A window into the world of tugboat design

The U.S. Navy tug YT-802 featuring a Robert Allan Ltd. design assists an aircraft carrier
The U.S. Navy tug YT-802 featuring a Robert Allan Ltd. design assists an aircraft carrier
The U.S. Navy tug YT-802 featuring a Robert Allan Ltd. design assists an aircraft carrier

Robert Allan Ltd. is known around the world for its sleek, innovative and high-performance tugboats. But the firm got its start in the 1920s designing yachts, small ferries and fishing vessels. 

The company, which is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, didn’t design many tugboats until the 1950s. The timing coincided with a broader shift within the industry from wooden hulls and steam power to steel and diesel. 

“We really kind of grew up with the evolution of the tug and barge industry in B.C.,” Robert G. (Rob) Allan, the company’s third-generation namesake and current executive chairman, recalled in a recent interview. 

Allan, now 75 and retired from the day-to-day operations of the now employee-owned company, recently published a book detailing the company’s rise to global leader in tugboat design. 

“Workboats for the World: The Robert Allan Story” was a project he long wanted to accomplish. Allan, who partnered with Peter A. Robson on the finished product, finally got the opportunity during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The book includes many details about his grandfather, Robert Allan, who first began designing vessels in B.C. in 1928, and his father, Robert F. (Bob) Allan, a similarly skilled naval architect who forged valuable relationships with clients throughout Western Canada. 

The company designed its first tugboat in the 1930s, and dozens more followed over the years. But it wasn’t until the early 1980s that Robert Allan Ltd. tugboat designs started getting noticed outside of Canada.

That happened following the design for Charles H. Cates 2 for C.H. Cates & Sons. That tug, built in 1983, was the first z-drive tugboat in Canada and the second in North America. Another identical z-drive tug, Cates 1, followed in 1986, and Cates 3 entered service in 1990. 

The tugboat Cates 2, the second z-drive tugboat in North America.
The tugboat Cates 2, the second z-drive tugboat in North America.

Hundreds more successful tug deliveries followed over the next three decades for operators around the world, including many in the United States. 

Allan organized the book by vessel type rather than in chronological order. It is loaded with anecdotes and stories that chart the company’s path from the 1920s to today. The book also contains dozens of photographs and drawings. 

Allan recently spoke with Professional Mariner about the company, its history and the book itself. During the 45-minute interview, he discussed how tugboats and towing changed forever following the Exxon Valdez spill, the current state of tugboat design and what he thinks will happen with alternative fuels. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Can you tell me a little about the history of Robert Allan Ltd.?
We are now in our 95th year of professional practice. That dates back to my grandfather starting in private practice as a consulting naval architect in 1928. My father joined him in the practice, which was really two men in the basement of my grandfather’s house, in 1945. The company was officially incorporated as Robert Allan Ltd. in 1962. 

That history is a big part of the book and a very important part of the foundation of the company. Our international growth has largely been since the mid-1990s, but there is a long, and, I believe, a fairly illustrious history of the company prior to that. 

How did you come to specialize in tugboat design?
It chose us more than we chose it. 

My grandfather in the early years designed quite a number of pleasure yachts, some of them quite large, but mostly small ferries and fish boats. These were a big part of the coastal industry at that time. 

The first tugboat design we could find in our archives was in about 1934. But there weren’t many more until the late 1950s. Around that time, there was a major transition in the industry from early wooden tugs to steel, diesel-driven tugs. My father was instrumental in that development and designed well over 100 tugs for the B.C. coast, some of them quite large. 

We really kind of grew up with the evolution of the tug and barge industry in B.C. That was mostly coastal towing tugs during the 60s, and then in the late 60s we started working with C.H. Cates & Sons on dedicated ship-docking tugs. 

Cates was a very progressive company, and they had some ideas about what they wanted in the new generation of steel tugs. With them, we created a series of very unique twin-screw tugs, and then the first z-drive tugs in their fleet and the first in Canada. Those Cates tugs were the catalyst for our overseas growth. 

Companies in the US — Hawaiian Tug & Barge and Shaver Transportation — liked what they saw in those early Cates tugs, and we did a number of similar designs for those companies. From those projects we started attracting a lot more attention, including interest from Europe. Things really started snowballing from there.  

The RAmparts 2400-series tugboat Dr. Hank Kaplan in Seattle in 2018. The tug now works in Alaska for Cook Inlet Tug & Barge.
The RAmparts 2400-series tugboat Dr. Hank Kaplan in Seattle in 2018. The tug now works in Alaska for Cook Inlet Tug & Barge.

What is your own background, for those who don’t know it?
I have a story about that in the book, but as a kid I can never remember wanting to do anything other than be a naval architect. When I was in my teens, I had a bit of a hobby designing houses. I filled quite a few sketch books with doodles and ideas. 

I remember saying to my father, “maybe I’ll be a regular architect, instead of a naval architect.” My father was a very wise man. He said I could do that and be one of tens of thousands of starving architects, or stick with the marine field and maybe get to be a big fish in a little pond. I always thought that was remarkably prophetic. 

Here I am, some 50 years later, and I don’t regret a single day of it. It has been a remarkable career in a remarkable industry. 

Who do you think deserves credit for the firm’s growth around the world?
I credit the reputation of the company starting with my father. My grandfather was an extremely talented naval architect and a brilliant man but could be a difficult person. 

