Harbourmasters And Their Powers

The Job Of A Harbourmaster In The UK

In most reasonably sized UK ports the Harbourmaster will be a professional mariner, normally holding a foreign-going Masters' Certificate and having many years of seagoing experience. A Harbourmaster has responsibility for managing a local Harbour Authority, which may have many types of organisations operating within its boundaries. These could include leisure marinas, boat builders, cargo terminals, passenger terminal operators and commercial fishing. The range of the Harbourmaster's activities depends on the size of the port and the scale of activities going on there, but in general they would include:-

  • Managing vessel movements by careful planning and monitoring, using radio communication, radar and charts from a port control centre. Ensuring safe navigation, which may include dredging, marking of channels and provision of a pilotage service. Co-ordinating responses to emergencies and inspecting vessels.
  • Managing the environment by ensuring that any proposed port or harbour developments are suitable and in keeping with the surroundings. He must also monitor the state of the water, as water pollution from terminal operators, shore based facilities and vessels using the port, is an ongoing danger.
  • Managing leisure activities by regulating services such as marinas and commercial passenger vessels, including licensing commercial craft.

Historically their powers were complex because they varied from one port to the next, depending on the particular act of Parliament that set up each harbour in the first place. The Harbours Docks and Piers Clauses Act of 1847 gave the Harbourmaster legislative power to "make directions." There have been countless amendments and revisions over the years, but usually there is some sort of general clause allowing them to take whatever steps they consider necessary for the harbour's improvement, management and maintenance. They have had the power, under the Port Marine Safety Code, to combat potential danger legally through by-laws, which have to be signed off by the Secretary of State at the Department of Transport, but this has so reduced in size as to become unfit for this purpose. Most Harbourmasters have the power to "board and inspect" boats and to detain vessels if necessary, but not to detain or arrest individuals.

Recent Developments And Legislation

There has recently been a great deal of publicity in the press about Harbourmasters and their powers. The Marine Navigation (no 2) Bill has currently gone through parliament and many people fear that granting Harbourmasters more authority, as this bill aims to do, could make them into "mini dictators" with no check on their powers, able to ban certain yachtsmen from entering harbours if they don't have engines, VHF radio or skippers qualifications. They fear that racing may be prohibited, all vessel movements will have to be reported and harbourmasters in small backwater ports would have the same powers as those running huge complexes with large marinas and industrial activity. They could even insist that all sailors will have to be licensed. The fear is that the freedom of the seas will be infringed and that many recreational sailors could be put off sailing and boating. The RYA has been fighting hard against these proposals and has successfully reached agreement with the British Ports Association (BPA) the UK Major Ports Group (UKMPG) and the UK Chamber of Shipping (UKCoS) on a "Code of Conduct" that harbour authorities will be expected to follow which will include opportunities to review inappropriate and unjustified regulations.

The extending of the Harbourmasters' powers would give them the right to create or design criminal offences without the power to apply the safeguards normally applied to law-making bodies. Regulations and laws could be introduced which the sailors would have no right to challenge and marinas and charter companies could be subject to a mountain of red tape that they cannot appeal against.

The "Code of Conduct" is hoped to provide a means of challenging unfair harbour directives through a local Port User Group (PUG) and if the problem cannot be resolved then the RYA or the Chamber of Shipping will be able to refer the matter to an independent third party. The granting of a statutory safeguard would have been the preferred outcome of the RYA's fight, but such amendments take time and would have delayed the bill to such an extent that neither the Government nor the Opposition would allow it.

The Marine Navigation (no.2) Bill has now received Royal Assent, with the title "Marine Navigation Act 2013". Now it is a case of "wait and see". It is important that, as the "Code of Conduct" is not statutory, the harbour authorities and their decisions should be monitored carefully, to ensure that their new powers are not abused. Hopefully the freedom of the sea will not be infringed and recreational sailors and boaters will be able to continue to enjoy their sport and visit the many harbours around are coast without too many bureaucratic restrictions.

Author – Dee White

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