He makes sure that the world’s biggest ships can get in and out of port. Meet Ashley Parker, a Portmaster at the Port of Felixstowe and Harwich International.
Ashley Parker says that the role of Portmaster is the same as that of a Harbour Master, but he covers two major ports on the East Coast, Felixstowe and Harwich International.
The Port of Felixstowe was the UK’s first purpose-built container-handling facility, it is also the largest and busiest container port in the country. With three rail terminals, it has the busiest and biggest intermodal rail freight facility in the UK and has deep-water capacity allowing it to handle the world’s largest container ships.
Felixstowe welcomes about 3,000 ships each year and 17 shipping lines operate from Felixstowe, offering approximately 33 services to and from 700 ports around the world.
Meanwhile, Harwich International is one of the UK’s leading multi-purpose freight and passenger ports. Ideally located for North Sea freight and passenger traffic to and from Scandinavia and the Benelux countries, it offers first class ro-ro (roll-on roll-off vehicles), ferry, container, cruise ship and bulk operations as well as providing support services for the offshore renewable energy industry.
Harwich International was the first port in the UK to combine Automatic Licence Plate Recognition with line scanning technology. The port also offers a drive-through weighbridge, damage control and security facilities, helping to facilitate the speed and ease of lorries moving through the port. The ferry services operated by Stena Line carry approximately 1 million passengers each year, while the purpose-built cruise terminal is the most northerly of the major cruise ports on the UK’s east coast, perfectly placed for Scandinavian and Baltic cruises, as well as round-Britain and other European destinations.
Every day is different and I put my knowledge of the sea and past experience to good use every day
Ashley Parker is an ex seafarer, he spent 20 years deep sea, but came ashore 18 years ago, to work with the Harwich Haven Authority VTS (Vessel traffic services) which is like air traffic control for ships. He says that his move to Portmaster has been a natural progression, as he knows how the operations work, both ashore and at sea.
He’s not sure why he went to sea, but perhaps he got the ‘travel bug’ from his childhood when his father served in the colonial police force in Ascension Island and Africa, and as a family they travelled a lot. He has served on various ship types including bulk carriers, reefers (refrigerated ships) small feeder vessels (vessels that do short sea trips not deep sea voyages), tankers and Ultra Large Crude Carriers, but never cruise ships.
He says that when he was at sea the voyages were certainly longer and the communications less, and there wasn’t the technology there is today. But the British flag meant a lot more then and British officers were held in high esteem. He describes the first merchant ship that he served on as being a general cargo vessel that had been converted to carry reefers (refrigerated containers) with about 60 crew onboard. Today, with increased automation and technology the very biggest container ships sailing (the length of three football pitches lined up) only require about 20 crew onboard.
When he looks back, he says he loved the camaraderie between the crew, enjoyed visiting different places and getting ashore to explore, but he also admits to enjoying the isolation and solitude that come with long periods at sea and he describes his first watch by himself as being one of the most memorable points in his career. However, like so many seafarers it was getting married that brought him ashore, to be close to his wife and family.
He’s been Portmaster for eight years now, and strangely a lot of the port operations focus around handling containers efficiently and less so on the ships coming in and out. He has a team of eight and they work to manage and support the activities of the vessels arriving, departing and whilst alongside. He’s also involved in planning the ports development – keeping up with the pace of change – to ensure that it can handle the world’s largest container ships sailing today and ready for those still to come.
His main responsibility is ensuring the safety of the ships, working closely with Harwich Haven Authority which provide the pilots, and companies that provide the tugs which help move the ships safely on and off the berths. He says he acts as the interface between the ships and the shore, ensuring that all vessels operations are conducted safely. When asked what makes the job interesting, he says it’s the fact that every day is different and that he’s putting his knowledge of the sea and past experience to good use, every day.
He would definitely recommend a career at sea to a 16 year old today, although it can be lonely and will often take you out of your comfort zone. He adds that, it’s an enormous responsibility being in charge of a ship, and life on board makes you self-sufficient and independent very quickly. But with sea time and having completed your certificates there are plenty of jobs and opportunities for a qualified Master Mariner.
Looking ahead to the future, he thinks that the ships will keep on getting bigger and so much of his role will be spent liaising with the shipping companies and working out how to develop the port and its quayside, increasing the berth depths and how to handle increasing numbers of container boxes.
He thinks that ultimately it may be the insurance companies that halt the increasing size of newbuild ships, today one of the new mega-container ships costs $150 million USD, add the value of 22,000 containers on top of that, and there may come a point when the insurers simply say ‘enough’. He also predicts that ports will become increasingly automated but not completely without human input. The benefit will be that by removing the human element from port operations you can increase safety, but even so people will always be needed.
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