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International Yachtsman - click to view article with photos

International Yachtsman
– click image to view article with photos reported in International Yachtsman

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The storm force winds and mountainous seas of the Southern Ocean have been testing sailors throughout history. This is where New Zealanders learned their seafaring skills and in the process, earned a worldwide reputation for grit and endurance on the high seas. They also made a name for themselves as leading innovators in the arts and sciences that are essential to succeed in the world of yacht building. Far removed from their cousins in the Northern hemisphere, they learned how to build boats that could stand up to the punishing conditions found in their home waters. 

When the age of mega yachts and their complex designs incorporating integrated systems came along, it was New Zealand’s ingenious boat builders who pioneered their development. They not only supplied them to their domestic clients but have developed a demand in the world markets for their products.

These attributes help explain the currently robust health of New Zealand’s marine industry in general, and its shipyards in particular, which have full order books for both sail and motor yachts. While this small country on the far side of the planet is a relative newcomer to the mega yacht arena, it is already a world class power, with the recognition and respect for the quality and diversity of its contribution to the world of yacht building.

Some of this growth may be traced to the government’s decision a few years ago to showcase the country’s maritime resources by opening a Marine ‘Beachhead’ Trade office in Fort Lauderdale. Lance Sheppard is the Trade Commissioner tasked with the responsibility to spread the news about New Zealand’s lively presence in the yachting scene.

“Our function is to connect and market New Zealand’s marine industry to the world,” he says. “My office is a shortcut for companies and individuals who want to know more about what we do and how we do it.” A prominent day-planner adorning the wall opposite the Trade Commissioner’s desk is already filled with appointments and invitations through the end of 2006 that document his far-flung mission to boat builders and suppliers across the U.S. and beyond.

From his corner office on the 17th floor of the Commerce Center in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Commissioner Sheppard offers an unassuming presence not usually expected of a government official in a foreign land. His quiet demeanor and soft-spoken tone mirror that of his fellow countrymen a half a world away from the fast-paced South Florida marine industry. But ask him about his experiences that qualify him for this prestigious post and a whole different persona emerges. In an industry that hops oceans like mud puddles, transcends international boarders like they don’t exist, moves clients, equipment and products worldwide with ease, Sheppard feels right at home. His varied experiences from mega yacht captain to commerce park developer and on to trade commissioner have allowed him to travel through the yachting capitals of the world and have aligned him with some of the most renowned and powerful players in the industry.

As a youth in his native New Zealand, his interest in – and experiences aboard – racing yachts came hard-earned at the seasonal regattas at the prestigious yacht clubs. Then in the fall of 1987 he found himself in London, about to embark on a career in international finance far from the yachting world. “I went to England and got a job as a foreign exchange dealer. I was going to become the next Gordon Gecco. The day that I was supposed to start was the Monday after the crash of the stock market. I was watching the aftermath of Black Friday, so instead of reporting to work I went to Greece and skippered a sailing holiday flotilla for a year. Pay was lousy but it did wonders for my social life,” says Sheppard.

As has most yacht crew, he progressed through various positions on a number of yachtss, acquiring the needed licenses and required sea time along the way, before becoming the first mate aboard the yacht, Mirabella I. “I have been very lucky throughout my career to have met and worked for extraordinarily successful and accomplished people who have graciously acted as invaluable mentors to me. Joe Vittoria, one of this industry’s true innovators and gentlemen, has become a close friend and source of some of my most valuable advice. Jim Gilbert and George Buckley have also shown me the strength of great leadership with their constant willingness to impart their wisdom.”

Within a short time, Sheppard became captain on the 105-foot s/y Lady Hawk and brought it to Fort Lauderdale. During this period in Fort Lauderdale, Sheppard “learned the lay of the land,” as he likes to say. What started as a cosmetic touch up ended up as a three-year refit covering a completely new interior, electronics, new keel and new engine room. This gave Sheppard access to virtually every aspect of yacht refit and all of the suppliers and contractors in South Florida.

A captain’s position on the 120-foot m/y Sovereign Lady took him back to his native New Zealand and the 2000 Americas Cup races. Prior to this period, the New Zealand boat builders and marine industry in general really took off. The exchange rate was very favorable while the quality and technology became very competitive in the world of yacht building. At the same time Sheppard initiated and undertook a project to develop an opportunity to turn a soonto- be-decommissioned New Zealand Air Force base into a marine industry commercial park. “The New Zealand Air Force during WWII had a fleet of flying boats so the base was set up to accommodate them with deep water access and launching facilities already in place; it was perfect for a marine cluster park to enable New Zealand’s expanding marine industry to continue to grow. This undertaking put me in touch with virtually every aspect and every level of the New Zealand government as well as most of the biggest players in the New Zealand marine industry” says Sheppard. Although the park has been a “work in progress” for several years, it’s now becoming a reality.

After a short period in New York City developing a web-based marine marketing company and then a shot at developing a new high-speed catamaran, Sheppard was approached by the New Zealand government with the opportunity to launch and run a marine trade office in Fort Lauderdale. The post, known as the “Beachhead,” was funded for the first year with the intent to re-appraise the concept and the program at the end of that period. Sheppard saw to it that a recall never came. His years of experience and “street smarts” in and around the yachting world showed immediate successes. “The government has shown me a lot of autonomy that has allowed me to be light on my feet,” he says. “In this industry you need to be able to hear of an opportunity and get a proposal out in a hurry. If not, the yacht is underway before you can get any consideration. I don’t drill too deep as a rule; being able to move quickly and change directions on short notice has been a key to my success.”

Successful, would be an understatement in describing Commissioner Sheppard’s new undertaking. He had hit the ground running and in the first three years managed to facilitate and assist with dozens of contractual working relationships here in the U.S. and abroad. A good example is the New Zealand Village being built at the new Gulf Port Facility of Trinity Yachts. This village concept supports rotating crews of installation technicians from Robinson Marine Interiors (RMI) and Specialist Marine Interiors (SMI) that now build a large percentage of Trinity’s interiors. Future projects include a warehouse-style facility for additional down under suppliers to operate from as well as looking at JV opportunities to integrate New Zealand’s much-heralded refit services into established operations here in the U.S.

Working relationships for components and parts have been developed with numerous yacht builders both here and in Europe. From Christensen to Hinkley and on to Oceanco and Lurssen, Kiwi ingenuity seems to have infiltrated all aspects of yacht building with a little help from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. Kiwi companies now manufacture a wide variety of products and components for the yacht building community, such as Maxwell Winches, Vectek shore power converters, Marten Spars, C-Quip carbon fiber passerelles and cranes, Manson Anchors, and Hamilton Jet, whose remarkable waterjet engines have already found an American market in Hinckley’s line of picnic boats. The Fastmount panel attachment system, which employs engineering-grade male and female plastic clips that provide firm seatings for panels mounted on horizontal and vertical surfaces have been used aboard vessels built by the Azzura Marine Group, Azimut, Feadship, Palmer Johnson and Warren Yachts, among others.

For New Zealand’s marine industry today, the question is: “Where to from here?” And the answer is pretty much the same for the Kiwi’s as it is for every other contender who comes into the business of yacht building with determination and long-term ambition. Namely, to settle for nothing less than the best in design, engineering, function and performance, and to remain not just abreast of marine technologies but to be alert to the possibilities of improving the product by solving problems before the competition gets around to thinking about them. That’s the kind of attitude that put New Zealand’s inventive sailors, builders and technicians on the map; and if Lance Sheppard’s plan works out as envisioned, it’s likely to keep the folks from the world down under on top for generations to come.