The Boarding Agent
During my career in ship operations, I was frequently asked by people to describe my job in the shipping business. Mainly for the lay person, I would say being an operations boarding agent is 25 percent problem solver, 25 percent trauma doctor, 25 percent liaison staff and 25 percent concierge.
It is a difficult job requiring attention to detail, organization and prioritization skills and the ability to operate in an environment fraught with stress, requiring long periods of work with less than normal rest time. Due to this type of duty, boarding agents are normally young men or women who are not married. In this manner, it is like the military in that it puts heavy demands on your life and a strain on your family if married.
There is no book or manual that you can study to be a good boarding agent. It is a profession that requires training from senior operations staff and on the job experience. Training supervisors must have the patience to invest time in new staff and give them the opportunity to experience their duties. It is a good thing for new staff to experience failure and mistakes in order to learn their craft.
It is the only way for an operations agent to become self-reliant versus always calling their boss for a solution. I was fortunate to have a supervisor whose mantra was “Bring me your solutions, not your problems.” This meant your job was to work the problem to the level of your skill and then contact your boss if help is needed.
The next step was then to record what you had learned in each case for future use. Three words for a new operations boarding agent - WRITE IT DOWN! From 1975 to the mid 1990’s, I kept a notebook of my experiences in shipping that I often consulted. Some things changed over the years due to technology, etc., but having my notes was a lifesaver and a backstop for many events in my career in shipping.
Agency operations departments are in an odd way similar in structure to a ship. You have the Master (Operations manager), the Chief Mate (Assistant operations manager) and the lower officers (boarding agents). The manager as with the Master is the senior person with the most experience and knowledge. You start as a boarding agent and learn your craft. As time passes, most agencies will promote from within, and you will have an opportunity to move up the ladder. It is also possible that another agency may have an immediate need for a supervisory position that you can be considered for instead of waiting for your chance with your present employer.
This was exactly my experience with my agency in Baltimore. I was the assistant operations manager for an office which handles the second highest level of ship calls in the US. I got the chance and accepted the job as manager of the New Orleans office which at that time was the largest office for ship calls. The excellent training by my boss allowed me to be prepared to handle this position albeit in a different port of which I had no knowledge. I was taught to be self-reliant; I was able to quickly acclimate myself to the new location with its different customs and procedures.
The practice of using agents at US ports has both a historical and governmental history. In the modern era, foreign ship owners and or operators were required to employ a US based agency to comply with domestic bonding and insurance requirements. In the past and even today, some liner vessel operators have set up their own US based operations including operations personnel.
Liner ships and non-liner ships are handled in a different manner due to their port schedules and cargo requirements. Liner ships call at multiple ports and mainly on previously scheduled dates and ports. Agents for liner vessels are normally paid on a fixed contract basis often with provisions for additional charges i.e. overtime and car hire.
Non-liner ships and or full cargo ships are normally employed or as they say in the shipping world chartered on a voyage basis. As such, the appointment of the agent is either chosen by the vessel owner or the vessel charterer. Owners will often solicit quotes from various agents to handle the vessel if they control this process.
However, if the vessel charterer controls the appointment, the choice of the agent is theirs and as such is often steered to a favored agency who in some cases is associated with the charterer. Many agents solicit this type of activity from major charterers and or cargo receivers. This process also applies to cargo loaded in the US for export. For obvious economic reasons, agents prefer charterers appointment view they do not have to complete with other agents with the vessel owners for the agency appointment.
After an appointment, the boarding agent sends a proforma request for funds to the vessel owner. This funding consists of port expenses which include but are not limited to pilots, tugs, lines, dockage, government charges and of course agency costs. Receipt of these advance funds is critical for the agency to satisfy the requirements of the employed port vendors. Accurate estimation of these port costs is vital to avoid large open balances which might be difficult to collect from overseas clients. It is also vital for the agency to receive advance funds for any unexpected costs for events after arrival in port which are not included in pre-arrival funding proforma. In some cases, the Principal (the party the agent is working for: owner or operator of the vessel) may have a contract vendor i.e. tugs, however most of the charges must be paid by the agent.
