When a badly corroded Kanaloa was declared dead in the water, one engineer and a captain were determined to rescue her. With a super-tight budget and an inexperienced crew, could they make an ambitious target: to take a berth at the Monaco Yacht Show?
There were some sweaty palms that day on board Kanaloa. Two months into the rebuild of the 48 metre, 1996-built CRN superyacht, the Lloyd’s surveyor was on board inspecting the interior decks.
“He was doing these minute thickness measurements,” recalls Captain Dean Homan. “In a corridor there was this weld line where, if the corrosion had been significant on one side of it, it would have blown our budget.” Project manager Pino di Mora remembers it being the most stressful day of the whole Kanaloa refit project:
“Lloyd’s rules state the plates cannot be less than 25 per cent of their original thickness, which on Kanaloa’s main deck equated to 2.8mm. Every measurement he was taking, he was shouting out ‘3.2mm’, ’3mm’, ‘2.9mm’. It went on for hours. It was like playing Russian roulette. Dean and I just kept looking at each other, thinking it was all over if he calls out ‘2.8mm’.”
He never did call out “2.8mm” and Kanaloa was saved — by a tenth of a millimetre. In truth, the project should never even have got this far. Kanaloa, the once hugely successful Med charter yacht, was dead. Over. Ended. Out of class and rusting to the point of no return on the hard in La Ciotat.
The owner just wanted her out of his life and gave Hill Robinson Yacht Management the job of disposing of her. The firm’s project manager Di Mora was dispatched to tell the crew to pack their bags and arrange for the Paolo Scanu-designed yacht to be scrapped. Refit yards were quoting €8-10 million to bring her back to life, for a boat estimated to be worth, post-refit, just €5-6 million.
On the drive to La Ciotat in June 2014, Di Mora thought anxiously about the task ahead, not least because the yacht’s captain was an old friend, the two having worked together years before on board 63.5 metre Lioness V (ex Lionheart), Di Mora as chief engineer and Homan as bosun.
“I said, ‘Hey Dean, I’ve got some really bad news here…’,” recalls Di Mora. Homan, who had joined as skipper in late 2013, had been in the job only a few months when the Hill Robinson man appeared in the shipyard. “Someone said that they were looking for a captain with a 3,000GT licence to go down to the boat and just sit on it,” says Homan.
Kanaloa had checked into La Ciotat for some maintenance work in 2012, but never checked out again after she was discovered to have some serious problems. This came as a shock to an owner who had bought her only a few years before.
“He had two very good surveyors take a look and they both pretty much said, ‘Very sorry, this boat is in a very bad state’,” recounts Nick Hill, co-founder of Hill Robinson. “The corrosion in the metalwork and tanks and plumbing and the actual hull was so bad they advised him that it would require a massive refit.” But the owner balked at the quotes offered, and Kanaloa was left to the wind and rain.
Di Mora spent a few days on board, poking his finger through hull plating, kicking the grass growing freely on the sundeck (“you could almost play golf on it”) and noting the badly pitted shafts. But, on the drive back to Hill Robinson HQ in Antibes, something kept nagging at him. He wasn’t convinced that the Kanaloa story was over.
Neither was Yan Turner, the head of Hill Robinson’s refit division, who had already asked refit yard Compositeworks to undertake some further investigation into the corrosion on board Kanaloa. “And that was when we made the first important discovery — the hull corrosion was just around the waterline,” says Di Mora.
Hill adds: “Eight to 10 years of condensation trays not draining properly will do that. If it was dealt with previously a refit would have been quite doable, but Kanaloa ended up with great big rusty holes in the side.”
Still, the engineer in Di Mora wouldn’t let it go. If they could patch up the hull and get Kanaloa into a saleable state, there was a chance the owner could make some money on a boat that would cost around €1 million to scrap.
The yacht ended up with great big rusty holes in the side
“Between Yan, Pino and myself we thought that three million ought to get us a boat that’s seaworthy and can be used,” says Hill. “We didn’t at that stage have the optimism to think we’d get Kanaloa classed, get the hull done to Lloyd’s and fully commercially compliant. That would cost another million or two, we figured.”
The Hill Robinson team met with the owner’s representatives in La Ciotat in July 2014 and made their case. Kanaloa's owner agreed — they could have the three million, but not a cent more. If they blew the budget, work would stop. “I went back to Dean and said, ‘Dean, you’ve still got a job man!’,” says Di Mora.
But any triumphalism would have to wait. They had just committed themselves to a huge superyacht refit project, which they had to deliver at a fraction of the cost quoted by the shipyards and which they would have to do themselves.
“We had to think outside the box a bit,” says Hill. Only four of Kanaloa's original crew were retained — including Homan. “I needed him,” says Di Mora. “I needed someone to believe in the project, to believe in the miracle, because otherwise it would never happen. We had so many obstacles – every day it seemed as if something would stop the project.”
The pair started by renting two houses in the town and hiring a new crew, made up of backpackers, day labourers and people who had never stepped foot on a yacht — the only way to keep the wage bill down.
“We were picking up guys for their carpentry skills, or metalwork skills — skills that had been picked up outside the industry,” says Homan. “With the budget we had, we couldn’t hire highly skilled yachting people.”
The first job, though, was moving the boat from the Monaco Marine site to a public area of hardstanding at La Ciotat. The team patched the holes in the hull and watched as Kanaloa was craned into the water, but she started leaking as soon as she got wet. “I had to jump over the side with some epoxy and some aluminium plate and luckily we managed to stop the leak that day,” says Homan.
