DISCOVER Magazine #6

The great British workboat sector. A conversation with Norman Finlay MBE FCMS

Published in category: Harbour & Terminal
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Norman Finlay MBE FCMS Marine Consultant
Norman Finlay MBE FCMS
Marine Consultant

With a career spanning more than six decades, Norman Finlay MBE FCMS is the perfect person to speak to in order to learn more about the origins of the UK workboat sector. Here he talks about how the National Workboat Association and the UK Workboat Code of Practice were established. And about how Damen’s Multi Cat changed the maritime industry.

What type of workboats were there in the early days?

Looking back to the 1960s, there were very few dedicated workboats – most of them were old tugs that had passed their sell by date. There were few dedicated owners working in the dredging industry since most ports had their own dredgers and associated equipment. However all that was soon to change, because mainstream shipping was getting much bigger and therefore port entry channels had to be deepened. We needed the expertise of the larger dredging companies to cope with that.

What other changes were happening back then?

In the late sixties and early seventies there were huge development projects in the Middle East which required a completely new dredging strategy in order to carry out the contracts in an efficient manner with larger dredgers and dedicated workboats. Because the cutter suction dredgers were wearing out the cutter head teeth so quickly – sometimes up to two units per hour – we needed a vessel capable of dealing with that specific problem. So Damen, in conjunction with the industry, developed a self propelled pontoon fitted with a hydraulic crane and two cradles at the forward end; one to receive the worn out cutter head, and the other to carry the new replacement cuttter head. This was the birth of the basic Multi Cat and the rest is history.

How did the Multi Cat affect the UK workboat market?

It had a great effect. The Multi Cat was able to do things that ordinary workboats couldn’t do plus, as crews became more familiar with the vessels, some of the larger ones were also developed for basic towing work. The biggest thing was having floating cranage. It’s laughable when you think about it now, but before the Multi Cat came on the scene if you wanted a floating crane, you had to hire a large barge with a downrated shore crane secured on the deck, or a smaller barge with an A-frame at the forward end and a small Multi Cat-type vessel secured at the stern to provide the propulsive power. The Multi Cat with the crane meant it could just come alongside either another vessel or the quay and do the job without any fuss. Compared to what we had to work with previously, this was a huge increase in efficiency and a consequent decrease in costs and time to do a job.

Can you tell us about the origins of the National Workboat Association and the Workboat Code of Practice?

In 1993 the Maritime and Coastguard Agency had just completed Codes of Practice for commercial pleasure boats – the blue and yellow codes. A chance meeting with Tom Allen who at that time was the Principal Surveyor for Codes at the MCA elicited the fact that they wanted to continue with a code programme but were not sure what type of vessels to target next. I suggested small vessels of the type we now class as workboats since from my experience as both an Owners Superintendent and Surveyor I believed that the industry was ready for some sensible regulation which would increase the safety and efficiency of the vessels and perhaps get rid of some of the cowboy operators who were giving the industry a bad name. After some negogiation between Tom, myself and some of the leading owners – Mark Meade, Dirk Kuyt and Mike Stansfeld – it was agreed that we would try and put together a Workboat Code. We started with a small representative group of workboat operators and a team from the MCA. I well remember the first statement that Tom Allen made at the first meeting of the group; he said: “The Code will be a combination of the best workboat practice combined with safe and sensible legislation.” This I think is what we achieved. From these beginnings we formed the National Workboat Association and developed the Workboat Code.

How did this change the market?

It gave operators more confidence in their ability to do something and the knowledge that wherever they worked in the UK the standards and rules would be the same. For example, some of those first members started off with just two or three vessels; now one has in excess of 50 vessels and others have numbers between ten and 25 vessels. The increase in confidence also changed the way in which owners looked for work and a recent survey indicated that vessels were working in 32 different countries. Offshore and Windfarm vessels have also developed; we managed to implement a code so they can carry more than twelve industrial personnel. Now the next step is the Under 500 Tonne Code for vessels over 24 metres, which is nearing completion.

Over the years, as vessels have become larger and capable of doing bigger and better tasks and working in places never originally thought of, the certification of crews, working practices and training and safety regimes have had to keep pace with it all. It has to be said that the MCA have played their part in making sure that the regulations kept pace with the changing practices and aspirations of the Industry.

Did the Workboat Code have an effect on a vessel design?

It didn’t have a lot of effect on vessel design, but it did keep the standards up, making sure that fitted equipment was fit for purpose. In many respects, we used Damen’s own standards as the standards in developing the Code. And this way of thinking is still relevant today – Damen is still the gold standard for workboats.

What developments do you see happening in the next five to ten years?

The wide range of tasks carried out by workboats means that we will always require a varied range of vessels but I believe that Multi Cats will continue to get bigger since the latest range have proved to be very successful. The thing that bothers me most is that people are talking more and more about automated vessels. With workboats, I don’t think that this is such a good thing because, generally speaking, they have a specific job to do that needs the human touch. Working with the wind and the tides, there is always an element of unpredictability. You need people on-board with the necessary skills and experience to be able to make critical decisions. My recent experience with unmanned engine rooms has led me to believe that we are producing engineers who can read computer screens but who have little or no knowledge of what makes an engine room tick. Maybe it is just me and I have not caught up with current technology.

Shoalbuster MCS Nikki

Norman Finlay MBE FCMS – a short biography

Mr Norman Finlay’s long and illustrious career in the maritime industry started in 1952 when he joined the Shell Tanker Company, working his way up to second engineer. From 1960 to 1979 he worked for Westminster Dredging, his responsibilities including the operation and maintenance of the company’s global dredging fleet.

He worked as a Surveyor and Marine Consultant between 1979 and 2017. This was a period with numerous highlights, such as holding the position of President for both the Society of Consulting Marine Engineers and Ship Surveyors, and the Federation of European Marine Consultants and Ship Surveyors.

In 1994 he led the formation of the National Workboat Association and together with the UK Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA), they established the groundbreaking Workboat Code of Practice, including subsequent revisions. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Seawork in 2013.

Retiring as a Marine Surveyor in 2017, Mr Finlay still works as a Marine Consultant involved in small vessel valuations and also with the MCA’s latest Under 500 Tonne Code and the Code for the carriage of over twelve Industrial Personnel. In the Queen’s 2018 New Years Honours List, he was awarded an MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for Services to UK Shipping.

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