Skip to main content

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 rainwater harvesting system proposed by Ms Rabiah Nadir is helping Johor Port, Malaysia, save fresh water, minimize chances of flooding and contribute to global goals.

It is estimated that the scheme will save up to ten million litres of freshwater each year.

UNCTAD’s TrainForTRade programme

The system installed in 2020 was proposed by Rabiah Nadir in a case study she developed under the UNCTAD TrainForTrade port management programme.

On 3 December the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) issued the above report which may have relevance to Members where fish farm service craft are operated in their ports’ waters.

At approximately 1315 on 3 April 2021, a deckhand on board the workboat Annie E was injured when he was struck by a grid buoy that had been lifted out of the water by the workboat’s forward crane at a fish farm off the Isle of Muck.

Role of Harbour Master/ Port Operations Professional
Port Call Optimisation
Ship image
Vessel Traffic Services
dock image
Emergency Management

Become a Member

Join the world’s premier professional body for harbour masters and receive up-to-date information on the industry and access to the members' area of the website.

Become a sponsor

Become a sponsor of the IHMA today and reap the benefits for your business:

  • Worldwide exposure
  • Prominence on the IHMA website
  • Instant access to your services and products for your existing and potential customers
  • Access to the key decision makers on marine operations in Ports – the Harbour Master
  • The opportunity to showcase your services and products at an international congress every two years

Be a part of the future of a vibrant, respected, professional and influential maritime organisation...IHMA

Download EHMC's Newsletter

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, ex vix insolens oportere accusamus, mea nulla aliquip virtute id, et commodo debitis voluptua mel. Vel ut doming scaevola, habemus gloriatur elaboraret ei pro.

Download archived

EHMC newsletter

Our Sponsors

Latest Events

port of algeciras spain

The European Harbour Masters’ Committee (EHMC) is delighted to announce that its 11th biennial seminar will be held at the Port of Algeciras, Spain from 4-5 May 2023.


The theme will be New Fuels.

Programme in brief

Over the two days the first day, 4 May 2023, will be devoted to seminar activities and presentations.  On the second day, 5 May, delegates will be invited to take part in a visit to the Port of Algeciras.

An interesting programme is in prospect. This event will provide the chance to meet others in the harbour master community and introductions here will be particularly valuable as EHMC now has some new members after a generation has retired, so much communication between delegates is anticipated.

To register

Although this is an event for European Harbour Masters, members in the 'aspiring' harbour master category are also welcome to attend. Registration can be done through the Eventbrite portal, the link to which will be circulated in the coming weeks.

An introduction to the Port of Algeciras

Algeciras Port is a strategic pathway located in the main maritime routes in the globe: north, south, east, west with zero deviation. A distribution platform for Europe, Africa and the Mediterranean sea, placed in the Strait of Gibraltar and surrounded by the natural shelter of the Algeciras Bay, leading the green transition in southern Europe.

Members not familiar with the Port of Algeciras are also invited to see here:

TT Club Webinar - Port and terminal risks: single person incidents

TT Club’s Loss Prevention team is pleased to invite readers to join a webinar  discussion on single person incidents including slips, trips and falls. ( )

Single person incidents make up 5% of TT’s port and terminal claims. This may seem like a small percentage, but it is the sixth most common claim seen and a single injury claim has the potential to be extremely costly.

According to TT’s claims data, 94% of bodily injury claims in the ports and terminals the Club insures are caused by operational human factors. This means that implementing procedures to reduce human error could drastically reduce these types of claims, which is what TT Club will be covering in its upcoming webinar.

During the session the following topics will be covered:

  • TT Club claims statistics
  • Identifying poor practices
  • Risk assessment
  • Incident prevention
  • Behaviours
  • Training

Guest speakers

Laurence Jones

Risk assessment director  TT Club

Laurence’s role in the TT Club covers advice and support in underwriting decisions and claims assessment, he works proactively with clients and industry to identify areas where risks may be reduced. Laurence is based in Sydney and travels to TT Club global offices and client sites on a regular basis. He is Deputy Chair of ICHCA International.

