Executive chairman of Robert Allan Ltd. Robert Allan talks about the highs and lows of his career as a ship designer, including building tugboats, as reported by Riviera.
Life of a vessel designer
The recipient of the 2022 International Tug & Salvage Lifetime Achievement Award offers an incisive and intimate description of his life as a vessel designer over the course of more than 50 years.
My entry into the industry
I am genetically disposed to this profession, following in the footsteps of my father and grandfather. The latter started working as an independent consultant in 1928. I grew up surrounded by the drawings and photos of their creations, and as a small boy often taken around local shipyards. Although I was certainly never pressured to follow the family tradition, undoubtedly the exposure was a form of subtle indoctrination. I graduated in 1971 from the University of Glasgow, then worked in the UK before returning to Canada, joining Robert Allan Ltd in 1973.
My best moment in vessel design
There are so many positive moments it is hard to choose, but an early favourite was the 2,600-hp tug Jervis Crown, the first project where my father (although ever watchful) gave me a lot of design freedom. It was a wonderful project: great owner, dedicated and cooperative shipyard, and an attractive and very successful end product. That project gave me a lot of confidence at an early stage in my career.
My worst moment in vessel design
Thankfully there are not many. Around 1995, we teamed with Incat Designs to design three large fast ferries for British Columbia’s BC Ferries. This was a technical challenge; creating a catamaran design to fit into berths developed for monohulls. Incat developed the general arrangement, lines and basic structure, while we were responsible for all the engineering. The boats performed exactly as required, but union problems and some wake-wash issues resulted in a lot of bad press and thus passenger resistance. The vessels were taken out of service after only a couple of years. It was a sad fate for these boats, and everyone connected to them unjustly suffered some tarnished reputation.
My biggest achievement
Despite many highly successful designs, the best thing I have done was to enable the transitioning of Robert Allan Ltd from a family-owned business to one which is 100% employee-owned. Under first Ken Harford and then Mike Fitzpatrick, who succeeded me as president, the company has gone from strength to strength. I am immeasurably proud of how well that transition has gone, while still honouring the family heritage on which it is founded.
The funniest moment
Finding levity in my work has not been a frequent occurrence, however before heading off to Scotland to study, I designed and built a simple outrigger sailing canoe loosely based on the traditional craft of the Philippines. Running out of time to complete it, I decided to give it a test sail with just one outrigger pontoon in place. Setting off with a friend as a crew we failed to shift weight fast enough when the first tack was needed, putting the only outrigger on the windward side. We had a ’Wasa moment’ and had to swim back to the beach. The lesson was: finish the boat first!
I learned the most from
Without question, I have learned most from my father, who was truly a master of his craft. Although a very talented naval architect, his most important lessons (largely unspoken) were those on how to behave in business; treat your clients and employees with honesty and integrity and they will reward you with their trust. That is an important lesson and one I have always tried to follow.
My guilty pleasure
I love travelling, exploring the world, and I have developed a fondness for nice wine, but my greatest non-work pleasure is building things in wood. That handy work is really satisfying and demands a totally different set of skills from my design career, although there is obviously some shared creativity. Last summer I bought an Alaskan chainsaw mill and had much fun milling a complete fallen red cedar tree into a large selection of timbers for a range of summer cabin projects.
My favourite tugboat
With more than 1,400 tugs to our credit today it is nearly impossible to have a favourite. Forced to choose, I would probably select Ajax, the first serious tanker escort tug to incorporate our unique RAstar hull form. It was a distinct pleasure to work with the team at Østensjø Rederi on this project, and through an extensive set of model testing, we have raised the bar for global escort-tug performance. This big, powerful and handsome tug has performed superbly from its earliest days, sometimes in severe sea conditions, so it ticks all the boxes as a star among tugs.
My favourite location
When I was 12 years old, my family purchased a small waterfront property on Bowyer Island in Howe Sound, just north of Vancouver, Canada. It is easy to get to and has always been my mental-health retreat. It is a place to get away from the phone or emails and just relax. It is also the place where I have been able to exercise my simple house design and building urges. I designed our cabin there and built all the surrounding decks etc, creating what is now the place where we spend over three months of the year in a simple, quiet and very beautiful setting.
My one regret
My greatest regret is that my parents both died quite young, in their mid 60s, and consequently did not see their three amazing grandsons, our sons Neil, Scott and Murray, grow into fine, intelligent and talented young men. The corollary is that my father never saw the incredible success which has come to the business that he and his father created.
My advice for a young person in vessel design
Go for it. Today is a most exciting time in ship design, with the challenges of making sea transport as close to emissions-free as possible. Study hard. There are incredibly powerful design tools at your disposal today, but considerable skill is required to use them well. The next generation of naval architects face amazing opportunities to be smart and creative and make a societal difference. That work will continue for at least a generation.
1968-1971: University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK
1971: graduated with BSc-Hons in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering
1973: joined Robert Allan Ltd
1981: promoted to president at Robert Allan Ltd
2008: appointed as executive chairman of Robert Allan Ltd
2012: joined the board of trustees of the Vancouver Maritime Museum
2019: appointed president and joined the executive committee of the Association of British Columbia Marine Industries
2022: won ITS Lifetime Achievement Award
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