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Technical problems, corrupt officials turn Pandaw’s ocean yacht operation start to a nightmare

A host of technical problems and corrupt-ridden officials were among the factors that turned the start of operations of Andaman Explorer, a deep sea yacht that Pandaw Expeditions, which is best known for its river cruise operations mainly in South East Asia, bought last year, into a nightmare.

Paul Strachan, founder and chairman of the Singapore headquartered company that is domiciled in Scotland, describes the events in his blog on the website of the company.

“I am getting lots of emails from Pandaw regulars asking what happened with the Andaman Explorer, the classic 1960s motor yacht we bought last year with the intention of exploring the Mergui Archipelago and the Maritime Burma in general. It is not a happy tale but I have never been one for hiding the truth from our Pandaw community when things go wrong. So, here is the story which is I am afraid a long one...

When I first saw the ship, then called the MY Marina, in Dubai in November 2016, it was love at first sight. Here was a classic ship, originally a Norwegian Coastguard vessel and ice classed at that, with its original Rolls Royce engines. It had been pleasingly converted in Italy in the mid 90s into a billionaire's play thing. I believed at the time she could easily be modified to ply the Burma coasts, an area I had explored in the past, been amazed at what I had seen, and knew there was an awful lot more to discover. The ship passed the usual surveys and had just been re-classed so was seemingly fit to go to sea.

Having paid the money troubles began. A delivery company were contracted to send her from Dubai to Thailand where we planned to do refit work. However, week after week went by with excuse after excuse from the Indian master and crew on why they could not sail. Meanwhile, unbeknown to us, they stripped the vessel of any removable and saleable parts. We flew a Pandaw manager in and he was quite helpless in getting things moving. Eventually I contracted an English skipper (ex Royal Marines) to take over and he got her underway. Then one thing after another broke down as she limped across the Indian ocean, finally arriving in Thailand on just one engine with no water, sewage or air conditioning.

We had decided to send her to Ranong, the Thai port on the Burma border, as we somewhat naively thought that services would be better there than in Rangoon. A Scottish captain, much experienced in refits and yacht conversions, was appointed to project manage the work. Captain Peter met the ship there in February and had until September to get her ready for our first expedition.

The delivery voyage had proved more than just a shakedown cruise, the list of things to fix was endless but the key tasks were to completely rebuild the engines, install a new air conditioning system, new water makers, sewage plant, to mention but a few items. Working in Ranong proved far more difficult than we expected. This was an old smuggling town run by a mafia who controlled the police and authorities and their harassment was continuous. Local suppliers tended to promise much and deliver little. Eventually a reliable firm of engineers were found in Bangkok and their teams did much of the engine room work; this was not just a matter of simple overhaul but total reconstruction. However, the deeper we delved the more problems we found – this ship truly was a can of worms.

The engines were rebuilt with a complete set of parts flown in from Rolls Royce in England; a new air conditioning system was installed along with water makers, navigation systems and electronics to mention but a few items on the list. In September she was seaworthy enough to sail to Singapore for dry docking and class survey. Alas in Singapore the dockyard found problems with the propulsion system and what was intended as a one week stay became a three week stay. The Explorer just made it back to Kawthaung in Southern Burma in time for the initial cruise due to start in the first week of October.

Here a new set of disasters befell us: the port authorities would not let our expat management team on board because they had business visas and not tourist visas. As a result, not much was ready and things were a mess on board. Then the first passengers flew in and the port authorities would also not let them board as they had not yet begun port clearance on arrival – though she had been there a week waiting for them to process the papers. We had to put our brave passengers in a local hotel for two nights whilst they completed the clearance formalities. Once embarked, half the group decided to fly up country and join one of our river cruises and the other half wanted to continue the voyage.

Eventually we sailed and without our management team on board, service was a muddle and not up to usual Pandaw standards. The actual cruising, now limited by time, was magical as we had expected and the photos on the link below show something of what the 'survivors' encountered. However such excitements came to an end when we entered the port of Mergui (or Myeik) when we ran into trouble again. This time the port authorities refused to accept our international classification as a 'pleasure yacht' insisting that we were a sea going ship and thus lacked the far more stringent certification required for sea going ships. Nothing would convince them and we realised the vessel might be detained interminably so were forced to evacuate the remaining passengers to Rangoon from there. At the same time the original 1963 Detroit Diesel generators had given up the ghost so it was perhaps as well that the passengers were disembarked here.

After involving our insurers, international maritime lawyers and sundry contacts in Rangoon, the vessel was released a fortnight later and continued to Rangoon. New generators would have to be specially built for the ship in China and would take a couple of months. We decided to cancel all cruises till January and use these three months to do further refit work whilst waiting for the delivery of the generators. Back 'home' in Rangoon things moved a lot faster than in Thailand and the ship really was taking shape. Amazingly the generators arrived in time, trucked through a war zone in Northern Burma. In order to take the old generators out and put the new ones in the ship had to be dry docked and cut open below the waterline. All went to schedule and we were on target.

Meanwhile, we had decided to solve the problem of the port formalities by changing the flag to a Myanmar one and effectively importing her into the country. This was a complex process and not inexpensive. After paying exorbitant import duties we were told that all we needed was the mere formality of a surveyor's inspection and she would be off the next day to pick up our first group.

My wife and I had moved on board in readiness for an early morning departure. Then the surveyor did not turn up. Our people spent the whole day in his office but he pleaded other duties. The same happened the next day, and the next and this went on for over a week. We cancelled one cruise and then the next. Eventually we met the transport minister and the surveyor finally came on board for what we anticipated would be a quick visit. In fact, it took him one month to do the survey. (An international surveyor from say Lloyds or ABS would take a couple of days at the most). Each day the surveyor would run over a different part of the ship testing every little detail. Then just as we thought at long last we could get away they insisted on us dry docking again (at $10,000 a pop) to check the hull plates,” Strachan said.

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