Naval architects to the world
A talented immigrant from Scotland began designing boats in his Vancouver basement in 1928.
February 27th, 2023
The company bearing Robert Allan’s name managed to survive the Great Depression and eventually thrive. Three generations later, Robert Allan Ltd. is known internationally for excellence in naval architecture design.
by David R. Conn
The BC coast is alive with working vessels of all types. Many of these boats were locally designed by Robert Allan Ltd., a Vancouver-based company that has become internationally renowned for excellence in tugboat design. A new book, by Robert G. Allan (grandson of the founder) with Peter A. Robson, traces the evolution of the company from a one-man business almost a hundred years ago to a global force of workboat design. Robert Allan is the third-generation naval architect by that name. Robson is a boat captain, author and book publishing project manager. Their book, Workboats for the World: The Robert Allan Story (Harbour Publishing $99.95 h.c.), charts the development of this Canadian success story.
Back in 1919, young Robert Allan Sr., with his wife and son, emigrated from Scotland to Canada. As a shipyard apprentice and naval architect, Allan had learned to lay out vessel plans, and to perform engineering calculations that would result in safe ships. He soon became general superintendent at Wallace Shipyard in North Vancouver. There he drew up the elegant steamship Princess Louise for CP Steamships’ northern passenger service.
In 1928 Allan set up as an independent naval architect. Shortly thereafter, the Great Depression hit. In 1934, he wrote to a colleague in Scotland that “boatbuilding here is an almost extinct business [with] only a small amount of work keeping the yards open.”
However, Allan’s business survived, producing designs for speedboats, fishing boats, small tugs and yachts, including Meander (1934) and Fifer (1939). Allan was also known locally for his abilities as a Robert Burns scholar and he lectured about Burns’ poetry and Scottish culture.
After World War II, Robert F. (Bob) Allan joined his father in the family’s basement design office. Bob’s wife Nancy became secretary and treasurer.
As the B.C. economy expanded, the Allans designed numerous fishing boats, along with patrol craft and barges. During the 1960s, a federal government subsidy supported the demand for new, more powerful tugs and specialized barges. Many were constructed to Allan designs. After the elder Allan retired, Bob incorporated, hired more employees and moved into an office building.
Bob Allan worked closely with Terry Waghorn, president of Cates Towing, to design a series of tugs specifically for shipdocking. Ever-larger ships were calling at Burrard Inlet, and Cates tugs needed more power and maneuverability to handle them effectively.
In 1973, Robert G. (Rob) Allan, Bob’s son, having completed his naval architecture studies in Scotland, returned to join the family business. The company provided designs for shallow-draft and icebreaking vessels to support oil and gas operations in the Western Arctic. Bob Allan later recalled, “The culmination of that work was the 1981 design for [two large] Arctic class IV icebreakers…. That was a major and very exciting project.”
When Bob and Nancy Allan died suddenly, Rob Allan took over the company as recession gripped Western Canada in the early 1980s. He led a conversion from drawing boards to CAD (computer-assisted design) terminals, a pioneering move among naval architects in Canada.
Consulting with Cates Towing, he designed a radical shipdocking tug, Charles H. Cates II. Propelled by twin Z-drives that each rotate 360 degrees, it could spin around on the spot, and tow or push in any direction. Other owners began ordering tug designs based on Cates prototypes.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, while an environmental tragedy, led to opportunities for Robert Allan Ltd. The company developed a new generation of powerful tanker escort tugs. These are tethered to tankers or liquified natural gas (LNG) carriers operating in near-coastal waters. The tugs can control the tankers in the event of engine or rudder failure and help prevent another Valdez disaster from happening.
Rob Allan became well connected in the marine world and began to take on international business opportunities. In 1995 he met a representative of Sanmar Shipyard of Istanbul. Turkish shipyards have gone on to construct hundreds of tugs to Robert Allan Ltd. designs. The Internet allows design drawings and specifications to be transmitted anywhere.
Departing from the career aspirations of three generations, Rob Allan’s own sons chose careers other than naval architecture. In 2008, ownership of Robert Allan Ltd. was transferred to a group of senior employees, with Rob Allan remaining in an advisory and mentoring role as executive chairman.
“We have tried not to be labelled as just tug designers, but we are in fact the primary tug designer in the world at present,” says Rob Allan. Current workboat designs also include research vessels, fireboats, crew boats and wind farm vessels. Robert Allan Ltd. has also become a leader in developing alternative fuel, diesel-electric hybrid and fully electric workboats.
The company’s current office, near Granville Island, is home base to 90 talented staff members “originating from 30 countries and speaking 21 languages.” Rob Allan also credits many forward-looking clients and shipbuilding partners for the company’s success.
Workboats for the World tells the Allan family and business story in an informative and entertaining way. It highlights many of their significant vessels designed in Vancouver, first for the demands of the BC coast, and later to meet the operational needs of shipping anywhere. 9781550179873
David R. Conn is a Vancouver-based correspondent for Western Mariner magazine. He edited Raincoast Chronicles 22 (Harbour, 2013)