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Showboats - Cheoy Lee rises with China

Oct 18, 2009


       In 1982, I was lucky enough to visit the Cheoy Lee shipyard in Hong Kong on the occasion of the building of its 4,000th boat. This year, the 139-year-old operation is building its 5,000th vessel, Marco Polo II. By a stroke of good fortune, I was able to visit the Cheoy Lee yard again, now relocated up the Pearl River Delta in Doumen, China. I found a cutting-edge operation emblematic of the dynamic new Chinese industrial economy, but one that still benefits from strong family involvement. Its milestone Marco Polo II is a testament to the technical sophistication and staying power of this revered Asian boatbuilding institution.


Marco Polo II is the 5,000th boat built by the storied Chinese shipyard


It is easy for Westerners to forget that China has been struggling to find itself and get on a modern economic and political track since Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Two civil wars, warlords, World War II and 27 years of Mao Zedong’s communism had kept the country in a sluggish quagmire of state-run feudalism. But in 1978 all of that changed when Deng Xiaoping took control of China’s ruling apparatus. In just 31 years, China has risen from economic irrelevance on the world stage to its second largest economy in purchasing power.

The Cheoy Lee shipyard I visited 27 years ago was owned and run by Lo To, the grandson of the man who founded the company in 1870. Lo To started working in his father’s boatyard, which was located in Shanghai in the 1930s, then moved to British-controlled Hong Kong as the Japanese army crossed the Marco Polo Bridge, declaring war on China. After World War II when Lo To returned to the family yard after years of Japanese occupation, he found virtually nothing left. In 1946 he began building boats again with a work crew of one— himself. By the time of
my 1982 visit, Cheoy Lee had grown into two shipyard locations and was building both motor yachts and sailboats, as well as many different kinds and sizes of commercial vessels. His business was then 60/40 commercial.

All of Lo To’s eight sons are directors of Cheoy Lee, and three are permanently based at the Doumen yard to manage daily operations. They all run the yards exactly the way they were taught by their father—bounding all over the yard, going from project to project among the dozen or so boats and ships under construction at any one time. Each Saturday the eight brothers (now all in their 40s and 50s) meet to go over progress for the week on each of the yard’s builds and to plan the following week’s priorities. No one of these men is the president, I’m told. All are equals and all decisions are mutually agreed upon. In the West this would probably be a recipe for disaster, but it works at Cheoy Lee.
Having visited boatyards all over the world and examined their products for 40 years, there is no doubt in my mind that there is a definite cause-and-effect between the yards’ owners on the production floor every day, the quality of the product and the satisfaction of the buyer. Yes, there are exceptions, but they just prove the rule. Lo To taught his boys well.

That is not all he did. In the mid-1990s, The Walt Disney Company decided it wanted to build a theme park on Lantau Island near the old Cheoy Lee yard in Hong Kong. Lo To played hard to get, and finally after tense negotiations, the mouse pushed cheese worth nine digits across the table. Immediately Cheoy Lee became arguably the best-capitalized midsize shipyard in the world. When it opened its new yard in Doumen, it was right in step with what was happening in the rest of the country.

The Cheoy Lee shipyard is perhaps the most modern in the world of its size and is one of the few yards in the world of any size that builds in steel, aluminum and fiberglass composite. Machine tools are not only the latest design, but they are prolific in the yard. For example, the yard has more than 30 gantry cranes, all manned by government-certified operators, many of whom are women. There is organization everywhere. All of the managers have walkie-talkies, hard hats and color-coded clean overalls such as what one might find in a BMW plant.

The yard’s order book is full, with commercial vessels accounting for 90 percent of sales, which is an enviable position given the current softness in the yacht market. While I was in the yard, more than a dozen boats were at some point in construction, including three 90-foot tugs, part of a 50-tug order for owners like the Panama Canal Authority. Several 180-foot anchor tenders were nearing completion for a Middle Eastern client who services offshore oil platforms, along with a couple of ferry boats for Hong Kong’s bustling harbor, where 50 percent of the commercial vessels one sees were built by Cheoy Lee.

And then, there is the 5,000th Cheoy Lee build, the boat I had come to see: the 148-foot Marco Polo II, the second of a series of world-cruising motor yachts being built for MCC-Maritime Concept and Construction (Hong Kong).

About 10 years ago, German hotel and real estate developer Roland Sturm decided he wanted to finally live out his childhood dream and explore the world by boat. Thinking ahead, he realized that if he had this dream, certainly people all over the world must have it, too. So why not build the boat of his dreams and at the same time create a series of yachts from 100 to 200 feet that others could buy? In this way, other wealthy would-be explorers could take advantage of the tremendous time and treasure Sturm would expend to develop and test a handsome, efficient expedition vessel that looked like a yacht, not like an island freighter.
Thus, Maritime Concept and Construction was born to build a series of yachts for world exploration in luxury, yes, but not in gilded opulence. Moreover, Sturm insisted on a vessel that could be operated very economically. Essentially, Sturm wanted MCC to specialize in efficient, seaworthy, socially responsible motor yachts in the 100- to 200-foot class.