In past days and particularly before the advent of E-mail, advance communication with the vessel by the agent was critical. In addition to getting ETA’s for the pilots, agents would request and receive pertinent ship information needed by authorities and or the terminal. This function is much enhanced with the use of E-mail and allows for much more detailed messages versus the limit of telex and or ship to shore communication. The pre-arrival contact is also vital in ascertaining vessel requirements i.e. vessel supplies, crew changes, fuel delivery and other important vessel requirements.
Prior to the ship arrival, the agent must file an application with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) i.e. Form 3171. This application includes the agency bond details and gives pertinent information regarding the ship’s itinerary and cargo plans. Since 9/11, the vessel is also required to file an Electronic Notice of Arrival (ENOA) 96 hours prior to arrival from a foreign port and 24 hours if a US coastal port is applicable.
Initially, this type of pre-arrival notice was done by the respective agent or applicable third parties. However, over time and due to technology advances including email capability on ships, the ships can handle this function directly or the vessel owners through computer applications could handle this function.
The agent arranges for the ship arrival either at the berth or anchorage if applicable. CBP staff are arranged for ship boarding if applicable or merely entrance and clearance in the marine office. Pilots, tugs and line handlers are arranged based on the vessel’s ETA. In many cases, the agent’s pre-arrival message is critical to assist these vendors regarding any special requirements by the ship to facilitate docking.
For any vessel arriving from a foreign port, the agent arranges for CBP to attend the vessel to clear the crew. In past times, the vessel was required to fly a quarantine flag from the ship’s mast until the ship had been boarded by the respective government agency to ensure the vessel and or its crew was safe to interact with any persons boarding the ship.
This practice has gradually slacked off over the years unless there is declared emergency or illness onboard the ship. As a rule, no one other than the authorities and the agent are permitted onboard a foreign arrival. In addition, cargo and or bunkering operation are also generally not allowed until the ship has been cleared by CBP. Exceptions are sometimes allowed depending on circumstances of the respective ship. After the vessel arrival, the agent communicates with the Principal to confirm the ship arrival and port schedule.
In Port Duties
The function and duties of a boarding agent while his ship is in port can be very routine and or an all-consuming logistical nightmare. It is a common adage among agents that 20 percent of the ships that you handle cause 80 percent of your problems. That is to say that most of the ships you handle fall into the realm of normal activity and requirements for an operating ship. With proper pre-arrival contact, many of these functions can be accomplished without much fanfare.
On the other hand, ships with emergencies, casualties or accidents result in significant agency work and time. Like cars, ships have mechanical issues that require attendance and or repair work. Vessels must comply with both domestic and international safety and operating standards and are often delayed by authorities until the issues are resolved. The agent must know who to contact and what will be needed to affect a solution. Over time, agents learn how to address these types of issues which are important to their principal.
Delays to ships can be very costly to the vessel owner or operator and as such the skill and knowledge of the agent can make the difference in repeat business. International companies communicate with each other and getting a bad reputation in this industry can be devasting to your future work. I believe it can be best summed up with the statement that the best agents are primarily pro-active and not reactive. All agencies with experienced staff can be reactive to a problem or emergency. The ability to be pro-active in your work based on experience and attention to detail is extremely vital to your handling of ships under your control.
I will give you a typical example of the difference between the two points of view. A vessel’s principal sends the agent a message announcing an intended crew change while in port. It is often the case that the departing crewmembers will be paid off prior to their departure from the ship. This often necessitates a cash to Master (or CTM which is usually local currency disbursed to the master of the vessel by the agent) while in port. The vessel is indicated for a weekend arrival.
It is often the case within a principal’s office that the crew changes and CTM are handled by different departments. What would happen if the party at the principal who handled CTM was on vacation and the funds were not advised and or sent to the agent? The weekend comes and the Master asks the agent on Saturday where is the CTM to pay off the crew? The agent says I am sorry, but we did not receive any word regarding a CTM for this vessel. This would be the response of a reactive agency. Perhaps the agency has some emergency funds on hand.