Richard Steele

Chief Executive Officer, ICHCA International

Richard is a safety and skills professional with a Masters in Training and Development who has been involved in the ports industry for 21 years. Prior to ports, Richard worked in the nuclear industry on safety and skills provision. Richard was the Learning and Development manager for Associated British Ports for 10 years and has led Port Skills and Safety for 11 years. He was appointed CEO of ICHCA in July 2021.

Mike Yarwood

Managing Director Loss Prevention, TT Club

Mike joined TT Club in 2010 as a Claims Executive providing advice to transport operator Members globally, having previously held operation management roles within the logistics industry for 13 years. Mike is a Chartered Fellow of the Institute of Logistics and Transport, a Technical Specialist Member of the Institute of Risk Management and a Member of the Chartered Insurance Institute.


For further information and to register, readers are invited to see here:,7ZV8G,8TBRJW,WP8MU,1

mooring safety webinar

Hosted by IHMA sister organisation, The NauticaI Institute, this webinar will demonstrate and discuss essential safety messages for mooring safety addressing new equipment and modern vessels.

In June 2022 the popular mooring video ‘The Missing Link’ got a thorough update. Back in 2011, the European Harbour Masters’ Committee (EHMC) responded to concerns about knowledge gaps in the mooring process by commissioning a video titled “The Missing Link - improving the mooring processes”.  It appeared the mooring process had become the forgotten link in the nautical chain and consequently, content was developed by a number of organisations to address improvements in mooring safety.

Over the years thousands of copies of ‘The Missing Link’ videos were distributed worldwide and links to the videos have been accessible on the IHMA website for over a decade.  But as ships increased in size and mooring technology advanced, the original content of ‘The Missing Link’ became outdated. However, the issue is still of importance to Seafarers,  Harbour Masters and port users so the EHMC commissioned an update to the original video which is now complete.

The new series features seven short videos aimed at making the mooring process safer and more efficient for personnel and preventing damage to terminal equipment and vessels. Each video reflects current practices on:

Importance of safe mooring
Mooring plan
Mooring plan execution
Best practices during adverse conditions
How to maintain mooring lines (including maintaining records)
How to maintain mooring winches (including maintaining records)
How to select and install new mooring lines and tails

This webinar will be interactive, inviting feedback and questions from attendees. A certificate of participation is available to all those who attend.

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.

This block is broken or missing. You may be missing content or you might need to enable the original module.

Download the IHMA Constitution

The IHMA constitution sets out the establishment of a region of the IHMA, the committee role and authority, its formation and management.

Latest News & Events

UNCTAD port programme Graduate saves fresh water in Malaysia Harvesting rainwater

A rainwater harvesting system proposed by Ms Rabiah Nadir is helping Johor Port, Malaysia, save fresh water, minimize chances of flooding and… FIND OUT MORE

UK Marine accident investigation report Failure of a suspended buoy on workboat Annie E with one person injured UK Marine accident investigation report

On 3 December the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) issued the above report which may have relevance to Members where fish farm service… FIND OUT MORE

Latest News & Events

A rainwater harvesting system proposed by Ms Rabiah Nadir is helping Johor Port, Malaysia, save fresh water, minimize chances of flooding and contribute to global goals.

It is estimated that the scheme will save up to ten million litres of freshwater each year.

UNCTAD’s TrainForTRade programme

The system installed in 2020 was proposed by Rabiah Nadir in a case study she developed under the UNCTAD TrainForTrade port management programme.

On 3 December the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) issued the above report which may have relevance to Members where fish farm service craft are operated in their ports’ waters.

At approximately 1315 on 3 April 2021, a deckhand on board the workboat Annie E was injured when he was struck by a grid buoy that had been lifted out of the water by the workboat’s forward crane at a fish farm off the Isle of Muck.