Jessie Rogers looks at the challenges faced by the yachting industry in sourcing teak wood that is both legal and sustainable, and considers the latest alternatives now available
Choosing the most sustainable options for your boat can leave you feeling confused, but don’t worry, you’re in good company. Shortly after Jeff Bezos launched his Earth Fund programme – a 10 billion dollar initiative to conserve nature and combat climate change – his yacht, Koro, was launched, covered in expanses of beautiful teak wood decking. The yacht’s Dutch builder, Oceanco defended its use by stating that ‘all teak used on our projects meets EU requirements and is third-party verified to ensure due diligence’.
Whilst verifying the environmental credentials of teak from Myanmar has long been recognised as a difficult issue, in 2021 a brutal military coup changed everything. No longer was teak from Myanmar just an environmental issue, it was now a human rights disaster too. The EU, UK, US, Canada and Switzerland imposed teak import sanctions on the country to prevent money reaching the military junta via sales of the state-controlled timber monopoly.
Sadly the sanctions seem not to be working. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a charity dedicated to exposing environmental destruction, used open-source EU import data to track millions of dollars’ worth of Myanmar teak arriving into the EU in 2021, followed by another 2,000 tonnes between February and November 2022 and recent data from the US show that imports have continued there too.
Given that auctions of teak are still happening within Myanmar on a regular basis and the worldwide demand for teak continues unabated, particularly in the boatbuilding industry, it doesn’t take a huge leap of the imagination to wonder if Myanmar teak is simply being re-badged as coming from somewhere else.
It’s common knowledge within the industry that yachts are being decked in Europe and Turkey with teak from China and India. The problem for the consumer, though, is what, and who, to believe, and how to verify what they are being told, as only the original importer in the chain of teak supply is required by law to do any due diligence on the provenance of the timber.
It’s worth remembering that even before the Myanmar coup in 2021 it was the position of the EU’s expert committee on Timber Regulation (EUTR) that it was not possible to establish a reliable due- diligence system for teak from Myanmar.
A recent criminal case at the Court of Amsterdam found two defendants guilty of breaching EUTR rules in 2019. They received just 240 and 90 hours of community service respectively – hardly an effective deterrent for importing more than 1.25 million euros’ worth of illegal Myanmar teak wood.
It seems remarkable that in an industry where every other reference is to sustainability and reaching net zero, there seems to be very little real transparency or robust conversation about how to effect meaningful change in the area of timber, particularly for decking. The results of a web search for teak decking return a surprising number of offers for top quality Myanmar teak wood, with sparse mention of the sanctions against Myanmar or the issues involved in the import of timber from that country, whether pre- or post-sanctions.
When it comes to sustainability, tropical hardwoods would seem an obvious and easy place to start as the destruction of the rainforests around the world is such a double whammy in terms of loss of biodiversity and losing the potential to absorb carbon dioxide. So, why hasn’t buying tropical hardwood – especially that with a considerable risk of coming from an unsustainable and illegal source – gone the way of big game hunting as far as public opinion is concerned?
It could be that the boat-owning and boat-buying public simply don’t care, which I don’t believe. I think it’s that they just don’t know. Therefore, the key question remains: what to use on boats as an alternative?
If there was an obvious, easy solution the problem would have been solved years ago, but the difficult truth remains that teak’s straight, close grain, oil content, durability and flexibility is a very hard act to follow as a timber.
One of the main issues with all teak wood alternatives has been the continued ready availability of good-quality teak from Myanmar. The incentive to find an alternative, other than the moral imperative, has simply not been there.
At our yard in Lymington we have been on a long mission to find workable alternatives to teak, and there have been plenty of dead-ends and false starts along the way. The first thing to say is that many of the qualities and attributes teak offers are not really necessary in many circumstances. Below deck it is simply tradition that calls for the use of teak, and there are many great alternatives.
In our most recent Contessa 32, Gina, we used cherry wood, but there are other alternatives, such as maple, oak and walnut, all of which we have used on our boats and are attractive and hardwearing, as well as being more easily sustainably sourced.
When it comes to decking, exterior wood, handrails and capping rails, finding a teak wood replacement starts to become much more of a problem.
The Norwegian firm Kebony was the first to hit the market with its thermally modified maple back in 2010. We first used this wood on our ‘green’ Contessa 32 Calypso where we showcased different materials and sustainable approaches to building a boat.
Kebony, recognising the environmental issues surrounding teak wood, assumed that the marine industry would be hell-bent on finding a solution. Sadly, although it wasn’t wrong about the environmental imperative, it was wrong about the readiness of the marine market to embrace the problem, and a lack of interest saw it pull out of the marine sector to focus on pine for construction.
