Millions of tonnes of cargo moving through the Port of Cork every year

If the Port of Cork is a bellwether for economic activity in the county and wider southern region then all boats are most definitely lifting. Gráinne McGuinness reports.
Millions of tonnes of cargo moving through the Port of Cork every year
Paul O'Regan, harbour master and chief operations officer, Port of Cork, pictured at Tivoli container terminal. Picture Denis Minihane

As 2018 draws to a close Port of Cork chairman, John Mullins, and Harbour Master, Captain, Paul O’Regan, report a year of increased activity across a number of areas.

The growing popularity of Cobh as a cruise destination frequently commands headlines but it is just one of many areas of activity for the busy port.

Across its four different locations - Tivoli, Ringaskiddy, Cobh and the City Quays — a team of around 150 staff keep the port operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, driving the import and export of goods consumed and manufactured right across the island of Ireland.

The unusual weather in spring and early summer helped contribute to the port’s bumper year, with a 30% increase in bulk cargo.

“Our biggest area of growth this year has been around animal feed, particularly because of the issues in early summer,” Mr Mullins explains.

“The R&H Halls were bringing in a lot more feed because the growth wasn’t that good.”

And, as Capt O’Regan explains, what comes into the port in one format, is likely to eventually leave in another.

“What happens in Ireland, particularly in Cork, is that whatever comes in as raw bulk material to feed animals goes into the chain,” he said.

“Be it the production of milk powder, cheese or butter, we see a huge amount of that cargo go back out through Tivoli in containers as a finished product. So a rise in bulk is always going to lead to a rise in other areas.”

The Port of Cork operations are undergoing considerable growth in recent times.
The Port of Cork operations are undergoing considerable growth in recent times.

In total, close to 1 million tonnes of bulk product will be handled by the port this year, primarily at Ringaskiddy. Another significant import comes courtesy of the weekly visit by the enormous Maersk ship, travelling from South America.

It brings with it fresh fruit for distribution around the country, with bananas one of the largest regular deliveries.

“That Maersk delivery is the biggest ship we see, we are lucky that Ringaskiddy is a port large enough to take the very biggest ships,” Mr Mullins says.

Ringaskiddy’s productivity has also been boosted by the new Cork - Santander ferry route, which began in May. It transports passengers but has seen strongest interest from hauliers.

The port largely serves the Munster and south of the country but the Santander route draws nationwide interest.

“The ferry is being used by trucks as far north as Belfast,” Mr Mullins says.

“Because it is a direct route and they are avoiding the [UK] landbridge, it is a direct 36 hours and they are in Santander, we are seeing that that is more of a national-type route.

“There are no traffic lights between Cork and Belfast now so if you are on or near that arterial route, there is an option to hop into Ringaskiddy rather than a congested Dublin.”

“Since the Cork Santander ferry has started, the tempo has gone up, we have gone from 30 ferry calls a year to 170,” Capt O’Regan says.

“It is fantastic for the region but puts a huge amount of pressure on port operations The guys have reacted very well to it, this is where we have increased our staff numbers.”

Increase is putting it mildly, Capt O’Regan estimates the port recruited more people in 2018 than the previous five years combined. In addition to the other bulk cargo, the millions of tonnes of oil and oil products produced at Whitegate, pass through Ringaskiddy.

As the main handler of container traffic, Tivoli is also experiencing growth, with a 6% increase this year.

“Our staff in the container terminal [around 40 people] work 24/7,” Capt O’Regan says.

“We will put something in the region of 2,500 containers a week through Tivoli and roughly 600 trucks a day call there. It is an extremely busy area.”

Pharmaceutical and agri are the two biggest sectors involved in the container traffic but everything from Pepsi manufactured in Little Island to imported cars and furniture will pass through Tivoli docks.

Traditional exports like butter and cheese have been joined by newer products like whey protein, being manufactured by the agrifood giants around Munster.

Cork’s thriving pharmaceutical industry also plays a big role in container traffic, with high-tech medications leading to a massive increase in refrigerated containers.

“In 2012 we had 90/100 plugins available for those containers, today we have 300 and in 2020 we will have 500,” Capt O’Regan says.

Once a ship reaches the port, the timer starts on getting containers on and off to schedule.

“Usually we can turn around a ship with 100 lifts on it, that is 500 in, 500 out, in about 16 hours,” he adds.

“Everything is lined up and ready to go, as soon as that ship comes in there are two cranes waiting and 14 or 15 machines on the container terminal moving very quickly and you have your gate operation open as well with all your trucks coming for the deliveries. Everything works well together.”

With the whole logistics industry devoted to timing deliveries and transport to the closest minute, any delays create major headaches.

“We see how vital it is whenever we have serious roadworks or ships run late or the weather affects us when we are working,” Capt O’Regan says.

“With Storm Diana, we would have stopped working in different places in the port for safety reasons and you can see a huge build up of traffic happen very quickly.

“You push out notifications to customers as quickly as you can that the port has stopped working but they already have orders in train and people are moving so it doesn’t always catch up. If the port shuts you can quickly see major headaches for the logistics industry.

“We only closed twice recently, during Storm Ophelia and briefly during the snow in March. That caused us unprecedented issues.”

Tivoli, Ringaskiddy and Cobh are what people think of when it comes to the port but Capt O’Regan explains that its reach and responsibility also extend out into the Atlantic.

“On the water, the jurisdiction of the port reaches from 3.5 miles outside Roche’s Point all the way up to the city bridges, it is huge,” he says.

In addition to the commercial activity, port staff also have significant safety and maintenance responsibilities.

“[The Port] have statutory compliance, which is looking after the dredging of the river, making sure the depth of water in the channels is sufficient for the ships,” he said.

“We ensure that navigation buoys are lighting and all navigation aides are working, making sure that the control of shipping traffic works safely and effectively.”

More and more of that shipping traffic includes cruise liners, a source of huge pride for the port and significant economic benefit to the area.

“We are up to 104 vessels booked for next year, which will make it the busiest year ever,” Capt. O’Regan says. “When you consider that in 2016 we had 66 vessels that is a huge jump and we will hopefully see 170,000 cruise passengers go through Cork between Cobh and Ringaskiddy.”

In addition to plans at Ringaskiddy and Marino Point, the port also has plans for a second cruise terminal in Cobh. Both Mr Mullins and Mr O’Regan acknowledge economic factors like Brexit may yet have an influence but, from the current point of view, the future of the Port of Cork looks very bright indeed.

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