MCC chose as its designer Ron Holland, an unlikely choice since he had only one motor yacht design on his résumé. But that was the genius of Sturm. He wanted a hull that could easily be pushed, would have low drag, be very seaworthy, be easy to steer in a following sea and be sea-kindly—all attributes of good sailboats, and harder to find among motor yachts. He wanted a displacement-speed boat that could be operated with a single engine, yet go relatively fast. MCC also wanted to break out of the old ways of gin-palace powerboat thinking. Who better than a world-renowned sailboat designer to incorporate all of those attributes in a new powerboat hull?

Two years ago, Cheoy Lee launched the 148-foot Marco Polo. In perfect 20/20 hindsight, I feel she was a harbinger of things to come, and that MCC’s vision of a utilitarian, low-operating-cost superyacht was prescient.

Sturm and his longtime captain and project manager, Albrecht Buchner, took Marco Polo, after her launch party at the Hong Kong Yacht Club, directly to Monaco by way of the Suez Canal—9,000 miles straight, running day and night, averaging 12 knots and stopping only for fuel. Sturm reports
that she made it without a hitch and during one stretch of bad weather performed just as advertised in following seas.

Thirty thousand miles and two years later, MCC and Sturm have had the satisfaction of discovering that their first attempt at a world cruiser was incredibly close to the mark. It was time for Marco Polo II, a vessel that would be very much like her predecessor, but with a few refinements, most notably, putting a generator in the bow engine room so the vessel could be completely self-sufficient with power only from that location. Last winter, MCC pushed the button and asked Cheoy Lee to build Marco Polo II. As you read this she is well along in construction.

Last spring MCC took on as an in-house chief designer and naval architect Kasia Milewska. Milewska brings to the party literally a world of experience, having gotten a master's degree in naval architecture and marine engineering from the Technical University of Gdansk, worked as a project manager for Ted Hood in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, as a naval architect for Southern Wind Shipyard in South Africa, and most recently spent four years as a naval architect and designer for Ron Holland in Ireland. This new member of the MCC team gives the company the added ability to manage projects from start to finish.

In addition to everything else, MCC's Marco Polo concept is a significant departure in the megayacht category because it emphasizes economical performance without giving up luxury. Five important details stand out to me as setting this extraordinary yacht apart from others: First, Marco Polo II’s bulb bow adds 10 percent to her actual speed.

Second, her "get-home" Schottel pump-jet bow thruster can swivel 360 degrees, can drive the boat at 5.5 knots and does not protrude below her bottom. It has been used in commercial applications for years and has proven reliability.

Third, the yacht has two large spade rudders that are port and starboard of the prop. They are designed to greatly improve the boat's directional stability in a following sea, with the added advantage that, along with the propeller pocket above the prop, they create an end-plate effect for slightly greater prop thrust.

Fourth, the bottom of the boat rises from about the center of the vessel to the stern, very much like that of a sailboat. This design reduces the stern wake and drag over more conventional motor yacht bottom shapes.

Fifth, a 1.9-meter-diameter Schottel controllablepitch propeller driven by a commercially rated, 1,911-hp Caterpillar 3512B diesel will propel Marco Polo II.

All of these design and mechanical attributes, along with others not mentioned, create exceptional fuel efficiency. From records compiled in more than 30,000 miles of use, MCC reports that Marco Polo at 10.7 knots burns 100 liters per hour, and at 12 knots burns 150 liters per hour. These are remarkably low fuelconsumption figures for a 473-gross-metric-ton vessel. A typical 116,000-pound, 70-foot convertible sportfish yacht burns 133 liters per hour at 11.7 knots. In other words, a 70-footer burns about the same amount of fuel as Marco Polo, which weighs nine times more.

One cannot visit the southeast section of China without being impressed by what has transpired there over the last 30 years. Not only have bicycles disappeared from the streets of large cities like Guangzhou (formerly Canton), but so have the motor scooters. This year, Chinese monthly automobile sales exceeded those in the United States, children in kindergarten are learning English, and Chinese banks are the most solvent in the world. Just as a 21-year-old Venetian traveler in 1274 stood in awe of the China ruled by Kublai Khan, so too is the new China something over which Westerners marvel. And China is once again building a navy. Contact Cheoy Lee Shipyards at +852 2307 6333,; MCC-Maritime Concept and Construction at,




Pages 81 - 86, Showboats International

November 2009 issue.