Seahorse Marine: One of China’s best kept secrets

Published 15 years ago, updated 5 years ago

On a recent visit to China, Jimmy Cornell visited the Seahorse Marine boatyard in Zhuhai, close to Hong Kong. The yard produces a range of yachts in steel and fibreglass. Its continuing success is due both to the high quality of its boats and their extremely attractive price.

Set on the banks of a tributary of the Pearl River, close to both Hong Kong and Macau, in the last eighteen years, this efficiently run yard has produced a range of steel and fibreglass yachts for clients from all over the world. The quality of the workmanship and the attractive price of the beautifully finished yachts have ensured a full order book and the waiting time for their most successful model, the 51-foot trawler type Diesel Duck 462, is now between twelve and eighteen months.

The yard has two separate units, the steel yachts being produced in a rented state-owned shipyard in Doumen, while the fibreglass production is based at a nearby facility owned by Seahorse Marine. The two units employ approximately one hundred fifty workers, many of whom have been with the company since its inception. Some workers are highly qualified and enable the yard to produce in-house almost everything that is needed, from stainless steel fabrications to engraved electrical panels, while the quality of the woodwork is quite outstanding. Many of the workers are economic migrants from China’s interior. The company provides them with a canteen and accommodation, and many workers have been joined by their families.

The owner of the yard, Bill Kimley, is a former Californian boat broker who in the 1980s set out to investigate Taiwan’s budding boat building industry. This led him to Hong Kong and then to the nearby mainland where he was attracted by the low labour costs and economic incentives offered by the local authorities. The Zhuhai region, where Seahorse Marine has been based since 1989, is one of China’s original special economic zones that spearheaded the rapid economic development which in one generation has turned China into the world’s second-largest economy. Having witnessed the steady improvement in the welfare and general wellbeing of the local population, Bill Kimley is a firm believer in the Chinese economic model which, in his opinion, is best suited to the current needs and aspirations of this vast nation.

Vital to this success story is Bill’s Chinese wife Stella whom Bill met while exploring the possibility of starting a business in mainland China. It was Stella who facilitated the setting up of the boatyard in Zhuhai where for some years she had held various administrative positions. Stella continues to deal with the official side of the business whereas Bill is in charge of the practical aspects of running the yard. Over the years they have established a perfect symbiosis and, in good old Chinese fashion, Seahorse Marine is now a typical family business, with Stella’s son Fido, his wife Connie and Stella’s nephews Henry and Gary being all involved in the running of the company. Although there is no doubt that Stella’s local contacts have made a great contribution to the smooth running of the operation, Bill is keen to point out that in practical terms there is very little interference from the authorities, this laissez-faire attitude being undoubtedly the explanation for the presence of a number of thriving foreign-owned businesses in the area.

Since its inception, Seahorse Marine has produced sixty yachts, 35 in fibreglass and 25 in steel, both power and sail. The 52-foot fibreglass sedan was in the past the best-selling model although the recent trend has been towards trawler type steel motor yachts, a concept that seems to be particularly popular among owners from the US west coast. Although the finished boats can be shipped overseas, many new owners prefer to take delivery at the yard. For most of them, this makes sense as the location of the yard provides a convenient start for a world voyage. In almost all cases the maiden voyage takes the boats across the South China Sea to Subic Bay in the Philippines and the yard generously extends its warranty to cover the entire South China Sea. Parts warranty is worldwide. The popularity of the George Buehler designed Diesel Duck 462 is no doubt due to its extremely attractive price as a fully finished boat is priced below $US 500,000 ex-factory. Finished yachts that are delivered to their owners will incur freight charges and local import dues. The price includes a top quality IVECO diesel engine and other engines are available, Northern Lights generator, all safety equipment, a comprehensive range of electronics, bow-thruster, electric anchor winch, as well as a completely equipped galley. The yard is willing to customize each model to meet an owner’s special requirements. Standard modifications are normally done at no extra cost and the yard is prepared to accommodate more substantial alterations at an additional price to be agreed.

A highly customized order will be completed before the end of 2007. The owners, Don and Margie McIntyre, having substantially modified a tall-rig motorsailer version of the steel 462 Diesel Duck, plan to sail extensively in high latitudes including a voyage to the NW Passage and Antarctica. The aptly called ICE motor yacht is a perfect example to explain the attraction of this kind of boat for owners whose main priority is safety. The massive steel construction, with watertight doors and bulkheads, fully enclosed wheelhouse, ship-type portholes and a host of other safety features make this a solid boat that can go anywhere. According to Bill Kimley, most clients order this type of boat for its offshore potential even if some of them end up coastal cruising.

Concern with safety is obviously a major consideration among his clients and Bill Kimley is fully aware of this. For this reason, the fibreglass hulls are all built to the absolute highest specification. An increasingly popular model is the 52 foot Mandarin motorsailer based on an original Blaine Seeley design. This is another “go-anywhere” type of yacht, that incorporates various safety features, such as a strong hull structure, an attractive pilothouse with safe deep-sea windows and a functional stern platform. Such stern platforms are now being added to all other models, their functionality and safety advantages being recognized both by the builder and owners. Bill Kimley is particularly open to new ideas and many improvements have been incorporated in the existing models such as a better location for the liferaft, a more efficient boarding ladder that ensures permanent emergency access from the water or an ingenious boomless set-up for the boats that use a mainsail.

The increasing popularity of motorsailers reflects a trend last seen in the 1980s when there was another surge in the price of fuel and Bill Kimley is now considering adding a smaller motorsailer of under 40 feet to his ever expanding range. The current rise in the cost of fuel seems to have persuaded several new owners to opt for the motorsailer version of these trawler type yachts, described as sail assisted trawlers (SAT). Boats can be provided with a short rig, with the mast set in a tabernacle and being approximately two thirds the overall length of the boat which makes stowage easier. There is also the option of a tall rig which will perform better in the sail only mode and, of course, could be used to actually sail the boat in case of engine failure. Although the short rig may also be used to sail the boat in an emergency, this type of rig is primarily meant to stabilize the boat and help reduce fuel consumption. All trawler type boats can also be fitted with Paravane type stabilizers. In Bill Kimley’s view, these work very well to dampen rolling, but the drag caused by the two stabilizing “fish” can cut the speed by half a knot or more and thus increase fuel consumption accordingly.

Bill Kimley fully supports the motorsailer concept as the sails not only help reduce fuel consumption but under most conditions also make the ride more comfortable. At the normal cruising speed of 7 knots, the Diesel Duck 462 will use approximately two US gallons of fuel per hour. However, a careful adjustment of the sails to take full advantage of existing wind and sea conditions, combined with running the engine at lower revs, will ensure at least a 25% savings if fuel use. This saved fuel will considerably increase the cruising range.

In spite of Seahorse Marine’s success, Bill and Stella Kimley have no immediate plans to expand their operations and are happy to continue to provide their international clientele with a well-built boat at the best price. A more ambitious project for the future is hidden away in two large containers that house Bill’s life-long passion for model trains. His vast collection of dozens of original toy train sets from the 1920s to the present, many of them in mint condition. These will soon form the basis of a model and toy train museum whose main exhibits will sport the liveries of US and Chinese railroad companies. For an idealistic American who has found success on the shores of the Pearl River bringing the two nations one small step closer in this way is the kind of legacy that he wants to leave behind.

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