Transports of delight

After 15 years of travelling to shipyards round Asia, a sudden rush of business for South Korea’s shipbuilders gave me a chance to see more of the country.

On most of my trips to Korea to interview the top management at major shipyards for TradeWinds’ business focus reviews, companies have provided transport to their sometimes out-of the-way facilities.

But a flood of vessel orders ahead of my most recent visit meant staff were extra-busy, and I had to make my own way to Hyundai Mipo in Ulsan, and Sungdong Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering near Tongyeong, both on the southeast coast. And I am glad, because it allowed me to discover much about the country that I had missed on more hermetically sealed visits.

Getting round Korea is a lot easier now than it was in 1997, when I first went there. So many more people speak English — and they seem a lot less shy about talking to foreigners. No longer do people ignore you and walk on; they are much happier to exhibit their natural hospitality.

Taking buses to and from Pusan to reach Sungdong did mean travelling for 12 hours in one day (with a two-hour yard visit sandwiched in between) but I saw much more of the countryside.

Sat up high in a bus, rather than in a car provided by the yard, gave me views of terraced mountainsides and fishing villages dotted along the coast teeming with life as the fishermen displayed their catches. It also meant dealing with the aroma of seaweed, but never mind. In any case, I have become accustomed to Korean cuisine over the years, having developed a taste for kimchi, the national dish of strong-smelling pickled vegetables.

The hospitality often extends to alcohol being made available in abundance, if you want it. However, there is no need to fuel the Koreans’ strong sense of humour.

For instance, in 2008, when VLCC orders dried up, Sungdong abandoned its plans for a giant dry dock, which would have allowed it to build bigger ships than it could with its land-based construction processes, in which vessels were launched from slipways. A company executive joked on this visit: “We use the dry dock as a swimming pool for our 10,000 employees.”

However, in 2009 that slight hiccup did not prevent Sungdong from building the biggest bulker ever on land, at 175,000 tonnes, and the first containership constructed that way.

On yard visits, executives are always hungry for information, wanting to know how senior managers see the industry’s prospects. And although they are happy to exchange views, they are careful not to say too much about their clients.

But back to the countryside and seaside: Sungdong claims that Tongyeong is the Naples of Asia due to its clean beaches and beautiful environment. Actually, it is a lot cleaner than Naples — and certainly more of a shipping hub these days.