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Role of the Harbour Master

The Role of the Harbour Master

Ports can be busy places and, by the very nature of their business activities, may be hazardous places to work. The Harbour Master has a key role to play ensuring that people living and working in or close to the port, the port’s staff, customers or visitors to the port environment can go about their business safely. Harbour Masters must be familiar with all relevant safety, environmental and health laws at the international, national and local level.

Port Marine Operations

The safety of navigation for any vessel utilising the port and its approaches is the Harbour Master's primary concern. Harbour Masters regulate the manner in which vessels conduct their navigation in port. Most regulatory requirements are clearly set out in the form of port by-laws, general directions, Pilotage Directions etc and these clearly define what the “rules of the road” are in terms of safe navigation.

Ship Arrival

From initial information provided by the ship on draft, length overall and displacement, the Harbour Master will allocate a suitable berth and apply any restrictions he may feel necessary for the safe passage of that particular vessel in his port. Vessels arriving at a port will normally contact the port control or VTS station to receive instructions on the plan for their arrival and stay in the port. This exchange usually involves confirmation of the time the pilot will board and the berth to which the vessel is proceeding.

Harbour Masters normally designate a safe pilot-boarding area where the vessel boards her pilot who then subsequently communicates with the port authority shipping control office or VTS whilst proceeding towards the intended berth. If the vessel is exempt from pilotage, in compliance with port regulations, then clear instructions on the manner of entry and navigation will be given and the vessel will be asked to register and confirm its passage plan. The passage plan is the detailed and recorded confirmation of what the ship intends to do at every stage of its passage from the pilot station to finally arriving alongside. Any subsequent movement of the vessel, a berth shift, for example, will also be subject to passage planning.

The Harbour Master has a duty to inform vessels about any hazards or problems that may affect safe navigation, for example:

  • Any obstructions in channels or alongside berths
  • Limitations of tugs
  • Weather restrictions in the harbour or at berths
  • Any failure of any aids to navigation such as lights or buoys

Vessel Types

Ports handle a huge variety of ship types ranging from supertankers, through cruise and cargo ships, large container vessels, bulk carriers, warships, Ro-Ro vessels and ferries right down to smaller but no less important vessels such as fishing vessels and pleasure craft. Different types of vessel require different port facilities to enable then to be handled efficiently and safely. Part of the Harbour Master's role is to be fully conversant with the types of vessel that represent the port's main business and to have a thorough knowledge of their requirements whilst they are in port.

Ship's Stay in Port

The role of the Harbour Master in terminal and cargo operations will vary according to the governance of the port. The Harbour Master's advice is regularly sought during a ship’s stay by companies, organisations or government officials associated with such activities as fuel bunkering, tank cleaning and the delivery of stores, water and crew.

The Harbour Master has a role to play in determining the berthing of ships and the control of the front quay or ship-shore interface. This includes the removal or segregation of dangerous goods for a determined period on the terminal, the measures to be taken by stevedores and dockworkers to prevent safety or environmental irregularities and the accessibility to the ship-shore interface by unauthorised persons.

The success or otherwise of a ship's stay in a port will be measured by how the Master, crew and ultimately the operator/owner consider the port has met their operational requirements. Port operations must be carefully planned well in advance of the vessel's arrival alongside. There are many planning considerations for the Harbour Master but amongst the main ones are: a suitable and safe berth; provision of pilotage and tugs; confirmation of mooring resources such as linemen, line boats, mooring teams etc; liaison with stevedores on the ETA/ETD of the vessel to enable them to plan their resources for loading/discharge effectively; key loading/discharge plant and equipment availability and reliability; security requirements and liaison with statutory authorities where necessary. Another key element is a good relationship with the ship's agent who will have first-hand knowledge of the ship's requirements.

The Harbour Master’s expertise is also essential for the management of any incidents and in the timely implementation of response and emergency plans.

Port Management

In addition to the technical and statutory responsibilities of the role, today’s harbour master is increasingly involved in the day-to-day management of port operations. Increased involvement and greater responsibility for the commercial business of a port is a growing area of activity for many harbour masters.

