Port People- Alan Gilfillan

Port People: a look at the wide variety of careers available at Belfast Harbour. This month we speak to Boatmaster Alan Gilfillan.

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Name:  Alan Gilfillan
Position: Boatmaster (Workboat Garmoyle)
1. What does your average working day entail?

We gather for our morning briefings at 8am. Here all the individual Facilities Management teams will discuss in detail with their manager/foreman the list of jobs for that day. We discuss if extra help is needed from one or more of our specialist teams within the department; such as Cranes, Forklifts, JCBs, HGVs, Flatbeds, Vans, Lorries and Road Sweepers. If a boat is required we will decide which workboat is best suited for the job. If power tools are to be used we will check they are serviceable and the correct personal protection equipment is worn. We will also discuss who is supervising the team, weather reports, vessel and traffic movements, time restrictions (if any) and completion targets. Everyone will leave knowing exactly what they have to do, how they are going to do it and who they will have helping them.

Our jobs for the day could be carrying out routine maintenance of marine or floating plant, checking the position of channel buoys, repairing wooden beacons and navigational piles, carrying out marine surveys, retrieving floating debris, cleaning and maintaining marine facilities and equipment including navigational lights and solar panels, servicing the work boats, towing floating plant, completing statutory checks on all survival at sea equipment- basically checking that all marine and harbour facilities are safe and serviceable and ensuring the harbour is always looking its best.

2. What qualifications are required for your job?

You must hold a Maritime & Coastguard Agency Boat Masters Licence, Marine V.H.F. radio operator’s licence, Certificate in Firefighting and Sea Survival, Seafarer Medical Certificate, First Aid Certificate and have a clean Driving Licence.    


3. What other skills do you need in your role?

An excellent working knowledge of the inner and outer harbour and the ability to skipper different types of vessels owned by Belfast Harbour. You will also need to be able to tow and push vessels and plant and operate a Hiab crane. Other skills include welding, cutting and burning, operating a chainsaw, as well as use of an abrasive wheel and other power tools.

As a Boatmaster I also have to have the ability to correctly judge my speed when landing a workboat. Boats don't have brakes and so you have to judge the wind, tide and current while steering from the back of the boat almost 16 meters away. I have to position two rubber fenders at the front of the boat in the exact spot you want safely. All of this takes place on a very expensive vessel weighing over 40 tonnes.


4. What’s the best thing about your job?

The Belfast Harbour pension scheme and salary is possibly the best I've seen. We also have a private health care package, a profit related bonus, free secure parking, an income protection scheme, discounted Stena Line fares, injury/death in work policies and every year just before Santa comes we have our Christmas Party in the beautiful main hall of the Harbour Office. I feel that Belfast Harbour’s fantastic HR department genuinely have my best interests at heart. I would say that I enjoy every part of working at Belfast Harbour.


5. What’s the most common question people ask when they find out what you do?

They usually say “I would love a job like that, you are very lucky.”


6. What advice would you give to those considering a career in your profession?

The thing to aim for is your Boatmaster’s licence which is pretty much the same as a car driving licence only on the water. The difference being you must complete a minimum of 240 days on the water over a period of no less than two years before sitting your test. You'll probably want to start as a Deckhand first to get experience. Being a Skipper is a fantastic career choice as once qualified it is a universally accepted qualification so you can chose to work almost anywhere in the world and hopefully find your perfect job. 

Potential Boatmasters can download guidelines from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency website and they would be only too happy to answer any questions on all matters concerning working on the water.