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Burma’s Boating Business
Written by Administrator    Friday, 25 October 2013 09:17    PDF Print E-mail
Burma's Boating Business Burma's boating business

About 10 years ago a young man sailed into Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, on his family yacht in search of not just teak but an adventure. The old colonial city of Rangoon still showed vestiges of its faded past despite its new name of Yangon - a river city with a bustlingly shipping commerce - and something the young man particularly noticed, a vast dockyard. Huge cranes, slipways and enormous sheds along with acres of teak logs awaiting a good use. The yard already had been visited by some illustrious yachts for restoration, including the legendary William Fife designed Moonbeam IV. With the experience of the family refit well behind him the young man in question, Alistair Mackay from Australia, went on to build up a successful refit business. Meantime back in Sydney experiencedshipwrights and founders of Sydney Harbour Shipbuilders were looking to expand and the fledgling Yangon yard also was on the same trajectory, so a partnership was formed. "There are major economies of scale and labour now available to international yacht owners and of course, Yangon being the home of the best teak in the world, there is an opportunity to provide what is in many ways is a unique service, " explains shipwright Peter Taprell, co-founder of the Sydney Harbour Shipbuilders along with partner Gary Swindail. One of their most compelling services is supplying and fitting pre-fabricated decking worldwide but more about that later.

Burma's Boating Business Burma's Boating Business

The yard employs a workforce ranging in size from 80-100 staff according to how busy they are. Among them are Australian and New Zealand trained shipwrights, painters and marine electrical engineers who are giving important on-the-job training to the local staff. Burma has reputation for good local artisan skills and I saw this for myself at the SHB yard. During my visit I saw that workers were fed from the yard's own kitchen which is supplied from a new water filtration system build by SHB.

Yangon, Myanmar
Formerly the old colonial capital Rangoon, modern day Yangon still has the feel of an old British outpost with beautiful decrepit colonial architecture, great estates and wide boulevards. Dominating the city is the 326-foot Shwedagon Pagoda, its gold and diamond encrusted sides glorifying Buddha. Burmese flock to this most important shrine in the Buddhist world from all corners of the globe. Tourists will visit here before boarding the rickety night sleeper north to Mandalay and onward to the city of Pagodas – Pagan, then perhaps a hiking trip around the beautiful Inle Lake. Just before my visit President Obama had driven along one of the wide roads, University Boulevard to the lakeside home of Aung San Suu Kyi, heralding what the world hopes will be a new era for the so called 'land of the golden smiles' and its friendly people. Yard manager Mackay has had an interesting life in Yangon he says. "I've witnessed vast changes during the last 10 years as the country opens up to foreign investment and tourism".

Burma's Boating Business
Burma's Boating Business

Located on the riverside in the government owned dockyard the vast area is hive of boatbuilding; heavy steel river barges for plying the vast Irrawaddy delta rivers, fishing boats and cargo ships are under construction. Stocks of teak logs as well as recycled timber can be seen in the yacht complex, reflecting Burma's status as one of the world's major teak suppliers. The recycled teak often comes from houses and general buildings that were traditionally built. This wood is ideal as it's seasoned and ready for re-cutting in the four sided milling machine. The quarter sawn teak, which has all the grain upward facing, also machines well. Alongside the banks of the fast flowing Yangon River a flotilla of recently built military patrol boats are moored. Across the muddy water lies jungle and small hamlets surrounded by paddy fields; the Burma of George Orwell's stories from his time spent here as colonial policeman.

The steel framed Moonbeam IV was an early restoration project in the yard and had plenty of challenges. The work involved replacing about five percent of the planking - steam-bent and fixed with bronze rivets, and the laying of metal beams and laying of the new teak deck on a cedar base. One current major project nearing completion is the full restoration of an old Whitbread design named Castalia, one of four boats launched from the original Whitbread designer Georges Auzepy-Brenneur. Her sister ship Kriter came third in the 1973 Whitbread race. Like 17 of the 19 entrants in that stormy event Kriter was a ketch, as is Castalia. Her laminated mahogany keel, frames, hull and furniture were all varnished and only the finest woods were selected. Both her keel and rudder (along with mast partners, galley counters, etc.) were beautifully fashioned from 316 Stainless Steel- her lead ballast is encapsulated inside. Her lead and the fresh water tanks are also inside the keel.

