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Head of Tropical’s new construction in Guangzhou, China

Charged with the oversight of six new builds, adjusting to life in Guangzhou was an adventure for German-born Erwin Holder.

By Hilary Reeves

Erwin poses with a shipyard crew in a hallway.
Holder with the shipyard crew in Guangzhou, China responsible for construction of Tropical’s six new vessels.

While living on a little farm growing potatoes and wheat in post-war Germany, 10-year-old Erwin Holder started his very own scrap metal business – complete with two “employees.”

“Dad was also the local blacksmith, and Mom was busy with my seven sisters and three brothers, plus me, the last of the soccer team,” he laughed. “My two friends and I explored the bombed-out metal factory in my neighborhood and specialized in collecting copper scrap. For a period of time, I made more money that my dad.”

In 1963, Holder took an apprenticeship as a Tool and Die Maker, trading up for an apprenticeship as a Ship Assistant Engineer in 1968. By 1970, he had enrolled in the University of Applied Sciences in Bremen, graduating in 1974 with a bachelor’s in ship engineering. He spent the rest of the ‘70s sailing under German flags as Third, Second, First and as Chief Engineer. In 1980, Holder took a job in Miami as the Director of Marine for a small Italian-owned “Roll On, Roll Off” vessel.

“This lovely lady sunk to the bottom of the Port of Miami in 1983, and I was suddenly available for a new job,” he explained.

That year, he joined what is now Tropical Shipping as a Port Engineer. Since then, Holder has served as a Technical Manager, Director of Marine Operation, General Manager of Marine Operation, and is currently the General Manager of New Construction, living in Guangzhou, China, supervising the construction of six new builds from Guangzhou Wenchong Shipyard. The order represents close to $150 million dollars in fleet reinvestment and commitment to the Caribbean market, with the first ship scheduled to join Tropical’s fleet in the coming months and the rest – a total of four Carib class vessels, two Mini Express class vessels, and two additional Carib class option vessels – arriving at the Port of Palm Beach in the next 6 months.

Tropic Freedom sits in Drydock on a sunny day.
Tropic Freedom, one of Tropical Shipping’s six new vessels under construction,  just before sea trials.

Two new Carib class vessels will replace two chartered vessels, greatly improving service time from Saint John, Canada, and Palm Beach, Florida to San Juan, Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten. Two additional vessels on option will replace the Tropic Sun and Tropic Tide currently deployed in the St. Thomas Leeward Trade, as they are operating at 100 percent capacity. The Sun and Tide would then be redeployed to the Nassau and Cayman services. The Mini Express vessels are able to serve shallow draft ports such as Providenciales, and will replace two Night class vessels currently deployed in the Marsh Harbour/Turks and Caicos/Dominican Republic service.

“The worst thing that can happen during a sea trial is coming down with diarrhea, or a breakdown of equipment and trial failure,” he joked. “But a more typical day for me includes overseeing the activities of our six new builds, including the management of our hull, machinery, electrical and painting supervisor team, making sure the yard follows specification and builder codes, managing construction to keep project costs at or below budget, making sure we work as team with the sole objective of completing this project on schedule and as per specification, keeping track of the progress of each vessel and assuring the team maintains safe work practices, and holding daily morning meetings to review on-site inspections to assure all non-conformities are properly documented,” he said, adding, “and my greatest challenge is reading the Guangzhou Daily News.”

The newspaper, the littering, the spitting – these are but a few of the issues Holder has had to get used to in China.

Erwin and his wife at a convention.
Holder and his wife Yanhong in Guangzhou, China where they moved to oversee construction of Tropical’s six new vessels.

“My wife and I moved to Guangzhou into one of the many skyscraping apartment buildings close to the yard,” he said. “We needed a few months to get used to being on the 27th floor – sound is our life now. The close bunching of big tower blocks creates an acoustic echoing effect, and amplifies street-level noises so it sound like the noise is right outside your window. You hear constant beeping of car horns mixed with the shouting from your neighbor’s home.”

Other words of advice from Holder:

“If you enjoy your life, don’t drive,” he laughed. “We do like the Chinese culture going back thousands of years. We also enjoy the Cantonese cuisine, such as beef with oyster sauce, steamed chicken or fish, and the traditional Teahouse with the best dumpling selection ever (only my wife makes better dumplings).”

Holder said he always strove to make successful men out of his two sons, Michael and Christopher, but that they ended up making a successful father out of him instead. His plans for the future: “Sailing the Seven Seas with Holland America,” he laughed, and he keeps a running list of his favorite things (hike: the Grand Canyon; song: Journey’s “Wheel in the Sky;” movie: “Temple Grandin;” book: Michener’s “Chesapeake;” job: working at Tropical’s Fish House; television series: “Breaking Bad;” actor: Steve McQueen; quote: “Today is your most important day! Yesterday is history and you never know what will happen tomorrow!”)

“When I was 37, I read a quote that went something like, ‘If you live every day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I’ve looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of your life, would you want to do what you’re about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘no’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”