the dream! — was to rebuild a full fleet of four sister ships. Unfortunately, the market is not deep enough to make four vessels feasible, so we’re sticking to one. As well, maintaining one boat to international standards is quite a challenge in that part of the world, so we’re quite content with one boat at the moment.

You can read a full feature with Eric Merlin on Emeraude, her history and his quest to rebuild her in Issue 11 of The Superyacht Owner right now by clicking here. To become a member, click here.