Interview: Alexey Rakhmanov, President of the United Shipbuilding Corporation

Being experienced in building warships and specialized vessels, Russian shipyards from time to time carry out private orders to construct large pleasure boats. However, it happens sporadically and the results of their work are far from being world-class. Alexey Rakhmanov, President of the United Shipbuilding Corporation (USC) and a keen yachtsman, told our readers what was necessary for Russian industry to achieve success in yacht construction and how this business line could be developed.

There were efforts in Russia to build large yachts, but they stopped. Why? And are there any prospects in this field?

We have also asked this question many times. I believe, in such kind of business it is paramount to meet the customers’ needs and stay in personal contact with clients in order to understand their requirements and to fascinate them. Then, you have to prove that you are actually able to build yachts. The main task is exactly this and not the building process per se.

All entrepreneurs happened to start business in one or another way. For example, the founder of Hyundai demonstrated coins with pictures of ships to his customers, saying that he was able to build similar vessels. Others made yachts for themselves, then for their friends, and eventually got orders from the outside. Experience of such Russian shipyards as Timmerman, which constructed good boats, as well as that of our Zvezdochka and Sovmash has shown that Russian shipbuilders are able to cope with building yachts. For instance, one of our Russian entrepreneurs commissioned Zvezdochka to build a yacht and that boat was a certain success. Unfortunately, all those similar projects remained extremely customized and had no further development.

Probably, one should opt for utilizing international experience from the very beginning?

Italian, Dutch, and German manufactures are rated as compact shipyards with the total area of 10 to 20 thousand square meters and have relatively small slipways. The exception might be Lürssen which builds both super yachts and warships. Its example demonstrates successful combination of these two business lines. But if we consider the work of our other European colleagues we shall see that they use the existing technological methods to produce yachts, but the layout and decor are tailored for a particular client. Moreover, a significant part of the entire cost of the final product falls to the interiors.

There is a very strange situation in our country: we have wonderful industrial designers and can build world-class navy and commercial vessels which are getting better year after year, but yachts somehow go wrong. As I have already mentioned, the main reason might be lack of skill or absence of the possibility to convince clients. In this special market it is not enough simply to declare that, for example, USC is going to build a large yacht without demonstrating a convincing example. That is why I suppose that in this subtle and even whimmy business we should follow our Chinese colleagues who buy the yacht brands in Europe, considering that the name of the manufacturer plays the key role in this kind of business.

There are plenty of nuances in producing every vessel. One has to either experiment or learn from one’s own mistakes (which leads to an increase in cost) or invite experts with a lot of experience. Very soon we will have to choose which way to follow. But actually, whatever direction we prefer yacht manufacturing will be a promising and perspective business for USC. Being navy vessel manufacturers, we know how to make good hulls and propulsive systems. The rest we are ready to learn taking lessons, for instance, from Peter Lürssen.

If there are committed and adventurous enterpreneurs around, would they get the “green light” for such kind of business? Or would they sink in the sea of problems?

Yes, there are such people. Although there are only about fifteen yachts bigger than 20m built in Russia there are many successful companies manufacturing smaller vessels. For instance, the Compan Marin shipyard is one of them. They build speed boats of polymer composites and export them.

  • Multifunctional stand by vessel Evgeniy Primakov built by USC at Arctech Helsinki Shipyard

Some of the Russian customers who were engaged in boat construction eventually became the owners of shipyards which suddenly went bankrupt. In order to keep their investments they had to buy the company out. Do you know if any of those people succeeded in shipbuilding?

Unfortunately, I do not know such examples. A forced transformation from a customer into a ship builder is a heavy burden. On the one hand, it is inevitable, because if you want to achieve high quality you need to sacrifice all your time and energy to production; yacht building is a time consuming business and requires a lot of expenditure. The purchase of a shipyard to complete production of a single vessel is never justified. There are only two ways of getting money back: to resell the yacht once it is ready or sell the entire business given that is has the batch production line in place.

What do we have for construction of modern yachts and what are we short of in Russia?

In Russia there are many experts in the field of power plants and, for instance, bridge systems. For example, Transas has been lately making very high quality products which are used in South Korean LNG carriers. Besides Russian bridge systems, they are equipped with our propulsive systems (propellers and shaft lines) made by Zvezdochka yard. We can use the same systems for recreational vessels. The only question is their proper scaling and bringing to certain requirements in terms of speed and noise.

Moreover, our unit in Kaluga region is probably the best design office for propeller calculations, while our stabilization technologies are quite effective and could be easily utilized on yachts. We are able to design and produce water-jets and pods for vessels equipped with the DP systems, can make complex steering gear, but creating comfort on board is not our hobbyhorse yet. Basically, our yacht builders lack proper designers who could point at the drawbacks to be corrected.

And what about engines?

