The Place That Launched a Thousand Tugs

Figure 3 - VMM. Leonard McCann Archives. Fred Rogers Collection. Weaver Lake, [194-?]. A.C. Rogers.

Published May 17, 2017 8:50 PM by Robert G. Allan, P.Eng.

Over the last few years, as the design output from Robert Allan Ltd. to the global tugboat community began to border on the prodigious, we were often asked, “How many tugs has your company designed”? Until very recently we really did not have a good handle on that number, so the answer was usually either “a lot” or “many hundreds”, neither of which were particularly illuminating! So a search was begun late in 2016 to review our archives and try to determine the tug tally much more precisely. Would we rival Helen of Troy?

Where did it all begin?

It is unfortunately difficult to identify the very “first” tug designed by this firm as the records from the 1930s consist primarily of the rather incomplete set of original drawings which are still in our possession. There is no formal internal listing of the design work done in those days which might provide a more complete record, however there are the amazing resources of the archived Harbour & Shipping magazines at both UBC and at the Vancouver Maritime Museum. Our resident marine historian Rollie Webb was able to sleuth through those records and identify a 1934-built tug designed by Robert Allan, the Weaver Lake, built for a Captain E.C. Merchant. In our archives there is an undated, handsome little ink on linen drawing for a “shallow draft towboat” whose dimensions at 41’-8” x 11’ match the Weaver Lake. A query to the Vancouver Maritime Museum turned up a photo of the Weaver Lake (figure 3, above) in the collection of Fred Rogers, which certainly reflects the drawing. So we can, with considerable confidence, declare her as our “Eve!” (Adam having been unceremoniously relegated to second place due to gender bias.)

Figure 2 – Outboard Profile of Weaver Lake

Interestingly many of those early tugs, including the Weaver Lake, were shallow draft designs, most likely built for work on the Fraser River and its tributaries in its “pre-dredged” era. There are also some quite small workboats (some as small as 18’ long) which were described as “towboats” which we did not count. Similarly, the many small boom boats designed by the firm are not included as real “tugs” for purposes of this tally. The resulting count for tugs and towboats built in the 1930s is a grand total of three.

The 1940s were a time of the construction of many fishboats and of course the distraction of the war effort where both Robert Allan’s were engaged in design efforts with local shipyards. There are only four tugs in our files from that decade. However, this period contained what is certainly the most elaborate set of design drawings of the era for a 75’ shallow-draft steel towboat (with a lower deckhouse of steel and the upper two tiers of timber/plywood). The plans are unfortunately undated but the business address shown on the drawings is for my Grandfather’s house on West 63rd Avenue near Laburnum, where the company really had its beginnings. He bought that house in 1945, (for $4,500!) so it is assumed the design was done sometime after 1945. This design is done in extensive detail, probably as a working drawing contract, and best indications are that she was the Sandy Jane built by Yarrows in 1946 for Yellowknife Transportation Ltd. for service on the Mackenzie River.

Figure 4 – General Arrangement of shallow-draft tug Sandy Jane


The 1950s began with what we can firmly identify as our first steel coastal tug design. The Black Bear was designed in April 1950 and delivered in October 1950 by Victoria Machinery Depot (Hull #54) for Black Ball Towing Co. Ltd. Her registered dimensions were 42.7’ x 15.1’ x 6.3’, 32 grt. Original machinery was a Gray Marine diesel of 330 bhp. An interesting and highly innovative feature at the time was a hydraulically elevating wheelhouse, indicating that the tug was destined to work primarily on the river and needed to duck some bridges!

Figure 5 – General Arrangement of Black Bear

Figure 6 – Black Bear in its “post refit” stage, showing little in common with the original other than the hull

Black Ball Towing was absorbed by Gulf of Georgia Towing (named as owner on the drawings). When Gulf of Georgia Towing was bought by Seaspan the tug was renamed Seaspan Rebel then sold and renamed Nanaimo Rebel and finally Black Bear II. At some point, it was extensively rebuilt. In 2003 it was owned by a numbered company in Kitimat. The registry on Black Bear II closed in 2011; vessel fate unknown.