Alternatively, the crewmembers would go to a hotel for departure on Monday. These are all additional costs that will be incurred by the vessel owner and would necessitate additional funding to the agency. In the post 9/11 shipping world, the crew change might even be denied by CBP subject to the nationality of the departing crew and their visa status. Even if the fault lay with the ship owner, the blame and extra work will fall on the agent.
On the other hand, a proactive agent will acknowledge the message with the intended crew change and automatically inquire of the ship owner if a CTM is indicated for this ship. This is especially relevant for a ship arriving close to a weekend and or holiday. In this way, the inquiry can serve as a reminder to the owner of the need to advance funds for the CTM prior to the weekend always keeping in mind time difference with principal's office. A proactive agent will also investigate and offer choices to the principal regarding work schedules, bunkering options and vessel routings from the designated port.
Based on local and national experience, a proactive agent is in an excellent position to be of great help to a principal seeking the next employment of their vessel. The principal will also lean on the local agent for recommendations of local vendors and or suppliers including but not limited to ship chandlers, ship repair vendors, hotels and transportation vendors. A top priority for all agents is to represent their client to the best of their ability while arranging for the prompt dispatch of the vessel. All ship owners greatly appreciate and remember the agents who handle their ships professionally and affect the greatest cost savings to their firm.
Emergencies, Events and Safety
It is when emergencies and extraordinary events occur that the skill of a boarding agent is most tested. Based on their performance, the agent will either be appreciated and or scrutinized by the respective Principal. Accidents and or incidents will happen with ships just like they do in all other sectors of life.
It is critical that agencies and ports have established protocols for emergencies, accidents and unusual events. On arrival in port, the agent must provide to the Master a sheet with complete agency and emergency contacts including phone and VHF radio details. This contact sheet must include contacts for US Coast Guard and any companies for oil and or chemical spills. A ready list should always be on hand for vendors connected with ship repairs and other emergencies. It is very important that the agent provide all information to the Master regarding any hazardous cargo to be loaded or any other cargo information relating to vessel carriage of any label cargoes.
Information on arrival to the Master should also include details regarding possible weather events and or port activity that might affect the vessel while in port. Any pertinent details regarding the terminal and berth scheduled for the vessel is also vital to the vessel’s Master. The credo of IT IS NOT WHAT YOU KNOW BUT WHO YOU KNOW is applicable but not exclusive to an operations agent. It must be a combination of agency knowledge and experience in addition to being ready to follow up to date protocols and contact parties for these types of events.
The importance of safety in the shipping world cannot be over-emphasized. Safety for an operations agents covers numerous areas. First, the use of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) is mandatory and should never be neglected. The agent should have an existing protocol for safety for all staff and the PPE in some cases varies depending on the staff’s duties. It is also critical for agents to be schooled in safety practices and behavior that enhance their ability.
To operate safely. There is often an attitude of some staff who say that will never happen to me. A stress on safety must be drilled into the consciousness of all agency staff to make it a priority and not just a formality. No one wants to have to experience a tragedy to drive the point of safety home, but sadly often that scenario plays out for agents and ships. It is also important for agents to be aware of vessel safety protocols and procedures in the performance of their duties.
Onboard the vessel. An agent must also be aware of and comply with any safety guidelines that relate to the marine terminal facility.
Post Ship Departure Responsibilities
Of course, the boarding agent’s job is not completed when the ship departs. Post departure communication to the agent’s ship client is the main priority along with any relevant communication with the agent at the next port of call. In many cases, the agent must handle the forwarding of material and or documents to the relevant party. These materials often include but are not limited to bunker and lube oil samples, crew changes, ship supply deliveries and miscellaneous items related to the operation of the ship.
The agent is also responsible for any required US government post departure documentation and reports along with information to third parties i.e. marine terminals, stevedores etc. In the post 9/11 environment, the agent must also review and remind the ship’s Master of any departure requirements which are the sole responsibility of the vessel.
