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Seeing Poole Harbour through the eyes of the Harbour Master

PUBLISHED: 09:55 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 11:39 28 February 2013

Brian Murphy, Poole's Harbour Master, aboard the pilot boat

Brian Murphy, Poole's Harbour Master, aboard the pilot boat

Seeing Poole Harbour through the eyes of the Harbour Master reminded Stephen Swann of what an amazing place it is

Seeing Poole Harbour through the eyes of the Harbour Master reminded Stephen Swann of what an amazing place it is


I live half an hour's drive from Poole Harbour. I have sailed on it, watched birds on it and just passed the time of day beside it. And, I am sorry to say, it is a place I take somewhat for granted. Now, I have no doubt that those people who live close to Sydney Harbour or San Francisco Bay are guilty of the same thing, yet just like these two distant locations, Poole Harbour is one of the great natural wonders of the world. Let me remind you of just what we've got right on our doorstep.

Poole Harbour is the second largest natural harbour in the world and the biggest in the Northern Hemisphere. Its coastline extends to more than 100 miles. It is a place of contrasts. Its western fringes are remote and wild, a landscape of tide-lapped heath and woodland, of wading birds and rare reptiles, a place internationally important for its wildlife. To seaward there are sandy beaches as good as, if not better than, anything you'll find on the shores of the Mediterranean, whilst eastward, such is the pulling power of the locality, there are houses with price tags in the several millions.

As for the harbour itself, here you will find all manner of activities and vessels. From yachts and dinghies to high-speed cross-channel ferries and humble freighters; from fishing boats, both commercial and sporting, to lifeboats from the RNLI headquarters; from newly launched luxury yachts to the RIBS of Royal Marine Commandos on exercise; from jet-skiing to water-skiing, kitesurfing and windsurfing - all are to be found on Poole Harbour's safe waters.

From the town of Poole itself, with its wealth of shops, pubs, bars and eateries, its leisure facilities and many places of interest, ply pleasure boats taking visitors on sightseeing trips around the harbour. To Brownsea Island, stronghold of the rare red squirrel, they go, and to the lovely old town of Wareham, and beyond the harbour's narrow entrance with its chain ferry they go to Old Harry Rocks, to Swanage and Bournemouth, even the Isle of Wight.

Amongst a whole host of other things, the man who is responsible for the safety of navigation in the harbour and exercising the harbour authority's operational powers with respect to the safety of marine activities in the harbour and its approaches, is Harbour Master Brian Murphy. It was Brian who reminded me of just what a fantastic place Poole Harbour is when I met up with him recently for a chat.

"I am honoured to have this job," he tells me as we look down the length of the harbour from the control tower on top of the Harbour Office. "Poole Harbour is a great place to work. I love it and I can honestly say that I can't wait to get to work in the mornings."

Born the son of a postman in Glasgow in 1964, Brian went to sea as a boy deckhand and immediately made up his mind that he wanted, in his words, 'to be the guy who wore the captain's hat'. He didn't hang about. By the age of 28 he had his Master Mariner's Class 1 Certificate and at the age of 32 was master of the City of Durban, a 55,000-ton container ship 260 metres long that carried 3,500 containers, 1,000 of which were refrigerated.

Brian remained deep-sea until he was 34, when he joined Condor working out of Poole as master of one of the fast catamarans. "It was a totally different job and a steep learning curve," Brian says. "Everything happens at a much faster pace on those things. You are doing 35 knots in a very busy seaway with 750 passengers and 200 cars aboard."

He remained some two years with Condor, only leaving when he was offered a post with the Poole Pilots Partnership. Never one to shirk a challenge, Brian got his Class 1 Pilot's Licence in 2001 and later took on the job as Assistant Harbour Master and Harbour Control Manager, finally becoming Harbour Master in April 2008.

"I guess I got the piloting bug," laughs Brian. "I am still a pilot. I love the job. It gets me out there on the water where it's all going on. I'll never forget my first job. I was called out at 3am on a pitch-black night. A howling gale was blowing and I had to take an old Russian timber ship from her berth down the harbour and out to the Bar Buoy. Everyone on the ship spoke Russian - it was a nightmare!"

Poole is a busy commercial-trust port that makes a significant contribution to the economy of the local area, whilst the harbour itself is home to a huge number and variety of pleasure vessels.

"Safety is of prime importance," Brian remarks. "People who have less consideration for other users - speeding, causing a nuisance, not observing the rules - will, if I have sufficient evidence, always be taken to court. It averages out at around nine a year. Fines can be up to 1,000, though 600 is average, plus court costs. We have seven patrol vessels varying from a tug to a jet-ski at our disposal to keep an eye on things. Believe me, while I'm in the job, bad behaviour on the water will never be tolerated."

Brian is also responsible for the provision and maintenance of buoys, beacons and moorings, ensuring the co-ordination and regulation of all vessels within the harbour and its approaches, and managing the pilotage service and harbour control. He is also responsible for developing and implementing emergency plans and procedures, for regulating dangerous goods in transit on ships, and for counter-pollution and waste-disposal plans.

I end our chat by asking Brian if he ever gets to thinking that he might like a somewhat less demanding job. "Never," is his reply which he delivers in such a way that leaves me in no doubt that he really means it. "When I was in the Merchant Navy I went all over the world and saw some pretty amazing places. Believe me, I know an amazing place when I see it and Poole Harbour is an amazing place!"

As for me, when I left Brian's company I took time out to walk along the quay and down towards Parkstone Bay. Across the water beyond Brownsea Island and the heathland, the hills of Purbeck looked smoky in the failing light of a short winter's day. Brian is right, of course, Poole Harbour is an amazing place and those of us who have it on our doorsteps are fortunate indeed. We just need a reminder now and again.

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