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

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!

 

Click Here to view more images of the Andaman Explorer

Click Here to view more images of the Mergui Archipelago

Comments

Would you like to leave a comment or give your feedback on this article? Please send your email to feedback@pandaw.com.

 

Lesley Sirrell posted in Apr 2017

Thank you for sharing with us the very detailed account of the Andaman Explorers problems. We were booked on the second cruise last October and received a telephone call from Hugh two days before we were due to fly to Yangon. We were very disappointed but obviously our problems were nothing compared to yours!

We would still love to do the Yangon to Ranong trip, not so interested in just the archipelago, any chance this might happen or too much red tape? We are also seriously considering the Irrawaddy Delta expedition next March.

Best wishes for the future success of the Andaman Explorer and the other Pandaw ships, especially the RV Kindat Pandaw with which we fell in love in Jan 2016.

 

Tom and Lane posted in Apr 2017

How do you to turn a problem into a pleasant adventure? Your staff, particularly Sven Zika, did just that. We were booked on the 5 March Mergui Archipelago Cruise and were already in Thailand when the cancellation notice was published. We thought we were confronted with a disaster, but Pandaw's attitude towards customer service came to the rescue.

From the day we learned of the cruise cancellation, Mr. Zika contacted us and did everything possible to make the changes to our fairly complicated schedule smooth and convenient. In addition, his patient explanations and personal involvement assured us that Pandaw cared for our comfort and was concerned about helping us resolve our problems. His personal attention continued when he met us and the other similarly affected passengers at our hotel in Myanmar. His follow-up continued after we returned to the U.S. in coordinating financial details.

In addition to Sven, many other members of your staff did everything possible to make our substitute cruise a memorable one. Two had direct contact with us:

When we arrived in Myanmar, Stuart Hickman met us at the airport, and his attitude got the substitute cruise off to a positive start. We were able to report to him, honestly, when he met us on disembarkation that nothing could have been better in regards to the food and wine.

Additionally, the guide you contracted for our cruise on the Upper Irrawaddy and the subsequent Burma's Undiscovered South Post Tour was absolutely professional. We don't have the western spelling of his name, but he asked to be called "Chaw." The information he provided was both excellent and interesting, but, more important, he made us feel that we were honored guests and friends, not just tourists to be herded. We look forward to additional experiences with such professionals.

We know Pandaw was confronted with a very difficult situation with our cruise and handled it very well. We have already cruised the Mekong and the Irrawaddy with Pandaw and look forward to future cruises. You have earned our confidence.

 

Sandy Hazzard posted in Apr 2017

Paul, thank you so much for your candid insights to what went wrong with the Andaman Explorer. I am one of the many disappointed cruisers whose trip was cancelled and your story certainly helped ease the pain – as did your very generous alternative offers.

As a veteran of 4 Pandaw Cruises (although I did come across a nine cruise veteran), I can assure you that you have not lost any credence through these unfortunate circumstances as can be seen in others’ feedback.

As background, you briefly visited our ship in Mandalay about four years ago and a couple of years ago you joined our Mekong cruise for a couple of days with your lovely wife – leaving us during the day trip out of Phnom Penh to travel overland to Siem Reap. During that time I explained I was a single traveller (whose partner hates planes and it is difficult to travel internationally from Australia without using planes) and suggested to you that there should be more “no or limited single supplement cruises” I see that you now have many more of these and hopefully this will increase the number of Pandaw Junkies.

Thanks for your efforts with the Myanmar authorities and hopefully you will have a satisfactory resolution soon.

 

Judy Robinson posted in Apr 2017

"Well I finally see an name for my problem... Pandaw Junkie. We first found your company in 2008 on our first trip to Myanmar. We returned in 2010 with my two brothers and their wives and had a wonderful time on the Chindwin and Irrawaddy on the 20 day trip. Fantastic and we were hooked. 2014 The Irrawaddy, also a great experience. We are going on the Laos Mekong this October and are thinking of joining you on The Merge Archipelago on the Andaman Explorer for the trip departing 29 of October. We are looking forward to some beautiful days and evenings with what I know to be wonderful crew. I thank you in advance and find sailing with Pandaw to be the perfect vacation. Adventure and nurture."

 

Charlotte Pinder posted in Apr 2017

Dear Mr Strachan

As I've said in previous emails, I have enormous respect and admiration for what you've achieved in making Pandaw such a wonderful and successful company. But my heart broke yesterday upon reading your account of the problems you have had with the Andaman Explorer.

I am so sorry that you and your colleagues had so much stress and unpleasantness to deal with (and from the Burmese - in a country you know so well). Rest assured that I (and I am sure all other "Pandaw Junkies") will continue to support the company. I will book in 2018 for the Mergui Archipelago and the other trips in the Indian Ocean which you mentioned in your explanatory note as soon as they are announced.

We regulars do know of the problems encountered on the water my trip (which finished yesterday) on the Pandaw Champa was curtailed significantly by low water levels. But we love your company and will continue to support you and your team in building the finest small cruise operation!

 

Julia Caroline (Carol) Ross posted in Apr 2017

Dear Paul,

I have just recently read your book "The Pandaw Story", and only regret that I did not read it before I took the 14 day cruise on the Irrawaddy about this time last year .The history, the trials and tribulations, the successes the jubilations when it all went well, brought the whole experience of the river and life on board Pandaw 11 to life once again. And now I have just read your email on the experiences with the Andaman Explorer – what a saga that turned out to be! A very rocky start turning into a triumph at the end - you and your team certainly deserve recognition for your persistence and determination in the face of such challenges.

Life on board the Pandaw 11 was a delightful experience both on and board the ship. The daily expeditions gave such an intimate glimpse into the everyday life of the people who live on and off the river, and in and around villages in the rural areas. I particularly commend you for your spirit of charity which grew out of the Nargis Cyclone in 09, and perhaps some of that spirit rubbed off on me because went to Cambodia later last to help distribute and fit artificial hands to amputees, a very salutary experience.

I found your references to the political scene in Burma over the years most interesting, and somewhat at odds with the stereo reporting in some of our media, but perhaps more realistic and truthful. Anyway my congratulations to you and Roser, may you long continue your association with the rivers of Asia and elsewhere.

I am very much hoping I can take your 14 day Laos/China next year. This year I am going to Europe and meeting up with some of the lovely people I met on Pandaw 11 last year, so no doubt there will be many reminisces and stories told. We have such wonderful memories in common.

I hope you and your family have had a very Happy Easter.