A day in the life of...A Harbour Master: 'Part of you longs to be on one of the cruise liners'

Ashley Nicholson took over as senior harbour master at Forth Ports in 2017
Ashley Nicholson took over as senior harbour master at Forth Ports in 2017
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“You do sometimes watch these ships as they sail off into the distance, heading for the Mediterranean or the Caribbean and wonder, ‘why am I not on that?’”

Ashley Nicholson, 33, is senior harbour master at Forth Ports and the youngest ever vice president of the UK Harbour Masters Association

The largest cruise liners arriving at Forth Ports boast passenger numbers of around 4,000

The largest cruise liners arriving at Forth Ports boast passenger numbers of around 4,000

“I started out working on cruise ships, mainly going around Europe and when you are standing at Leith on a cold winter day, with the mist and the rain starting to roll in, I love my job now, but I do miss it a little bit.

“The simplest way to explain the role of the Harbour Master is that we take responsibility for making sure all of the ships on the Forth stay safe while they are in our waters, however the reach of the job as a lot wider than that.

“There is as much focus on passenger experience, making sure everyone embarking or disembarking at any of our ports can do so safely and positively. That is everything from passenger traffic to commercial vessels, which we do tend to work more closely with.

'We have to get people on and off ships as quickly and efficiently as possible'

As well as Leith, Ashley also manages marine traffic at other ports on the Forth including Grangemouth and Rosyth

As well as Leith, Ashley also manages marine traffic at other ports on the Forth including Grangemouth and Rosyth

“Like an airport, there is this huge operation and we have a massive team to make sure everything runs smoothly, but with the volume of passengers that we deal with on a daily basis, it is difficult to ensure everything runs like clockwork.

“Along the Forth, we have ports at Leith, Grangemouth, Rosyth and in Fife, as well as Tilbury down South, so I split a lot of my time between them.

“They each have their own challenges in catering for different types of vessel, but we are very lucky in that each team knows their roles and how to go about them most efficiently, we can get people on and off ships, cargo unloaded and reloaded in the most productive way.

“I started out at Forth Ports during a work placement here, after spending time on a number of cruise ships.

“I was doing a lot of rotations, a few months on, a few months off, I wanted something more permanent. I studied Nautical Science at Strathclyde and then a job came up here as a VTS officer - effectively the equivalent of an air traffic controller for the river.

“That was 11 years ago and there has been really fast progression for me since then. There has been an inherent downturn in the number of people working in the shipping industry over the past few years, but I was always ready to move on, to move up, so to have the opportunity to become senior harbour master in 2017 was something that I could never turn down.

'There has been a huge swell in the number of cruise passengers over the past few years'

“The largest cruise liners we have bringing in around 4,000 passengers each, they are coming in from all over the place, however what frequently happens is that we have a day where there is a ship in each of the ports on the Forth.

“On those days, we’re faced with the task of moving between 10,000 and 12,000 passengers, freight, cargo, everything all at the same time.

“Because Edinburgh is the capital city, it is only natural that it is the place for everyone to head and because of that, all of the ports on the Forth are counted as Edinburgh.

“We have seen a big swell in the number of passengers arriving into Forth Ports, particularly in Leith, purely due to the access to the city.

“That is true across the world, there is a year on year increase of cruising passengers.

“The entire role is completely varied, it sounds like a bit of a cliche to say it, but no two days in this job are ever really the same. Something new is happening every day and although I’m in the port industry, you get this massive variation in everything you are doing.

“There are so many different branches, you see the whole shipping industry from the commercial, cargo and passenger side of it.

“There is the longing to be on a cruise ship heading somewhere sunny, but to see that unfold, the experience these people are having, it’s a good feeling to bring that to them.”