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Might of the Mekong

Another first for HamiltonJet
Kevin Jenkins is a director of KwikKraft Boats NZ and Ramco Boats. In the past five years he and business partner Gary Tomes have exported a range of custom built alloy jet tour boats to various parts of the world. Kevin has an MNZ commercial jet boat drivers licence and has helped train drivers for their boats operating in New Zealand, Australia, Finland, Turkey, Beirut, Dubai, Korea, Thailand and Japan. In his latest adventure HamiltonJet seconded him to China to help with the implementation of their specially designed and built patrol boats used to fight piracy on a river stretching six countries and emptying into the South China Sea.
There is a worldwide move to use waterjet propulsion on high speed patrol boats and gun boats so no surprise the team at HamiltonJet has been working with the Chinese Navy and China Border Police.  CWF Hamilton’s China agent, Shanghai Ocean Marine, government designers and the Wuhan Shipyard worked together to design and build a boat with increased capability to counter the ongoing problems with river pirates on the Mekong River.
A prototype was built in China.  It was a 15 metre steel hulled vessel, very much like a landing craft, with twin 800hp MAN electronic R6 diesels and twin HamiltonJet 364 jet units with HamiltonJet’s Blue Arrow electronic controls. It weighed about 28 tonne with ballast added to cover the weight of ammunition that would be on-board for its 50 mm bow machine gun.
Blue Arrow electronically controls the reverse buckets to assist in steering and also enables docking and manoeuvring with a joystick device similar in size to a computer mouse.  The boat basically moves in any direction the mouse is taken (and power levels increase the further the mouse is taken).
Mike Shearer, Marketing Manager at HamiltonJet Global Operations had indicated to the Chinese Government that I was available to undertake driver training at the riverside city of Jing Hong (South West China) and in the rapids and white water further downstream sometime mid year.
Somewhere along the line however communications with China broke down and I got a call in January from Mike saying I was needed in China in three days as the boat was being commissioned.  In typical Shearer style he assured me a single entry Visa and airfares would be arranged overnight by the Chinese Navy.
My concerns about not being totally competent using Blue Arrow were alleviated after Mike arranged an impromptu session with Paul Lawson on the Sumner Coastguard lifeboat (Blue Arrow Rescue) the night before I flew out.
After 28 hours flying via Guangzhou and Kunming I arrived in Jing Hong looking for some sleep and was met by my English speaking translator Chen Weizhong from Shanghai Ocean Marine and the Border Police and Chinese Navy guys who were to accompany us. The boat was being supplied by the Chinese Navy but would be handed over to the Border Police when I had finished the driver training and the trials completed.  We were surprised to find that the plans had changed and the boat was loaded with Police personnel and gear ready to head down river to the port of Guanlei.
They confirmed that I had command of the vessel and were keen to get underway as Guanlei was 70 kilometres downstream.  The saying` lost in translation’ came to mind as I struggled to communicate with Tan who had been a river boat Captain for 20 years on the Mekong. He had been on freighters before joining the Border Police as a Captain on their big gun boats.
I was to train him to operate the patrol jet boat and he was to be our navigator using hand drawn charts of the river. He had no idea of the capabilities of a jet boat as far as handling and minimum draft requirements so some paradigm shifts were required but I figured ignoring him would be at our peril.  The river was very muddy, full of sand bars and dead water and so dirty I found it hard to read. Later in the trip I would learn just how skillful the Chinese Captains are with their large propeller driven boats in the chutes and rapids.  The low afternoon sun, a crowded bridge and maximum loading were little help when I really wanted to test just how the boat could perform.
The river at this point was about half a kilometre wide in a single stream and we managed to get Tan sorted with left and right hand signals. The boat wasn’t the greatest planing hull but with 1600 hp we were getting great performance (28 knots) from the HJ 364 jet units at about 2,000 rpm with Blue Arrow really assisting the steering.
The Mekong has a lot of leaves from rubber plantations, bamboo sticks and other rubbish that constantly blocks the intakes when idling (not such an issue when underway). The patrol boat didn’t have gearboxes so we couldn’t reverse flush the intakes but we had internally operated grill rakes which my crew became very proficient at clearing when we were underway.
It was great on a new vessel in China to know that not only were the jet units New Zealand designed and built but the Border Police radios were also supplied by Tait NZ.  We had Chinese VHF radios that enabled communication with other vessels and although both radios were constantly busy all day I had no idea what was happening unless Chen was on hand to interpret. River traffic both ways is really heavy with everything from small dugouts, the long skinny boats plying the local trade to large flat bottom barges up to 200 tonnes.
I had been enquiring through Chen about the driver training when ‘lost in translation’ kicked in again.  Plans had been changed and we were now going to leave China and head down the Mekong between Laos and Myanmar to the Thai Border.  I was really interested to learn that this is in the heart of the Golden Triangle about 350 kilometres downstream and the return trip would take over a week. They also told us that once we leave China they are not able to call for air support.
I was to demonstrate the new jet patrol boat to the Thai, Myanmar and Laos defence and Police officials.  We would be joined for the trip by three of the Border Police gun boats and as they had the Head of the China Border Police with them security was being increased.  The big Border Police boats are 40 metres long, weigh over 100 tonnes and are prop driven landing barges with twin 800 hp Chinese diesel motors.  They have two 50 mm machine guns at the bow and along the sides there are a number of pigeon holes where the troops can fire machine guns with some protection.