Evolution of Technology
As in all aspects of business, the evolution of technology has resulted in countless changes for agents in the operation of ships. The starting reference point for this report is the late 1960s and the 1970s. Unlike the current presence of computers, I-phones and the internet, technology in those days was much more basic and, in some ways, more complicated and time intensive. For example, messages to and from the ship had to be sent via ship to shore radio. These messages were charged by the letter and as such abbreviations for common terms and words were used. ETA meant estimated time of arrival. HFO meant heavy fuel oil. CTM meant cash to Master.
During the normal workday, these messages in addition to all telex traffic came to the Western Union machines in the agent’s office. However, after hour messages received by the US radio stations were called into by phone to the duty person and was then transmitted to the office telex machine. If needed, an after-hours message could be dictated to the radio station or a reply could be sent from the office if the agent was nearby.
Outbound telex messages had to be typed using a yellow paper tape with perforations which then had to be queued in the machine for outbound calls. The tape was saved and marked with the date and a reference for storage in case of a need for resending. A paper copy of all messages was printed and saved in a master file by date. Unlike today, a message could not be sent just once to multiple parties. Each party had to be dialed, connected and transmitted individually.
In comparison to modern computers, the primary instrument in the office was the typewriter. As the copy machine was still in its infancy and very expensive, very few ships had copy machines onboard. A vital tool to the operations agent was carbon paper. US Customs paperwork had to be typed and or clearly printed by hand.
Another complication was that shipboard typewriters often had the alphabet of the ship’s country. For example, typewriters on a Soviet ship used the Cyrillic alphabet which was useless in the US. Shipping documents were normally typed i.e. dock receipts, delivery orders and or Shipper’s Export declaration.
Shipping records were maintained in paper files. Beginning in the 1970’s, the first generation of computers i.e. floppy discs began to emerge and afterwards records could be typed onto the discs and maintained both electronically and by paper files. As time progressed and computer became more sophisticated, the manual and or electronic typewriter was gradually phased out. In present day, the computer acts as a typewriter and data storage unit that can also now be carried onboard the vessel and through the Internet prepare documents and send data on a real time basis.
Regarding cellphones, these were not available until the mid to late 1970’s. They were large and cumbersome with a limited battery life. I was fortunate with my first employer at that time to have units that had both a phone and a two-way radio for use in the field. We had a repeater antenna on our office building and on the Bay bridge which was adjacent to the deep-water anchorage commonly used by vessels awaiting berthing. Of course, we could not send messages with these units and had to rely on office staff during the day and trips to the office after hours to send message traffic. In the 1980’s, the advent of fax machines assisted in sending critical papers on a real time basis.
Up until this time, important shipping documents had to be delivered in person and often by hand to guarantee contractual obligations in connection with the governing charter party. These deadlines if not met could result in significant costly penalties to the agent’s Principal. Copies of endorsed documents were vital in case of any legal dispute and or contractual legal battles. The vital paperwork can now be sent electronically to the necessary parties saving both time and money.
Over time, the technology has morphed into the electronic wonderland that we presently enjoy with phones in boarding agent’s hands that are in effect a mobile office instrument. What agents in past years would not have given to have the present modern capability at their fingertips.
U.S. Government Agencies
The role of government entities involved in the shipping world has also changed over the years both in policy and technology. Going back to the starting point of this paper, US Customs officers boarded every ship on arrival regardless of port origin. The ship’s last port clearance was scrutinized by the officer in connection with the ship transit time. This was often the case when ships arrived from ports near Florida and the Bahamas. These locations were a hot bed of drug smuggling and other illegal activities.
If the transit time appeared to be unusual, the officer would demand to see the ship’s log and would require a legal statement by the ship’s Master regarding events which resulted in a longer than normal transit time. These events could include vessel distress calls, bad weather and or vessel engine problems. The officer also reserved the right to require a vessel inspection if the situation warranted same. The boarding officer would endorse the arrival papers prepared by the boarding agent and signed by the Master. It was common for all agents to be a Notary Public since in the early days the master’s signature on the master’s Oath CF1300 had to be notarized. Some states requirements for notary are more strict.
