David Marlow: Setting the bar high for boatbuilding in China

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David Marlow set out to build the best boat he could in the greenest and most socially responsible way he could to show his host — the People’s Republic of China — that he is not just another carpetbagger come to siphon off quick profits from its burgeoning economy.

Read the other story in this package: Made in China

Marlow, 62, builder of the Explorer line of 54- to 78-foot high-end passagemakers, the 38-foot Prowler express cruiser, and the 15-foot Sprite tender, says he is making an investment in China’s future. In 2003 Marlow opened Norsemen Shipbuilding Ltd. on 25 acres near coastal Xiamen (pronounced shaman). The facility is a model of environmental and social responsibility for China and for the rest of the world.

“No question, this is the greenest boatbuilding plant in the world,” Marlow says. He knows that because before he built Norsemen he visited what he believes to be the world’s second-cleanest boatbuilding operation, the Tiara Yachts plant in Holland, Mich.

A meticulous man, Marlow doesn’t like to see even a single cigarette butt or gum wrapper on the ground, so it was no stretch for him to expect Norsemen to set a new industry standard for cleanliness. “I don’t like pollution,” he says.

At the 30-acre facility, which won the Superyacht Society’s 2006 World Superyachts Award for Environmental Policies:

• Runoff is collected and filtered through some two miles of granite and gravel beds laid around every building throughout the property and along its periphery. The runoff drains into 100,000-gallon cisterns, where whatever sediment that remains in it settles to the bottom and the water is recycled to irrigate the plant’s garden-like grounds. Granite walls with 3-foot-deep foundations surround the compound to ensure all runoff is contained on-site and channeled for recycling.

• Wood scrap fires boilers and supplements gas that heats water for the plant and for the 200 on-site apartments that house plant workers. Cardboard and plastic are collected and sent to recycling centers.

• Mineral spirits used to clean paintbrushes goes into a settling tank, where sediments fall out, leaving clean spirits on top for reuse.

• Chemicals, including acetone, are stored and applied in separate chemical sheds. Used chemicals are collected in containers and sent out for disposal or recycling. Lubricants and fuels are stored and dispensed in walled-in areas to contain spills.

“We don’t put anything on the ground other than water,” he says. “Nothing is dispensed unless we have a place to dispose of it.”

• Marlow’s proprietary closed-mold fiberglass layup eliminates styrene emissions, and a combination of ventilation and water traps dramatically reduces other airborne pollutants in the sheds.

• The landscaping is park-like and includes 1,000 peach, pear, lychee and dragon eye trees so the factory fits in with the natural

resort-like environment of the Xiamen region.

China requires manufacturers to provide room and board for their workers, many of whom relocate from the countryside. Marlow built apartments on the grounds for workers, and resident housekeepers and gardeners raise vegetables and fruits for their meals. Ducks and chickens roam freely and provide poultry and eggs.

Located across the China Sea from Taiwan, Xiamen is the chief port city in a region dominated by an 80-mile-long national park of Pacific-like beaches set against a backdrop of virgin forest and mountains. A clean and lushly landscaped modern city, Xiamen is a resort getaway for wealthy inland Chinese. Norsemen is next to the park and across the way from a more than 500-year-old fishing village populated by Chinese workers skilled in wooden boatbuilding.

Marlow, of Palmetto, Fla., on lower Tampa Bay, grew up in a west coast Florida boatbuilding family. His father built fishing boats and later yachts made of lightweight juniper planked on oak framing. The owner of three Florida marinas when he retired at age 43, Marlow sailed around the world several times in retirement, and after nine years opened a marina in Palmetto — also a park-like place that reflects his view that protecting the marine and coastal environment is vital.

Drawing on his own cruising experience, Marlow put lines to paper for a high-end bluewater passagemaker. Co-designed with Marblehead, Mass., designer Doug Zurn, the 65-foot Marlow Explorer came to market in 2001. He started building Explorers in Tainan, Taiwan, and he still builds the 65-footer and a few smaller models there, though 90 percent of production now is at Norsemen. Marlow believes the future of Chinese boatbuilding lies on the mainland.

