Curious are the glances that he draws when he makes ready to ‘test’ his products on the Mahaweli gushing by, close to his home down Weerakoon Gardens in Kandy. The knot of people who would gather by the river-bank as he unloads his boat from a vehicle and sets it afloat on the waters would [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

On course with his own brand of yachts


Curious are the glances that he draws when he makes ready to ‘test’ his products on the Mahaweli gushing by, close to his home down Weerakoon Gardens in Kandy.

Lahiru testing the prototype on the Mahaweli

The knot of people who would gather by the river-bank as he unloads his boat from a vehicle and sets it afloat on the waters would become denser, sometimes hindering his remote-controlled operation of the craft by asking incessant questions.

But 30-year-old Naval Architect Lahiru Fernando takes it in his stride and the latest craft that he has pulled out of his design portfolio is a yacht with a ‘unique’ catamaran hull-form with advanced characteristics.

For two years, he pored over mathematical calculations to come up with this design and then another eight months to get the prototype ready. He assures in language specific to his profession that the “sea-keeping” characteristics of this yacht are better than others.

Before getting down to the nuts and bolts of designing and constructing boats, which has been in Lahiru’s blood even when he was a little boy, he draws a parallel between this unique yacht which will be able to deliver a speed of 50+knots at full throttle and other vessels.

“The hull-form of the yacht that I have designed is optimised to make the voyage comfortable at high speed. Comfort on rough seas at high speed is not something easy to achieve for naval architects,” he says, going back to his childhood to find the root of his fascination with boats.

The hull-form decides how fast the boat can travel and also how comfortable it would be on the waves. If the hull-form is flat, it would be quite uncomfortable. The vessel needs to run smoothly as well as be manoeuvrable – the way it turns and the radius of the turn.

“Mine is comfortable,” he says, pointing out that these hull-forms are modelled from those in catamarans and a vessel could be mono or multi-hulled. His vessel has two hulls and incorporates a lot of technical characteristics and is also more stable than a mono-hulled vessel.

The bent towards boats came when Lahiru was even younger than 10 and he believes it was fuelled by watching movies including the mind-searing ‘Titanic’. He was then studying at Trinity College.

“Harima asavak thibba,” he says, explaining that it was a great passion which he indulged in by making small models of boats with saline bottles that his mother who was a doctor discarded.

His very first boat was a cut-up saline bottle, he says, recalling how he powered it by inserting a small motor and batteries and was thrilled to see it speeding on the water. Shyly, he concedes that he had “a kind of talent” for this stuff.

The conviction that he should study more about ships came at that tender age and he took up the hobby of constructing experimental vessels and exhibiting them in earnest.

It was full steam ahead then and Lahiru’s third model, which he designed and constructed when he was about 13 — the structure was of sheet metal and it was driven by a 26-cc petrol engine through a remote control – had been dubbed a masterpiece at the 125th anniversary exhibition of Trinity College in 1997.

Having gone to Australia for higher studies in this field that he loved, he secured a Bachelor of Engineering, specializing in Naval Architecture from the University of Tasmania, considered the ‘best’ or Australia’s national centre, for this type of study.

“Naval architecture is what is responsible for designing and constructing any ocean-going vessel,” says Lahiru to the uninitiated, adding that armed with a degree he worked in Australia for about a year, getting orders online, before returning to Sri Lanka and his hometown of Kandy.
Next it was a stint as a Lecturer at the Ocean University of Sri Lanka, where he was able to secure a grant of Rs. 600,000 for his students to build a boat and take part in a hydro contest which is scheduled to be held in Switzerland in July.

Now on his own, he explains how he sets about his work. He designs the vessel in an artistic manner, drawing it as a picture first. Then he uses a lot of software and also mathematical calculations and constructs a prototype. “The design is verified by a scale prototype,” he says, citing the five-foot yacht that he built in his workshop and has been testing on the Mahaweli amidst curious onlookers. “The model-making and testing process has taken more than eight months.

Referring to a few technical barriers that he faced, he says that it is vital for naval architects to verify the resistance of the vessel using a towing tank (to test hydrodynamics). Unfortunately, there are no such facilities in Sri Lanka and he towed the model to the Mahaweli to verify its engine power.

The future for Lahiru is certainly on course. While he hopes to design and construct a big one – a 33-metre yacht – he will also work towards popularizing a ‘blue economy’.

Promotion of the fibre-glass industry, which he says is “down” is another aspect and Lahiru wants to establish a ‘yacht culture’ in Sri Lanka where marinas will be set up and the dollars will flow in, with wealthy foreigners seeing this as a destination where one can own a house, a car and a yacht.

Fuel efficient hybrid design

With increasing fuel prices making the operation of yachts an expensive exercise, naval architects grapple with the challenge of cutting costs.
In his latest yacht innovation, Lahiru has come up with a ‘hybrid’ design which is fuel efficient. Solar cells on the superstructure meet the vessel’s electrical needs, while it is powered by two gas turbines. The weather deck is of teak and the superstructure all glass with solar-control glazing which has ultraviolet protection but is see-through. The scale prototype can be operated with a remote control. The petroleum engine delivers power to the propeller, while electric power is given by the two 6V batteries and the solar panel.

“Those ensconced in the comfort of the yacht will not miss out on the pleasures of connecting with the sea while also enjoying the sunlight,” points out Lahiru.

The full-scale yacht will have the capacity to accommodate 12 passengers, all on the second deck, and four crew members. “The prototype is a success,” he says simply.

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