Who are they?
Ship owners and charterers cannot be present at every port their ship docks at, or watch over every deal secured for employment; there simply isn’t enough time if they want to build their business. But, as you would expect, they also do not want to wash their hands of the day-to-day operations of these multi-million dollar assets. The middle ground comes in the form of a Ship’s Agent; a person or firm who transacts all business on behalf and under the direction of a ship owner or charterer.
An agent’s remit can be extremely varied and often agents specialise in one field of expertise, the most common of which are liner agency and port agency, although agents can be found in freight forwarding, haulage, and warehousing. Agents’ expertise allows them to advise on and handle all types of cargo.
What do they do?
A ship's agent acts on behalf of the ship owner, providing local knowledge and expertise as well as making sure that the owner's needs or requirements are met. The agent must be familiar with all the appropriate regulations and requirements relating to the port, area or sector in which they operate, to have a wide range of relevant contacts and be sufficiently well established and founded to be able to provide the level of service and support needed.
Jobs they might be asked to perform includes securing ship supplies, arranging crew changes, maintenance and repairs, husbandry, berthing, customs documentation and other formalities.
When a ship calls at a foreign port, the ship owner or charterer will want to ensure that the visit goes to plan. The Port Agent is the organiser that will do everything within his/her power to make sure that this happens on behalf of the ship owner or operator. For example, if there are language issues, the port agent will ensure that they are overcome; if there is paperwork to be filled in, the port agent will make sure it is perfect; if port services are needed for the ship call, the port agent will book them; and he/she will make sure the berth and stevedores are ready for the ship at its allotted time.
The port agent will be one of the first persons aboard the ship when it arrives, bringing mail, perhaps local currency, and in return he/she will be given a list of demands from the crew, such as marine fuel and lubricants, engine room spare parts, and fresh provisions. Then, when the ship leaves, the port agent will be responsible for tallying up all the costs that have been incurred during the visit for the ship owner’s account.
Liner trades cover more than overseeing the activity on the quayside; there is a link to be maintained between the manufacturers of goods to be shipped and the shipping lines that will carry the goods. A liner agent will “market” the transport offered by the shipping line, while balancing the satisfaction of the shipper.
Every shipment on the liner service must have the correct paperwork, which in the case of a large container ship could be in the hundreds of thousands. A liner agent will complete all that paperwork, or these days, complex electronic procedures, identifying the ownership of the goods, recording their precise description and weight, making an accurate detail of their destination, and ensuring that all legal obligations are met. All of this information needs to be received by the discharge port well before the goods reach the ship. Collection of payment for carriage of goods will also be organised by the liner agent.