The trials and tribulations of rescuing a superyacht

About the author
Guy Canovan arrived in the world of naval architecture following gaining a degree from Southampton Institute as a mature student in 2000. Initially he worked for BMT Defence Services in Bath where he supported the Royal Navy by carrying out inclining experiments, stability analyses and structural capability tasks. After gaining his CEng status in 2004, he moved to Fleet Support in Portsmouth naval base where he became head of the design office. In June 2011, he received an offer from the Shemara project to lead the design team on the rescue of a 65m superyacht. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse and shortly afterwards, armed with a lot of enthusiasm but little else, he arrived on the Shemara project. This is his story about rescuing a superyacht, MV Shemara.

This article is a personal account of my role in the refit of Shemara, a 65m motoryacht. In the course of writing it, it has morphed into my experience of designing a 65m ship without the usual infrastructure associated with designing a 65m ship and doesn’t conform to the more common, but no less worthy, technical account.

M.Y. Shemara was built for Sir Bernard Docker, the chairman of BSA, in 1937 at the Vosper Thornycroft yard on the east side of the River Itchen.

She was launched in April 1938. Within 18 months Britain was at war and Shemara was requisitioned by the Admiralty as a training vessel for anti-submarine warfare based on the Clyde.

She was demobbed in 1946 and after a sumptuous re-fit at the expense of the tax payer, Shemara went to ‘work’ as a yacht. In the hands of Sir Bernard and Lady Docker, she was a regular visitor to the haunts of the rich and famous.

After the death of Sir Bernard in 1978, ownership passed to Harry Hyams, the property developer responsible for the Centre Point building in London amongst other things. Mr Hyams is a private individual and what he did with the yacht during his ownership is a bit of a mystery. What we do know is that the yacht was laid up in Lowestoft with a skeleton crew to maintain her.

In 2008 whilst the yacht was languishing in Lowestoft she was discovered by Sir Charles Dunstone. Whilst this article is about his boat rather than the person, I would like to say that any preconceptions I had about very successful businessmen gained from the press, Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice were immediately blown away. He does however relish a challenge and he lives much of his business life zagging whilst everyone else is zigging.

The easiest solution, at the point of finding the boat, would have been to give the restoration to an established yard, probably in Germany or Holland, then part with a vast quantity of cash and, other than a few styling choices not be involved in the work until the boat was delivered some time later.

However it was the love of challenges and the desire to avoid the norm that led him to decide that he wasn’t going to go down the traditional route.

My first exposure to the project was in 2008. I was the head of the design department on the in service support side of life in Portsmouth dockyard. We were contacted by the, at the time prospective owner’s team, as one of the options was to re-fit the vessel using the naval base infrastructure and labour. I found myself with a couple of others driving up to Lowestoft to have a look at this boat. It was a bit of an undercover operation as the crew didn’t have any inkling of a potential sale.

Whilst slightly tired, the main structure of the hull didn’t look too bad although we didn’t do anything other than a non intrusive visual survey. The machinery was either in a state of being repaired or had been mothballed. The crew that were on board were doing the best they could but they were only slowing the rate of decay rather than preventing it.

With one thing and another, the dockyard didn’t manage to pull its finger out sufficiently quickly enough to turn the work from a prospect to a reality.

Whilst it may not have been of sufficient interest to the dockyard to warrant much effort, it certainly fired my imagination. Whilst I’m in my mid forties, I still suffer from childish fantasies and the idea of getting involved in a superyacht floated my boat for possibly all the wrong reasons.

By a stroke of good fortune, it transpired that I knew the head of the owner’s team from a previous life. As a result I felt less uncomfortable sending the occasional e-mail to ask about progress. This approach paid dividends when, in mid 2011, I received a phone call from the project manager with an invite out to dinner. Their sales pitch was that with someone like me as head of the design team, they could progress the design without the inefficiencies of an external company being involved. At the time I was becoming involved in design authority duties for the Type 45 Destroyer that was entering service with the Royal Navy so I was slightly coy about the opportunity during the meal.

Afterwards I realised that this type of opportunity wasn’t going to present itself on a regular basis or possibly ever. It was in Portsmouth so it didn’t need any family upheaval. Overall it presented a fantastic opportunity. The following morning I rang up the project manager and said if the terms and conditions were right I was their man.

My only problem at this stage was I had no idea what the right terms and conditions were. I had always been employed by a large organisation and the idea of going out on my own was entirely alien to me.

I visited the project office and was met by what I can only describe as a brown field site. There were a few people writing requirements, discussing general arrangements and the material for the curtains but in terms of design, it was basically bereft of anything.

My first task was to recruit the beginnings of a design team. My initial port of call was a couple of colleagues within the design office at the dockyard. Whilst one of them declined the offer, the other jumped at the opportunity. I likened the whole process to having to navigate a car down a steep slope at night, without lights and with old Land Rover levels of steering and brakes. To add to the sense of responsibility I was now joined by a passenger. It was an interesting journey that I approached with 51% excitement and 49% trepidation and, to be frank, almost 100% ignorance.

The two of us arrived at the office in Portchester in June 2011.

One of our initial tasks was to set up some infrastructure. We needed CAD but which package? I’m an exponent of 3D CAD and whilst I can’t use it, I recognise the benefits of being able to model in 3D. It enables clashes to be identified and resolved earlier, it allows for easier visualisation from both a design team and a customer perspective and it can apparently save time. Many of the surfaces we deal with in the marine world are curved, often in both directions and that can be quite difficult to interpret properly in 2D.

