Nautical Passion

By Ron Armstrong


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Ron fixing a tug model in Hamburg, Germany Photo: Garth Manson

On this coast, many men – and now more women – hold a Master’s certificate, required to command all vessels over 60 tonnes. Tug designers are specialists with university degrees. Many hobbyists build scale models, often radio-controlled. Those who build to museum standard are considered “Master Modellers.” Rare is a person who boasts all these achievements in a lifetime. Crofton resident Ron Burchett does, and is unique in turning his hobby into a commercial success.

Ron’s life began in Tofino, in 1948, as the son of a tugboat owner. With little amusement for other children, Ron found joy looking for shipyard wood scraps and carving them into model boats. He tied them to a stick and towed them off the end of the wharf in the tide. By age 12, he says, “I learned more about ship design than those who went to university,” starting a lifelong fascination.

At age 10, Ron drove his father’s tug, sharing watches with his sister, Bev, while their dad slept. This unique west coast lifestyle started his quest for answers to questions he had about diverse types of boats and how they were built.

His first big step was moving from a one-room school in Tofino to Sentinel High School in West Vancouver (the most progressive school in Canada at the time). But this opened him to the “big picture” with lots of stimulus. Having been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Ron was driven to find all aspects of technology relating to ship and boat building. After school and on weekends, he haunted the ship yards and walked the docks. He pestered tug company owners until they gave him a summer job on a tugboat. Ron progressed rapidly to mate and spent close to 15 years on tugs and fishboats.   

In 1972, when he and his wife were about to welcome their first child, Ron “came ashore.” His passion for boat building led him to join Matsumoto Shipyard. There, he received a quick apprenticeship in aluminum fabrication. Next, he conceived a design for a series of 13 fishboats that were built at Allied Shipyards. In 1980, he was the owner’s representative for building the tug, Banderra and met Allied’s legendary owner Arthur McLaren.

“He was my mentor,” says Ron, who still appreciates his “wisdom, knowledge and life guidance,” which ended with McLaren’s death in 1996.

Ron had continued to build model tugs and barges as a hobby when not at sea or working in shipyards, refining them to a high standard with the latest materials and radio control systems.

In 1985, he noticed that EXPO ’86, the World Transportation Fair, had little marine theme represented. So, he contacted EXPO Chairman Jimmy Pattison and convinced him that radio-controlled model ships would tell the story.

Pattison persuaded EXPO Directors to accept Ron’s proposal. Ron signed Contract No. 1 for entertainment vendors. This committed Ron and his crew to a seven-day-a-week schedule, from May 2 to October 12, 1986. They realized they would burn out physically (the models and radio systems can run forever with fully charged batteries), so Ron offered model ship clubs in Vancouver, Nanaimo, Victoria and Lynnwood, Washington “the opportunity” to run on Sundays. All agreed, allowing the duo one day a week to rest. Sundays also provided spectators with a variety of model ships.

Sponsored by BC Packers, the highlight was his 3.5-ft tug Seaspan Commodore, towing a 14-foot log barge with working ballast tanks and cranes. Exactly like full-size, it loaded and stacked scale logs, then flooded tanks on one side to dump the entire load. Boom or dozer boats gathered the logs before and after each operation.

Ron’s stepping stone to the world stage was set. Since 1976, he wanted to combine his full-size skills with his scale-model abilities into a commercial venture. One of those skills is that he can “see” complex hull forms without using a computer. He credits his Asperger for this remarkable intuition. He would help naval architects design new vessels, then build models to be tested in a tank. After, he would work with the chosen yard to build the full-size vessel, then perform the sea trials himself.
 
In 1996, he set up a 40-foot pool for his log barge show in Seattle. He met Tom Crowley of Crowley Maritime, who gave him a contract to “validate” a new tug design for the terminal tugs in Alaska.

From there, Ron’s dream evolved. He took his fleet to the International Tug and Salvage show in Cape Town in 1998 and gave a presentation. Tug boat owner Peter Brown commented, when he came off the podium, “It’s a long way from Tofino, Ron!” He followed by giving demonstrations and papers in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Vancouver, Antwerp, London, Singapore, Boston and New Orleans.

With Vancouver’s top naval architect Robert Allan, he designed the BRAtt (Burchett Robert Allan training tug), which performs perfectly as a training platform. To date over 75 captains have been trained on the BRAtt.

Port Revel is a man-made lake in France for training crews of the huge cargo ships plying the oceans today. These manned models of 25 to 45 feet mimic full-size movements through scale hazards like the Suez Canal, and beside oil terminals. Ron convinced the operators to add radio-controlled model tugs for realism. These tugs have been used for training in Pt. Revel for 21 years now.

In 2014, he attended the International Tug and Salvage Convention in Hamburg, showing his latest berthing tug model and giving a well-received paper. To help achieve his unique success, Ron has contracted with many craftsmen to fabricate various parts for his models.

Now, naval architects, propulsion suppliers and owners of ship-handling tugs from around the world share their technical designs and order model data from him. His success is “validation from A to Z, from conception through model to full-size vessel and testing.”
 
Ron’s proudest achievement was receiving the “Beaver Medal” from the Maritime Museum of BC in 2015 for his contributions to the maritime industry. It is so valuable because he was nominated and judged by his peers.

Today, he derives great pleasure mentoring others, particularly Asperger-challenged individuals, to achieve their highest potential. He certainly is a wonderful example of what is possible.

For fun, Ron still competes in hobby events, including the largest company sponsored amateur challenge in the Northwest, the Foss Cup. He has won it twice, and two of his sons have each won it once. All three sons have followed their father’s footsteps into the marine field.  

With a pond in his backyard, Ron invites other modelers for BYOB (bring your own boat) pool parties and BBQs. Always calm and modest, he gladly answers questions and offers tips for their projects. At age 69, Ron derives so much fulfillment from his nautical passion that retirement eludes his logbook.

 

august 2017 INSPIRED senior living

 

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