Part Four – Ships’ Agent
In 1972 again, out of work I responded to a job advertisement for a Shipping Officer/ships Agent with Wigmores Limited an international shipping agency in Fremantle. I was interviewed and offered the position. It was to be a big learning curve for me as it involved being in total charge of the port operations of a ship. My sea going experience had always been that the ship arrived off a port, was manoeuvred into its allocated berth, commenced cargo operations, finished cargo operations, and then sailed away to the next port. I had no idea what else was involved as it didn’t concern me. Now it did concern me. This job was totally different. A shipping officer/ships agent works for an agency that acts on behalf of the ship-owner and has the role of overall responsibility for the commercial operation of a ship during its time in port. I needed to have a wide range of expertise in Customs matters, Quarantine Regulations, and Immigration statutes. I also needed to have a good working relationship with harbour masters, towage companies, stevedores, waterside labour allocators, cargo shippers, surveyors, providores, the regular processes of crew signing-on and signing-off, of clearing inwards and outwards through Customs along with the competing demands of inward cargo consignees, outward cargo shippers and the ships’ owners and others. Communications were a vital part, especially with Forms that had to be completed accurately and on time. While I didn’t have to be an instant expert, I certainly needed to be alert to what needed to be done and more importantly when it had to be done. One overlooked Form or survey would throw the whole loading schedule out and delay sailing as I was soon to find out.
On one occasion I forgot to tell the Government Surveyor before we commenced loading a consignment of loose pig iron ingots which was classified as a ‘dangerous cargo’. I had lodged the Dangerous Cargo Form well in advance but had completely forgotten to have the space inspected by the Government marine surveyor before loading, only realising this after we had already tipped in about 60 tonnes!! I immediately instructed the stevedore supervisor to stop the loading, telephoned the surveyor and explained the situation to him. The surveyor shouted at me to unload the cargo and call him when the space was empty. The stevedore shouted at me because it threw out the loading plan for that cargo hold. The waterside workers shouted at me because they now had to manhandle the 60 tonnes of pig iron ingots one at a time back into skips for discharge. My manager shouted at me for making the mistake. The cargo was unloaded, the surveyor approved the very same stowage space and we started over again.
In this job it was also important that I maintained a friendly but firm disposition when dealing with waterfront unions and in some cases I had to be careful how far I went because, as is common with human nature, they press for an advantage but then just as easily think less of you when they gain it. One of the most usual situations I would encounter was with the Ship Painters & Dockers and revolved around what was called a ‘job and finish’. It worked something like this. One of the ships under our agency would arrive in Fremantle to discharge general cargo and then sail overnight to the Port of Bunbury to back load several cargo holds of bulk cargo before returning to Fremantle to load the other cargo holds with general cargo. This would mean having to have the particular cargo holds cleaned and surveyed before sailing from Fremantle so that the loading of the bulk cargo could commence immediately on arrival in Bunbury. Any delay would mean having wharf labour standing by on pay. But the hold cleaning could not be done until the particular cargo holds were empty of incoming cargo in Fremantle, and this meant they were usually not available until sailing day. The cleaning had to be done by shore side members of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union who worked for a ship repair and maintenance company.
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