Hello, sailors

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 September, 2005, 12:00am

FOR NOW THE Payoon 3 is the sole occupant of the ONE?15 Marina in Singapore. But with the berths getting hooked up to electricity and water on Monday, and word of mouth slowly spreading in the international yachting community, the 130-ft mega-yacht should soon be joined by other craft.

'The marine industry in the region is still in its infancy, but things are happening,' says Payoon 3's captain, Alain Desmot, who's been yachting in Asia for the past six years. 'It will take another five to six years before this region gets the interest of the international yachting crowd, but in 10 years this marina will be very busy.'

Although the Lion City grew out of the sea trade, Singaporeans have yet to take to leisure on the waves as westerners have. But with the emergence of new marina facilities - ONE?15 Marina and the S$4 billion ($18 billion) Sentosa Cove development among the latest - hopes are high that they'll not only encourage locals to embrace the marine lifestyle, but also put the island on the map for luxury yachting.

Adam Fuller, an Australian who's lived in Singapore for seven years and owns a luxury Beneteau yacht, says the island's tropical climate is a real plus for sailors. That's why he's out sailing 'every weekend, all weekend'. When not racing in a regatta, Fuller enjoys going to a nearby island to 'drop the anchor, have a barbecue and a bit of a swim'.

Singaporean businessman David Loh prefers going away for a couple of weeks at a time and doesn't shy away from such distant destinations as the Maldives. Loh has bought three building plots in Sentosa Cove (one for himself and two as investments) because he wants to live next to his boats, an ocean-going 62-footer and a 28-footer.

Still, yachting enthusiasts remain in a tiny minority in Asia, including Singapore, where there are only 3,300 registered powered and non-powered pleasure craft, according to the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore. New Zealand, which has a similar-sized population, has about 400,000 boat owners.

Asia (excluding Japan) accounts for a paltry 1 per cent of the global leisure boat population, whereas the US accounts for 70 per cent and Europe 26 per cent.

Popularising boating among Singaporeans is an uphill battle, partly because the activity is traditionally associated with work. On a recent visit to Raffles Marina, the island's oldest marina, about 30 per cent of its 165 walk-on berths were empty.

The expatriate community still dominates the waves in recreational sailing in the region, enthusiasts say. 'The sailing community here is very small and it's mainly expatriates,' says Fuller. 'But [the authorities] are trying very hard to change this, because expats come and go.'

Singapore wants its marinas to become the 'Changi Airport' of Southeast Asia. Sports minister Vivian Balakrishnan highlights the island's strategic location at the intersection of regional sea lanes and its reputation for security and reliability. 'This is a place where people will put their multimillion-dollar yachts and be able to sleep soundly at night,' he says.

However, many professionals say the authorities can hope for only a gradual growth of the yachting market until the Sentosa Cove project (which combines residential, resort and marina amenities) is completed in 2008.

More importantly, they say there has to be a 'ground-up approach' to raise awareness of water sports throughout Singaporean society and not just among the wealthy. Some steps have been made in that direction, with the opening of reservoirs for recreational use. The completion of the Marina Barrage in 2007, linking three coastal basins, will expand facilities for staging water-sport events such as powerboat races, and water skiing and windsurfing competitions.

Negotiations are ongoing for Singapore to be on the first leg of the Volvo Around the World Yachting Race in 2007, says Arthur Tay, chairman of ONE?15 Marina. If they strike a deal, it would give his club global exposure.

'The biggest battle is to change mindset', says Tim Alden, brand manager for Azimut Yacht at Simpson Marine, Asia's largest yacht broker. 'People often just look at the cost and not the benefits. It's about quality of life.'

So far, super yachts have congregated in the Mediterranean and Caribbean, but, as these waters become congested, boat owners are increasingly turning their attention to Southeast Asia.

'Many super yacht owners are growing increasingly restless with their usual cruising grounds, which are often overcrowded,' says Phil Blake, chief training officer of Raffles Marina. 'Southeast Asia offers beautiful opportunities. The infrastructure to support the region is growing rapidly. Skippers who have cruised around this region realise it's a jewel, and are spreading the word.'

In recent years, a network of resorts and marine hubs has slowly emerged in Southeast Asia as governments begin to recognise the potential of the industry. Phuket already boasts three marinas. Another three are being built, with two more on the drawing board. Recently, Thailand abolished its 300 per cent import taxes for boats, and the Malaysian authorities have launched a tourism drive highlighting 10 marinas along its coasts. In Singapore, officials are considering simplifying customs rules that may hamper the development of yachting.

Alessandro Diomedi, regional managing director for yacht builders Ferretti Group, stresses the importance of a regional network of marinas. 'One cannot consider the growth of boating in one place like Singapore without looking at what is happening in neighbouring countries,' he says. 'Yachts have to move from one place to another and it's the whole system that helps the growth.'

Tay, who owns one of the biggest yachts in Singapore, an 80-ft Ferretti, says marinas in the region must form an alliance to 'reach another level', lifting standards, promoting the region's marinas globally and creating racing events that will attract sailors.

Singapore is also gaining appeal as a base for servicing luxury yachts. 'We're increasingly seeing some of these yachts coming here for one to four months and getting a lot of work done,' says Blake. 'The rates here are very reasonable compared with the Mediterranean.'

The cost of running a yacht in the region is much cheaper than in Europe. According to those in the industry, annual marina charges in Singapore run at 5 per cent of the boat's purchase price, compared with 15 per cent or so in Europe.

One sector showing promise is yacht charter - by individuals and businesses. Kingfisher Marine, which usually bases its Payoon 3 in Phuket, opened an office in Singapore after receiving a steady stream of corporate charters.

'On average, we have about four to five charters per month, ranging from one-day corporate events to a few days private charter,' says Kingfisher director Kit Chotithamaporn. 'As more Singaporeans understand this new lifestyle and the possibilities, the interest in yacht chartering for private and corporate use will increase over the next few years.'

ONE?15 Marina, whose clubhouse has yet to be completed, has already attracted 700 members, with the fee set at S$28,000. Tay is confident the club will reach its 4,000 member maximum within a year of its opening in 2007.

Still, as more rivals enter the field - Keppel Marina is under construction - some professionals wonder whether there might be an oversupply of marinas, given the relatively small size of Singapore's yachting population. The 'build it and they will come' strategy may not work unless the lifestyle picks up.