Bundaberg boatbuilder Steve Foster had several key agendas in mind as he tackled the biggest project of his career – a pontoon on the Great Barrier Reef.
By John Burfitt
When boatbuilder Steve Foster was approached two years ago about constructing the new Lady Musgrave Experience Pontoon on the Great Barrier Reef, it marked something of a first in his career.
With dimensions of 35 metres by 12 metres, the three-level green-powered pontoon was the biggest project Foster and his Bundaberg-based company Oceaneer Marine Services had ever undertaken. Foster has been in the boat-building game for 34 years and founded Oceaneer in 2014.
Undaunted by the scale of the giant pontoon, which was completed in August and is located on Lady Musgrave Island 65km from the Queensland coastline, Foster admits he approached the project with the same rule he always applies to all his work.
“No matter what the project, I always remember the biggest jobs are actually just a lot of small jobs that need completing along the way,” he says. “This one was unlike anything we had done before, so the team and I had to step up to the task and get our heads around it. But every job is different as no two boats are exactly the same. Remembering that point is what prepared us for what was ahead.”
BUILDING THE BEAST
The three-level construction—two above water for activities and services, with the bottom an underwater observatory that offers up-close views of the reef and overnight accommodation—is one of the new attractions at the southern end of the Coral Coast.
The pontoon can accommodate 30 guests, with an overnight stay starting from just under $600.
The pontoon was the brainchild of Brett Lakey, managing director of the Lady Musgrave Experience. In February 2020, Lakey handed the job to Oceaneer Marine Services to turn his dream into a reality.
Building the pontoon required a wide range of materials, including over 70 tonnes of aluminium and over 200km of welding for the main structure along with 28 panels of 54mm glass for the observatory. The entire structure has been built to high-spec sustainable and eco-friendly standards with a zero impact design that’s completely solar and wind-powered.
The project became the company’s main focus for 18 months but Foster admits it presented an important opportunity not just for Oceaneer, which moved from Brisbane to Bundaberg in 2018, but also for the entire region.
“A project this big has helped put our company on the map, as well as the Bundaberg region to be taken seriously in the boatbuilding world,” he says. “Working on the pontoon with so many local people helped prove you can do a project of this scale here without having to go back to Brisbane.”
Throughout the construction process, there was a focus on keeping it as local as possible, by employing up to 19 builders on site and also involving a network of tradespeople, craftsmen and suppliers.
“We knew if we were really serious about keeping it local and wanted the outcome to be stamping this region as a place for quality boatbuilding, then we had to rely on the skills of the people around us,” he says. “Most of what we used was sourced locally and it was interesting to learn what other skills the people in your immediate network can do and do well. There were a few things we had to go back to Brisbane for, but overall, what we needed was sourced locally in the Wide Bay region.”
One of the main suppliers to Oceaneer was the CSS member store The Bolt Place Bundaberg, one of the coast city’s fastening and hardware supply companies servicing the agricultural, building and industrial segments.
Julie West, co-owner of The Bolt Place Bundaberg, says Oceaneer’s work on the Lady Musgrave Experience Pontoon was an inspiration to other businesses in the region.
“When they first started work on it, I was so impressed that a small family business like theirs had the talent, knowhow and initiative to take on such a big project,” she says. “It has been a massive undertaking, and yet these guys are so understated and just keep busy, getting it done. I think of them as a true example of ‘quiet achievers’.”
West recalls the Oceaneer team dropping by the store a few times every week to collect various orders throughout the pontoon’s construction, and knows they kept other businesses just as busy.
“That’s a big thing for our community, to have people committed to buying locally, first and foremost,” she says.
It was the day Foster watched the pontoon be moved—piece by piece—from the Oceaneer premises to the dock at Burnett Heads and then lowered by crane into the water that signalled their mission was almost done. Once the construction was fitted in place, it required a final fit-out before the job was finally complete and the gleaming new Lady Musgrave Experience Pontoon was open and welcoming guests onboard.
As for the best lesson of the experience, Foster says, “To always believe in yourself, believe in your staff and have some fun along the way. But creating this pontoon was an effort of the people of this region. I know when they eventually get to visit, they’ll be as proud as I am.”