We ended up settling on the Autodesk range of software partly due to the hope that is better the devil you know than the one you don’t. We used Inventor for our ship modelling and whilst it isn’t a marine specific package and there were a few teething issues, it worked well. One lesson identified is that when selecting software, take notice of what the local labour pool is using. It is much easier to find software to match people than the other way around.

To facilitate the 3D modelling we had a laser scan of the hull carried out. It was at this point that we discovered a certain amount of asymmetry in the hull. This ignited a debate about where the centreline was – a straight line between bow and stern, the mid point of each deck beam, through the centroid of the section areas? It also put a kybosh on any idea of modelling half the hull and then mirroring it.

Whilst the 3D modelling of the hull proved useful, I often consider the whether structural side of the modelling was a necessity. The majority of the structural items can be broken down into flat components – webs, flanges, bulkheads, to reflect the steel plate material they are fabricated from.

Where the 3D did more than pay for itself was in the routing of mechanical systems. When the boat was built, air conditioning consisted of opening a window. Now we have an all singing all dancing HVAC system with all compartments being served by at least one air conditioning unit. The boat has three HVAC zones with all ducting led back to one of three air handling units. All the ductwork has been fitted into a void between the deckhead panelling and the deck above in a space that was never intended to accommodate much pipework. Add in to this the firefighting, grey water, black water, chilled water, scuppers plus other mechanical systems and a huge quantity of cabling and the result is a mass of pipework that can only be successfully ‘ravelled’ by resorting to 3D. Whilst transiting between structure is relatively straightforward, it is when you reach structure that life becomes difficult. As a result you really do need the structure to be accurately modelled to get the benefit of going down the 3D route.

The project had started out using a cloud based storage system known as the jungle although as the project went on, it was quite often preceded by what is grammatically called an intensifier. As we were potentially dealing with a lot of data I bought a server and we set up a hard wired network. This became the official repository for information and whilst we suffered from people storing stuff on the desktop or C drive, it did work quite well. We did struggle with the management of the IT infrastructure and our backing up process was a bit hit and miss but with a couple of IT savvy people in the team, we coped.

Recruiting a team proved less difficult than I anticipated largely helped by the exciting project that was on offer to the candidates. We used a recruitment agency to source people and this worked well once I’d managed to put together a job specification. In total I recruited ten people – five CAD orientated design engineers, three naval architect dealing with stability and structures, and two mechanical engineers.

I mentioned earlier that the sales pitch to get me through the door included the phrase “progress the design”. A design had been started by an external company and much of the concept / feasibility design had been carried out. This also included some quite detailed structural arrangements and system schematics. My initial role was to run with the production design and to take the design drawings and translate them into production information sufficient for the production staff to build the boat.

It quickly became apparent, to me if not the project manager, that the design wasn’t really complete. The challenge was to now finish the design and produce sufficient production information to keep the rapidly growing army of welders, fabricators and people equipped with hammers employed. It was a challenge that we met head on and almost immediately sank without trace.

As we started to produce drawings, what drawing numbering system did we use? I’d always been used to an organisation where the drawing numbering had started with the ark and had been fine tuned from there. We had about five minutes to create a system that was easy to use, accessible to all and secure. We had identified a numbering system called SWBS which was also in use by the company responsible for the feasibility studies. Unfortunately they had modified the established system which resulted in a significant quantity of nonsensical numbering. We took the difficult decision to re-baseline all the numbers in accordance with the standard system. We also devised a document numbering database to record and track the drawings.

Whilst during earlier visual surveys the yacht looked to be in reasonable condition, following thickness gauging it became abundantly apparent that a significant quantity of repairs were required. Along the wind and waterline, plating diminution was in excess of 50% in some areas. The area below the waterline wasn’t in much better condition. In the end at least 90% of the steelwork was replaced. Much of this 90% was forced upon us but in some areas the difficulties of joining up two distant pieces of original structure was too great to warrant try to save it so it was replaced.

The steelwork design should have been relatively straightforward with the exception that we had adopted bits from two sets of rules to enable us to avoid having a restricted service notation. This threw up a number of challenges and resulted in a wholesale redesign of large parts of the structure.

We had chosen to go with DNV as our class society. This was largely based on the reasoning that their surveyor had been instrumental in putting together the Large Yacht Code or LY2 as it is known. This worked very well until after only a few months into the project he moved to Lloyds. We then had a couple of different surveyors in quick succession until settling down with the one we still have.

Our relationship with DNV has been one of love and hate and has resulted in a number of lessons identified, hopefully on both sides. From my perspective I don’t think DNV understood what they were letting themselves in for and then didn’t ask the relevant questions early on to identify the potential pitfalls. In dealing with an established yard, the boundaries between the two organisations overlap. In our case, our expectations of the service DNV were going to provide significantly exceeded the level of service DNV ordinarily provide to a yard. This did make the journey with DNV more difficult but not half as difficult as it would have been without the endeavours of our DNV surveyor who often went above and beyond to help us towards the finishing post.

Interestingly this gap between the boundary of our ability / knowledge and the level of service provided by a supplier was common across the piece. Whilst it is understandable, I would suggest if anyone else is going down a similar route, make sure that your boundaries are understood and accepted.

It was a brave move by Sir Charles to support what was, in effect, a DIY superyacht project and whilst I didn’t feel it sometimes, I will be eternally grateful that he gave me the opportunity to be involved.

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