He says the Taiwanese are becoming more affluent, their labor rates are creeping up and add-on social costs like workman’s compensation are driving up employer costs. He calculates just a $1 difference between labor costs in Tainan and Manatee County, where he lives, but it still makes sense to build in Tainan because workers there are very efficient and highly skilled.

Marlow says labor costs in China are a compelling reason for building there, but he warns that freight and other “non-value-added” costs of doing business in China run $150,000 on a typical 70-foot yacht.

Marlow’s company, Marlow Yachts Ltd., is majority owner of the Norsemen yard in a partnership with some Taiwanese businessmen who have no experience in boatbuilding. In addition to boats, the plant, which employs 550, produces tooling for other boatbuilders, furniture, windmill blades and carbon fiber wind tunnel housings. Norsemen recently bought 50 acres of adjoining oceanfront for a visitor’s center and expansion of the boatbuilding facility. The yard buys teak logs whole and mills them on-site for its veneers and cabinetry. It uses its own proprietary system for closed-mold fiberglass layup, does most of its own stainless steel work, and fabricates carbon fiber fittings.

“The complex stern-roller chocks and cleat assembly seen on our yachts are produced entirely in-house for every yacht,” Marlow says.

The Explorers are high-tech yachts, their hulls built of strong, lightweight Kevlar-carbon fiber sandwich construction and the interiors finely finished in Burmese teak and cherry hardwoods. Marlow likens his Explorers to Steinway pianos; they are “works of art.”

The Prowlers, introduced in February 2005, are an updated and more comfortable version of the genre of high-speed Prohibition-era rum runners — small cabin boats — that used to smuggle liquor between Florida and the Bahamas. Like the Explorer, the Prowler hull and deck are built of carbon fiber, Kevlar and fiberglass impregnated with vinylester resins, all vacuum-bagged and sandwiched around Core-Cell foam. Interiors are made of veneered lightweight Nida-Core honeycomb. The boat is built for speed. Powered by triple 250-hp outboards, the open Prowler tops out at 50 knots, 40 knots with twins.

Belying the notion that all work coming out of China is still a little rough, Marlow says nothing about his boats or plant is anything less than high-tech, high-quality and very, very green. The Explorers are certified to Lloyds Register and American Bureau of Shipping standards for Category 1 offshore use. The plant is certified to ISO 9001, a world standard for quality control, and is seeking ISO 14001 certification for good environmental practices.

Marlow has built 50 boats over five years, about half of them at Norsemen, says spokeswoman Dottie Rutledge. The China facility delivers two boats a month, all of them built to order. “They’ve got over a two-year backlog,” she says. “It’s incredible.”

Marlow brought his Tainan craftsmen to Xiamen to train his mainland workers in advanced fiberglass work and fine carpentry. For training, they built a wooden yacht so they could see the kind of boat they would be building in Kevlar, carbon fiber and fiberglass. They built the plant’s office furniture and cabinetry to hone their carpentry skills, then built the tooling for another boatbuilder so they could work in fiberglass and wood together. For a graduation exercise his 30 best woodworkers built desks for the village school, each completing a desk alone using yacht-quality fine-finish techniques.

Marlow says his relationship with local government officials has been excellent. “They’ve been wonderful to work with,” he says. “With every good move I’ve made, they’ve made two.”

He built both a riprap breakwater to create a protected harbor for Norsemen (and for the local fishing fleet during typhoon season) and a road to the plant. Now he’s planting some of the grounds in teak, which he eventually plans to harvest and use. In the meantime, the new plantings are “good for the environment,” says spokeswoman Rutledge.

“When I started this, a few relatives and friends looked at me as if I’d really blown my cork,” Marlow says. “I didn’t have to go back to work, you know, but China has been a wonderful, wonderful experience for me. ... It has been so successful, so satisfying.”

Marlow has East and West coast sales outlets: Marlow Marine Sales in Snead Island, Fla., (941) 729-3370,

www.marlowmarine.com, and Venwest Yachts in Seattle, (888) 766-7447, www.venwestyachts.com . Additional information can be found at www.marlowyachts.com .