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Ailsa-Perth: from sunset to sunrise

Ailsa-Perth Marine Limited is a genuinely busy U.K. dockyard which is currently implementing an ambitious plan to expand the facility in an innovative way. Business at the yard offers a unique perspective on maritime history. For instance, there are currently emergency repairs being carried out to a modern tractor tug in the same drydock from which Admiral Nelson's illustrious flagship, Victory, was launched some 230 years ago.

Ailsa-Perth Marine Limited was formed to take over two of the three existing drydocks at Chatham Historic Dockyard on the River Medway (which flows into the Thames Estuary) in the fall of 1994. In its first year it turned over close to $3 million, a remarkable feat considering that there was no existing business on which to capitalize, and that the entire team consists of just 28 people. To discover how this has been achieved at a time when the trend is to close yards rather than open them up, it is necessary to look at the Ailsa- Perth Group as a whole.

A decade ago, the Ailsa Shipbuilders' yard at Troon in Scotland was doomed as one of the sacrificial lambs of the fast-shrinking conglomerate called British Shipbuilders. On the day that news of the closure was broken to a despondent workforce, an Australian businessman called at the yard. While on a family holiday, he simply had come to the yard hoping to uncover the original drawings of a 200-ft. (61-m) yacht that Ailsa had built in 1902, a vessel which he was considering purchasing. As it turns out, this unexpected visitor, Gregory Copley, ended up buying the yard and giving it a new identity, Ailsa-Perth Shipbuilders; adding the name of his own home town in Western Australia. By investing in improved facilities and instituting the best modern management techniques, the Troon yard has gone from strength to strength with a busy program of newbuilds and repairs on a wide variety of vessels from tugs to ferries in its 400-ft. (122-m) drydock and building hall, a facility capable of holding two 374-ft. (114-m) vessels at a time.

Having proved that a well-run yard could prosper, Mr. Copley decided to look south of the border for another opportunity. Business associate and management consultant Bill Carr knew of the ideal site just 35 miles from London. As an independent consultant, he had been commissioned to look at the future prospects of The Chatham Royal Naval Dockyard when the Navy pulled out in 1986. This 350- acre site had served as a shipbuilding and ship repair base since the mid-16th century and was being divided into three units: a commercial port, an area of prime housing and prestige office development; and the Chatham Historic Dockyard. This latter section, the oldest part of the site, is now open to the public with numerous sights to see.This building, built by shipwrights in the only way they knew how, as an upside down hull, is now appropriately used by Ailsa- Perth as a carpentry shop. In the middle of the area were three drydocks providing capacity for vessels up to 394 ft. x 49 ft. (120 m x 15 m).

Although these docks have been kept in use on an '"ad hoc" basis since the navy pulled out, it was Mr. Carr, the former Royal Marine, who had the vision to see the overall prospects of the site. Not surprisingly, he was given the managing director position of the new enterprise by Mr. Copley. The primary tasks involved gutting and renovating several of the buildings to provide office accommodation, stores and workshops, initiating an intensive marketing effort and replacing a dock gate of one of the two drydocks available. Mr. C a r r hopes to get a third before too long.

The marketing initiative was immediately successful as the first docking, the cement carrier Blue Circle Venture, soon arrived for major refit. This was followed by a succession of vessels including more Blue Circle ships and others from owners such as Crescent, Dover Harbor Board, J.H. Whitaker Tankers, Port of London Authority, South Coast Shipping, Alexandra Towing, the Societe Loientaise d'Armement (a French freight line) and Union Transport. For a company in existence for just over a year, the list of owners reveals a remarkably large number of repeat bookings. Four Alexandra tugs have been docked, and both of Dover Harbor Board's tugs have undergone refit. One, the Ruston/Voith tractor Dextrous, was back in the "Victory" dock during MR/EN's visit, for damage repairs after it was pinned to a harbor wall by a bulbous bow. In the other dock, a coastal bulker, Hoo Beech, was having its Aquamaster thrusters replaced through a hole cut in the plating.

Meanwhile, maintaining day-to-day business, Mr. C a r r plans for a promising future. The company is to manage a museum dedicated to the boats and activities of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) in a huge covered hall, formerly housing two of the navy's machine shops. The boats and displays are more or less in position, but elevated visitor walkways and cradles are to be constructed before its spring opening.

Adjoining the museum is a cavernous covered slip where frigates and O-Class submarines were once built, with adjacent construction bays capable of handling numerous craft up to 130-ft. (40-m) in length. Work is just about to start on renovating and cleaning up the building, to prepare for the construction of new vessels in the summer.

Mr. C a r r has more ideas: "I'd very much like to attract some RNLI repair and construction work to the area between the museum and the slip. A viewing gallery would enable visitors to see the old and new side by side." Additional plans bring in other companies within the Ailsa-Perth Group much involved in the super yacht industry: naval architects G.L. Watson & Company and Vosper Yacht Services.

Chatham is ideally located to build, service, repair and refit superyachts, being within easy reach of the English Channel. "Not only do we hope to attract business from Europe and the Mediterranean, but the nearby dockyard development includes 1,600 homes, many of which will have a yacht berth, and two of the large basins are to be converted into luxury marinas. This is bound to generate business."

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