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What Went Wrong with the Andaman Explorer by Pandaw Founder, Paul Strachan

April 18, 2017 Cruise, Headline News No Comments Email Email

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 Andaman Explorer

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.

For no less than eight weeks as each week went by, we were assured by the authorities we could sail the next week. Then it was still a ‘no’ as they threw up survey upon survey and bureaucratic obstruction after obstruction. Each issue raised would be costly to resolve as today in Burma, officials operate behind a filter of agents and brokers in whose interest it is to prolong any undertaking. Of course we fully refunded all cancelled passengers, offering them a complimentary river cruise in its place and covering additional flights or connections. Our passengers were amazing and several returned the refund asking us to give the money to the Pandaw Charity. These are the sort of people who travel with Pandaw!

The Andaman Explorer

Believe it or not, the ship is now fully registered and licenced, alas too late for the passengers booked last season. Having spent on the refit three times what we paid for the ship I believe we now have a fully functional vessel in top condition. She really is the loveliest of things with her elegant lines and graceful curves. I cannot think of any other ‘cruise ship’ where every single cabin is a two-room suite. There are no less than three dining areas; two outdoor and one indoor. All this for just twenty passengers! I believe that despite this long tale of woe, we have here something rather wonderful that is now ready to do great things.

I am deeply and truly sorry for the inconvenience suffered by those pioneering passengers who booked her. From my heart I thank them for their understanding and tolerance. Our regulars well know that new ships in new cruising areas have a habit of not going to plan and that is what they sign up for. But nothing could have prepared the most valiant of passengers (or indeed us) for this ordeal. Having worked in Burma for over 35 years, 22 of which have been running river ships, and achieved many things in a difficult operating environment, at no point has it been so difficult to get things done there. That is the irony: as the country moves towards democracy, red tape and all that goes with it get worse.

Despite this, Maritime Burma is one of the world’s great secrets. The Mergui Archipelago alone has over 1,000 islands of awesome beauty. No one gets to go there: there are real discoveries to make. Next year we plan further coastal explorations – round the Delta and up into the islands of the Arakan, to the Andamans and the Indian Ocean at large.

Please have faith – it will be worth it!

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