Day one at Guanlei we were given camo gear, flak jackets and steel helmets and told they must not be taken off when travelling. The helmets were really heavy and I was constantly being rebuked for taking it off. This made things worse in the bridge but the boys did manage to get an air con unit going.  We had 6 am starts and boated for an hour in the dark each morning which was eerie in the fog.  It reminded me a lot of early mornings on the Arawata River with a fog hanging low on the hills.
The fog in the darkness almost caused my first mishap when I was following the stern light of the gun boat in front.  The fog got too heavy and the order came to turn about as there was a gorge ahead. I didn’t realise that their boats would need half a kilometre to turn in the swift downstream current.  With the twin jets I used one unit forward and one reverse to spin our boat straight around (something the Chinese didn’t realise we could do).  However until I turned I didn’t know the third gun boat was hard on our stern with two massive spot lights which totally blinded us.  Luckily a crewman on our bow with a hand-held spotlight was able to show me the proximity of the river bank as the big boat raced past within metres of us.
The Mekong headwaters are in the Himalayas and as it makes its way through China a number of hydro dams upstream will undoubtedly create flow issues in the future. Mother Nature is being seriously messed with.  About 10 million people live and work in the stretch of water we boated. It is very much third world and we could see camp fires in the bush early in the morning. It was the dry season so the river was low but still massive in terms of volume. Sadly there was so much domestic rubbish in the river and factories were still discharging liquid waste.
Between Myanmar and Laos the river reminded me of the Clutha or Clarence with a lot more volume, steep rapids and white water which would be scary in a small boat. Boats coming up river from Thailand with cars, timber, produce and stock winch themselves up a number of the steepest rapids.  When traffic was heavy we had to wait for up to 30 minutes while other boats came up the rapids.  Most of the boats made radio contact but the small local boats also had high bamboo poles with flags on their bows which we could see above the rocks when we looked down the chutes.
My only other real drama in the whole trip happened as we approached the Myanmar town of Soi.  There was a massive rapid where the river split in two and dropped away. As we were coming around a bend amongst huge rocks I missed where the two gun boats had gone but decided I would go to the right.  Tan started indicating to go left which I wasn’t happy about so I lined up a gap in the left shoot only to have him start shouting and pointing to the right again. It turned out this is how they drift the big boats down and line them up for sharp corners.
Luckily with the twin jets I was able to go to reverse and full power on my starboard motor which brought the bow around almost scraping a rock wall. I am not sure what Chinese swear words are but they were very excited with everyone expressing different opinions. It also brought the MAN technician running up from down below to see why I had over-revved his engine when he was running fuel consumption trials on his laptop.
The big patrol boats have around 30 men on board including crew and the border police. Each has a galley and meals were prepared while we were travelling ready for the planned stops. The stern of the boats had a lot of caged hens which gave us fresh eggs and poultry. Later in the trip I also realised that the caged dogs they were carrying weren’t actually for security!
In 2012 river pirates had killed some Chinese citizens travelling on the Mekong River in the Golden Triangle. While these were probably retaliatory attacks it was important that the Chinese government could be seen to be taking action so the new patrol boats would be well promoted.  There are areas in the gorges with adjacent hills where the Police do get fired on with small arms and it is not unusual for a gun fight to develop if they are running down a pirate boat. The Police troops have to spend the entire trip below deck as they won’t risk anyone being outside.  In these known trouble spots I was asked to tuck our boat in behind the big boat in front but I had to keep moving out to the side as we were getting aerated water into our jet units and losing thrust.  It took about ten minutes and a number of radio calls to explain to the other Captains what aerated water was but they still weren’t happy that we were not following right in behind them.
We didn’t have a depth sounder on our boat and it was amazing as the river widened and we approached Thailand to see the gun boat crews use the century’s old method of depth sounding with coloured bamboo poles.
The China Border Police have a base in Laos eleven kilometres up from the Thai border. They support the Thai People’s Army who hosted us. These guys look a lot like mercenaries as they don’t have matching uniforms or kit. A number of small fibreglass outboard runabouts serve as patrol boats on the lower reaches and are accompanied by a big gun boat given to them by the Chinese Navy.
Instead of sleeping on the boat at the Laos Army base I was taken with some of the senior officials and the Head of the Border Police 20 km inland through some third world villages to a Five Star Chinese Casino. (talk about an oxymoron!)  The security was still tight though and our guards wouldn’t let us take advantage of our surroundings at night.
We successfully demonstrated the boat to the defence officials and media and made it onto the main TV News channels in China. As a result there are now nine patrol boats with twin HJ 364’s operating on the river with additional larger boats now under construction.
It was quite literally a ‘slow boat to China’ as we made our way back up river as we had to travel at the same speed as the big boats. At night we ran the big boats up on the beach and rafted up on the Laos side of the river. We had a blackout in place so that our guards still had night vision.  It was suggested I may have to consider living in Laos as I only had a single entry visa for China and I had already used that!  The Police had my passport but they said they were quite separate to China Customs.  I ended up with some interesting stamps in my passport when we got back to the China border post.
It was a privilege to be a foreigner working for the Chinese Navy.  Although we had major communication problems they are great people and seem to really appreciate HamiltonJet having the products and technical support that enabled them to build jet patrol boats that will revolutionise how the Mekong and other rivers are patrolled in the future.