Association Revisited: The Conception of the Workboat Association

Norman Finlay MBE, FCMS: First Secretary of the Workboat Association gives his story on how the Association was conceived and some of the challenges it has overcome.

“Tom explained what they wanted to do, we were to create a Code that would be a combination of the best Industry Practice and the necessary Statuary Regulations “…

How did the (then called National Workboat Association) first become formed.

In 1994 I was elected President of the Society of Consulting Marine Engineers and Ship Surveyors and in that position I was a top table guest at the annual dinner in London of The Institute of Naval Architects. Sitting next to me at the dinner was Tom Allen of the then MSA (Maritime Safety Agency), Tom was at the time head of a new Code section which had just finalised a new safety code for Commercial Pleasure Vessels 

We got on well together since it transpired that he had been born about 400 yards from me in Belfast and that he had been for a short time my Brother’s Apprentice in the famous Harland & Wolfs Shipyard in Belfast. He asked me if I thought that our Society would like to become a Certifying Authority for these new Codes.

After a little thought I suggested to him that a good sector to target any new work towards would be Workboats, (this being based on my 19 years’ experience with these vessels at the Westminster Dredging Company). He responded “do you mean Tugs?”, “No!” I replied  “all those smaller boats working with Marine Civil Engineers doing harbour works , laying buoys, anchors, carrying out local towage ,assisting with dredging and surveying  but generally doing  jobs not carried by tugs. I  explained about the new Multicats and Eurocarriers and the type of work that they carried out”.

He explained that he was a ‘Big Ship Man’ and that he did not have any experience of these  types of vessels. I arranged for him to meet me in Southampton and I showed him some of the local Workboats.  Tom soon agreed with what I had suggested for a new code, but in order to take the matter forward – he would like to meet with representatives of the Industry and explain the possibilities. I was tasked with arranging the Industry Representatives. 

Through my experience as both an Operator and Surveyor I knew many of the other Workboat Owners and Operators. I talked it through with several contacts and soon a small group of the more influential and enthusiastic Owners had formed and we were keen to get something sorted out and agreed. 

At that time one big problem the Workboat industry faced was the fact that there was no legislation suited for these types of vessels and problems often arose if a vessel was inspected by an MCA Surveyor. Recommendations from Surveyors often differed and at times it caused a lot of unnecessary cost and delay for Owners. For those involved a new standard Code would be a great step forward.

In the Autumn of 1994 a meeting was held at the MCA offices in Spring Place, Southampton with representatives from the MCA, Class, possible Certifying Authorities and Workboat Owners [both large and small]. Tom explained what they wanted to do, we were to create a Code that would be a combination of the best Industry Practice and the necessary Statuary Regulations.  After a lengthy discussion, it was agreed by those present that the scheme was in the best interests of the Industry and the Code was conceived.

Who were the original Members

  • Norman Finlay: Independent Surveyor, President of the SCMS
  • Colin Weaver:   Marine Superintendent, Westminster Dredging Ltd.
  • Mark Meade:  Holyhead Towing Co. Ltd. /  Owner
  • Dirk Kuyt:          Maritime Craft,  Clyde, Ltd / Owner
  • Mike Stansfeld:    Coastal Launch Services Ltd. / Owner
  • Peter Smith:           Marine Director, Williams Shipping Ltd.

What was your role during those early days

After the initial meeting the National Workboat Association was formed with Colin Weaver being elected as Chairman. I acted as Secretary (general dogsbody!) until the year 2011 when Mark Ranson was elected as the Association’s Secretary.

Shortly after the Code was finalised Colin Weaver stood down as Chairman and in the year 2000 Mark Meade was elected in his place. Part of my role was to liaise with the MCA regarding Members queries (of which there were many) and to advise the members on what they could and could not do. The Code favoured Classed vessels and since many of the older fleet were not Classed; it was quite a chore getting the necessary approvals in place to issue certificates.

Did the structure of the Association quickly become what it is today or did this take time to develop.

When the Code was completed in 1998 it was agreed that due to the wide variation in both age and types of vessel it would be put in place on a voluntary basis until the 31st December 1999, after which it would become a Statuary Document and a requirement for all Workboats and Pilot Boats which put to sea. One of the benefits of the voluntary period was that it sorted out some of those Owners who were not keen to put the time and effort in to bring their vessels up to the required standards causing them to leave the Industry thus making it a safer place to work for those still working in it.

Initially there was a lot of interest in the Association from the industry in general but gradually it developed into a group of Owners / Operators who wished to set Industry Standards and who were willing to expand their business and also work overseas. It took time to develop the industry but slowly and surely Owners and their fleets have developed,  moved forwards and are now working all over the world.

Development overall was slow but steady, however when the Offshore Windfarms started to be constructed it brought a new dimension to the Industry which required some different types of vessels, ones that could carry more people and travel much faster than before. Also with the development of the original vessel types and their ability to work further afield and Overseas – it became apparent that there was a need for a new type of Crew Certificate. When the Workboat Code was first envisaged there were no Certificates available at that level, for someone to be considered the “Master of the Vessel”.  It was agreed however that the existing RYA certificates would be acceptable for work within the UK area and personnel were encouraged to get these.  This was fine for UK Operations but as more and more vessels were working Overseas it became apparent that due to the requirements of other Flag States; a different approach was required.  A request was made to the MCA for them to consider agreeing to a special certificate for Masters of Workboats. Their response was the offer to put in place a 200 ton Certificate which would cover the necessary Workboat requirements and which they felt would be acceptable to other Flag States. This offer was accepted and put into practice and has been a great success, so much so that there is now a follow up 500 ton certificate in place.

Another first for the Association was the Voluntary Towing Endorsement which Masters could qualify for to show that they had the experience and knowledge to safely and professionally carry out the towage operations.

As previously stated progress was slow but sure, however at all times the Association has tried to anticipate what was going to be required in the future and take the necessary steps to ensure that nothing got in the way of progress. Safety of vessels and personnel has at all times been paramount.

What was one of your big highlights since the Associations conception.

There have several highlights for me personally during this period, one was being awarded the  “ Lifetime Achievement award “at Seawork in 2013 and another was the award of the MBE from the Queen for services to shipping which I know was put forward by the Association.

However one other thing which gives me great pleasure is the dinner which takes place at Seawork.  When we started the Association it was agreed that we would support Seawork as both an organisation and individuals. However it soon became clear that a lot of our members knew each other through telephone conversations about business but had never actually met face to face.  With that in mind my wife and I thought it would be good for the members to meet socially – and so we organised a barbecue in the garden of our house! 

We originally started with about 40 guests, but over the ensuing years this number doubled and we transferred the venue to the Chilworth Manor Hotel which my wife arranged for many years with the hotel being very accommodating and cost conscious to the Association. The barbecues and dinners were a great success and I got a lot of pleasure from seeing the members enjoying themselves. It was also very good for the Association since it fostered a good trusting and open atmosphere amongst the members.

What occupies your time these days.

These days I am, I suppose, retired – but I still do some vessel valuations and occasionally do a little bit of consulting on specialist topics. I also still attend meetings with the MCA on matters concerning the Code and Workboats, but generally I hope for each quiet sunny day when I can have my coffee on the terrace and reflect on what used to be!

Association Revisited: The Conception of the Workboat Association