Get to know Captain David Shennan

David Shennan was 17 when he “ran away to sea” to join the Royal Fleet Auxiliary in 1969, spending the next 20 years visiting more than 60 countries and working on various vessels, including replenishment tankers, general cargo, roll-on/roll-off, logistic support, ammunition, helicopter support and landing ships.

He moved to Australia in 2008 and was appointed General Manager of Marine & Navigation Services / Harbour Master, at the Port of Melbourne for four years, followed by five years as Harbour Master / Marine Manager at the Port of Portland. In May 2019, he was appointed Marine Manager and Harbour Master at Geelong, bringing a wealth of experience to Victoria’s second biggest port.

What does your current role involve?
I wear two hats. As Harbour Master for Victorian Regional Channel Authority (VRCA)* I am responsible for the navigational safety of the channels leading into the Port of Geelong. As Marine Manager, I have an oversight role of VRCA’s channels into the Port of Hastings, and Port of Portland.   
Why is your role so important to the running of the port?
A shipping accident is a mariner’s worst nightmare. It is in a sailor’s DNA to avoid damaging a ship, port infrastructure or injuring a maritime worker. Because of the size of commercial vessels and the huge costs involved, the implications of any incident are potentially massive. It is essential to have someone overseeing all marine operations who is experienced enough to recognise when something is potentially dangerous and fix it. 
Describe a typical day at work.
At present, my day starts at about 7am and is full of Teams meetings and phone calls. March 16, 2021 was our first-year anniversary of working from home. Because we had marine controllers who needed to work in the office, the rest of us removed ourselves, to help ensure their safety and the continuous operation of the port.  

A typical day would include two remote catchups with the VRCA team and regular discussions with my right-hand man Nick throughout the day on any issues regarding navigational safety. Examples might be a risk-assessment project, issues with beacons marking the channels, or maintenance dredging of the channel.  

I will also field calls from other port stakeholders advising me of works they wish to do in or near VRCA waters and checking I don’t see any issues with them. I might get calls during the night from the controllers who need to advise me of an emergency, or to request approval or agreement on issuing a Direction to the master of a ship. I am on call 24/7.  
You’ve worked in the marine industry all over the world. What attracted you to Australia?
Find me a Brit who doesn’t fancy moving to Australia! It’s a bit of a holy grail, climate-wise.  On top of that, I was attracted to the task I was given – to bring an Australian port up to international best practice, using skills and techniques I had honed as Harbour Master of Harwich Haven Authority.  I’ve now had a go at that in all the major ports in Victoria.
What do you love about your job?
At the risk of sounding righteous, I am passionate about lowering the accident rate and improving the safety of ports. As I approach retirement, I feel that everything I’ve learned and achieved in my career is more worthwhile if I can leave the industry having made a real difference in this field. I know how to do it, and I will feel more satisfied with my life if I can look at improvements in the industry and say, “I helped do that.” Like others I know in my situation, however, we will always wish we were listened to more, so I’ll probably never be completely satisfied.

What are your job’s biggest challenges?
Pretty much as above. In Australia, politics and other interests tend to shape the structure that ports are given to work within, and the top maritime expertise in an Australian port is a lot further down the influence tree. In the UK ports are given more autonomy, see themselves as ports and not just businesses, and put practical experts on their boards (as Harbour Master in Harwich I was deputy CEO and a board member). This makes achieving international best practice from a navigational safety perspective more of a challenge in Australia. 
You’ve been in the industry more than 50 years. Is becoming a harbour master a natural progression?
Not for everybody, but for me it was. I went from seagoing officer ranks to a shore officer role, becoming a marine pilot and then harbour master. You need vision, confidence, and the ability to bring a team along with you. If you have those on top of enough practical experience to help guide you into good decisions, there is no reason you can’t be a harbour master. When I was a marine pilot, I spent a lot of my downtime writing to the harbour master with a list of improvements as I saw them, so it is only fair I ended up on the receiving end!
What’s been your career highlight?
My sailing career highlight was being chosen by the Royal Fleet Auxiliary to attend the Royal Navy’s Long N navigation course, in which you are given conduct of a warship and put under great pressure for several weeks, with very little sleep. I topped the sea time, but they wouldn’t give me the cup, because I wasn’t actual Navy. I was very popular with my RFA bosses, though, who rewarded my skills on the water with a job in head office. Some things never change! In later years, it has been reducing the marine accident rate in every port I have been harbour master in.
What are your interests outside work?
Enjoying the outdoorsy Aussie lifestyle. I love a bit of DIY. Currently my wife and I are renovating our house ourselves. We also love travelling and are keen foodies. I cook a lot and enjoy making dishes from different cultures from scratch – Indian and Jamaican are my specialties. I support Tottenham Hotspur in the English league, the Tigers in the AFL and the All Blacks in Rugby. I love Supercars – a trip to the Bathurst 1000 was an Aussie holiday highlight. Right now, I’m enthralled by the America’s Cup yachts, which fly more than they sail. The technology on those boats is incredible. 

* In February 2021, the Victorian Government announced the bringing together of the Victorian Regional Channels Authority and Victorian Ports Corporation (Melbourne) into a new organisation – Ports Victoria – that will begin operating in Geelong on 1 July.