Safe haven

The Port of Cork is the world’s second largest natural harbour, surpassed only by Port Jackson in Sydney, Australia. The size and depth of the harbour, coupled with its location on Ireland’s south coast, has made it an important port for maritime transport throughout history; today it remains the country’s second largest by trade volume, handling between eight and ten million tonnes annually during the last ten years.

When it began in the mid 18th century the port was known as the Cove of Cork and quickly became a key trading port for Ireland, the UK and wider world due to its position on the eastern edge of Atlantic seaway routes. In the 1960s, two key developments happened at the port. First, the advent of containerised shipping revolutionised sea freight and enabled break bulk to be more time and cost efficient than ever before; second, the rise in offshore drilling and oil energy saw refineries become an important feature of a country’s infrastructure. The Port of Cork became instrumental in these two developments, being ideally located for short sea container shipping as well as being chosen by the Irish government as the location for Ireland’s only oil refinery.

On March 3rd 1997 the Port of Cork Company took up regulatory and operational duties of the site, and it remains the statutory authority today, as commercial manager Captain Michael McCarthy explains: “Although we are a wholly owned semistate company under government ownership we operate like a limited liability company and exist to facilitate trade, just as all other Irish ports do. That means we do not receive state funding or government aid and must function as a commercial entity.

“We are unique, however, in that we own and operate all container, ro-ro, cruise and lo-lo terminals, whilst also being the regulator and controller of towage, pilotage and vessel traffic services (VTS). If a company wants to do business with any aspect of the port, we are a one-stop shop for quotations, berth availability, towage, pilotage or any other service they may need and can turn around a request within 20 minutes to half an hour.”

In 1999, soon after the Port of Cork Company took the reins of management, it introduced a strategic development plan that would guide the port’s progress over the next few decades. One of the most important facets of this plan was the need to expand the port’s facilities to cope with increasingly large vessels and greater volumes of both cargo and passengers passing through it.

“In addition to reviewing the planning decision we engaged with state agencies, stakeholders and local communities to ensure that issues and fears were addressed where possible,” says Michael. “We took their feedback onboard as part of the consultation process, integrating it with our priorities of water depth, vessel access and land transport connections. We have now finished the strategic review and are designing the new facilities that, once completed will be presented to local communities and the regulatory authorities for discussion. By early 2012 we hope to be in a position to lodge a new planning application, primarily for development in the Ringaskiddy lower harbour area.”

To ensure that development is in line with the expectations of users and in consultation with local communities, the Port of Cork Company worked extensively with its customer base. As an island nation import and export trade volumes are a vital factor in Ireland’s economy, accounting for 97 per cent of goods moving through its ports, so it was no surprise that many customers were proactive in consulting with the company. One important factor that arose from these discussions was the future of the energy sector and alternative sources of fuels.

Michael illustrates how the port is approaching this issue: “We have an appointed director on a new company called MERC3 (Maritime Energy Resource Centre), a joint venture between University College Cork, the Cork Institute of Technology and the Irish Naval Service. The Port Company has demonstrated its commitment by transferring over three acres of port land to the MERC3 project, which will look at the development of alternative energies such as wind, wave and tidal energy and is focusing on the future development of incubation units to expand the research capabilities.”

The port has a long and progressive relationship with the cruise liner industry and this has become another key development area for the Port of Cork Company. “It brings over 100,000 passengers and crew to the region,” highlights Michael. “We hired UK consultants GP Wild to carry out a study into that contribution it made to the local tourism industry and the results put it in the region of 73 euros per head, meaning a total of seven to eight million euros direct spend for the region. Combined with results from other studies, we estimate that cruise traffic passing through the Port of Cork amounts to more than 20 million euros of both direct and indirect spend.”

As well as a recent refurbishment of the cruise berth, further developments for the port included the recently constructed City Marina a 100-metre leisure marina integrating the Companies Leisure Strategy and Corporate Social Responsibility activities. The Cork City Council Docklands Plan, which included the construction of an opening bridge and retail and residential units into the port area, has been delayed due to the economic downturn in the country. Nonetheless, it remains a prospect for the future of the port, and while the Port of Cork is very supportive of the redevelopment, no development can take place until there is agreement on the relocation of the city cargo operations and funding/compensation for new facilities.

“I am constantly on the road talking to new companies about potential new projects and developments,” comments Michael. “We have three or four very active enquiries at the moment about new services, and are keen to capitalise on our capability to handle bigger ships. On completion of new facilities in Ringaskiddy, we will be the only Irish port that can handle the next generation of feeder vessels that are more than 200 metres in length with draughts of greater than ten metres; the port has unrestricted access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

The port’s strategic development plan is extensive and not a short-term strategy. With four stages extending over a 25 to 30 year period, the harbour will seek to maintain its position as the country’s leading deepwater port for all marine traffic passing through Ireland. Multinational and indigenous businesses are in absolutely no doubt as to the critical necessity of an efficient deepwater port serving both the national and regional economy.

Michael concludes with confidence in the future of both the port and the Port of Cork Company: “Our involvement in the community, our service to the nation and our impact on the environment are very important issues to us. By enhancing the attraction and environmental integrity of the harbour and continuing with best practice in everything we do, from containers to bulk and general cargo to cruise liners, we will strive to maintain our mission statement, which is ‘to promote and develop Cork as a world class port facilitating the efficient and environmentally sustainable movement of goods and people to and from the marketplace, while advancing the marine energy and leisure opportunities presented by Cork’s natural harbour’.” Undergoing major development projects Ireland’s multipurpose deepwater port Long and proud history