We have basic diesel engines up to 1500kW which could be used on yachts. But they were mostly designed for navy and commercial vessels; therefore their noise and vibration parameters need further optimization. To fix that one had better go to the shock absorber producers than to the engine manufacturers. Besides that, diesel engines are usually cooled with sea water but closed cooling circuits are required in the warm seas. Ethylene glycol coolant would not be the best solution in terms of environmental impact, although MTU and MAN use it even in navy vessels’ diesels.

But the main problem with our diesel engines is that somebody has to pay to convert them for marine use. I discussed this issue with the GAZ group and with PJSC Kolomensky Zavod. They all say that they are ready to develop a full model range but before doing it they need to know how many pieces of each model will be ordered. To cover expenses they must receive a certain size of an order and here we are facing the question: how many buyers are there?

It is true, though, that the next problem would be setting up of maintenance and repair facilities, which is probably the hardest thing to do, since there should be service centers on all the shipping routes. And again, everything comes to the notorious question of the market volume. Should it be ample there would be progress.

Is yacht building on the agenda?

We are planning a serious discussion of the question whether it is worth while for USC to develop in this direction. Within the frame of the Russian market it makes no sense. Export access should be considered and what kind of goods should be offered which cannot be obtained elsewhere. It is a very complicated task, but we already have something in our sleeve.

When making a decision where to build a yacht people are rarely guided by patriotic motifs because they do not want to venture their money. They prefer to spend it carefully and eventually get a high quality product. That is why it would be a good idea to engage foreign professionals who know this business very well. If USC makes a decision to build private yachts we will consider buying the existing yards or establish a design bureau with experience in yacht construction.

The latter I prefer even more. In reality there is nothing extremely difficult in making hulls and installing engines. Have a look at the engine bays of our ice breakers and you will figure out that they are almost identical to those in yachts except size and equipment richness. Then, it is necessary to define requirements for providing a certain level of comfort. They include stabilizers, vacuum sewerage systems, air conditioning systems, décor, noise reduction and smart home technologies.

Probably, one should choose Damen’s approach to standardization of technical platforms and make explorers out of the existing rescue ships…

To be honest, I can say that we build the best arctic rescue vessels up to 107m; much better than Damen or anybody else. For example, the Evgeniy Primakov is the most perfect multifunctional stand by vessel of ARC7 class ever built. It is possible to equip such a vessel for consumer needs and turn it into an expedition yacht, but who is going to be her owner and operator? If anybody buys her for personal purposes how often would she sail in the Polar Regions and how long would she stay there? After spending one or two seasons in the ice the owner might consider moving towards the warm seas where he or she would realize that a vessel with ice breaking capabilities would lose in terms of fuel efficiency and maintenance cost. Explorer is a very expensive toy for a very rich man. One has to fully understand what it is for and how to make it work properly in order to avoid losing everything because of costly maintenance.

How high do you place the problem of cyber security of modern vessels?

There is a saying: the thing designed by one engineer will be certainly broken by another. That is why there is no point in talking about achieving total security of wired or wireless control systems. We can foresee that in the future the level of automation for various systems will be invariably growing. That is why we recently began to develop our internal unit called USC Technology whose main task is to become an integrator of both the basic and special ship control systems.

It is always possible to intercept a modern satellite signal; that is why it is very important to keep communication channels protected in a clear manner and design systems which are capable of detecting vulnerabilities and keeping attacks down. We are very experienced in doing this on navy vessels where prevention of signal interception is one of the key security elements.

What about shipbuilding education in Russia?

Demand determines supply. Nowadays dedicated fleet is in demand in Russia; hence it is important to educate people capable of designing certain types of vessels. Could we train professionals to build yachts? Yes, we could, but only when the Russian shipyards have a sufficient amount of orders to train the students. Otherwise they will not have reason for coming back after graduating abroad.

In this context the shipbuilding industry might reproduce the experience of Russian automobile industry. Remember how many of our designers went away to work for Renault or Toyota. For instance, the famous industrial designer Vladimir Pirozhkov, who worked with many foreign manufacturers, came back to Russia only when his skills came into demand, and not only in automotive industry. When there is demand engineers will return. And any engineer should see his brainchild produced. Talks and projects won’t keep him here.

Is yachting one of your hobbies?

I am keen on yachting and enjoy being at sea but relegate myself to the category of the admirals who love the sea after coming ashore. I am not interested in facing waves being at the helm of a motor boat. I would rather work with sails to understand them better and enjoy the process when the wind is good. Unfortunately, it happens quite seldom, once or twice a season, during the regattas supported by USC. But during these competitions I always try to stay at sea because it is very important for me. Until you smell salt and have sore blistered hands you will never understand what real male work is. It is also very enjoyable, while in the Black Sea, to steer away from land for a mile or three to find clean water and swim there. But it is another kind of recreation.

Words by Anton Cherkasov-Nisman Illustrations by USC


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