By R. Bruce Striegler

Three generations have built the firm Robert Allan Ltd., naval architects and marine engineers, into a global design leader in high-performance work boats. Rob Allan, Executive Director of the Board of Robert Allan Ltd. says, “In the broadest sense, we design work boats, we don’t design yachts, or large ocean-going vessels. We do custom designs for a worldwide client base who are either vessel owners or builders. Our bread and butter, and by far the largest proportion of our work, is in high performance tugboats. We’re currently designing, by our best estimate, something in the order of 30 to 40 per cent of the world’s tugs from our offices in Vancouver.”

The company’s website displays thirteen classes of workboats including nineteen classes of tugboats alone. The directory is stunning in its diversity of design and application. Classes comprise fireboats, coastal and river tug-barge towing systems, offshore support vessels, crew boats, patrol craft, scientific research vessels, icebreakers, ferries and an array of other unique specialized craft. Founder Robert Allan was born in 1884 in Scotland where he completed an apprenticeship as a draftsman, and then a B.Sc. in naval architecture at the University of Glasgow in 1907. Following World War I, Robert Allan moved to Canada, initially working at Wallace Shipyards in North Vancouver, but leaving to establish his own naval architectural firm in 1930. The first of Mr. Allan’s sons, Robert F. Allan joined his father in the practice in 1945, and in 1973, second son Robert G. Allan (Rob) entered the family craft.

During the 1940s and 1950s there were dozens and dozens of drawings for wooden seiners, trollers and gillnetters generated in the family’s basement. In the 1950s the company designed hundreds of barges and innumerable tugs as the B.C forest industry experienced significant growth. During the 1960s, the Canadian government offered a 40 per cent shipbuilding subsidy and the local coastal towing industry took this opportunity to replace most of the wooden fleet, with Robert Allan Ltd. awarded as much as 75 per cent of the design work.

During the 1970’s, oil exploration in the Beaufort Sea presented severe environmental challenges to the design company, which triumphed then, and years later would deliver vessels to operators in the off-shore industry in the Caspian Sea and at Sakhalin Island. Allan adds that with the end of Beaufort exploration in the mid-1980s, an entire generation has not had Arctic experience. “In Newfoundland, Memorial University has built a well-regarded program to train naval architects, but work in the North Atlantic, where ice is impermanent, is far different from work in the Arctic.”

Escort tugs play an enormous role in oil tanker industry

In 2013, Robert Allan Ltd bolstered its position as a world leader in tug design, with new RAmparts, RAstar and RAmpage-class tugs going into markets as diverse as Western Australia, Thailand, China, Colombia, the United States, Canada, Turkey, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea. Rob Allan says, “The RAmpage Series of offshore support tug designs was to address a defined gap in the market for high-performance towing and anchor-handling tugs for critical offshore terminal and oil-field support. They fill an opening between a full offshore supply vessel and a harbour/coastal tug, in the size range from 45 to 65 metres.”

This summer, Houston-based Signet Maritime took delivery of the 8th and 9th tugs designed for it by Robert Allan Ltd., adding to its fleet of 37 conventional and ASD vessels. Both are of the RAmparts 3200 class Z-drive tug design with now well over 100 of this class in service worldwide. The tugs were constructed at Patti Marine Enterprises in Pensacola, Florida and are based on the Signet Weatherly design, but have additional power and a higher bollard pull. The vessels are intended for multi-disciplinary work including offshore support, towing, ship-assist, ship escort, subsea and rig moves. A number of design modifications were incorporated from the original design to increase the vessel’s capabilities for this multi-disciplinary work.

Rob Allan notes, “We’re engaged in considerable research and development for the next generation of tugs, advanced designs are underway for new RotorTugs, RAVEs and various LNG and hybrid powered permutations.” Allan says that escort tugs should not be mistaken for the small log- or barge-towing tugs with which many on the B.C. coast are familiar. “Escort tugs are large and immensely more powerful, featuring unique hull forms that can generate very high hydrodynamic forces, and with powerful 360-degree steerable thrusters.”

An escort tug typically operates tethered to the tanker and is immediately available to exert very high steering or braking forces as required. “Our innovative escort tug design allows for the boat to apply forces equivalent to or higher than the tanker’s own steering and braking capabilities at high operating speeds.” Tankers can have, however occasionally, mechanical problems with propulsion or steering systems. If well out at sea, there is almost no risk since the crew should be able to fix the problem quickly. “If, however, that failure occurs in a near-coastal environment, there must be systems in place to ensure the tanker does not go aground. That’s where the high-performance escort tug comes in.”

In 2011, RALion, a joint venture between Robert Allan Ltd., Alion Science and Technology Corporation of McLean, Virginia, and Alion Science and Technology (Canada) Corporation of Kanata, Ontario, were awarded a contract to design a new research vessel for the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. The vessel was delivered in 2013, is based in Hobart, Tasmania and operates from the tropical north to the Antarctic ice-edge and across the Indian, Southern and Pacific oceans. In December 2013 the Ocean Tundra was commissioned for Groupe Ocean Inc. (Ocean) of Quebec City. This icebreaking escort tug becomes the most powerful tug in the Canadian registry. Rob Allan notes the vessel heralds a new generation of extremely capable tugs providing the highest degree of year-round escort towing capability on Canada’s east coast, the St. Lawrence River and Seaway system.

