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Sailing Asia's extreme south in an explorer yacht: Qing
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Sailing Asia's extreme south in an explorer yacht: Qing

Tristan Rutherford
13th November 2019

Cheoy Lee’s 46m explorer vessel Qing was built for trans-oceanic adventure. Fortunately, the owner of the shipyard’s flagship yacht planned to do just that.   

 Papua New Guinea was one of Qing’s favoured ports of call. The South East Asian nation boasts over 5,000km (3,000 miles) of coastline yet has no functioning central government. “Papua New Guinea is about as off-the-beaten track as you’re going to get,” attests the owner. “To take a superyacht up the Sepik River to meet truly remote tribes is the equivalent of a UFO hovering over Miami.” 

Papua New Guinea's longest river reads like a National Geographic documentary. The Sepik meanders for some 1,100km (700 miles) through bountiful rainforest and crocodile infested narrows. An endemic canopy of montane oak and giant araucaria shade the headwaters; the river’s mangrove lowlands are guarded by tarpon and freshwater sharks. Departures magazine christened the waterway, “One of the last great adventures on earth”. 

An explorer yacht like Qing has the capacity for a varied complement of guests and crew. On this trip the owner was lucky to commission Sir Peter Barter as a personal guide. “He started his career as a bush pilot in Papua,” the owner explains. Sir Peter was later knighted for brokering a peace agreement between the island’s warring tribes on the Papuan island of Bougainville. Although there was one caveat. “Despite how amazing our sights were, Sir Peter would always say ‘ah, you should have been here 50 years ago, ’it was so much better!’” 

Such far reaching adventure begs the ultimate question. How does one join the explorer club? “I got lucky by choosing the right boat,” says Qing’s owner. “Because when I looked to purchase five years ago, what people tried to advise me simply wasn’t true.” He follows with an example. “One reason why this Cheoy Lee yacht took time to sell is because a novice would say ‘oh my gosh, one engine on an explorer yacht, I need two!” 

The reality is somewhat different. “My automotive background gave me contacts at major engine manufacturers like Detroit Diesel. I asked their marine divisions: ‘Is a single engine a concern?’ They all said no, because even most commercial ships only have one motor. And if you maintain one of those big long-wearing Caterpillars it won’t be a problem.” Qing’s captain confirms they have cruised over 80,000 nautical miles on the same engine without issue. 

The forward engine room hosts an additional Schottel jet pump, which acts as an oversized bow thruster and a secondary ‘get-home’ power unit capable of moving Qing along at half speed. And as the yacht weighs in at under 500GRT she maintains a range of 6,600 nautical miles, while consuming 35% less than a twin-screw of comparable tonnage. 

The owner also liked that shipyard Cheoy Lee maintain a commercial arm “so they know how to build a steel hull”. Plus a recreational side “so they can craft hard-wearing, low-weight fibreglass onto explorer yachts.” Such a mix makes for stable sailing. In the waters off Mexico and Nicaragua, Qing took 50 knots on the beam. Which is when “stuff starts flying around” recalls her owner. “It wasn’t comfortable but it was safe.” Even with the most high-tech forecasting, sailors can’t avoid a localised system like this. “It’s not a shuttle to the Bahamas and back.”

Things get even less chartered the farther one sails. To navigate the archipelagic nation of Vanuatu, midway between Fiji and the Solomon Islands, a private yacht is not a luxury but a necessity. With almost zero local infrastructure, dives were necessarily planned from scratch. “In Vanuatu we were literally looking at bathymetric seabed readings to gauge what sort of dive sites each underwater feature might produce.” 

The experience was revelatory. “We found a coral sea mount 40 miles offshore and freedived with dog toothed tuna and huge wahoo”. In such off-the-chart conditions like Vanuatu, anchoring became an artform. “At 46m Qing can squeeze into tiny atolls with the help of sidescan sonar and our 38ft jetboat.” Indeed, size has never been an issue. “There’s rarely been a time when I’ve thought ‘oh, I wish I had that item onboard too’.” Current accoutrements include jet skis, two onboard tenders, paddle boards, kite boards, Seabobs, spearfishing and scuba diving gear, among a host of other toys.  

By night, all nine guests watched the Australian-Vanuatan movie Tanna under the tropical sky. This Academy Award-nominated production, filmed entirely in the 80-island Pacific nation, sets a fictional love tale against the all-too-real Mount Yasur volcano. 

The same active peak that attracted Captain Cook in 1774 lured Qing in 2016. “We used the yacht’s DJI Inspire drone to capture footage of the volcano for our YouTube stream,” says her owner. “They’re lightweight and (at around $3,000) inexpensive so I wasn’t worried about losing it.” The latter point is prescient, as the owner has already downed three drones in the Pacific Ocean. Sadly the tempestuous Mount Yasur added a final drama to proceedings. “The wind shifted and volcanic ash blew all over our boat - a key reason behind our 2019 refit, as she definitely needed a new coat of paint after that.”

Although the yacht is currently on sale it won’t stop her owner spending money. “It may take two or three years to find the perfect buyer so I’m going to pay to maintain her and fully use her during that time.” 

Staying safe has always been a constant aim. “When we’re far out at sea we’re basically in space, as exposed as an astronaut. If something goes wrong there’s no-one coming to get us, and no coast guard.” Having just returned from French Polynesia in time for the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, Qing will undergo another extensive yard renovation before heading back to Panama.

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