The role of Ship Agent

The ship’s agent is the “maritime Mr. Fixit”; the local expertise who will represent the owner in every port the ship visits. To the owner of an international trading ship, which rarely calls at her “home” port, the appointment of an agent in every foreign port is essential, ensuring that the visit to the port will go smoothly. The ship and those aboard her may never have visited that port before, they may not speak the language or even understand it, but the agent will ensure that everything they will need will be delivered.

The agent will ensure that the paperwork is perfect, that the tugs and the linesmen are on hand, and that the pilot is booked, that the berth is ready and the stevedores alerted. The agent will have told the Master about any special problems of the port approaches, or any “customs of the port” which might be unusual. He will have given some rough idea of the disbursements – the costs – which that ship will incur during her visit. He may have the job of selling cargo space and will have some responsibility for ensuring that the cargo and the ship arrive in the port at the same time!

The agent will be one of the first persons aboard the ship upon arrival, smoothing the path of the Master with the customs, port health and other official visitors. Agents will be hugely welcome for the mail they will bring, and local currency to enable the crew to have a couple of trips ashore. The agent will invariably have a long list of demands from the ship to fulfil. The Chief Officer wants 300 tons of fresh water. The Chief Engineer wants 100 tons of gasoil, 400 tons of heavy fuel oil, oily waste to be landed and a list of engine room spares as long as the agent’s arm. The ship is running out of eggs and needs fresh vegetables.

There will be two crew members going on leave, who will have to be paid off, helped to the airport and seen off, with their replacements met, delivered to the ship and signed on. The Master’s wife would like to go to the shops. A list of stores preceded the ship and there is necessary liaison with the chandlers over their delivery. The agent knows his port and its community thoroughly, and is able to help with everything from the best place to get a haircut, why the stevedore appears to have ignored the stowage plan and when the vessel is likely to sail. Problems are his business.

With the ship ready to depart and the agent having shaken hands with the Master and been one of the last persons down the gangway, the next phase of the job begins with the bills that require to be paid on behalf of the owner; all the costs that have been incurred during the visit. Hopefully, it will have been a positive outcome, with Master and agent getting on well, the complications unravelled and the ship full of well-paying cargo, a good relationship established. But as the departing vessel sounds her siren in farewell, Mr. Fixit is already thinking of the next customer, even now arriving in the roadstead with her different set of demands to be fulfilled and problems to be fixed. A good steamship agent is never idle for long.