A day in the life of a Port Agent

Tom Boothby is a Port Agent for Clarksons Port Services. Agents cross over into several areas when any vessel comes to port. They begin communicating with the crew before the vessel is so much as a spec on the horizon. Tom tells us all the different areas that the agents are involved in, the types of operations they deal with, and the types of communication required to ensure that port calls run smoothly for all involved.

Whilst the levels of communication have to remain clear for all aspects of a vessel coming into to port, an agent may be considered to have to communicate the most with a wider range of companies and departments to ensure that all operations run to scheduled.

Agents may receive communication from the charterers, the vessel owners, technical managers, port operatives, manning agencies and a wide variety of suppliers who are scheduled to make deliveries to the vessel during port calls, not to mention local authorities and of course, the vessel and her crew.

Clear communication is key to all of this, whether notifying charterers of delays caused by bad weather, or arranging for a crew member to disembark to seek medical attention, the appointed agent is involved throughout the process in ensuring that all parties have received the relevant notifications and are aware of each other’s movements.

To find out more about the work of a Port Agent and the importance of communication in all areas of operation surrounding any vessels port call, read Toms story below.

A day in the life of a Port Agent

As a Port Agent, waking up in the early hours of the morning to visit a newly arrived vessel is a part of everyday life. A lot of work has already gone in to making the port call a success by this point, but it is far from complete.

An agent’s relationship with their principal is fiduciary in nature. For the relationship of trust to blossom, there must be excellent communication throughout on both sides. The Institute of Chartered Shipbroker’s moto is ‘Our Word, Our Bond’. Aptly, countless shipping relationships are still established to this day through this very principle.

Here at Clarksons, our team of highly skilled agents work tirelessly to deliver our ‘Gold Standard’ of service to every vessel that’s entrusted to our agency. Each of our specialist agency offices cover a geographical area which encompass numerous ports. A key requirement for an agent is to maintain their knowledge of these areas to impart on to their clients and vessels to help deliver a frictionless port call. Many ports within a close geographical area are operated by separate authorities with differing requirements.

Clarksons handle a multitude of different vessel types which encompass a large cross section of shipping sectors. We are heavily involved with specialist offshore energy projects as well as being one of the leading Agri-bulk agents in the UK.

When handling an Agri-bulk agency, as the potential shipment date nears, our local Clarksons office start to receive enquiries pertaining to the shipment. These are usually received from brokers and ship owners who all wish to put their vessel forward for the cargo. For a vessel fixture to be successful, it must be competitive. 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.

After a vessel has been successfully fixed, the contract is in place and the agent will soon be appointed. Our agents closely scrutinise the agency appointment, careful to take note of any specific instructions provided by the principal. The appointment is followed to the letter as it stipulates the parameters of the agency relationship that has been established and conveys to us our warranty of authority.

As a globally responsible company, Clarksons operates a strict policy of stringent checks on all vessels and clients that we deal with to ensure we remain fully compliant with the latest regulatory sanctions and restrictions in place.

After appointment, our agency team will obtain operational information pertaining to the port call. This is then sent at frequent intervals to our client, alongside port contacts and the vessel itself in the vessel’s daily update. Good communication is vital to ensure information flows between all parties in the days leading up to the vessel’s arrival. Our staff have close working relationships with the operational contacts in each port that have been cultivated over many years, meaning they are among the first to know of any potential disruption or negative events that may impact the port call. Vessel updates are the single line of communication linking all parties with an interest in the shipment. As a continuation of our ‘Gold Standard’ experience, Clarksons staff are committed to reporting only factually accurate information presented from an unbiased viewpoint at the time it happens. This allows the principal the opportunity to consider their next steps having received a full appraisal of the situation.

As the arrival date nears, we then request the vessel’s pre-arrival information. This forms part of our statutory obligation to report the vessel to the appropriate authorities. Furthermore, it introduces the vessel of our company as well as providing a named agent that shall look after the vessel and all the associated requirements. The vessel’s crew can also take this opportunity to inform us of any requirements they have, which can be anything from medical requests to phone top ups. An agent’s job is wide ranging, and nothing demonstrates this more than when we look after the vessel’s crew. We are often the first point of contact for the crew and a friendly face is always a welcome sight to hard working mariners.

After the statutory pre-arrival forms have been submitted to authorities, the vessel will receive clearance from Border Force. Shortly before arrival, our agent will arrange all services for arrival. These vary depending on vessel size and port/berth, but as a minimum usually include pilotage and boatmen. For larger vessels towage may also be required too.

Throughout the port call experience, we remain in constant communication with multiple stakeholders regarding the vessel. It is often noted that if the agent’s role goes unnoticed then they have done their job properly by facilitating a seamless port call to the great satisfaction of their principal.

As the vessel has now arrived on the berth, our agent that is handling the port call will board the vessel to complete all necessary paperwork and formalities. In this ever modern and evolving world of agency, it is important to remember that nothing compares to a face-to-face visit from the agent when the vessel arrives.

This gives the agent the opportunity to address any immediate issues the vessel may face as well as establishing a positive working relationship with the vessel’s crew from the start.

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. On some cargoes it is also necessary for our agent to monitor the weather, providing accurate rain times on legal documentation. By doing this, the owners and charterers are able to calculate any demurrage/despatch that may be due and any factors that may impact this calculation. Naturally, it is in all the stakeholder’s interest for a port call to be as quick and efficient as possible, therefore every effort must be taken to expedite the operations. With the estimated time of completion now known, our agent will start to prepare for sailing. This involves notifying port authorities, pilots, towage companies and the vessel itself. If the vessel’s next port is known, we will also keep the local agents there fully updated so they can themselves prepare for the vessel’s upcoming arrival.

Should the vessel be loading, our agents will also need to prepare cargo documentation in readiness for the completion. These documents usually include Bills of Lading, manifests, and customs declarations. Prior to completion, we will receive detailed instructions from the vessel’s charterer as to how the cargo documents should be raised. Our agent will then raise the documentation before sending it to both the charterers and owners so that they can individually approve these legal documents prior to issuing. Our agents must have a high level of concentration whilst preparing these documents as any errors could be particularly damaging to our principal.

Upon completion, our agent will again visit the vessel to complete the sailing formalities. 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. Often, the Captain will cross-check the provided information against the vessel’s logbook to confirm that the details match. Our agent will also take this opportunity to sign the vessel’s paperwork, like waste receipts. After this has been successfully completed, our agent will warmly wish the crew a safe voyage before disembarking 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.

After the vessel has sailed, our agent’s focus turns to collating the invoices accrued from the port call so they can be invoiced in a timely fashion. This can be time consuming as some port calls enlist numerous third-party suppliers and thus attract a large number of invoices worth thousands of pounds. Our agents rely on a robust supply chain for making our port calls a success, so we always strive to ensure that invoices are collated quickly. We work with suppliers ranging from multinational companies to sole traders, all of which are paid without delay and often before we ourselves are paid by the principal. By having this trust and security throughout the supply chain, we provide a service that is simply unrivalled.

The traditional role of a ‘Ship’s Agent’ is changing and invariably encompasses more responsibility and requires a broader skillset to cater to the individual shipping markets. Our customers have a very diverse set of requirements, meaning that we always tailor our agency offering to the individual client’s needs.

Without the continued co-operation of multiple stakeholders and suppliers, an agent’s job is near impossible. Communication must free-flow to provide the frictionless experience that the client ultimately expects.

Whether a single or repeat shipment, our ‘Gold Standard’ of service ensures every client receives industry leading port agency services as well as expertise in freight forwarding, procurement, crewing, husbandry services and vessel chartering.