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Ships ahoy - behind the scenes at Dover Harbour Board port control

By Dover Express  |  Posted: January 25, 2012

  • Steve Manser on duty at Dover Harbour Board's port control office at the Eastern Docks

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AS THE 26,000-tonne Pride of Calais rumbles past the Port Control tower on the harbour arm, a buzz of radio chatter fills the room and an intermittent computerised beep sounds, craving attention.

Dad-of-one Steve Manser attends to one of his five computer screens, presses a number of buttons and the beeping goes away.

"This is the best office at Dover Harbour Board by a mile," he says and it's clear he's not wrong in almost every sense of the word.

Isolated out on the end of the eastern harbour arm, the high tower has 360-degree field of vision of the English Channel ahead of it and the busy port behind it.

Sitting in the room, looking through the angled flexible glass windows, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the bridge of a ferry out on the open seas.

The waves of the Channel lap up at the side of the arm and when you step outside Steve's "office" you can feel the full force of the wind as it blows across the Strait of Dover into your face.

His working area is cosy yet spacious, with warm air conditioning and a row of cacti lined up along the window sill.

He sits perched in his comfy chair – in the style of a sports car's racing seat – monitoring his computer screens and taking calls from all the different departments dotted around the docks.

From his desk, which is identical to his colleague's, Andy Whitham, who sits just a metre or two away, Steve can keep an eagle-eye out on all shipping movements in the Channel, right across to Calais and Dunkirk.

He can see when vessels leave and what time they're expected at Dover.

And that is just on one screen. On another he keeps track of docking times on the Port Information Management System, or PIMS.

On another he can keep a watch on the legal one-mile boundary of the port which helps him to organise which ships come in first and which ships can leave safely.

In addition to his hi-tech desk, he also receives real-time details of the tide, whether it's flooding north or south, its height and wind direction and speed via a separate monitor.

Steve, who grew up in Walmer and went to Castle High secondary school, explains: "It seems like I've got a lot going on and I suppose I have.

"There are busy and quiet times, just like any other type of work, but it's the busy times I enjoy the most.

"You have to be able to think on your feet and you definitely need to be able to multi-task.

"You have to have good special awareness too. I've been doing this job a year now and it doesn't seem that complicated to me.

"Seafaring is as complicated as you make it."

As well as all the hi-tech and frankly complex computer programmes, one can also find a trusty set of high-powered binoculars, which look like a pair you might find fixed on a seafront for tourists to use for the price of 20p, and a mega phone for when all else fails.

"We use them when we can't get in contact with a vessel, usually with what we call a rogue, which is often a yacht which hasn't been to Dover before," Andy reveals.

"Most sailors are very good and know about how everything works out there on the sea, but we get a few, usually foreign sailing vessels, who think they can just wander in amongst our busy shipping lane.

"They tend to only do it once after they see a great big ferry heading at them.

"They're spoken to and told of our practices but ultimately they're customers too."

As another ferry navigates its way past the tower, Steve reveals he used to be a second officer for P&O Ferries before he joined DHB.

Like many of the ten people assigned to the tower, he says his experiences with his previous employer helped prepare him for the job which he took to spend more time with his family.

The 33-year-old still works an impressive 12-hour shift, as does Andy and the eight others assigned to the tower.

It is clear that despite the isolation from the main areas customers and other port workers get to enjoy in the Eastern Docks, without people like Steve and Andy the harbour would ultimately descend into chaos.

There have been times when they have had to refuse entry to some vessels, some badly damaged or deemed a security risk, just to keep the port operational.

Some may recall the incident last year when two motor cruisers collided in the Channel, with one of them taking on water.

They were towed back to Dover but Steve, who was working in the tower, had to make the tough call to refuse them entry and order them to run aground on Shakespeare Beach.

"We couldn't have them sinking in the harbour or the entry lanes to it as it would have brought the port to a standstill.

"It was a call I had to make and I firmly believe it was the right one.

"Our priority is safety – and that means keeping the port and its employees and customers safe."

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