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Health and safety

Safety in port: a team effort

1 November 2023

When a ship visits a port, safety for those onboard depends on good communication between all parties involved in the process. Debbie Cavaldoro, chief executive at Port Skills and Safety, explains.

Much of the conversation around seafarer safety focuses on what happens at sea. However, seafarers are faced with different safety issues when they enter port, especially when visiting a port for the first time.

Port Skills and Safety is a membership organisation working to improve the safety of UK ports. A recent campaign we conducted focused on ship to port communications between all those involved in a ship visiting a port, their different priorities, and the importance of maintaining good communication to keep everyone safe.

The process of a ship visiting a port involves several different agents, each with their own priorities, working practices and concerns, and good communications between them all is vital to ensure that everybody can undertake their priorities in the safest and most efficient way. By understanding the perspectives of everyone involved, it can be easier to ensure that good communication flows.

Central figure

The ship agent is often the first, and most consistent, person to communicate with the vessel during any port visit. The agent generally communicates with the widest range of companies and departments to ensure that all operations run to schedule.

‘An agent’s relationship with their principal is fiduciary in nature,’ explains Tom Boothby, a port agent for Clarksons Port Services. ‘For the relationship of trust to blossom, there must be excellent communication throughout on both sides. The Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers’ motto is ‘Our Word, Our Bond’. Aptly, countless shipping relationships are still established to this day through this very principle.

‘Once the vessel enquiry is received, the local agent puts together an accurate summary of anticipated costs for the port call. In this, they also include important information that may impact the shipment. This can be information regarding congestion, tides, or other events like berth maintenance.

‘Our agents will at this stage also check specific vessel suitability for the intended cargo. This is checked through comprehensive communication with the port, terminal operators, and pilots. It is vitally important that the vessel parameters are confirmed as acceptable before the fixture takes place to avoid issues further along the line.’

For seafarers coming into port, the first contact with shore personnel will likely be with vessel traffic services and the pilot station. ‘For the bridge team, the pilot is always a useful source of information about the port and how to get ashore, but their time on board is necessarily limited,’ explained Captain Ashley Parker, port master for the Port of Felixstowe.

‘For each new ship calling we provide a welcome pack, which is renewed every year. This includes the Shipmasters’ Information Guide, which covers emergency procedures, safety rules, security, environmental requirements, etc. We also provide a copy of the Seafarers’ Centre Port Information Guide, which gives details on how to contact the centre and call for a free minibus, a map of the local shops and attractions, and contact details of welfare organisations.

Upon berthing, the agent boards the vessel to complete all necessary paperwork and formalities and will regularly return during the port visit. ‘Nothing compares to a face-to-face visit,’ Tom says.

‘As the port call progresses, our agent continually monitors the progress of the operation. This will involve multiple daily conversations with the port teams as well as surveyors to establish the anticipated time and date that cargo operations will be completed,’ Tom continues.

‘On some cargoes it is also necessary to monitor the weather, providing accurate rain times on legal documentation. By doing this, the owners and charterers can calculate any demurrage/despatch that may be due and any factors that may impact this calculation.

‘Once the estimated time of completion is calculated, the agent will start to notify port authorities, pilots, towage companies and the vessel itself regarding preparation for departure. If the vessel’s next voyage is known, the agent will update the appointed agent at the next port of the vessel expected departure to allow them to prepare for the vessel’s upcoming arrival.’

’As a port, our main function is to facilitate the movement of goods and vessels, but we should never forget the men and women who serve on these ships and endure the isolation, hazards and perils of the sea’

No wasted time for crew

During the ship’s time in port, the port-based operations team will work with the crew to perform discharge. Communications can sometimes be difficult as the port team and vessel crew don’t always speak the same languages, as Ben McIntosh, port operator at the Port of Dundee, Forth Ports explains:

‘I’m notified of incoming vessel arrivals the previous day by my operational supervisor, I’ll come in early to complete my pre-use checks, fuel up and move the Sennebogen material handler to an appropriate position near the vessel. Our roles within the discharge are allocated during our pre-shift briefing where it’s made clear what our responsibilities and task instructions are.

‘We always need to work safely and communicate as best we can; we’ll often rely on the chief or agent to communicate with the crew where possible.’

While in port, the crew can be visited by the marine supervisor, port chaplain and any number of suppliers all making deliveries during their short window alongside. All these people need to make their way safely through the port, obeying local port protocols. Ship’s crew also need to be aware of the specific rules in place if they disembark the vessel.

‘Due to the nature of the [shipping] trade, there is very little down-time, and crews have to fit in their shore leave around their onboard watches,’ adds Capt Parker. ‘This is why a regular and rapid means of getting from ship to any shore attractions is imperative. [Port workers] need to remember that most crew members are foregoing their rest time to come ashore, so it has to be worthwhile and with no wasted time.’

The port operators’ priority is ensuring everyone working in the port and alongside is safe as they coordinate operations between the vessel and shore. Good communications between ship and shore are vital and there should be constant contact to coordinate berthing and release.

Once all the cargo or passengers have been accounted for, the crew and port operators work together to prepare the vessel for departure and the crew agent completes more paperwork.

‘Upon completion, our agent will again visit the vessel to complete the sailing formalities,’ says Clarksons Port Services' Tom Boothby. ‘At this point, our agent will ask the captain of the vessel to countersign our comprehensive Statement of Fact to verify the authenticity and accuracy.

‘Our agent will also take this opportunity to sign the vessel’s paperwork, like waste receipts. After this has been successfully completed, the agent will disembark and returning to the office. From here, all documents for the shipment are sent on the vessel’s update along with detailed sailing times and information.’

Capt Parker concludes: ’As a port, our main function is to facilitate the movement of goods and vessels, but we should never forget the men and women who serve on these ships and endure the isolation, hazards and perils of the sea.’

Resources to support better ship to port communications are available at


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