Over recent months, a fair bit has been written about the demise of the port agent in the digital age, most of it by people who have never been the bridge between ship and port and who have little idea of the true role of port agents.
Inchcape Shipping Services (Inchcape) has a long history in port agency and is leading the sector into the digital age with its latest additions to its World of Ports (WoP) digital portal. After 10 years online, the specialist tool, which was originally designed for one of its major clients, has evolved into a product that will prove as essential to owners, operators and charters as the services of port agents have been through time.
Information about the 36,000 berths, 16,000 terminals and 4,600 ports, allows users to determine if their intended vessel will be able to be accommodated at the chosen port but that is just the beginning. Inchcape has used its long experience in the field to bring together the type of information that ship operators and charterers generally request from port agents when they are contemplating a port call or cargo shipment to or from the port to produce modules to handle the requests.
Aravind Prasath, Head of Delivery, World of Ports, explains that some of these such as port performance detailing average turnaround times, port restrictions for example on scrubber use or more mundane matters such as environmental protection requirements are already active in WoP but some new modules are just being incorporated.
First of these is the Port Cost Estimator (PCE) module. Ship operators, or their brokers, need to evaluate every potential offer of employment by performing a voyage estimate. Usually this is done using an app which performs the calculations for time and distance along with likely cargo quantity, but it is the variables such as port call costs and turnround times that are needed for an accurate assessment.
This would normally involve contacting agents at the ports and asking them for a proforma disbursement account. Agents can do this but not always immediately, and since three out of four requests never result in new business, some agents do not necessarily hurry to respond.
Inchcape by contrast has used its knowledge of port tariffs and charging basis (LOA, GT, DWT etc) to develop the PCE module which can be activated directly by the user just by logging on to WoP. The resulting estimate will be accurate within port agency norms but of course can be influenced by things such as arrival outside of hours, extended port stays and the like. While the estimate can be used immediately for voyage estimating, another click of the mouse will send a request to the port agency office concerned for a more detailed proforma.
Another of the new tools is the ability for the user to create customised fleet lists which can be used to trigger alerts. The lists are not limited to a user’s own ships but can be selected based on different parameters and for different reasons.
For example, a charterer may wish to know what geared Handymaxes are within a specified area at a certain time as these are the preferred vessels for their cargoes. Inputting the vessel type and size will identify all suitable vessels expected within the period. Another example could be a ship operator wishing to know what vessels might be in a position to compete for a fixture they would like to pursue. Information of this sort can be gleaned from competing tools but usually with much more difficulty because although the raw AIS data is available for individual vessels, it requires considerable effort to collate the data.
To make the alert function more useful, users can create zones of any size on a world map and request alerts when vessels enter those zones or identify ships within them heading for specific ports. There is no need for the user to constantly be using WoP as the alerts function can be set to deliver an email when any selected event occurs.