Other examples of the firm’s innovative design and engineering work in 2013 include delivery of the first of eight pusher tugs and 144 barges to transport iron ore on the Paraguay/Parana river system in South America. More than three million tonnes per annum will eventually be transported 2,500km from Vale’s mine in Corumba, Brazil, to trans-shipment ports near Buenos Aires. The pusher tugs have a heavy-fuel-powered diesel-electric propulsion system driving triple Z-drives.

New hull designs quantum leap for escort tug towing

Mr. Allan says that what has distinguished the company’s designs in the last ten to fifteen years came from the emerging market for tanker escort tugs. “We did a lot of independent research and invested significantly in our own model testing and came up with a couple of ideas embodied in our RAstar class hull designs. I wanted to explore some ideas I had about hull forms that could do the job better than what we were seeing in conventional boats. This class created a whole new standard of performance for tanker escort tugs. We’ve refined the design to the point where I think virtually every tanker escort and off-shore terminal project over the past fifteen years has been using this general class of design. It’s been very successful for us commercially, but technologically it really was a bit of a breakthrough, particularly since this is an industry not known for making leaps and bounds through technology.”

He adds that even the fact there is model testing in the tugboat field is quite remarkable. “In the early days of my career we never model-tested tugs, we just slowly evolved one design to the next. There’s been some quantum leaps in the capability of tugs, particularly in escort tugs. “We’ve really been the only people in the world doing this, and it has paid dividends.” Mr. Allan explains that what makes the RAstar class hull unique and provides improved performance is the sponsoned hull form. “This has been proven in both model and full-scale testing to provide significantly enhanced escort towing and sea-keeping performance.”

Allan continues, noting the escort tug forces are enhanced by the effects of the sponson as well as the foil-shaped fitted escort skegs. Mr. Allan says that roll motions and accelerations are less than half those of comparable sized “standard” tug hulls. “These tugs will typically be high-powered, and are intended for escort operations in weather and sea-exposed areas often found in many new LNG terminals where a high standard of sea-keeping is required.” RAstar Series tugs are classified according to their approximate length, for example, the RAstar 3400 is 34 metres long, and a range of power can be accommodated within each hull size according to the specific operational needs. Accordingly, there may be beam variations with the same length series.”

Vancouver family business founded in 1930, today an employee-owned global leader

In 1981 Rob succeeded his father as President, leading the company into a new generation of computer-based design technology. In spite of industry awards, remarkable design innovations, and the worldwide success, Rob Allan says, “In retrospect, what I’m most proud of is the fact that I was able to negotiate with my friends and colleagues here at Robert Allan Ltd., the ultimate sale of the company to the employees in a manner that benefited everybody concerned. Although there are no enduring guarantees, I feel very confident about the long-term future of the company, well past the days of my direct involvement. That was a major goal of mine and this has enhanced the sense of pride and work ethic that we seek to infuse in all aspects of our design and consulting work.”

Asked how Robert Allan Ltd. manages its worldwide client base, Rob Allan replies, “It’s all about air miles. Ultimately, in spite of all the technological communication devices, I firmly believe there is no substitute for sitting face-to-face, working with clients to really understand what they want. You get to know them, they get to know and trust you, which usually leads to long-term relationships.” The company offers three sorts of services; ship design, marine engineering and marine consulting. “Ship design is absolutely the largest segment of our business, we’re consulting engineers, and what we may do in that area is what’s commonly referred to in the business as feed studies. Someone may say we’re looking at this kind of project, what do we need?” Explaining that, they’ll then undertake a range of studies that could include economic impacts, transportation analysis, tug escort and towing force analysis or ship model testing and trials. “Often those lead to the actual design contract.”

In another unusual step, Robert Allan Ltd. encourages its senior staff to publish research papers online. Posted on the company’s website are more than 80 studies and professional presentations covering a variety of topics from specific design techniques to perspectives and industry trends. Rob Allan says, “One of the skills I have is to write well about the work that we do. That has been a very effective tool marketing our skills and our services, and I’m actively encouraging others within the organization to take up that torch.” He suggests it’s important from a business promotion aspect but also in the broader view to advance the science of the whole industry. “We don’t share all of our secrets, but if there are developments that can lead to improved performance or safety within the industry, those are worthwhile things to promote and share.”

Rob Allan says the company is doing exceptionally well, “We’re extremely busy, we’re working all over the world.” He adds that only days before the Canadian Sailings conversation, Robert Allan Ltd. received new contracts for projects in South Africa, Norway and Indonesia, for a total of about 20 major vessels. “On top of that we have a full order book. It’s an exciting time and it continues to amaze me that we’ve achieved the prominence in this field that we have. Pointing out that most of the company’s competitors are owned by off-shore interests, he says, “It’s been so much fun and we’ve done it as a proudly Canadian firm.”