Strategic Planning Process

If they are to remain competitive, ports must move with the times in response to global shifts in maritime trade. Strategic-level business plans must be developed. Harbour Masters may contribute to the development of a long-term master plan for the port.

Other Authorities in the Port

The Harbour Master may co-operate with a number of authorities including representatives of port state control, customs, veterinary agencies, health agencies, environmental agencies, local government and utilities.

Local Community

Ports, as with all businesses, are expected to engage with their stakeholders in an open, honest and transparent manner. Working in the port environment inevitably brings the Harbour Master into contact with the wider community. Although Harbour Masters may exercise jurisdiction over the water frontage or waterway of their port – a decision that may be determined by statute or regulation – they are also expected to consider the requirements or concerns of the community on the use of the port’s navigable area and its impact on the community.

It is not only commercial vessels that make use of a port. Recreational fisherman, diving clubs, rowing clubs, tour boat operators, visiting yachtsmen and power boat drivers, marina operators and many more must all be consulted. Conflict may arise between those pursuing different activities. The harbour master has an important role in engaging with interest groups, resolving such issues and ensuring the safety of all harbour users.

Leisure Use of Ports

Leisure activities may take many forms, including recreational boating (both power and sail), swimming, diving and organised aquatic events. The Harbour Master can mitigate the risks associated with large aquatic events through the application of safety management principles and risk assessment. However, private and irregular use of the port for recreation is difficult to monitor and control. Many ports and harbours now use their websites and social media to promulgate safety information to port users. The zoning of activities to separate, for example, swimmers from personal watercraft may be introduced. Prohibiting access to some areas may be required and will require local regulation. The focus should be on community engagement and finding a harmonious method for the co-existence of recreational activities. 

Latest News & Events


A stevedore suffered sickness and disorientation after handling cans containing fumigant while discharging cargo at No 3 Alexander berth in the Port of Liverpool from the general cargo vessel Thorco Angela*.

The circumstances of the incident are recorded in (United Kingdom) Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) preliminary assessment (PA) summary number 4/22: Thorco Angela published on 18 May 2022.

Ports emit roughly 3% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, yet there is no widely accepted tool for measuring waterside GHG…

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Data-Led Emissions Management (D-LEMA) Monitoring Vessel Emissions in Ports

Ports emit roughly 3% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, yet there is no widely accepted tool for measuring waterside GHG emissions. D-LEMA is a project that has successfully demonstrated a proof-of-concept digital solution for monitoring vessel emissions in port, allowing port managers to identify activities that contribute to high levels of GHG emissions. 

This webinar will discuss the D-LEMA project and how widely available vessel data was used to estimate emissions in ports. Participants will learn about the methodology used as well as the preliminary results from the project in a working UK port.

Thursday, May 26

2pm London / 8am Houston / 9pm Singapore

Presented by Graham Howe
Business Development Director, Operations Optimization, ION

Graham Howe has over 25 years of experience in global sales, specializing in maritime applications. He has worked extensively in the offshore wind and metocean sectors, bringing new technology solutions to market. Graham is currently focused on the international roll-out of the Marlin SmartPort solution, a user-friendly Port Management Information System designed to support the digitalization of port operations via reliable Cloud-based applications.

Delivered virtually
COP26 Maritime Event

In November 2021, the UK will host COP26, the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, in Glasgow, Scotland.  Contracting parties to the Convention will meet to assess progress towards achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

Ports, like other forms of transport infrastructure, are potentially vulnerable to the effects of climate change, particularly extreme weather.  If the sector is to be well-prepared to face these changes, urgent action is needed to adapt infrastructure and to improve the climate-resilience of both assets and operations. 

In order to help promote such action, Peel Ports Group, Scotland, will be hosting a workshop at the International Maritime Hub during COP26, in collaboration with the British Ports Association, the UK Major Ports Group, Maritime UK and City of Glasgow College. 

The workshop, titled ‘Practical climate change adaptation challenges and good practice solutions for ports’, will run across two half-day sessions on 2nd and 3rd November 2021 and aims to facilitate the exchange of experiences and the sharing of good practice. 

