The best of Dorset in words and pictures

A huge potential for growth: Portland Port

Peter Booton visits Portland Port and takes a look behind the scenes at this increasingly successful commercial enterprise

RFA (Royal Fleet Auxiliary) Orangeleaf on Queens Pier

In August 1843 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert sailed into Portland Roads following a rough sea journey during which Her Majesty suffered greatly from mal de mer. The Royal Commission for Harbours of Refuge was established soon after and, due to the strategic importance of its location, Portland harbour was chosen to be the first purpose-built anchorage for the new steam powered British naval vessels.
Construction of the first two arms of the harbour’s massive breakwaters and defence works was an immense feat of engineering which attracted sightseers from far and wide. Prince Albert, too, visited on a number of occasions to watch progress. The millions of tons of stone needed for the project were quarried locally by convicts and transported to the breakwaters via a specially constructed network of railways and inclined planes. It is said that the top of the 10 metre high stone stack named ‘Nicodemus Knob’ on East Cliff  was at ground level before the vast quantities of stone were quarried for the breakwaters and the Verne Citadel which was built at much the same time. The ceremonial laying of the final stone for the first stage of the breakwater by HRH the Prince of Wales on 10th August 1872, was honoured by a Grand Review of the Combined Channel and Reserve Squadrons gathered in the harbour.
During the latter half of the 19th century Portland boasted the largest man-made harbour in the world, visited regularly by many great ships including Britain’s first ocean-going battleship, HMS Warrior, which later served as Portland’s guard-ship. In order to combat the increasing menace of an attack by torpedoes on ships within the harbour, two further arms of the breakwater were constructed and the works completed in 1906.
Portland Harbour played a vitally important role in both World Wars: becoming a base for seaplanes as RNAS Portland in 1917 and the embarkation point for the Grand Fleet prior to sailing for Scapa Flow in 1944. Post-war Portland became a regular port-of-call for numerous NATO vessels and earned renown as a premier training base for ship’s officers and crews. A landing ground for helicopters was established and on 24th April 1959 the Royal Naval Helicopter Station was officially named HMS Osprey. However, following the departure of the Royal Navy in 1996 and the subsequent closure of HMS Osprey, Portland ceased to be an operational naval base. The name Osprey lives on, though, in Osprey Quay which is now home to the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy.
In 1996 Portland Harbour Authority took over the naval dockyard and harbour. On being created a statutory body by government legislation, the PHA was granted powers of ‘control, operation, management and regulation in relation to the harbour and the harbour premises’. The Portland Harbour Revision Order of 1997 also provided for ‘the development and for the safe and efficient operation of a commercial port; for harbour conservancy and maintenance; for the management and encouragement of commerce and recreation; and for the conservation of the natural beauty of the harbour and its flora and fauna’. Importantly, for the port’s future, the Order also gave the PHA ‘power to direct the loading or unloading of goods or passengers’. While Portland Harbour Authority acts as the statutory body that manages and regulates the water-space – 2000 acres within the breakwaters and a further 2500 acres within the outer harbour – Portland Port Limited is the commercial arm. Portland Harbour Authority and Portland Port Limited are owned by Langham Industries Limited.

Bulk carriers Sarine and Seleina on Queen’s Pier

The Port now handles more than 650 large vessels annually and over 600 people are employed on the dock estate, including 52 employees of the PHA. Portland Port Limited owns the 3.5 miles of Grade 2 Listed breakwaters as well as the rest of the land making up the 300 acres in total of the estate and the various berthing systems around the port. The PHA has three main departments: marine, landside and commercial, which deals with admin, finance, marketing, sales and general business development. Each department works with, and is responsible to, the Chief Executive, Steve Davies. Within the PHA there are individual managers who answer to the three main department managers and variously take charge of operations, security, engineering, planning and environment marketing, and business development.
Not only is Portland the newest commercial port in the United Kingdom, but it also has a reputation for being one of the most efficient, financially successful and fastest growing ports in the UK. Its location is all-important, being easily accessible to the busy shipping lanes to and from north-west Europe, as well as the busy shipping lanes between the UK and continental Europe. As Steve Davies says, ‘It’s easy to get out to sea quickly from Portland: to port for the North Sea, or starboard for the Atlantic.’
Undoubtedly this prime, sheltered south-coast location has played a significant part in attracting commercial tenants to the port. Global Marine Systems Limited, leading providers of sub-sea cable installations and maintenance, were Portland Port’s first big commercial client. Aegean Oil, another well-established large international customer, handles some 300,000 tonnes of fuel oil annually at Portland where there are 40,000 tonnes of available tank storage built into the nearby hillside, thanks to the Royal Navy. Aegean has built their own bunkering station on the end of the breakwater where most of their tankers are based. As regards refuelling and other essential facilities for visiting vessels, Portland has a significant advantage over the south-coast bunkering port of Falmouth in that its inner harbour is protected from the prevailing south-westerly winds by its more sheltered location. Consequently, Portland’s bunkering service can operate all year round.
Portland Port is open 365 days a year and 24 hours a day. Its fully manned range of marine services available for visiting vessels include piloting, towage and vessel traffic control in addition to berth and landside services. PHA is also adept at dealing with marine emergencies and salvage. On average, three salvaged vessels are towed into the harbour each year. When the MSC Napoli ran aground off the Devon coast in January 2007, a major part of its cargo was brought into Portland Port and stored.

