After sailing round the world in their yacht, French couple Martine and Lionel Mallard cast oars in Puducherry from where they now custom-make boats. Shonali Muthalaly catches up with them.

We expect aloof French chic. Martine Mallard, the yacht builder, is crisp and businesslike on the phone. We finally decide to meet at her antique store, Cottonwood, in Puducherry. Then there's a jingle of bohemian bangles and she appears in sparkly slippers, a swingy knee-length skirt, shiny hoop earrings and big grin.

Clearly, there's more to the Ultramarine Boatbuilders story than just the routine ‘savvy French entrepreneurs find economical Indian base' angle.

But first, some background. Ultramarine is a Puducherry-based company that custom-makes boats — from regular yachts to cruiser racers — for buyers around the world. Run by Martine and her husband Lionel Mallard, the company specialises in building custom or semi-custom boats for sailors, both professional and hobbyists.

Instead of brandishing a slick catalogue, they encourage clients to come up with their own designs — in association with a boat architect — taking into account their budget and usage patterns.

Martine's fascination for nautical design is what led her to the sea. Well, that and her husband, Lionel Mallard, who's been sailing since 1965 in all kinds of set-ups — single-handed and crewed, coastal and offshore.

Building their first boat

“We lived in France. In Paris. My husband sailed a lot for pleasure.” Eventually, they decided to see the world via the sea with their two little sons. “But to buy a boat you need all the cash. So we started to build one ourselves. It was an extraordinary adventure. I had no experience. We studied a lot. We practised with friends.”

It ended up taking eight years, since they also needed to work at day jobs to fund everything. “I was a French teacher for adults. My husband worked at a hospital — he was a surgical representative. He demonstrated surgical fittings for knees, hips, etc. It's also like carpentry.”

Guided by a boat architect, their 50 foot “Spountz-type” yacht (a high ocean cruising boat, all sails and masts) was finally declared seaworthy. “We took it through the rivers and canals from Paris into the Mediterranean sea. We went to Corsica, which was 24 hours away. Then on to Tunisia, Sardinia, Greece, Turkey… It was all short cruising first.”

Riding the waves

Eventually they sold their home and went aboard for six years with their two boys, then aged 8 and 9. “For them it was a great life,” laughs Martine. “For me it was the travelling I loved. You're on board for 3 or 4 nights. You reach a country slowly. You don't just fly and land.”

They began with North Africa. “We stayed for a long time in Egypt. Then Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Cyprus… We were teaching the kids through correspondence. When we stopped we would send their class matter to Paris.”

This was a leisurely voyage designed to really soak in the world. “The aim was not to move fast. Once we reached a new port we would stay for anything from one week to three months.”

The family went around the Red Sea, spent some time in East Africa and then Oman. “My husband was planning Madagascar, but friends said India was so interesting. They convinced us to stop in Goa.”

They had been travelling for six years, and were beginning to think of picking a country in which to settle down. “Our plan was to start a boatyard.” After three months in Goa, they went to Bolghatti in Kochi to get repairs done on their boat. Over there they realised South India was an ideal base, thanks to its long maritime tradition involving centuries of building huge teak dhows used on the spice and silk routes. And, of course, raw materials — such as red cedar wood — and labour were available at a very reasonable cost.

“We started work in Bolghatti. The boats are designed in collaboration with foreign architects. They provide us with the customers.” By 1996, Europe was a big market for yachts. “The first yacht we made was small — it took us eight months. The bigger ones take about 18 months. The biggest we have made has been 50 feet.”

After two-and-a-half years in Kochi, they decided to move to Puducherry so their children could study at Lycée Français de Pondichéry. “This is when we started Ultramarine. It is a niche market. Boats built for owners according to their requirements.”

Niche market

While their customers might not be multi-billionaires, since they choose to buy a more economical yacht from India instead of buying a European one, they are certainly rich. “They can afford to spend between Rs. 80 lakh and Rs. 1.2 crore on a boat. They have this money to enjoy, yes. But they're also passionate. Choosing sailing over three cars. Or a second house.” They come from a range of professions, “from a poultry farmer in Spain to a Russian business tycoon.”

“We're now working with the Ministry of Tourism, in association with the Tamil Nadu Sailing Association, to start a sailing school for children who want to learn… It will be free for fishermen's children.” They're also in talks with Mathew Samuel, Director of Tourism in Puducherry, to build a big boat for cruising from the Union Territory to Karaikal.

Martine suddenly jumps up and rushes out, hopping on a bright scooter and yelling “See you at the house. I have to get my kids.” Her sons, who are now aged 23 and 24, live abroad, so we're a little confused. Nevertheless, we drive to her home, vibrant with sunlight and quirky masks. Her parlour, overlooking a garden gloriously tangled with flowers, is home to sleepy cats and piles of books. She arrives with two pint-sized adopted Indian children — a boy and girl — who break into toothy grins between rapid-fire French. The Mallards have clearly retired their traveller's oars.

For more information on Ultramarine Boatbuilders contact or check their website

Nautical Notes

Spountz: An elegant gaff schooner. Similar to the boats first used by the Dutch in the 17th Century. Easy to manoeuvre and maintain, this is the classic yacht complete with bright, liveable designer interiors.

Pointus: Designed like the traditional triangular sail rigged boats of the Mediterranean Sea, but with present-day technology. Ideal day boats for coastal sailing, fishing, sunbathing and wild regattas.

Miss Simplette: A boat with the grace of a mini yacht and the performance of a modern dinghy. For beach cruising and rambling from creek to creek. Can be towed behind a car.


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Off the wallAugust 14, 2009