When you are charged with overseeing the tightening of regulations and enforcing changes on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, it’s easy to imagine how you could become an unpopular figure in seafaring.
So it’s something of an achievement that in his 18 years at the MCA - he is currently Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen - Roger Towner has managed to bridge the gap between ensuring exacting levels of safety and professionalism while for the most part keeping onside with the grass roots of the industry.
Famously outspoken and direct, Roger was in full flow during the lively Sea Changes Conference at the Antibes Yacht Show, keeping discussions on track even when they threaten to get heated. Once business was wrapped up, OnboardOnline managed to corner Roger, who will also be at the Sea Changes forum at the Monaco Yacht Show, for a chat about the importance of keeping the dialogue going.
‘The fact that the regulator turns up to speak to the industry can’t be bad,’ says Roger. ‘It’s always useful to speak at a forum like this, with people asking questions, even if I don’t always like some of the questions! Dialogue is important because even if we sometimes get a mixed reception, we need to engage with the industry. We could go ahead as we have done in the past and say this is it, you’ve got to do this, we're the Regulator and that's that, but I feel it’s better to be seen having this discussion and hopefully acting on it too.’
A prime example of acting on feedback was the recent debate on the MCA Yacht Rating Certificate. ‘As regulators, we thought the Yacht Rating Certificate was a pain,’ explains Roger. ‘It’s extra work for us so we decided to get rid of it and just have the Navigational Watch Rating and the Engine Room Watch Rating as per STCW.
‘But people defended the Yacht Rating Certificate because it hasn’t got the restrictions of the Watch Rating Certificate attached to it. We thought about it and having talked to industry, we changed our mind and decided to keep it.
‘We also talked standby time with industry. If you have time in port and you're busy, some of that should count towards your sea time, as does port time in the Merchant Navy when you're working cargo. Yachting thought it was a great idea but some people have been taking the mickey and wanting 14 days in port to count as sea time when they have only been away sailing for one day. In the future if that is the case, they can have one day at port to count as sea time. We discussed this with industry and the PYA and they said it’s a fair way of doing things. This meeting gives me a chance to say to the grass roots, this is what we’re doing. We’re happy to talk seriously and get it right.’
With the Ships’ Cook Certificate the latest bone of contention - every yacht chef cooking for 10 or more crew needs to have one from now on - Roger admits that it can be challenging staying on top of legislation but he is very clear about his ultimate goal.
‘What I’m interested in is safer ships, safer lives and cleaner seas,’ he says. ‘The PYA wants the same thing. None of us want people dying, we want people to be properly qualified and competent.’
So what does he consider the biggest headache in seafaring at the moment? ‘The regeneration of the British Merchant fleet,’ he says. ‘How do you keep numbers up, satisfy all the international regulations, keep the unions happy as well as maintaining the cachet? That is our challenge.
‘The UK certificate still has a cachet attached to it that others don’t. Over 80% of the yachting population has MCA certification, which is a big feather in the cap of my predecessor Claude Hamilton, who invented it.
‘It is accepted by a lot of other countries and we have a pretty captive market for our certificates because of our rigorous examination system. I hope people look to the UK certificate as the gold standard. No multiple choice, invigilated written exams, and of course the final oral.’
The stakes are high, with a five year ban for anyone cheating or providing fraudulent sea time. ‘One guy was caught out when he was asked whether anything had happened while his ship was in the Red Sea,’ recalls Roger. ‘He said no but in fact, it had been boarded by pirates. He said he’d forgotten about that and when asked if they had assistance, he said no, we fought them off.
‘In reality, there was a NATO exercise nearby and a German warship sent marines to get the pirates off the ship while a French aircraft carrier launched aircraft. The guy was banned for five years. We don’t tolerate lying. The guys who get their certificates have earned them and should be proud of it.’
Portsmouth-born Roger spent 26 years at sea and started his seafaring career as a cadet with Trident Tankers, in vessels ranging from 19,000 up to 100,000 tonnes in the early 1970s. ‘I trained at Warsash in between going to sea,’ he recalls. ‘I was on the North Sea coast in the middle of winter, it was horrible!’
‘When I finished, I joined Ben Line going to the Far East on cargo ships. My first cargo ship, the Benreoch, had 22 derricks, upper and lower tween decks, wooden hatch boards….it was great. She was built in 1951, the year I was born, and was scrapped when I left but that really showed me how cargo ships worked.’
Roger spent the next 18 years on chemical tankers in the North Sea, the Baltic and the Mediterranean, eventually sailing as Master despite a catalogue of disasters during his first month in charge. ‘The engine blew up, we got it fixed but it was done wrong and it almost exploded a second time,’ he recalls. ‘Then we were going up the Thames and the engineers blacked us out at Gravesend, so we had no power. Luckily, we slid into anchor against the tide. The week after that, we were off Skagen and we found someone sinking. They had given the wrong position and the rescue helicopter was 10 miles away. I felt I’d ticked a few boxes after that!’
He finished his seafaring career on cable ships for BT as a navigator in Iceland, the North Sea, the English Channel and the Gulf of Thailand.
He joined the MCA in 1996, an agency of the Department of Transport whose main priority is to prevent loss of life at sea, protect our seas and our ships. As part of this, the MCA produces legislation and guidance on maritime matters and certification to seafarers.
Much as he loves his job, Roger says occasionally he gets a hankering for the water. ‘Sometimes I miss it when I think of daybreak and the horizon cutting your eyeballs or watching the mist rise over the Sea of Japan,’ he adds. ‘But going into Teesport at 2am on a January morning at low water when the water is black, I would sometimes think, maybe I should have chosen another job!’