Meet the man who went from being a DJ in Turkey to harbourmaster of Portsmouth's port

A Maersk container ship at Portico, Portsmouth International Port's cargo terminal.
A Maersk container ship at Portico, Portsmouth International Port's cargo terminal.
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Bar his passion for his work and the sometimes unsociable hours it brings, there is little to connect the dots between Ben McInnes' past and present careers. 

The 39-year-old born-and-bred Portsmouth boy spent his teenage summers DJ-ing at a resort in Bodrum, Turkey. He passed the winters after that pulling pints, making bunks and washing dishes as an assistant steward on P&O Cruises' former Pride of Bilbao.

Two of the tug boats that haul huge vessels into the port. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Two of the tug boats that haul huge vessels into the port. Picture: Habibur Rahman

The latter job, which he believes he saw advertised within these pages more than 20 years ago, was the first time he went to sea from the city.

Now a dad of two little girls, he finds himself a month into the lofty role of harbourmaster at Portsmouth International Port.

The Portsmouth City Council asset is of growing importance to the city’s prosperity and he knows it – not least with Brexit looming, once the goalposts of deals and extensions stop shifting.

And there are plans to extend the site’s cruise berths to welcome bigger new vessels.

Portsmouth International Port's new harbour master, Ben McInnes, left, and Rupert Taylor - his predecessor.

Portsmouth International Port's new harbour master, Ben McInnes, left, and Rupert Taylor - his predecessor.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t Ben’s penchant for spinning decks that paved the way for the career he now enjoys, but a 12-year stint in the Royal Fleet Auxiliary and six years as the port’s deputy harbourmaster after that.

He finds it just as hard to plot the lines of correlation between then and now as others might.

‘When I was washing dishes on P&O I had a name badge made up as a joke – Captain Ben McInnes,' he says.

‘It’s now a massive honour to be harbourmaster and I don’t think I ever thought I would achieve this with a fairly average set of GCSE results.

Portsmouth International Port. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Portsmouth International Port. Picture: Habibur Rahman

‘I used to sail a lot with Portchester Sailing Club so I was always interested, but there was a point I knew I had to start looking for a proper job.

‘I met cadets on the P&O ship and we spoke about how they got into it. I later got drafted into the RFA and went from cadet to first officer.

‘Looking back, I got there fairly quickly, but I was always out for my next promotion as soon as I could get there and I was lucky to find a career.’

After ditching the pot washing and the ’90s 7-inches, Ben’s time in the RFA brought what he describes as a ‘James Bond lifestyle’, spent in part making ‘secret’ phone calls to Whitehall from across the globe.

Harbourmaster Ben McInnes steering the tallship Georg Stake into harbour

Harbourmaster Ben McInnes steering the tallship Georg Stake into harbour

All the while his team was notching up drugs busts, helping with relief efforts and scoring other maritime successes in Mexico, Antarctica, Brazil, Uruguay, Georgia and other nations.

His days now tend to begin in the comfort of an office in the city he calls home, dealing with e-mails, but the quirks of each shift are every bit as crucial.

As head of the Portsmouth Pilotage Service, it’s for him to lead and liaise with the group responsible for guiding commercial and leisure vessels safely into city waters – whether that's Portsmouth International Port, its cargo terminal Portico, the Camber Docks or Gunwharf Quays.

These can vary from top-heavy tall ships, like those used by the Tall Ships Youth Trust, to deep-hulled, 211-metre Maersk mammoths that bring in fruit by the container-load every Thursday.

Meeting these behemoths at the Nab Tower in the Solent, Ben says, signals the start of an adrenaline rush that can last hours.

‘In a way we steal the thunder from the captain a little bit because we get to place the last piece of the puzzle and finish the job,' he says.

Pilot Nick Hardesty guides a container ship into harbour

Pilot Nick Hardesty guides a container ship into harbour

‘We go on to that ship for two hours, we drive that ship into Portsmouth, park it using tug boats, shake the captain's hand, then off we walk feeling high on adrenaline.

‘It’s a high-paced environment, but we’re probably doing the most exciting part of the ship’s journey.

‘What happens in those two hours can be more than what happens crossing the Atlantic.’

Before all this can happen Ben and his colleagues must get up on to the ship’s bridge for a two-way exchange that determines how that particular vessel should be berthed.

Portsmouth Harbour's depth and narrow entry, the wind, the current and each ship’s own constraints make this manoeuvre a science.

‘When we join the ship we hand over all information about the port and what we’re going to do,’ says Ben.

‘The captain tells us all about his ship – how fast it goes, how quickly it slows down – then you negotiate over which plan you’re going to use and why.’

Like anything, practice makes perfect and the port’s commercial and safety interests dictate each ship should arrive unscathed.

So Ben, and harbour pilots Nick Hardesty, Tim Cummins and Jerry Clarke, practice berthing new ships before they even make it to Portsmouth.

This foresight can assist their risk assessment duties, thanks to a modern simulation centre at Lakeside North Harbour.
Fuelled by Wärtsilä technology, it gives harbourmasters and pilots access to a mock-up bridge that mimics the aesthetics and ergonomics of ships destined for the city.

As someone who has fallen in love with work on the water, Ben believes more young people ought to broaden their horizons and challenge themselves by giving it a go.

‘I think if I could go back and talk to myself at 17 or 18, I would say going to sea is a fantastic career,’ he says.

‘We’re an island nation supported by ships and imports – we will always need sea trade.

‘I would thoroughly recommend a career at sea for any young person looking to travel the world.

‘There are fantastic opportunities to progress.’

YES, WE HAVE SOME BANANAS – 70 PER CENT OF THOSE UNZIPPED IN UK

Portsmouth International Port contributes £390m to the national economy and £189m to the local economy, with 5,590 jobs overall. 

And 2,410 of these are based in the local area and its supply chain.  

In 2017 the port handled £700m of non-EU trade through Portico, with the import of bananas amounting to £330m. In that year the city was responsible for importing half the UK’s bananas, but the number is now 70 per cent since major shipping line Geest brought its work back to the city. 

Portsmouth International Port is the top municipal port in the country for managing non-EU fruit and vegetables. 

Its ferry operations play a significant role in its success too, with 80 per cent of passengers travelling to Spain doing so via Portsmouth, with popular routes to France also. 

KEY HARBOUR FACTS

Portsmouth International Port (Pip) is the Competent Harbour Authority for Portsmouth under the Pilotage Act 1987.

That means it has been given statutory powers relating to the provision of pilotage in its waters.

The port has two pilots on duty 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  Pip pilots carry out about 1,000 ship movements every year. Portsmouth has two harbourmasters, the Queen’s Harbourmaster for the MOD, and Harbourmaster Pip for commercial activity.

Four pilots are employed by Portsmouth City Council at Portsmouth International Port.

Pilots join ships 11 miles out to sea and climb a rope ladder to board the ship.

Harbourmaster Ben McInnes at Portsmouth International Port

Harbourmaster Ben McInnes at Portsmouth International Port