The Lignia Wood Company was next, with a modified softwood that sported hardwood characteristics, and whilst it did a good job at marketing and was making good progress at selling into the industry (Spirit Yachts were an early adopter, for instance), production issues meant the firm went into liquidation. Spirit Yachts is now using Douglas fir for its decking, and sustainably sourced Sipo, a West African hardwood, for its coachroofs.
Tesumo is another tropical hardwood from West Africa hailing itself as the new teak. Information on the website is tantalisingly sparse but a salesperson told me it was from a sustainable source and treated with a special chemical.
For our toe and taff rails and handrails we now use TMT (thermally modified timber) marine maple. Like Kebony, it is extremely hard-wearing and weathers like teak. For cockpits we now use either TMT or Yachtcork, a quality cork product with very little resin content.
Plantation teak wood
Another option is, of course, plantation teak, if you can verify its provenance. Whilst quality varies enormously, plantation teak is faster grown and therefore generally not as tightly grained as old growth teak. The lengths are also significantly shorter.
One newcomer to the plantation teak market is Sykes Timber, which imports its plantation teak from Indonesia – a country that stands out as being the only nation in the world to hold the coveted FLEG-T (Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade) status. As an island state it has no borders with Myanmar and rigorous checks within the country are deemed sufficient for the shipments to enjoy a ‘green lane’ for import straight into the EU and the UK.
Sykes Timber imports directly into the UK, thereby avoiding any potential cross-contamination with teak coming from Myanmar. Indonesia does, currently, seem to be a reliable source of quality plantation teak from a well-regulated government-controlled system which is now overseeing the planting of more than a million hectares of teak for extraction. The teak supplied by Sykes is harvested on a 50-70 year cycle whereas much other plantation teak is cut on a 25-year cycle, sometimes significantly less. The same longevity and credibility associated with Indonesia cannot, however, be reliably attributed to all of the other teak plantations that have sprung up around the world in recent years.
Lured by the lucrative luxury marine market and encouraged by environmental incentives such as carbon credits, numerous teak plantations have now popped up in South America and throughout Africa. Although it is not fair to dismiss them all out of hand, there are certainly questions to be asked about plantation teak, especially if the quality seems too good to be true. For the consumer, the bottom line is that verifying the provenance of any type of teak is hard, if not impossible. Always ask to see paperwork. Any reputable supplier will be more than happy to share it with you.
Hallberg-Rassy states it has ‘no problems getting quality legal real teak grown in Myanmar’ and has ‘stocks well filled for years to come with quality plantation teak available when that runs out’.
Dufour says it will start using plantation teak sourced from Panama once its current stocks of Myanmar teak become depleted, while Beneteau has indicated that it has now moved away from teak entirely, choosing instead to use iroko hardwood from the Republic of Guinea in West Africa.
Moody Decking, a firm which supplies to luxury boatbuilders such as Oyster and Sunseeker, also reports that it still has large quantities of stockpiled Myanmar teak ‘from before the coup’, but that it has also now begun importing teak directly from India.
Oyster stated that they were ‘constantly looking at, trying and testing different decking materials.’
What are the alternative to teak wood?
Thermally modified maple wood
Thermally modified timber has been around for decades. We initially used a product called Cambia, sold in Europe as Marine Maple, but supply issues led us to
a similar alternative sold through Robbins Timber as TMT Marine. Although thermally modified maple is extremely hard and durable, and weathers silver-grey like teak, there are important differences which need to be understood by the shipwright, as it doesn’t behave in the same way.
For areas where we need to bend the wood, we first of all tried steaming, but this was not successful, so we now either laminate or cut from a single piece where a bend is required. Other tricks are keeping tools extremely sharp and using pan head screws to avoid chipping and splitting.
The most recent Contessa 32 was finished with TMT capping rails and cockpit and a cherry interior with TMT and white maple flooring.
A recent refurbishment of the classic one-off motor launch, Trojan, was finished at the Jeremy Rogers Boatyard in stunning and contemporary American walnut.
Cork has to be one of the ultimate sustainable materials, harvested from the bark of a tree which can regrow within nine years. Not all decking cork is made equal, however, and we opted to work with a company called Yachtcork from Germany that uses high-grade cork with very little resin content, making for a superior product. It’s naturally non-slip, lightweight and stays cool, even in high temperatures.
We have used Flexiteek in the past and there are definitely times where it has a place, especially for decking. The quality has improved massively and in some cases it can be hard to tell the difference unless you get really close.
Our focus has recently been on finding a real wood alternative which has more structural integrity than plastic. The fact that it’s plastic does, of course, imply end of life and other environmental issues.
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