An appreciation by Nicola Royan

ROBERT Royan, who has died aged 90, was the first commodore (navigation) of P&O’s merchant fleet. Born in Elgin, Moray, on January 2, 1930, his first encounters with seafaring included being taking to the launch of the Queen Elizabeth in Glasgow in 1938, listening to the stories of a neighbour whose seafaring career had been undertaken largely on Chinese coasts, and joining the crew of a Lossiemouth fishing boat at weekends.

In 1944, he joined the HMS Conway, a training vessel berthed in the Menai Straits, from where he graduated as the King’s Medal winner two years later. He joined the Clan Line company, partly because its vessels sailed from Glasgow, closer to his Elgin home than Liverpool or London were, and partly because his parents could afford the required uniform.

He joined his first ship, the Clan Cumming, as a cadet in 1946. Then on her maiden voyage, the vessel sailed first to New York, and, via Baltimore and Trinidad, to Madras, with grain to help ease an Indian famine. New York and Madras both made a deep impression on the young man from post-war Scotland: in New York, the Times Square lights and the casual availability of two eggs with breakfast in a diner were astonishing. In Madras, he saw a woman giving birth in the street – an event so shocking that he never told his mother.

Because of the global presence of British shipping during his career, he also found himself on occasion in close proximity to notable events: these included, in Calcutta, Indian Independence; in Bombay, the assassination of Gandhi in New Delhi; in Port Said, the beginnings of the Suez Crisis; in Dar es Salaam, Independence Day in Tanzania, and, in Maputo,the announcing of Mozambique independence by Portugal.

These experiences and their recounting were the means by which his shore-based friends and family understood his career, to the point where he was persuaded to record them (now published as From Cadet to Commodore: The End of a Sea-Going Era), but they were a small part of his professional expertise.

He sailed on all kinds of merchant vessels. Clan Line vessels, often with Indian ratings and British officers, carried a variety of cargoes to many different places. They also sometimes carried passengers, and Royan met his wife, Carol, when she was a passenger on the Clan MacInnes, returning to the UK from South Africa.

Having completed his qualifications up to the level of Master in 1955, Royan progressed slowly through the ranks on different vessels. In 1964, he moved from the Clan Line ships to the Union-Castle mail and passenger ships, serving as Chief Officer and Staff Commander.

He gained his first command in 1970, on the vessel Nina Bowater, on which he gained proficiency in sailing in ice along the St Lawrence Seaway, and also the experience of stitching a serious neck wound that a sailor had incurred during a dispute on board.

He also commanded two oil tankers, the Hector Heron, an older vessel that he described as ‘showing its age’, and the Everett F Wells, an early supertanker that proved just as challenging as the Hector Heron. He had further voyages as master on the mail ships, prior to the end of the service in 1977, and was the master who took the SA Oranje to scrap in Hong Kong.

He had his first command of a container ship, the MV Barcelona, in 1980, and for the next ten years until his retirement he remained on container vessels: the Barcelona (also known as the Table Bay and the Tolaga Bay) and the Tokyo Bay. By this point, he had transferred to OCL (Overseas Containers Ltd), later P&O Containers Ltd. Jeffrey Sterling (now Baron Sterling of Plaistow) recognised the value of this fleet to P&O, so decided to appoint Commodores: Royan was appointed the first Commodore Captain in 1988.

Royan was always conscious of the collaborative nature of seafaring. He had nothing but the highest respect for chief engineers and their teams, and was delighted that his promotion to commodore captain was accompanied by the promotion of Robert Gemmell, with whom he had sailed many times, to commodore chief engineer. He was considered to be a good master mariner for the crews serving with him: experienced in the challenges of both navigation and management.

He kept in contact with colleagues during his retirement, attending reunions for the Conway, the Clan Line and Union Castle. He understood himself to have been extremely fortunate in the timing of his career: at its beginning, he had gone to sea with men who had been torpedoed in the war, and by its end, conditions for seafarers were changing radically, the result of containerisation, the development of remote technologies, and the increase of ships sailing under flags of convenience.

Robert Royan was widowed in 2011. He is survived by his two children and four grandchildren.