Messing About in Boats

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-By John Boley

If you know the sumptuous and exclusive Palazzo Versace hotel on Queensland’s Gold Coast, you will be familiar with its private 90-berth marina. It is, as the brochures will tell you, ‘state of the art’ and designed to be easy for the clientele of the hotel and residences to moor their yachts, luxury launches and multi-hulls easily and safely.

It is one of the latest examples of marina building from an expert who re-thought the whole concept. Twenty five years ago, Bill Bourke was, he readily admits, the sole employee of a company building residential pontoons and jetties at the back of houses in the canal systems along the Gold Coast. He started up with “just a nail bag and a labourer,” but he ended up taking on the major US competition and beating them.

Pacific Pontoon and Pier is now probably the foremost and largest builder of marinas in Australia, having developed a product range that revolutionised marina construction, supplying a low-maintenance, high density and aesthetically pleasing marina product. Bill says he took a long hard look at how marinas were constructed at that time. The major suppliers “lacked a lot of research and development in their processes, so I sat down and re-engineered how I thought marinas should be built.” He examined the manufacturing processes and ended up designing a series of alloy extrusions and some different ways of connecting modules together, all of which he patented.

Previously, he explains, marina modules and pontoons tended to be linked using timber, “which is very high-maintenance.” Bill says he is aware of yacht clubs that would spend in the region of $100,000 per year on timber maintenance alone. “When I took the timber out of marinas I took the maintenance out too.”

By early this year, he had developed some 55 complete marinas and nearly 9,000 berths, most but not all in Australia – some in New Zealand, New Caledonia and Fiji, some much further afield, such as a series of ferry terminals along the broad, straight Han River that runs through Korea’s capital Seoul. The latter project is a reminder that not all of Pacific Pontoon’s output is geared to the leisure market – Bill has done a lot of work along the Brisbane River, including refuelling facilities and jetties for the CityCat commuter ferries.

Bill’s design enabled him to make serious inroads into the industry. “I looked at criteria of about 20 things that I wanted to change within the industry. It took me about three years to actually come up with the final designs of how it all worked. This modular approach frees us up in the design of a marina.” Pacific Pontoon does everything in-house, including design, engineering, piling, manufacturing, construction and all the installation work. In the case of the Palazzo Versace, says Bill, the developers came to him essentially with a blank sheet of paper and asked him to design the facility for them.

The key is the versatility of Bill’s basic modular design, which he can manufacture locally anywhere in the world without the need to ship moulds – other types of design are very labour-intensive, he points out. His approach was more like a child’s building blocks, linking together to become a very strong structure. “It’s a concrete deck, so it’s heavy and stable, but it had to be easy to construct so I could take it to Asia and other parts of the world where you maybe don’t have such a high skill level among staff. What we manufacture can be done right and safely with the correct foreman. Our design works easily, whether it is at the Palazzo Versace or whether it is a marina for fishing trawlers. It’s the same construction and it just works, whether they are 60 tonne fishing vessels or world-class yachts.”

Pacific Pontoon is involved in many prestigious projects around Australia. The National Maritime Museum in Darling Harbour is just one example, while Bill is currently working with a number of motor yacht clubs in Sydney. To deal with output, he has two factories, one on the Gold Coast and the other in Melbourne. Demand, naturally, is shifting as the economic climate changes. Previously the company had a lot of work constructing marinas for developers – essentially resort marinas – but currently, Bill says, much of the work involves yacht clubs which tend to be run by members, have committees and manage their own funding, whereas the funding for developers is more sensitive to the economy. This balance has been stable since the GFC but Bill says he expects the pendulum to swing back towards developers in due course.

After all, he points out, boatbuilders are still hard at work making and selling their products, so people need somewhere to put them. The particularly good thing about the eastern seaboard of New South Wales and Queensland is that there is a long boating season. By contrast, “we have done big developments in Victoria but they have only a small window of boating, probably only three to four months for their boating season, whereas in Queensland it is all year round. So there is more activity and more demand for boating in Queensland and NSW than there is in some of the colder climates.”

Bill needs to keep a close eye on the boats themselves, because designs have changed a lot during his 25 years. For example, “when I design marinas for North Queensland, I would design a lot more for multi hulled boats than I would for Victoria, because they cruise around the islands and there is a big and growing demand for multi hulled boats. I talk to the boat manufacturers and see where they are going.” He also talks to allied suppliers such as yacht spar manufacturers “because they are now making more for multis than for monos so I need to incorporate that information into the design of our marinas. But I also need to keep up with trends in the beam (the width of the boat) and the freeboard of the boat so I can adjust the design of the berths to suit.”

A marina, after all, is not something people want to keep redesigning, especially given the Pacific Pontoon advantage of low maintenance. “With a marina, you would expect at least a 35 to 40 year design life, so we have to look at what is going on in that time period. The good thing about the Australian market, I think, is that we are so far advanced in design and boat building compared to Europe or North America because, again, they only have a relatively short season.”

Bill stresses the in-house, one-stop shop approach. “I don’t have to rely on subcontractors for piling, engineering or design work or any type of manufacturing.” Some years ago, he installed the facility at Newcastle Cruise and Yacht Club. “I built that marina and at the end of it the commodore came to me and said ‘you know what I liked about it, Bill? I only had you to deal with and not worry about sub-contractors or anyone else.’ That was why it was so successful for him.”

Bill’s methodology makes it relatively easy to expand. Offshore projects already completed have demonstrated it can be done quite easily away from Australia. The best way to do that would be with joint venture partners, he suggests, because they can source their own local materials and labour and also because in a number of cases the arrangement would attract favourable finance from governments in developing countries.

Is the domestic market nearing saturation? Far from it, says Bill. There is still a lot of coastline in Australia “that is being populated and is in need of marinas and there is also a lot of old fixed timber marinas – there are hundreds in New South Wales alone – to replace,” quite apart from new developments.

Not resting on his laurels, Bill says he continually trials new ideas. “I am always doing R&D and I am always developing new products, trying to keep ahead and be the best in what we do. We come up with new product lines next year; we are very lucky that we are very busy at the moment even though the economic climate isn’t the best.”He evidently still very much enjoys this business, regarding it as a niche market that is “very exciting because it’s very tangible. What you build is going to be there for the next 40 or 50 years. I have a real love for the industry and what usually happens is that if you are passionate about things, usually you do pretty well.”

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July 29, 2014, 1:26 AM EST