The 1950s may have marked the real beginning of steel tug construction in BC, but there were still a fair number of wooden tugs being designed and built. Notable among the latter was the Tugger Yorke for F.M Yorke and Sons. Built in 1955, according to Nauticapedia she was still in service on the BC coast in 2013 having endured many changes in both guise and ownership over the years.

Figure 7 – MV Tugger Yorke – R.F. Allan at the aft window

A milestone vessel designed in the last year of the 1950s was the Ocean Master, an early large tug design and almost certainly the first internationally-built tug from this office. This 125’ tug was built by Van Der Werf Scheepswerf in Holland in 1961 for Great West Towing and Salvage Ltd., and appears to still be in active service in Canadian registry.

The last couple of years of the ‘50s marked the beginning of a transformation of the BC towing industry, with a federal shipbuilding subsidy providing significant financial incentive to owners to replace their aging wooden fleets with new steel tonnage. The Lorne Yorke, designed in 1959, was billed as “The first modern twin-screw tug in BC.” at her launching. It is difficult to know how “modern” was judged and by whom, but she was a fine tug and praised by her crews for her seakeeping ability. Robert Allan Ltd. designed about 14 tugs in the 1950s.


The boom in new steel tugs (and many new steel barges to be towed by them) continued in earnest throughout the 1960s, and Robert Allan Ltd. was certainly at the forefront of these developments. In 1963 the company graduated from my Grandfather’s basement and under my Father’s direction settled into “real” offices at West 72nd Avenue and Granville Street.

1969 was a year of very significant output from what was then a company of about eight to 10 people. It also marked the first exchanges between Robert Allan Ltd. and the firm of C.H. Cates & Sons . . . a relationship which would have lasting and dramatic impact on the future of our design firm. The table lists some of the many notable tug deliveries from the files of Robert Allan Ltd. in that decade. This period also saw the boom in the new era of “under tonnage tugs”. It is difficult to identify exactly how many of these < 15 GRT, “41 footers” were built by the likes of John Manly Ltd. and Vito Steel Boat & Barge Ltd., but we can identify at least 14 from Vito and perhaps 10 from Manly’s. A grand total of 106 tugs were built to our designs in that decade!

Notable Tugs from the ‘60’s


Jacques Cartier


Evco Wave/Spray/Breeze


La Reine


Harmac Fir/Cedar/Pine/Spruce


Gibraltar Straits


Haida Brave


Capt. Cook


Harold A. Jones


Island Chief/Island Master


Irving Birch


Irving Maple


Le Mars


Island King


Irving Beech


Jose Narvaez


Hecate Crown


As the 1970s dawned the focus on our business shifted north, although there were still many tugs built locally in that decade. I joined my father in the business at the beginning of 1973 when our staff totalled about 12 persons. Tugs for the Mackenzie River System and ice-class vessels for the Beaufort Sea consumed much of our talents in those years, but there were some coastal highlights too, notably the 114’, 2,600 hp Jervis Crown, a very favourite of my own early career (1976) as my father (though watching carefully) let me have a relatively free rein with this design.

This decade also spawned the series of 76’, < 150 GT tugs which are all still in service today. Vito built four tugs for Gulf of Georgia Towing, the Cindy Mozel for Captain John Mozel, and the slightly smaller Comox Crown for Crown Zellerbach.

Figure 8 – MV Jervis Crown


The early 1980s were dominated by projects for the Beaufort Sea and in particular with the design of Ikaluk and Miscaroo for Gulf Canada Resources Inc. These 79 metre, 14,900 bhp icebreaking supply vessels were the only high ice-class OSV’s of their kind anywhere in the world at the time, and are still operating effectively in Sakhalin today. It was a very large and significant project for our office, and introduced me to the marked contrasts in efficiency and quality between domestic and Japanese yards. The most difficult part of the project however was watching my father slowly succumb to cancer throughout the duration of the project, which he was unable to see fulfilled.

Those heady days of 1981-82 however soon led into the doldrums of the balance of the 1980s, a period of very little activity in the maritime world, and we simply hung on by our fingernails for much of that period. There were however, some notable bright spots in the ‘80s, not least of which was the development of the first Z-drive tugs for C.H. Cates & Sons. The Cates 2 was built in ‘83, followed by the Cates I in ‘86 and the Cates 3 in ‘90.

