We all think we know what is meant by a “safe” port; one where a ship may lie safely alongside and, aided by an “always afloat” clause, with sufficient water under the keel at all stages of the tide. But ships are getting bigger and deeper, longer and wider, and the “envelope” of a ship often finds itself being squeezed into spaces that will only just accommodate her.

We might also be considering the manoeuvrability of big modern ships. When we consider the performance, we note that the new ship has managed to perform at the contracted speed on her trials, but there will be less attention paid to the performance of the vessel at slow speed, when she is arriving and departing from a port, making her way through a crowded anchorage. We might consider that it is the performance of the ship that is the critical issue here, but how much does the port manage to accommodate the difficulties of handling bigger ships, which may struggle to stay in an approach channel if there are crosswinds? Is the channel wide enough for the size of ships it is trying to attract? Have the facilities expanded in line with the bigger vessels?

A safe port also needs to have a thoroughly competent marine department, which will be able to provide the services that big ships require. They will want good powerful tugs, expert pilots, linesmen and adequate and secure mooring arrangements. They will also need a thoroughly professional Harbour Master whose advice over safety matters will be reliable, and who will not be pressurised unduly by commercial considerations, when safety matters are concerned.

This last matter is not without significance. It is the direction of the Harbour Master which will determine that ships stay safe in extreme conditions. Many ports are exposed to very bad weather and a Master needs to have reliable data and advice when deciding whether to enter the port, leave an exposed anchorage, or when alongside with extreme weather expected, take the decision in adequate time to put to sea.

These may seem to be basic matters of seamanship, but often the Master finds himself in a real dilemma here. Alongside, he might elect to put out every mooring line available, but will it all hold in extremis? If he leaves the decision to depart too late, he might be caught in the entrance channel by the worsening weather and be unable to maintain his course, with the tugs unable to assist in the heavy swell. And these are not hypothetical situations – a number of Capesize bulk carriers have been wrecked and totally lost in exactly this type of scenario. The port may have been safe when the decision was taken to go alongside, but the combination of changing circumstances made it very dangerous indeed!

And when thinking about safe ports we might widen the argument to consider ports at which a ship can load or discharge cargo without experiencing undue structural damage. In an era where charterers are increasingly taking it upon themselves to audit and inspect ships they are chartering, shouldn’t the terminals also be subject to some sort of assessment? We might think of examining the competence of the loaders and stevedoring arrangements and be very concerned at any undue levels of stevedore damage to ships that have been alongside. Unreasonable? Outrageous? Surely an interest in the safety of a ship in port is a two-way business!

Author: The Watchkeeper                                   Source: BIMCO