The sight of Gibraltar, fondly nicknamed ‘The Rock’ after the 1,398-foot high limestone rock foundation that has awed mariners and sailors since the time of the Ancient Greeks, is one which continues to evoke powerful feelings in those who set eyes upon it even now, more than 3,000-years later.
Located near the south-western tip of Europe on the Iberian Peninsula, Gibraltar is a place with a maritime heritage that few other such locations in the world can equal. Former glories and nostalgia from the old days of empire have little bearing on Gibraltar’s relevance today, however – in so competitive a globalised world, there is no room for such sentiment. Where once the peninsula’s value was entirely military in nature, serving as a bristling naval fortress and defensive gateway into and out of the Mediterranean, today, Gibraltar’s strategic usefulness is built upon its considerable commercial value.
It is perhaps only natural how, in keeping with The Rock’s unique history, Gibraltar remains a magnet for maritime traffic. Gibraltar is a bustling hive of commercial activity and a fast-growing tourism hub, but it is thanks to the same quirk of geography that once made it so coveted a military asset that has seen the territory grow to become a prime location for bunkering – the principal activity for which the Port of Gibraltar is best known. Great volumes of maritime traffic pass through the Strait of Gibraltar as they set sail for the world’s arterial shipping lanes, and of this passing traffic, somewhere in the region of 9,000 ships call into port with over 63% of those for bunkering.
“Gibraltar is a bustling commercial centre, and with approximately 60,000 vessels transiting the Strait of Gibraltar each year, of which approximately 15% call into the port, the Rock has developed into a major bunkering port – the largest in the Mediterranean,” said Bob Sanguinetti, the CEO of Gibraltar Port Authority and Captain of the Port of Gibraltar. He continued: “Gibraltar is a maritime ‘Centre of Excellence’, located at a crossroads between the Mediterranean and Atlantic shipping lanes. The Port of Gibraltar is ideally placed to provide a wide range of services to vessels of all sizes and types, including bunkering, crew changes, hull cleaning, surveys, provision of stores and spares, among others – and with over 245 million gross tonnes of vessel calls per year, this is clearly the case.”
Even in spite of the slowdown in global economic activity and the overcapacity of cargo shipping which continues to blight the sector, it is telling that in 2016 the Gibraltar Port Authority (GPA) reported an increase in the number of vessels calling at port for the second successive year – a doubly impressive achievement, taking into account the stiff competition from rival ports in the region. This positive trend doesn’t only reflect the number of vessels calling to bunker, however, but also the sharp rise in the number of visiting cruise ships and super yachts: clear evidence that a far-reaching marketing campaign designed to increase tourism numbers, and a number of multi-million-dollar investments aimed at modernising and upgrading Gibraltar’s amenities and attractions have borne fruit.
On this, Sanguinetti said: “An increasing number of superyachts have taken advantage of the new berths at the recently commissioned Mid Harbour Marina to extend their stay on the Rock. The GPA also recorded a rise in ship-to-ship transfers in the bay, off-port limit transfers, and in occupancy rates at the Eastern Anchorage. The challenge will be to continue the growth trend, and an aggressive marketing campaign and direct engagement with ship owners to better understand their needs, will continue throughout 2017 to ensure that the Port of Gibraltar keeps providing the best possible support to the shipping community.”
The matter of meeting such challenges whilst overseeing the day-to-day management of one of Europe’s most iconic ports has fallen to Gibraltar Port Authority (GPA), which was established in 2005 to consolidate and further develop the port’s standing as a maritime centre of excellence. In-line with its remit, ”to build on Gibraltar’s unique geographical position, and provide a vital link between all shipping stakeholders in order to deliver the best possible service to visiting ships,” GPA provides an extensive portfolio of shipping services. Suffice to say, the list of responsibilities that are required of the Port of Gibraltar and the Gibraltar Port Authority is exhaustive, and to ensure their effective and efficient delivery requires a superior level of commitment, flexibility, and transparency from Gibraltar Port Authority and its 54 highly-trained staff. Furthermore, the sheer number of vessels that enter and leave Gibraltar’s territorial waters means that a strong emphasis must be placed on safety of navigation, through the Authority’s monitoring and direction.
Meet these responsibilities it does, and it does so through its commitment to professional excellence. Gibraltar Port Authority and Port of Gibraltar have a strong reputation in this respect, and cooperates closely with stakeholders and the wider maritime industry in Gibraltar, as well as with a number of global partners, including ship owners, operators, and cruise operators. The forging of such strong relationships has proved to be fundamental to GPA’s success over the decade since it was established, as has the strong support from the Government of Gibraltar which has facilitated much-needed infrastructure and facilities improvement. Additionally, the Gibraltar Port Authority is also a long-standing committed member of the International Bunker Industry Association (IBIA), which acts as the voice of marine fuel suppliers and the end-user, for which the Port Authority recently hosted a prestigious conference.
In terms of what the future holds, there are a number of plans which, upon their completion, will further enhance the Port of Gibraltar’s operations and capabilities. Summer 2017 will see the installation of a state-of-the-art Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) system which will greatly enhance the port’s safety of navigation operations. The system, which is being installed by Kongsberg Norcontrol, will be housed in a new four-storey port tower, designed to provide sweeping views over the busy Strait of Gibraltar and entrance into the Bay of Gibraltar. When asked to elaborate more on the project, Sanguinetti said: “In addition to increased functionality, the contract (for the VTS system installation) includes a comprehensive maintenance package, together with the benefits of software updates/upgrades over the course of the next five years, with future-proofing for the proposed introduction of e-Navigation. It also includes four high-specification infra-red CCTV cameras further-enhancing the port’s VTS team’s ability to monitor and control shipping in British Gibraltar Territorial Waters.”
The most exciting development in the pipeline, however, is a plan for the design and construction of an LNG bunkering facility, which upon its completion will allow the Port of Gibraltar to deliver LNG as a bunker fuel to ships at anchor – a move which will set Gibraltar and its service offerings apart from any of its Mediterranean rivals. Interest in using LNG as a bunker fuel has risen following the implementation of EU policies aimed at increasing the use of this clean, low-emission fuel across all forms of transport.
“HM Government of Gibraltar and the Gibraltar Port Authority made an announcement last year on the signing of a bunker market development agreement with Shell, a significant milestone on the road to delivering LNG as a bunker fuel to ships at anchor in Gibraltar. This is also part of the Port of Gibraltar’s strategy to provide the widest range of marine services as it looks to the future,” concluded Commodore Sanguinetti. He finished by saying: “In March 2016, the Government of Gibraltar invited proposals for the design and construction of a land-based marine fuels storage and bunkering facility with a minimum storage capacity of 225,000cbm in the Mediterranean bunkering hub. This once again reinforces the Port of Gibraltar’s green credentials and aspirations to remain the premier bunker port in the Mediterranean and, more widely, a ‘centre of maritime excellence’ at the strategic gateway to the Atlantic Ocean.”