Figure 9 – Charles H. Cates II: First of a new generation of ASD harbour tugs, Built 1983, 2,400 BHP; 30 tons BP, 76’ LOA


As the 1990s dawned, the era of the Z-drive tug really began in earnest, at least in North America…it had begun 20 years earlier in Europe. The small but mighty Cates tugs attracted a lot of attention and shortly thereafter enquiries for similar tugs came in from many places in North America and from Europe. The lessons learned from working closely with Terry Waghorn and later with Claire Johnston of Cates stood us well in this emerging technology. We had learned what works best in terms of hull form for these agile tugs and applied those lessons to ever-larger ASD type tugs. In 1993 a series of 4,000 hp, 100’ ASD tugs were built by East Isle Shipyards (as part of Irving Shipyards) of PEI. These were highly successful boats, some of which were bought by operators in Europe. That connection to major European owners, and in particular to Østensjø Rederi AS of Norway opened many doors for Robert Allan Ltd. and led to the opportunity to design several major and innovative tugs for the emerging tanker escort tug market. The business for new tugs was on a tear and we were fortunately well placed with fresh ideas to serve the burgeoning market.

In about 1995 I had a phone call from a university student in Turkey. Ali Gurun wanted to talk about escort tugs. Several months later, he called again and advised me that his family owned a small towing company and wanted to build some new tugs. An amazing and enduring relationship was born between our companies and to date Sanmar has built more than 150 tugs to our designs, in the process establishing themselves as probably the premiere tug-building shipyard in the world. That connection quickly led to relationships with other shipyards in Turkey, notably Uzmar and Med Marine, and soon we were seeing more than 40 to 50 tugs per year being built in Turkey alone.


The development of ever-larger container ships, major LNG terminals, expanding bulk carrier ports such as Port Hedland in Australia, and of course, the rapid evolution of tanker escort technology created a whole new generation of high-performance specialized tugboats. Since 2000, Robert Allan Ltd. has had more than 720 tugs built to our designs worldwide. When added to the historical database the total number of tugs delivered stands, at time of writing, at 1005! Figure 10 illustrates this amazing growth quite dramatically, as well as reflecting the past glory of the 1960s! It is important to note that the last column only includes the first 6.3 years of the decade, so we can safely anticipate that the next 3 years will show a significant increase over the first decade of the millennium.

Figure 10

And so to crown the “KiloTug”… the 1000th tug delivery in the now 87 year history of this firm!

That honour, most fittingly, goes to the Dux, the first of three ultra-high performance dual fuel escort tugs built by Gondan Shipyard in Spain for Østensjø Rederi of Norway. Johannes Østensjø was the first Owner in Europe to purchase a Robert Allan Ltd. designed tug and our subsequent work with that fine company has always been “extra special”, including tugs of truly innovative and specialized designs as illustrated by figures 11 to 13, with both VSP and Z-drive propulsion. Now the Dux, figure 14, and her two sisters will be the first dual-fuel escort tugs in the world.

It remains to thank in particular those many clients who have shown their continued faith in our design work and who have supported Robert Allan Ltd. for many years. Special mention in this regard to:

- Cheoy Lee of Hong Kong

- KOTUG of the Netherlands

- Østensjø Rederi AS of Norway

- PSA Marine (Pte) Ltd. of Singapore

- Smit of the Netherlands

- Sanmar of Turkey

- Svitzer A/S of Denmark

- Uzmar of Turkey

And finally a special tribute and hearty thank you to Terry Waghorn and to the late Claire Johnston of C.H. Cates & Sons whose vision of the “perfect tug” and whose initial trust in our design capabilities helped to spawn the whole modern Z-drive tug movement. Claire gifted me a visionary graphic of the “tug of the future” to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Cates organization in 2000; it states “Let us Not Restrict Our Imagination”. I hope we have honoured that objective!

Figure 11 – TRAktor 3600-V Tenax

Figure 12 – TRAktor 3800-V-AH Vortex

Figure 13 – TRAktor 4200-V Ajax

Figure 14 – RAstar 4000-DF Dux


About the author:

Robert G. Allan, P. Eng. is the executive chairman of the board of Robert Allan Ltd. For more information on Robert Allan tugs, please see our website at http://ral.ca/.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.