AUSTAL Ships has won a US$21 million contract to build three 40-metre, gas-turbine catamaran passenger ferries for owners in China. The West Australian shipbuilder has sold 17 high-speed catamarans to Asian operators since its first delivery to China in October, 1990. ''This is a phenomenal performance and one that I don't think has ever been achieved by any other shipyard anywhere in the world,'' said Austal chairman John Rothhwell. ''Sixteen of the vessels were ordered by Yuet Hing Marine Supplies of Hongkong on behalf of Chinese owners. ''Yuet Hing continually checks the world's shipyards for comparable products and quotations but continues to come back to take advantage of the quality of our vessels and our competitive prices.'' The latest orders have been placed for the Shungang Passenger Transportation Corporation, the Panyu (Hongkong) Passenger Cargo Transportation Jointly Owned Company, and the Zhongshan-Hongkong Passenger Ship Co-op Co. The 354-passenger ferries are scheduled to be launched in December and delivered early next year. They measure 39.99 metres overall and 35 metres on the waterline, with a beam of 11.5 metres and draft of 1.4 metres. ''They will be the first turbine-powered ferries built by Austal and the fastest vessels we have completed with a fully laden speed of 39.5 knots,'' Mr Rothwell said. ''The TF40 turbines, manufactured in the United States by Texton Lycoming, are similar to the engines used in jet aircraft.'' Austal's production has now reached eight vessels a year and the company is building a $7 million second shipyard to allow construction of vessels up to 120 metres long. ''While we have been extremely successful in Asia and predict continuing growth there, we also see a brilliant future for our vessels in other markets,'' Mr Rothwell said. ''Indonesia has very good potential and we view Japan as a market for the future. ''Our marketing efforts in Europe have concentrated on our air-cushion catamaran and there has also been tremendous interest in our vehicle-carrying ferries.''