My father was also a very talented naval architect but much more of a gentleman, and also a paragon of integrity. He earned a huge degree of respect in the industry. I really tried to follow in his footsteps in that regard. I give Dad credit for setting a really, really strong foundation for this business.

What were some important moments in the company’s history?
Our international growth was, honest to God, serendipitous. It just kind of happened.

The connections we made in Turkey in the mid-1990s have been incredibly beneficial to the company. That country was never perceived as an opportunity for the growth of the company, but a whole lot of things came together at one time. 

Ali Gurun, from the family of Sanmar Shipyards, called me in 1994 or ‘95. He wanted to talk about a paper I had written, and we talked for half an hour. I never thought I’d hear another word about it. Six months later, I got another call from Ali, and he said his family also owns tugs and wanted to build more. 

So, I sold him the plans for one of the early Cates twin-screw tugs and did some sketches and suggested changes he could make to suit his own needs, for a very nominal fee. But I said, if you build any more, I want a small royalty. They ultimately built 28 of those boats! 

That was the start of a beautiful friendship and business partnership. Sanmar has since built over 300 of our tugs, and they are going to build 50 more this year. Their build quality is second to none. We also have several other really terrific shipyard partners in Turkey.

What are the most profound changes you’ve seen in tug design during your career?
One major one was the consequences of the Exxon Valdez and parallel tanker losses in Europe at about the same time. From that came requirements that tankers in sensitive waters needed to have tug escorts. 

There were a couple years of deliberation about whether existing tugs could do what was being asked of them in that role. The reality was that conventional tugs of the day, no matter how big or powerful, were not well equipped to do that job of steering and braking tankers at speed. 

The United Kingdom-flagged 128-foot Svitzer Kilroom is a prime example of the RAstar 3900 platform.
The United Kingdom-flagged 128-foot Svitzer Kilroom is a prime example of the RAstar 3900 platform.

We had a bit of an “aha” moment in 1994 as a consequence of model testing we were doing. … That was the development of what we call our RAstar hull form. It can be applied to both z-drives and Voith propulsion, and it results in an extremely stable and powerful escort tug. We captured the lion’s share of the world’s escort tug market as a consequence of that design.

What technology helped your namesake firm advance tugboat design?
One was the development of significant CFD (computational fluid dynamics) capability to analyze and predict the performance of big escort tugs. It generated big business for us and solidified our reputation in the field. 

CFD at that time was the preserve of big business or navies. We certainly invested heavily in it early on for our size of business. We are still a small company, although have close to 100 employees now, but it was an expensive investment at the time, and it is still is. 

The computer systems necessary to run that kind of program at anything approaching a time-efficient basis … we are talking millions of dollars. We have invested that degree of money over the years and continue to do so. 

What do you make about the current state of tugboat design?
What is most interesting now is the evolution of the industry into alternative propulsion and alternative fuels. That change is coming about much more quickly than I anticipated. 

For young engineers and naval architects, I think it is a really exciting time because of many options one can look at and evaluate in terms of going “green” in the industry. 

For example, we have a fleet of all-electric and quite powerful ship-handling tugs for Kitimat LNG, together with two big dual-fuel escort tugs that will be coming on stream in British Columbia later this year. Those are going to be very exciting to see … all these beautiful and stylish and very progressive new tugs. They are being built in Turkey for a Canadian owner. 

Comparable developments are going on everywhere. We have a lot of work in South America these days, a market that has traditionally focused on river traffic. But now they are bringing electric propulsion and z-drive propulsion into South American waterways. It is a really exciting time. I don’t see any stagnation in the industry — let’s put it that way.

 Do you have any predictions about which cleaner fuels will gain prominence?
There is no single panacea for this. Everything depends on the mission of the boat and the load profile and whatnot. I see a very bright future for all-electric and electric-hybrid in the ship-docking world where the missions are relatively short and recharging capability is relatively easy to accommodate. 

Longer range, our view of things today is that methanol will probably be the bridging fuel for quite a while. It doesn’t involve huge technological changes … just an alternative fuel for more or less conventional engines at the moment. 

I believe, rightly or wrongly, that for the next generation we will see a lot of hybrid technology as diesel fades out. There are lots of ways to burn fuel more efficiently and burn less fuel through any one of dozens of different hybrid configurations. 

The supply side will really determine what is adopted most widely, more than the demand side. What are the big energy companies going to decide to provide for users?

Robert Allan’s new book.
Robert Allan’s new book.

What were your reasons for writing the book?
It is something I wanted to do for quite some time. I wanted to do it while I could still remember most of it! I have to thank Covid for giving me the time and incentive to do it. 

The book was a perfect Covid project. I have to acknowledge one of my colleagues, Rollie Webb, who is a serious amateur marine historian. Rollie presented me with two huge binders of magazine clippings about the company that went from 1928 to 1968 or 1970. That was an absolute gold mine of information. 

I had grown up with this business all around me, and did know it pretty well, but what I did not appreciate was how many small boats, particularly smaller fish boats, had been designed over the years. I had seen the drawings but didn’t know how many boats were built with those plans. 

That research was really fun and interesting. It was a lot of work doing the book, but it was a joy. The publishers, Harbour Publishing, did an incredible job. It is a beautiful book and exceptionally well done. I am really, really proud of it.