If the vessel was a foreign arrival, the ship was also boarded by US Immigration and the USDA/PPQ agency. It was mandatory for the vessel to fly the Quarantine flag and the master to ensure no one boarded the ship prior to its clearance. The immigration officer would check the ship’s crew visa status to determine who could go ashore. The officer would have a large notebook with records of all seaman that had to be verified. If a problem with any of the crew arose, the crewmember would be detained onboard the vessel or in some cases would be required to be deported at the ship’s expense.
All crew changes had to be funneled through the Immigration office regarding joining and departing crew. The USDA/PPQ officer would board the vessel to check for any crew illness and or problems with onboard pets. In the “old days,” this medical inspection would include a physical check of all crew members for venereal disease. This officer would also inspect the kitchen area for cleanliness and the vessel’s garbage. Unlike now, most ships would arrange for a shore vendor to receive the voyage garbage for disposal.
Foreign arrivals at times also included the US Coast Guard. This was particularly the case when the vessel had reported any problems prior to berthing. The Coast Guard also performed required inspections of the vessels to ensure compliance to US regulations. Vessel departures could be delayed until any deficiencies were rectified. Special Interest Vessels (SIV) also necessitated attendance by the US State Department. These ships were mainly Warsaw Pact parties i.e. the USSR and other communist countries.
In the case of the Soviet ships, the State department acted in conjunction with the Immigration officer to check the crew. It was not uncommon for the Soviets to attempt to smuggle in persons to spy on the US. In addition, the ships from these areas were not allowed to call at or come near to US ports with military presence. These included ports like Norfolk, San Diego, Jacksonville and many others. Some ports were also excluded if they were involved the Department of Defense contracts i.e. shipbuilding. These type ships were also subject to frequent spot crew musters and in the case of the Soviets a final crew muster prior to departing US waters.
In addition to the US Customs document check onboard, the agent was required to bring all paperwork to the Customs House Marine Desk for processing. The check on the vessel was called the Preliminary Entry (PE). The process at the Marine desk was the Formal Entry (FE) and Customs held the ship’s documents until the vessel was cleared. A foreign departure required a separate form on legal size paper while a coastal departure used the CF1301 and in later years the CF1300 which had been modified to include data from the CF1301.
All manifests for import cargoes were in paper form only. Upon arrival at the first US port, the agent would have to prepare a Traveling Manifest that represented all the US cargo onboard in order by port and BL number sequence. Each page of the traveler was numbered at the first US port. The BL number had to follow the US Customs guidelines in order to easily identify the port pairs involved. The first port and each subsequent port had to present their manifests when making Final Entry at each port. The manifest pages had to match to permit cargo entry and clearance by the importer. Any manifest changes had to be requested in writing with US Customs on their designated form. Any discrepancies in the paperwork could have severe implications including but not limited to fines, cargo seizures and a requirement to return the cargo to its origin.
With regard to export cargo, the agent had the responsibility to file the required Shippers Export Declaration (SED) and the adjoined Bill of Lading (BL) with Customs within four (4) business days after the clearance of the ship and not the departure date. Any cargo for restricted ports i.e. Warsaw Pact required that the SED/BL had to filed with the ship’s clearance. In addition, any cargo loaded to a vessel in connection with any export license rules i.e. State Dept. also had to be handled and processed by the agent under the applicable guidelines for each department. In some cases, with an emphasis on hazardous cargo, the agent had to arrange USCG and National Cargo Bureau (NCB) presence to witness the loading and stowage of the cargo.
Government attendance was also performed at the anchorage if needed. A foreign arrival ship had to be boarded within 48 hours and a coastal vessel within 24 hours. Ships loading or discharging bulk cargoes i.e. grain, coal, petroleum required onboard inspections by NCB and the USDA in addition to the above parties already listed. Waivers to the above rules would only be considered in connection with bad weather that would make a stream boarding unsafe for all parties.