Yard manager Alistair Mackay explains. "We'd just finished another Whitbread boat name El Oro when I sailed into Phuket and thought 'there's another one!'" But Castalia was in such a state that its owners advised Mackay to "take it out to sea and just sink it" but with his solid experience of the previous rebuild Mackay put his team to work and the results look astounding.

Burma's Boating Business Deck restorations

Another major restoration going on during my visit to the yard was of an America's Cup boat, Chancegger. The 1969 Swiss built yacht was in for a major restoration before she joins the Class race circuit in Newport Rhode Island. The majestic 62-foot hull had been sheathed in GRP and her mix of titanium and wooden ribs restored meticulously by the yard. Ordered by America's Cup challenger Baron Marcel Bich, he commissioned American Britton Chance to design a trial boat for his 1970 challenge. This particular "Twelve" was built by Swiss yacht builder Egger. Chance went on to design the successful 1987 Stars & Stripes and only recently died, aged 72.

The decks for the classic 12mclass Chancegger were being lofted which demonstrated the company's deck laying process well: a long table holding a Mylar template taken from the boat's 62-foot topsides on which workers were laying and gluing the teak down. As this job was an in-house refit all the work was local but the same process is offered for remote refits. The company's staff can travel to wherever the boat is and Mylar deck templates are cut then these are used to loft the new teak decks in the Yangon yard. The decks are fixed together with Sikaflex for transportation to wherever in the world the refit is taking place. This prefabrication process requires minimum interruption to a vessel's schedule and of course a minimum of fitting time.

Back in Sydney, I watched this process in action at the Superyacht Marina when the decks of a Sunseeker 74 and 94 were replaced. The deck on a 94 foot Sunseeker was completed in one month - several millimetres thicker and looking superior quality to the original. Nearby a similar job was being finished on the smaller Sunseeker where weather had destroyed the swim platform and sidedecks. A shipwright on the project explained that there was minimum onboard joinery work needed on the prefabricated teak with the main effort in the fixing and gluing.

Myanmar cruising – the Mergui Archipeligo
For the visiting yachtsman or after your refit at the SHB yard the pristine cruising grounds of the Mergui Archipelago is a major attraction, once the cruising permit and customs are cleared in Yangon. It's a remote seascape interspersed with rocky islets and 800 islands in far southern Myanmar (Burma) and is part of the Tanintharyi Region that edges the Andaman Sea. The local people are an ethnic minority called the Moken, also called sea Gypsies; a group that was heavily impacted by the Burmese civil war. The region was only opened to foreign tourism in 1997 after negotiations between Burma and dive operators from Phuket in Thailand. The archipelago's isolation is such that much of it has not even yet been thoroughly explored. Another option is charter trip on the classic Silolona yacht operated by Patti Seery (www.silolona.com). A five-star casino and golf resort, the Andaman Club now operates on Thahtay Kyun Island, across the water from the Thai city of Ranong in the far south.

New classic designs

A significant expansion of the company through the expertise of shipwrights Taprell and Swindail has been several new designs including a gentlemen's day racer which I enjoyed test sailing last year on Sydney Harbour. The Ringle 39 is designed by Australian naval architect Andy Dovell and shows strong influences from classic Herreshoffs and is the first of a series of Ringle yachts to be manufactured by Sydney Harbour Boatbuilders Asia. Built using jigs, the strip planked Thikadoe hardwood hull, belies a high-tech performance boat with carbon spars and rod rigging. On the water it showed a great combination of retro chic and performance (Thikadoe is a tropical softwood closely related to Australian Cedar).

For classic motorboat enthusiasts the yard is building a boat similar to the Palm Beach range, another Andy Dovell design called a Sydney Harbour 34. During my visit to Yangon this hard chinned hull was ready for turning and deck work. The 10.2m Sydney Harbour 34 is strip planked in Paulownia wood with an Oregon keel. Paulownia is a lightweight hardwood - reminiscent of balsa to me but stronger I thought when handling it – so is excellent boatbuilding and very durable. "This wood was found intact in 200-year-old Chinese coffins, so we know how tough it is," explained Peter Taprell as he showed me offcuts of it. The motorboat's hull will be glass sheathed, displace 3950kg and its 150HP engine should give it a tops speed of 20knots. The first boat will be on view during the Sydney Boat Show in August.