Ask fishing enthusiast Brent Kruger what it is that motivates him to handle the daily challenges of port agency work from his Durban office and he will simply respond: “I am hooked.”
Kruger, who is Inchcape Shipping Services’ Operations Supervisor for the east coast of South Africa, believes passion is an essential prerequisite for a job that entails managing the diverse requirements of around 25 ships calling at the port every month – from supply of spare parts, provisions and bunkering to cargo operations and crew changes.
And the 36-year-old father of two, who took up the position at Inchcape six years ago, appears to have that in bucketloads, having cultivated a keen interest in the sea from an early age.
Kruger, raised in the capital Pretoria, initially learned to dive in large pools near his home before plunging into the depths of the wider nautical world by exploring offshore coral reefs and subaquatic life, which inspired an affinity for marine ecology.
That interest subsequently expanded into surfing and fishing, and he notes proudly that his biggest catch was a 32kg sailfish that he landed while boating off Durban.
“The marine environment has always been a passion of mine, and I am also very passionate about nature and conservation. So sustainability is really part of my DNA,” Kruger says.
Not surprisingly, he pursued studies in this academic field and gained a national diploma in ecotourism and conservation management that culminated in experiential training at Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape, where he also joined a scuba diving centre running diving trips for tourists.
It was here that Kruger qualified as a dive master and also gained valuable basic training in boat-handling while working on small boats for diving excursions, which ultimately led to him being offered the position as harbour master at the small port to launch his boating career.
“This involved interaction with different kinds of boats, including fishing vessels, yachts and larger ships, and I was also able to use my diving background in performing salvage work. In addition, I had a lot of contact with local boat builders and owners,” he explains.
Fascination for shipping
Kruger, who also ran his own business hiring out houseboats to tourists for river excursions, first started working with Inchcape on the vendor side of the business by piloting launch boats to service ships lying at anchorage with the provision of supplies as well as crew changes.
By then he was a qualified captain and coxen, having also undergone training as a deck hand, and his ambition to move into greater things in shipping grew with each close encounter with large commercial vessels anchored offshore.
He was then given the opportunity to join and sail a newly commissioned boat from Port Alfred to Durban where the sight of myriad merchant vessels moored at the quayside fuelled his fascination for shipping. “I just wanted to know more about these cargo ships: why they were coming here, what they were carrying and who was servicing them,” he says.
Having been in regular contact with Inchcape personnel while serving as a vendor, Kruger finally was able to land his dream job at the company and dived into the new role with vigour.
Vital knowledge of local regulations
He is now responsible for coordinating the wide range of Inchcape port agency services catering for ships calling at both Durban and Richards Bay, of which Durban is the busiest port.
This entails overseeing a five-strong team of boarding clerks, DA and operational staff covering both ports, managing day-to-day operations, and arranging storage and forwarding of spare parts for customers from Inchcape’s new warehouse in Durban.
It also involves keeping abreast of local rules and regulations related to customs clearance, immigration and other areas from port authorities and government bodies so that accurate and updated information can be communicated via the team to vessel owners and charterers.
“Knowledge of local regulations is vital for efficient port turnarounds. I also have a hands-on approach to port agency operations as it is important for me to have a good working relationship with customers,” Kruger explains.
Asked what he enjoys about his work, he says: “Every day is different and presents new challenges, experiences and opportunities. The work we do for our principals is always varied and interesting. Fortunately, I also love meeting people and, in this job, one gets to work alongside people from many walks of life and different countries.”
A day in the life
A typical day for Kruger starts at 7am when he catches up on emails and checks ship movements at each port to determine optimal scheduling for Inchcape customers, advising their vessels to speed up or slow down as necessary to ensure on-time arrival. Berth planning meetings are also held daily so that port terminals are updated on scheduled ship arrivals.
The Inchcape team on the ground, which also provides local information for the company’s global market intelligence, assesses the requirements of each ship and coordinates the services to be provided, while a dedicated person is assigned to handle inquiries from the vessel.
Kruger says: “This also allows us to identify opportunities for faster port turnaround, such as coordinating timely delivery of spare parts dockside, that can save time and thereby has a direct cost impact for the customer.”
But Kruger, who is also a keen rugby player, says tackling the diverse needs of different ships within a limited timeframe for a port call is not without its challenges. And, as an avid golfer with a handicap of 24, he knows that efficient delivery is necessary to hit the mark.
Handling the pressure
“It is important to be punctual and disciplined so time management is essential, as well as teamwork. There is a lot to manage and limited time to turn things around given that we have to work according to a tight vessel schedule that creates some pressure, especially in coordination of last-minute deliveries or urgent services such as medical treatment,” he says.
“Being prepared with established processes in place and a reliable network of local vendors, as well as relying on the expertise of other Inchcape team members, enables us to handle such pressures in expediting a port call,” he says.
In addition, he believes effective communication and transparency, both within the team and with clients, are “massively important” as the vessel operator is heavily dependent on this for reliable and timely information, as well as gaining the necessary port documentation.
Unforeseen situations can though sometimes arise that demand quick-thinking and initiative. One such incident was when the towline snapped on an unmanned bulk carrier being towed by a tugboat off Mossel Bay, leaving the ‘dead’ vessel adrift and in danger of running aground.
Kruger and his team were called upon to coordinate an urgent salvage operation by arranging for another tug to get the stranded bulker into Durban port to reset the towing arrangement, which earned him the accolade of employee of the month in 2021.
Positive work culture
He is also responsible for safety, whether in relation to boarding a ship at anchorage or mitigating risk factors such as potential hazards for crews at port, while local crime is a further security issue, as well as possible stowaways.
Aside from being disciplined, Kruger highlights the key personality traits for port agency work as being a hard worker, flexible and open-minded to work with people from different cultures and backgrounds.
“As such, it is encouraging to be part of a positive work culture at Inchcape that is focused on good working ethics, transparency and sustainability. This is an added motivation to do a good job,” Kruger says.