CL Yachts Drives Iconic Asian Builder Cheoy Lee Into New Era
It’s not often you see a Director of a major shipyard dressed in white overalls, but that’s exactly what I saw upon arriving at the Cheoy Lee/CL Yachts facility in Doumen after a two-hour car ride west from Hong Kong.
After crossing the world’s longest bridge to Zhuhai, we drove another hour or so to the site that has been building Cheoy Lee boats since 1999 and, more recently, models for CL Yachts, the company’s new brand of luxury motor yachts.
Martin is one of eight sons of Lo To, who led Cheoy Lee’s 1936 move to Hong Kong from Shanghai, where the company was first formed by Lo To’s grandfather in Pudong in the late 1800s.
“Our ancestors started everything in Shanghai from a very, very humble beginning, doing repairs, boiler making, those sorts of things,” says Martin, part of the fourth generation of the Lo family that has owned the company.
“My grandfather and my father worked very hard to lay the foundation for my generation and we’ve just been making it better.”
All eight sons are involved in the business as Directors, with Martin among three based during the working week in the Doumen factory, where each of the trio have a house near the ‘Senior Dorm’ building for management-level employees.
Martin is also Director of CL Yachts and works closely with nephew Hans Lo, the brand’s Deputy Director and also based at Doumen from Monday to Saturday.
There are worker dormitories for 1,200 staff, with the current workforce in Doumen estimated to range between 800-1,000.
The site is the latest in Cheoy Lee’s history, which in Hong Kong started with a main facility in the former Ngau Chi Wan Shipyard – now reclaimed land – and a smaller one near Lai Chi Kok, situated in east and west Kowloon respectively.
In the 1960s, Cheoy Lee moved to Penny’s Bay in northeast Lantau while keeping the smaller site in Lai Chi Kok, where the current head office and service yard sits on reclaimed land and neighbours include Turbojet, Shun Tak and New World First Ferry.
In the 1990s, after Penny’s Bay was designated for the Disneyland theme park (which eventually opened in 2005), Cheoy Lee looked at several sites on the mainland before settling on Doumen.
Now more than double the size than when the facility opened over two decades ago, the Doumen site sits by the Xi River (West River), which leads south to Macau and is a western tributary of the Pearl River.
The current site has been built in three phases and is one of Asia’s best-equipped yacht building facilities, with enormous halls for fabrication, moulding, assembly and painting; furniture, components and steel workshops; and machine, propeller and furniture-paint shops. A mock-up space houses real-size wooden versions of upcoming models, either part or whole.
The site’s advanced machinery includes five-axis, four-axis and three-axis CNC machines, a CNC plasma cutter and waterjet cutters. A 150-tonne TraveLift is emblazoned with CL Yachts branding, while larger vessels are launched from the 1,000-tonne slipway.
“We have everything onsite. We even have a 3D printing machine to quickly prototype a shape or hull,” says Martin. “I’d say we produce more than 90 per cent of each of our boats in-house.
We fabricate the hulls, the [fitted] furniture, the interior finishing, cut our own marble and so on, so I’d say 95 per cent.”
Outside components include the engines, carbon-fibre and loose furniture, made by a Guangdong-based company that produces to Italian designs.
Hans, who also wears overalls onsite, adds: “Our advantage of doing everything in-house is that we control the quality. When you’re buying a yacht from CL Yachts, it really is built by CL Yachts as opposed to some other shipyards where it’s being built by the lowest bidder.”
The brand was launched at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in October 2018 and currently comprises the CLB72 and CLA76 models, soon to be joined by the flagship CLB88.
CL Yachts also shares its parent company’s headquarters in Hong Kong, where the launch of the expanded and remodelled office was held in mid-2019.
“CL Yachts is creating a new direction for the future. It’s laying a good groundwork for Hans and my other nephew and niece to carry on the legacy,” Martin says. “Now that the younger generation is coming in, we have to refresh our image.”
Today, the vast majority of Cheoy Lee’s global business is commercial boats including tugboats and ferries, although the company remains recognised as a pleasure boat builder in the US, where it has a purchasing, sales and marketing department in Fort Lauderdale.
Martin acknowledges that CL Yachts was conceived when Cheoy Lee started to look at itself and what it needed to do to relaunch itself in the world of luxury yachts.
“Before we did the rebranding, we asked ourselves, do we do the product or branding first? We looked back at our history and we had always been a product-driven company – innovative, daring,” he says.