Many ships without deck cranes could be boarded by helicopter if weather conditions prevented launches from operating. This was a common problem in northern ports where ice condition was often present. Ice conditions in some ports required the use of tugs to act as an icebreaker to get to the vessel.
Agents at these ports would also have to arrange for tugs to attend and break up the ice around the ship at the anchorage to permit movement to the main channel. Attention to this duty was vital to avoid delays and save money for the vessel. It was also common in these areas for vessels which had remained berthed for an extended time to have tugs break up the ice surrounding the ship at the dock prior to departure. It was not uncommon for the USCG to regulate ship movements in ice conditions and when situations warranted require ice breaker convoys using tugs.
On the “Lighter Side”
It was not all drudgery and hard work for an agent. You were able to meet people from all over the world and experience their culture. For the ships which called on a frequent basis, you were able to develop friendships which enhanced your working relationships. You could selectively try cuisine from different cultures while being careful to not get ill. There never seemed to be a shortage of alcohol which also could be enjoyed keeping in mind your job requirements. That often was the challenge in those days!
From my experiences, I enjoyed the friendship of numerous Masters who called on a regular basis. The one Master from the Ukraine after speaking with me on the subject returned from his holiday with a beautiful Matryoshka doll for my daughter. The Chief Mate on one of the Soviet passenger ships who smuggled me two bottles of rare Georgian champagne. The one Ukrainian master and his wife who I was able to assist with a shopping trip to a Macy’s store which had to be the highlight of her life and a large dent in his wallet. The one Russian captain who I took to a baseball game but who seemed to enjoy the American beer and food more than the game!
There were also sad experiences. The loss of a regular calling liner ship at sea with a popular German master and his wife was a sobering moment. Accidents and deaths onboard ships were a burden both professionally and personally.
The people that you work for and with also made the job enjoyable. On a personal note, what I relished the most was the challenge of the job. It was never ever boring in shipping. You were presented with a problem or situation and you worked to solve it. You then filed that information away for future use and experience. You learned to be a self-starter while working with your fellow employees toward a common goal.
There is an old proverb that states “The more things change the more they remain the same.”
The work of a boarding agent I believe spans both sections of the above quote. It is acknowledged that technology has changed in many ways how we operate in the shipping world. Cellular phones have replaced landlines and payphones. Computers, copiers and printers have made obsolete the typewriter, telex and the mimeograph machine.
However, the job of the boarding agent remains a challenging profession. It still requires a lot of long hours including weekends and often holidays. It still demands an attention to detail and the skill to prioritize duties to affect solutions that are timely and cost saving to the respective Principal. The agency itself must be competitive in the marketplace without forfeiting its core values and policies in the performance of the job.
Many agents affect cost savings by minimizing onboard presence by providing a cellphone to the Master. This is great for the owner in Greece who is watching the bottom line, but it is not generally preferred by the Master. This is particularly true when the vessel is in an isolated area of the port or if the Master has special requirements. In order to compete, the agent must be able to convince the Principal that he can offer a better service product than the bargain basement agency. While it may cost a bit more, the Principal will receive much better service.
It is common for a ship’s Master to write a voyage report to their head office for each port call. This report can place the agent in either a good or bad light depending on their respective performance. In my experience, I often had ships with more than one agent involved. There were countless times when the other agent did not perform or in some cases did not even attend the ships departure. The Master would ask me to take ashore mail and or parcels for his head office that the other agent failed to handle. As a professional courtesy, I would agree but I would remark to the Master to please note in his voyage report that my agency performed this task as requested and that perhaps in the future his Owner would remember to pay a little bit more to use our services and not a discount agent.
Throughout my career, I have always been amazed how many ship owners operating a multi-million-dollar vessel will always penny pinch on an agent when that agency is responsible for handling the ship while in port. The good agent will save the owners many times over the fee that they charge while a bad agent’s performance can result in higher costs and possible ship delays. The old proverb “You get what you pay for” would appear to apply in this demanding profession.
It is a hard job to master, but one that can give you a good foundation for your future work career in whatever field you choose.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.