Frank Coles: Out of Africa, Back in Hong Kong
Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Frank Coles has since lived and worked in Europe, North America and is now in his second stint in Hong Kong, where he’s preparing to live on his new Lagoon 46 Kariwa with his wife Leslie, watched over by an African river god.
Frank Coles has achieved a lot in his six decades living in various parts of the world, but one thing you won’t find on his career resume is why his Instagram handle is @cornflakes59. The ‘59’ represents the year the Wallem CEO was born in landlocked Zimbabwe, but the breakfast-cereal component begs an explanation.
“I was involved in a mergers and acquisitions deal a few years ago and the private-equity company wanted to give everyone codenames for the project,” says Coles, who has been living in Hong Kong since 2018, having first resided in the city from 1995-98.
“They assigned me the name Corn Flakes. When I asked why, they said it was an anagram of Frank Coles. I had never realised that, but I’ve used it quite often since then.”
The Instagram handle for Coles’ new boat, @sv_kariwa, is a lot more illuminating. Kariwa is not only the name of his new Lagoon 46, delivered to Hong Kong in May 2020, but also the local tribe’s name for the town of Kariba, where Coles was raised.
Located on the northern Zimbabwean border with Zambia, Kariba is home to Lake Kariba, the world’s largest man-made lake by volume. Coles’ parents arrived in Kariba in 1957 after his father, a civil engineer, was posted to work on the dam project, while his mother was the matron (chief nurse) at the local hospital.
“I basically grew up by the world’s largest man-made lake. It was a special place to grow up,” says Coles. “I had a privileged, unique background and we lived a great life. We lived in Zimbabwe at thebest time.”
Coles went to boarding school at the Allan Wilson High School in the capital of Harare, 280km to the southeast. However, his hometown of Kariba holds fond memories as it’s where he learnt to sail on the lake and met his current wife Leslie in December 1974, when he was 15.
“We’ve named our boat Kariwa as Kariba is where we met,” says Coles. “We were childhood sweethearts and it’s where our adventure started.”
As well as naming Kariwa after the town, Coles also honours the area by using the logo of the local river god, Nyami Nyami, on the hull, Code 0 and bright-yellow spinnaker.
“When they were building the dam to make the lake, the local tribe said the river god, Nyami Nyami, didn’t like it and they warned that there would be floods,” he says. “They were right.”
GLOBAL SHIPPING SUPREMO
As the political situation in Zimbabwe became increasingly unstable, Coles left for the UK when he was 17, while Leslie moved to South Africa, the pair living separate lives for over three decades.
“I just wanted to go to sea,” Coles says. “Leslie and I went our own ways, had our own lives, and each got married and had kids.”
Within months of arriving in the UK and staying with relatives, Coles started working as a merchant seaman, a job he held from 1977 until 1989, by which time the Master Mariner decided on a major career shift. “After 12 years at sea, I was married and had a kid, so I wanted to spend more time at home.”
Winning a scholarship to go to university, he studied Legal Aspects of Maritime Affairs at Cardiff University, then spent the first half of the 1990s working as a maritime lawyer for Richards Butler in London.
In 1995, Coles was spending significant time in Hong Kong – home to many of his clients – when a lunch meeting with Pacific Basin Shipping co-founders Paul Over and Chris Buttery resulted in a job offer.
As well as being Pacific Basin’s General Manager in Hong Kong, eventually overseeing operations for 50 ships, Coles also became CEO of Rydex as Over and Buttery invested in the Canadian email company on the cusp of the Internet revolution.
Coles thrived in the role that helped position him as a pioneer in the shipping technology industry, as he developed email communication for 2,500 ships.
“I was in the right place at the right time. For three years, I spent two weeks in Canada, two weeks in Hong Kong, like many Hong Kong Chinese were doing.”
In 1999, he moved to the US to become President and CEO of Globe Wireless in Florida, where he keeps a house and plans to eventually retire. It’s also where he bought his first boat, a 37ft Wellcraft cabin cruiser, which he often used for flotillas to the Bahamas.
In his 12 years at the helm of Globe Wireless through 2011, he helped the company’s annual turnover increase from US$7 million to US$100 million and its client base grow from 1,000 ships to 10,000.
Since then, he has been President of Inmarsat Maritime in London (2011-14) and CEO of Transas Marine in Ireland (2015-18), during which time he was also a Principal Consultant of Cayman Maritime Innovation in the Caribbean.
In 2018, he returned to Hong Kong to take up the role as CEO of Wallem Group, a global operation with a shore-based team of 1,000 and more than 7,000 seafarers serving nearly all vessel segments.
“This is probably my last big job,” says Coles, who currently lives with Leslie in Quarry Bay, after downsizing from their apartment in Repulse Bay. However, the pair plan to live full-time on Kariwa in Aberdeen once solar panels and lithium batteries are installed.
AT HOME ON KARIWA
Coles also has Hong Kong to thank for his ‘second wind’ with Leslie, which started when the pair reconnected on Facebook over a decade ago. While still working for Global Wireless in Florida, Coles invited Leslie to join him on a business trip to Hong Kong in February 2010.
“I invited to meet her at the Excelsior on Valentine’s Day,” says Coles, who holds UK and US passports. “I travelled from Florida, she travelled from Johannesburg, we spent four days together and the rest is history.”
After moving to Hong Kong, the pair were keen to get a boat, with a view to eventually living on board. Having considered buying a sailing catamaran since his time in the US, Coles started exploring options in Hong Kong with Simpson Marine, which represents Lagoon and other brands in multiple Asian markets.
“Leslie and I are both avid divers and wanted to explore Hong Kong and other parts of Asia. I had wanted a sailing cat for a while and looked at various brands, then looked at Lagoon,” he says.
“In Hong Kong, I was able to see the 42ft and 45ft models, but once I saw the 46, I realised it was a big step up from the 450 (which the 46 replaced). Immediately it felt like the perfect-sized boat for us and what we wanted to do.”
Coles ordered a well-specced model suitable for year-round living, including teak decking for the cockpit and five air-conditioners to combat Hong Kong’s infamous humidity. The galley features four hobs and an upgraded microwave, fridge and freezer, plus he’s added a washing machine.
Along with the flybridge helm, Kariwa has a secondary helm station in the saloon, both with fly-by-wire controls for the more powerful 57hp Yanmar engine options. Most notably, they ordered a 110sqm Code 0 and a 199sqm, bright-yellow asymmetrical spinnaker – or gennaker – which both feature the Nyami Nyami logo, as does the hull.
The couple have already used Kariwa extensively in Hong Kong. Their highlight so far has been a four-day trip around the city’s furthest reaches including to the Soko Islands south of Lantau Island and Double Haven east of Plover Cove Country Park.
“We’ve already done some great trips on Kariwa and hope to live on board in a few months once the solar panels and lithium batteries are installed,” Coles says.
“We’ll initially stay in Aberdeen as it’s convenient for the city and offers great access to where we want to sail. The solar power will power all the hotel appliances, which includes running at least one air-con all night for some of the year.”
Once the yacht is fully equipped and tested, Coles has some grander plans for Kariwa such as trips into Southeast Asia’s most iconic archipelagos and beyond, rediscovering his teenage zest for going to sea.
Simpson, founder and Managing Director of Simpson Marine, spoke about his new Oceanis 46.1 at the Boating Rendez-Vous display of Beneteau and Lagoon yachts in Hong Kong.