“We’ve been the first to do many things, but we didn’t want to become complacent. We need to be trend-setters, not trend followers.” Its pioneering spirit is reflected by its product evolution even more than its ability to move location and start again several times over.
When Cheoy Lee arrived in Hong Kong, it was building fishing boats and powered cargo vessels, then diversified in the 1950s into teak sailing and motor boats, mainly for export to the US.
In the 1960s, the company phased out wood production as it became a pioneer in the use of fibreglass and, later, GRP. “Cheoy Lee even helped Lloyd’s write the book on fibreglass manufacturing in the early 1960s,” Martin says.
In the late 1970s, Cheoy Lee built the world’s largest moulded GRP yacht, the 39.6m motorsailer Shango II, and then the first foam-cored production boat, the 48’ Sport Yacht designed by Tom Fexas.
In the mid-1980s, it produced a Hargrave-designed 103-footer that was then the world’s largest fiberglass production motoryacht and, again, fully cored – a first for a production yacht of that scale.
“Tom Fexas was relatively unknown when we used his design for the 48ft sport fisherman, so we helped put him on the map. We’ve always been daring enough to hire visionary naval architects and employ visionary techniques,” Martin says. “In 1987, I worked on a quality-assurance programme for fibreglass production, also for Lloyd’s, that trickled down to other classification societies, so my quality-assurance programme became the benchmark.”
Cheoy Lee built several Frank Mulder designs including 100ft and 125ft models, and the 44.1m, all-composite Seashaw launched in 1995. In 2004, the yard delivered the second Seashaw (see Top 100 Superyachts of Asia-Pacific 2020, Issue 50), completing the 51.9m build after adding a composite superstructure to a steel hull built in northern China.
The 45m Marco Polo and 46m Qing (ex Mazu) transoceanic yachts were built in 2007 and 2010 respectively, followed by more superyachts including the Global 104’ in 2016.
The yard has remained on top of design and production trends, also incorporating some of the latest materials and technologies in its commercial vessels.
“The use of carbon-fibre is very popular now, with many companies spouting its virtues,” Martin says. “However, we’ve been using this material for over a decade; we simply haven’t mentioned it.”
NEW DESIGN LANGUAGE
To compete in today’s world of luxury motor yachts, CL Yachts employed the services of Jozeph Forakis, a designer from Milan, Italy, who’s responsible for the design of the new brand as well as upcoming models. His work has already been recognised, with both the CL Yachts branding and the design of the CLB88 winning their categories at last year’s Good Design Awards.
Having carefully studied its competitors in the 60-100ft range, the CL Yachts management is ultimately aiming to build on Cheoy Lee’s reputation for strong, seaworthy boats with exciting, forward-looking designs and modern features for a new generation of owners.
Hans, who was born in Hong Kong and educated in Canada, elaborates: “We needed a new design language. For our upcoming models, we’re using three themes – the floating loft; nature, bringing the outside in; and the spaceship concept.
“That symbolises that when you go yachting, you’re on a vessel. Many boats today look like mansions on the water, so we’re looking at what we can do to remind people you’re still on a vessel that takes you on a journey in a luxurious setting. You’re living on a machine and we need to bring back this idea. The point is to be on a boat, not to be on a house on water.
“We’re also looking for iconic design elements that might differentiate us from other brands; incorporating flowing spaces into our interiors, seamless surfaces, innovative materials, unique furniture. The CLB88 is going to be one of the first boats that introduces this new design language.”
Much of the excitement in Doumen is focused on the first CLB88, which is set to launch in the first quarter of this year, although the yard is also building hull four of the CLB72, having sold the first three.
On paper, the CLB88 has a number of impressive design features and one of the most remarkable is that among its four lower-deck staterooms, the master and VIP are both full-beam, adjoining and almost equal in size.
Initial plans for the yacht are for it to arrive in the US in the summer and cruise to New England, where it would appear at September’s Newport International Boat Show in Rhode Island, an event first attended by CL Yachts last September.
The plan is then for the yacht to work her way down to the iconic Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, which starts in late October and marks the second anniversary of CL Yachts, a new brand, but one with five generations of boat-building expertise behind it.
The original article appears in Yacht Style Issue 51. Email for print subscription enquiries or subscribe to the Magzter version at: www.magzter.com/SG/Lux-Inc-Media/Yacht-Style/Fashion/