Pilot boats on Dock Jetty with Manor Marine and Port Office behind

The port’s tenants are all businesses that have a relationship with shipping, cargo, or replenishment of ships. One of the biggest tenants is Manor Marine, an engineering company that maintains and repairs ships and has recently diversified into shipbuilding. Food, charts and waste disposal are other important facilities that visiting ships regularly require. Steve Davies says: ‘One of the port’s main functions is to provide the interface between marine and land-based transport for the international passage of goods and passengers.’
As part of their statutory duty to ‘encourage the development and use of the harbour as a centre of employment and economic activity’, in July 2013 the PHA unveiled plans for a £50 million ship repair yard and associated floating dry dock facilities. All the necessary legal consents have been obtained and it is anticipated that the project will create more than 300 jobs for local people, as well as possibly a further 700 jobs in the associated supplier industries. An invitation to invest in this development opportunity as a ship repair yard partner has been offered to numerous existing international shipyards and to date more than ten expressions of interest have been received. The opportunity offers many significant advantages, as Steve Davies explains. “We’re a deep water port on the south coast and there aren’t many ship repair facilities operating that can take big ships, especially when you’re on the main shipping lane in and out of the European Union. Geographically we’re in a fantastic position, but we do need to expand our facility to lift big ships out of the water.” Steve also points out that with a good lifting capability and a large ‘Panamax’ dock the facilities at Portland would meet the requirements of the Royal Navy and other world navies as well as large cross-channel ferries.

Jack-up barge Wave Walker 1 on New Quay

In recent years Portland has become a favoured destination for international cruise ships. Early this century the port was attracting just a few cruise ships annually, but since then Portland has seen ever increasing numbers of ships and passengers year on year. Following on from a record-breaking season in 2012 when nine cruise liners berthed at Portland (seven of which were maiden calls), 2013 set a new record with 19 cruise calls and over 20,000 passengers welcomed to the quayside. 2014 is set to break the records again with 20 calls booked and 24,000 passengers expected. Last year Portland received an award from Cruise Insight Magazine for ‘Most Improved Destination’ in recognition of the ‘great improvement in the last few years; future focussed port and marketing management, good geographical location and good entrance to the Jurassic Coast.’ At present, existing berths can accept ships up to 300 metres in length. However, a planned extension to the cruise berths will accommodate most of the global fleet of vessels up to 350 metres.

Tugs on Dock Jetty with the Global Marine cable store behind

On arrival at the port, cruise ship passengers are welcomed by Portland Town Crier and entertained by local musicians on the quayside. On departure passengers are bade farewell by cannon fire, courtesy of the Nothe Fort Artillery. Whilst in port, day call passengers may choose to remain on their ship, take a courtesy shuttle bus into Weymouth, or venture further afield on excursion coaches to destinations such as Abbotsbury, Bath, Salisbury, Stonehenge and the Jurassic Coast.
Commercial and industrial activities are the life-blood of Portland Port, the income from which pays for the extensive maintenance of the breakwaters and the berths. Surprisingly, perhaps, less than 4% of the port’s income is derived from leisure and recreational activities which are all managed and regulated by the PHA, including the marina and Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy. Inevitably, Portland Harbour Authority played a major role in the 2012 Olympics and controlled all the water-sports. Steve Davies says, “It was great to co-operate with all the other agencies involved, including Dorset Police, LOCOG and Weymouth Port Authority. We all worked together very constructively to make sure the event was successful. There were no incidents and commercial activities at the port carried on with hardly any disturbance during the Olympics.”

Marine Department planning positioning indicator showing where ships are in the harbour

Portland Port’s technologically advanced control room played an important part in maintaining security for the Olympics by allowing Dorset Police to monitor everything going on in the harbour with full CCTV coverage. Camera systems in the control room are so powerful that they can read the name on a large ship up to 12 miles away, while a sophisticated radar plotter not only shows all ‘targets’ in the English Channel, but can also name each vessel and its owner – a useful feature employed by the port’s marketing team to encourage ships to call in to Portland en route. The CCTV cameras can also be set to track a vessel as it approaches Portland and sound an alarm at a certain point to alert pilots, if required.
Portland Port is clearly a 21st century success story with a very positive future and a huge potential for growth that can only benefit Portland itself and the wider area of Dorset in terms of the economy and employment opportunities. ◗

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