The workshop will feature speakers from ports around the world including:

  • Captain Yoss Leclerc, Chief of Marine Operations, Port of Quebec, Canada; and
    President, International Harbour Masters’ Association;
  • Captain Naresh Sewnath, Senior Manager Pilotage & VTS, Transnet National Ports Authority, South Africa; and Vice-President, International Harbour Masters’ Association; 
  • Captain Karuppiah Subramaniam, General Manager of Port Klang Authority, Malaysia; and President, International Association of Ports and Harbours; and Chair of the IHMA 2022 Congress 

Please use the following link to register your interest in attending this free event:

For more information, please see the attached detailed programme.

Hilton Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
IHMA Congress 2022
IHMA Congress 2022

From 1 April 2022, Malaysia's international borders reopened! So it’s all systems go for the 13th International Harbour Masters’ Congress at the Hilton, Kuala Lumpur from 27 to 30 June 2022.

Watch Health Minister, Khairy Jamaluddin list the steps required for international travellers to visit Malaysia.

The first speakers have been announced and the preliminary agenda will be released shortly. Make sure you register now to get the early bird rate which expires 22 April 2022.

Visit the dedicated Congress website for full details of the event including special Congress accommodation rates at the Hilton KL.

On behalf of the IHMA President, Executive Committee and members of Council, we look forward to seeing you in Malaysia.

Delivered virtually
Online Workshop Sponsored by:  PIANC and Navigating a Changing Climate 14 and 15 September 2021

Working with Nature for Climate-Resilient
Ports and Waterways

Online Workshop Sponsored by:
PIANC and Navigating a Changing Climate

14 and 15 September 2021

PIANC’s Environment Commission (EnviCom) and the Navigating a Changing Climate partners are collaborating to run a workshop entitled Working with Nature for Climate-Resilient Ports and Waterways.  This workshop builds on a 2021 workshop run by Navigating a Changing Climate with SedNet ( focused on sediment management and climate change.  

Two sessions are planned on consecutive days, each 2 hours long, allowing for keynote presentations, case studies, and facilitated round-table discussions. 

The workshop Working with Nature for Climate-Resilient Ports and Waterways is designed to facilitate knowledge exchange, disseminate good practice, highlight opportunities, and identify gaps in understanding or research needs in relation to the following sessions: 

  1. Session 1: 14th September.  Scaling Up and Changing Entrenched Current Practices
    • Transitioning nature-based solutions to full-scale
    • Persuading those who prefer business as usual to explore nature-based alternatives
  2. Session 2: 15th September.  Making a Business Case and Securing Finance
    • Preparing the case for investment in nature-based solutions
    • Facilitating public and private sector funding for nature-based solutions

For more information and to register, please reach out to Victor Magar ( and copy to Kate Panayotou ( and

The email title line should be marked with “PIANC‑NavClimate Working with Nature Workshop.” 

PIANC, the World Association for Waterborne Transport Infrastructure, provides the global waterborne transport community with expert guidance, recommendations, and technical advice (  Navigating a Changing Climate is a PIANC-led Global Climate Action initiative under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Find out more at

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Latest News & Events

Fumigant poisoning  mv Thorco Angela Berthed Liverpool October 2021 Fumigant poisoning


A stevedore suffered sickness and… FIND OUT MORE

Data-Led Emissions Management (D-LEMA) Monitoring Vessel Emissions in Ports Data-Led Emissions Management (D-LEMA) Monitoring Vessel Emissions in Ports Webinar 26 May 2022

Ports emit roughly 3% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, yet there is no widely accepted tool for measuring waterside GHG emissions. D-LEMA is a project that has successfully demonstrated a… FIND OUT MORE

Latest News & Events


A stevedore suffered sickness and disorientation after handling cans containing fumigant while discharging cargo at No 3 Alexander berth in the Port of Liverpool from the general cargo vessel Thorco Angela*.

The circumstances of the incident are recorded in (United Kingdom) Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) preliminary assessment (PA) summary number 4/22: Thorco Angela published on 18 May 2022.

Ports emit roughly 3% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, yet there is no widely accepted tool for measuring waterside GHG…