Kanaloa stayed in the water for five days and when she was craned out again “we didn’t know whether she would break in half”. Di Mora, who moved to La Ciotat to oversee the project, remembers the whole shipyard coming out to watch the spectacle. “We were the jokes of the shipyard, basically,” he says.
Those early days were tough — assembling a green crew plucked off the streets to rebuild a superyacht, pinching every penny and working long hours to make the ambitious target of displaying Kanaloa at the 2015 Monaco Yacht Show.
They weren’t helped by various onboard discoveries — the mouse nest in an electronics panel, the plants growing up from under the teak and the gaping holes in the deck plates that had the unintended benefit of making communication between the works teams easy. A welder managed at one point to set fire to Kanaloa's saloon; fortunately a fire drill just days beforehand had prepared the crew.
Then, one Monday morning, a bombshell: all of Kanaloa’s pipework was stolen. “They stole our pipes!” exclaims Di Mora at the memory. In gutting the yacht, the team had meticulously numbered all the pipework and laid it out under the boat “because obviously we didn’t have enough money to rent a big storage shed”. An insurance claim zeroed their loss but the budget was thrown into chaos when it was discovered the yacht needed new shafts.
The shipyard said it would cost €120,000 to replace both shafts, and take 36 weeks. They had to find another way. Di Mora discovered the cheapest solution was to source new shafts and props in the UK and deliver them to a factory in Greece for machining. The only problem was getting them from A to B.
“I said to Dean, ‘Do you mind driving to Greece?’” says Di Mora. “So I had to rent a seven and a half tonne truck,” continues Homan, “to take the shaft ends and propellers down to Greece.” Then as the new shafts were being delivered to La Ciotat, the truck was stopped at the Italian border and discovered to have two refugees clinging to it.
“Everything happened on the Kanaloa project,” says Hill. “From politics to economics to the refugee crisis — you name it, we had it.” But all the pain was worth it – the props eventually arrived after just six weeks, and at a cost of €48,000.
As each job was ticked off, the crew grew increasingly invested in Kanaloa. Homan ran the team — which grew to 30 — and kept them motivated. “It was amazing to see these young guys, mostly aged 19 or 20, so keen to learn. After a few months they became much better than people who had years of experience,” he says.
The big metalwork projects were done by Compositeworks, but most of everything else was done by Kanaloa's crew, from stripping bulkheads to replacing teak, and even painting the bilges. Di Mora and Homan worked seamlessly, in each other’s pockets.
“We were like a married couple,” says the captain. The pair shed blood, literally, for Kanaloa: Di Mora was back working the day after breaking two ribs go-karting with the team. “We were working 11 to 12 hour days. We felt like it was our own boat,” Homan says.
Activities away from the project kept spirits up. There was after-work beach volleyball and everyone ate together, with meals prepared by crew chef Clyde May, who has stayed on to become Kanaloa’s head chef.
Homan even helped maintain Di Mora’s morale: “I had to take Pino to the ice cream shop in La Ciotat every day to de-stress him. So one of our biggest expenses was ice cream.”
In February 2015, things were going well enough to convince the team that they should aim higher — to try to get Kanaloa back into class and coded commercially, to bolster the resale value and allow her to operate once again as a charter yacht.
“At that stage all the flag deficiencies had been repaired by the crew. We convinced the owner to inject more funds — about five per cent of the total refit cost — to get Kanaloa commercially compliant, something unimaginable and not even considered at the beginning,” says Di Mora.
Nor could anyone believe it when Di Mora announced that he wanted to zero-hour the engines — in situ. This involves completely stripping down the engines, which is done after cutting them out of the hull and sending them to a manufacturer, at least in 99 per cent of cases. Kanaloa was the exception.
But in July, with a month and a half left to the 2015 Monaco Yacht Show, Kanaloa still had no interior. “Pino was saying the boat would be ready, but I thought there was no chance — they were dreaming,” says Hill. “All the woodwork and cabins had been stripped out and hadn’t been put back in.”
Di Mora’s answer was to hire four interior contractors — one for each cabin. “Four months’ strength in one month!” he says. “And then suddenly there she was, anchored off Monaco, with a fully uniformed crew, with Jacuzzi bubbles going, every cushion cover done, cookery, cutlery, the whole thing,” remembers Hill.
There was a proud captain on the bridge, too. “I have to pinch myself when I walk around Kanaloa today. You can walk on the boat at a boat show and you just think, ‘nice yacht’, but if you know the story behind it like I do, when you’ve been on board every day of the rebuild, it’s incredible. I’ve been in every tank and every bilge and saw the corrosion and remember how bad she was.”
For Di Mora, the fondest memory is of the team he and Homan formed, which included Compositeworks. “The shipyard made so many exceptions for us, things I’ve never seen before. Their attitude was ‘what do you need?’ — the crane, the cherry picker, everything. It was really quite emotional at the end to see how everyone helped so much to get Kanaloa launched, to do the first sea trial and then leave the shipyard,” says Di Mora.
As the man in charge of the bottom line, he’s proud, too, that the work came in under budget by around €70,000. And since then, not a single thing has gone wrong with Kanaloa. No warranty work. Nothing. “We haven’t had to come back to the shipyard at all!” he says.
Kanaloa is now back doing what she does best — chartering, from €140,000 a week. There are bigger boats available in the Med. There are even more beautiful, luxurious and well-appointed boats in the Med. But there are no boats with Kanaloa’s story, or crew. And that is priceless.
First published in the November 2016 edition of Boat International