COLUMN | End of an era [Tug Times]

Allan Brunton-Reed, founder of The ABR Company, and his wife Elizabeth at the naming ceremony for a new tug at the 2015 Tugnology conference in London (Photo: Damen)

Much of the salvage and towage industry is in shock at the moment, having learned that the ABR Company has entered administration and ceased trading. Thus we have lost International Tug, Salvage and OSV magazine and, more significantly, the biennial International Tug and Salvage (ITS) conventions.

I imagine it was the conventions which took most time, effort and expense to organise, and made the most money for the company. The cancellation of this year’s conference and exhibition in Singapore, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic which struck after all the arrangements had been made, must have been a severe blow. When it then became obvious that postponement to 2021 was not a realistic alternative, the company was probably forced to cease trading.

The ITS conventions were started more than 50 years ago by Allan Brunton-Reed and Ken Troup, who thought the industry might appreciate a chance to get together for a few days and organised the first conference in London. It was more successful than they dared hope, and before long they devised the formula which would serve them so well – a biennial conference and exhibition in a different interesting location each time. Each convention was bigger and better than the one before, and people started to bring their wives so a glittering calendar of social events was added.

In 1996 Allan created a Roll of Honour, and delegates who had attended 10 or more ITS conventions or had been regular attendees for more than 20 years were presented with an inscribed silver Armada dish. The list of recipients is a testament to the importance of the conventions. Robert Allan was one of the first in 1996, followed two years later by Ken Ross, Sal Guarino, Damen, Voith and Schottel among others. In subsequent years such famous names as Johannes Ostensjo, David Hancox, Nan Halfweeg, Ton Kooren, Jim Shirley, Jack Gaston, Mark and Nickie Hoddinott, William A Bisso III, Mark Grosshans, Joop Timmermans, Michiel Wijsmuller, Karel Kaffa and our own Kent Stewart were added to the list.

Those names give a clue to one of the great strengths of the conventions – they were a place where chief executives mixed with practitioners and suppliers in an almost complete cross-section of the towage and salvage world. Friendships were made which stood the test of time, and we all looked forward to getting together again every two years. Much of the credit for this must go to Allan Brunton-Reed, whose friendly, open, courteous and welcoming persona set the tone and ensured that the conventions had an atmosphere unlike any other events I have ever attended. Newcomers were welcomed with open arms and strangers did not remain strangers for very long.

“As an added bonus, a great deal of business was done on the sidelines of the conventions.”

Of course there was a serious side, and many of the papers presented were world-class. In my early years there was vigourous debate about the relative merits of Voith and azimuthing propulsion systems, and a lot of attention was paid to directional stability. Then a few years later Ken Ross gave a paper predicting the arrival of escort tugs. Most of the audience were sceptical, but before long we were all involved in discussions about the most desirable design features for escort tugs.

More recently speakers and delegates have wrestled with alternative fuels and the vile topic of autonomous tugs. And throughout the years we have been treated to papers about new tug designs and debated their merits, always under the watchful and urbane chairmanship of Mike Allen, who delighted in fining people whose phones rang during the conferences and donating the money to local charities.

As an added bonus, a great deal of business was done on the sidelines of the conventions. Tugs were bought, sold and chartered, deals were struck, alliances were forged and newbuiling contracts signed. It was intense, fascinating and unique.

Eventually the ITS conventions were joined by Tugnology conferences in the intervening years. Generally based in the UK or northwestern Europe, these new conferences covered purely technical matters and soon attracted a wide following of serious industry players.

The Reed name was also famous, of course, for publishing useful nautical books, and the ABR company continued the tradition. Perhaps their best-known contemporary title is Tug Use In Port, Henk Hensen’s masterwork which is the best book ever written on the topic. Let us hope the books will not be lost to us and will find new publishers.

“…we all assumed the tug conventions would go on for ever, even without Allan, who sadly died a couple of years ago.”

It is a bitter irony that the ABR Company survived the retirement of Allan Brunton-Reed, who had carefully trained his son-in-law Garth Manson to take over, only to succumb to a pandemic a relatively short while later. The years immediately following Allan’s announcement of his retirement were extremely successful and we all assumed the tug conventions would go on for ever, even without Allan, who sadly died a couple of years ago.

I hope it may one day be possible for Garth and his team to get back together and re-launch ITS. In the meantime, I am grateful to have been a small part of it and I treasure the memories even more than I treasure the silver Armada dish.

At the convention in Jersey we were entertained at the gala dinner by a brilliant duo called Brahms and Liszt, who (as their name suggests to any student of Cockney rhyming slang) mixed classical music and comedy in a unique and hilarious combination. In honour of ITS 2000 they called their show “It’s eight o’clock”. Sadly, the clock stopped before it reached twenty past eight, but I hope it can be repaired and set running again well before the half hour.

Alan Loynd

Alan Loynd is a master mariner with extensive seagoing and shore experience, especially in the areas of salvage and towage. He is the former General Manager of the renowned Hong Kong Salvage and Towage company. He now runs his own marine consultancy and was chairman of the International Tugmasters Association.