Maritime FeaturesPort of Dover

Dover Port Control

© Nigel Thornton
© Nigel Thornton


Have you ever departed or arrived at the Port of Dover on a ferry and wondered what that strange building was at the end of the Eastern Arm? The answer to that question is that’s ‘Dover Port Control‘.

Just like Heathrow Airport¬†has an air traffic control tower safely overseeing the arrival and departure of every¬†aircraft, busy ports such as the Port of Dover¬†employ a similar system controlling all shipping movements at¬†the¬†port. The marine equivalent of air traffic control is referred to¬†as a ‘Vessel Traffic Service‘ or’VTS‘.¬†The Port of Dover’s VTS is known as Dover Port Control.

Unlike Heathrow Airport¬†which sees an arrival or departure every 40 seconds at peak times, the Port of Dover isn’t quite as frenetic,¬†however¬†it does see¬†one vessel movement on average every 6 minutes.

The port sees on average 120 ferry movements a day, 140 cruise calls a year, 160 cargo vessels a year and it services approximately 3,750 visiting yachts and small craft, plus local berth holders. As the port moves into the future and with upcoming construction work in association with the Dover Western Docks Revival (DWDR) project these numbers will increase.

What Does Port Control Do?

Back in October of 2012 we were given the opportunity to visit the Port of Dover and to see for ourselves the operations of Dover Port Control first hand.

Dover Port Control is open 365 days, 24/7, constantly listening on VHF 74. It also monitors its secondary channels VHF 12 and VHF 16. Port Control communicates via telephones, email, signal lights, Automatic Identification System (AIS) or through the Harbour Patrol Launch. Dover Port Control has a comprehensive integrated AIS/radar system providing coverage, both inside and outside of the Port, so it can deliver an excellent service even in poor weather conditions.

‚ÄúThe Port of Dover‚Äôs Port Control is responsible for all waterborne movements within the Port of Dover. The Harbour has two entrances, eastern and western, which are run very much like the two runways at an airport‚ÄĚ

¬†¬†‚ÄúIsolated out on the end of the eastern harbour arm, the high tower has 360-degree field of vision of the English Channel ahead of it and the busy Port behind it.¬†Sitting in the room, looking through the angled flexible glass windows, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the bridge of a ferry out on the open seas.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúResponsibility for Port Control comes directly under the Harbour Master and consists of officers manning the main nerve centre at the end of the Eastern Arm, a secondary station at the Admiralty Pier (Ed: no longer manned) and the Harbour Patrol Launch as a floating extension to these‚ÄĚ

© A G Jones

The French Ferry CHANTILLY seen passing the old signal station on the Admiralty pier © A G Jones

© Nigel Thornton

The Harbour Patrol/Pilot launch ‘DOVORIAN‘ seen departing the Western entrance ¬© Nigel Thornton

‚ÄúPort Control is responsible to the Harbour Master for berthing vessels in accordance with the Quay Division‚Äôs pre-arranged schedules and the re-arranging of berths in the event of breakdown or bad weather. This calls for close liaison with the landside teams (including Terminal Control) as well as the Port’s customers, notably the ferry operators.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúIn such a busy port, the strict observance of the Dover Harbour Board bye-laws is essential. Port Control ensures that these are complied with and that navigational aids in and around the Harbour are in place and working correctly.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúClose liaison is also required with the many authorities who have dealings with the Port, including shipping companies, Trinity House Pilots, yacht and angling clubs and naturally the Maritime and¬†Coastguard Agency at their station at Langdon Cliffs overlooking Dover Harbour.‚ÄĚ

“Port Control also provides an information service regarding shipping movements to masters of vessels proceeding through the Straits of Dover. Officers also receive requests for doctors and ambulance in the event of an accident at sea, assistance for tugs for larger vessels berthing at Dover.”

Roy Thornton Collection

Roy Thornton Collection


© Ray Newsam  © Ray Newsam

© Ray Newsam

© Ray Newsam

© Nigel Thornton  © Nigel Thornton

© Nigel Thornton   © Ted Ingham

Inside Dover Port Control © Nigel Thornton and © Ted Ingham (lower right)

‚ÄúDover VTS (Vessel Traffic Service)¬†or ‚ÄúDover Port Control‚ÄĚ operate a Traffic Organisation Service. This is defined by the IMO (International Maritime Organization) as ‚Äúa service to prevent the development of dangerous maritime traffic situations and to provide for the safe and efficient movement of vessel traffic within the VTS Area‚ÄĚ.

This is the highest and most comprehensive type of VTS, and involves long term planning of traffic movement together with proactive management of potential traffic situations.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúDover Port Control is a 24/7/365 operation, and under normal operating conditions, the operational area is manned by two port control officers (PCO).‚ÄĚ

To give an idea of the nature of their work here are some facts and figures:

  • The initiation of port emergency procedures.
  • The initiation of first line response to pollution incidents.
  • Investigation of marine incidents and safety occurrences.
  • Liaison with other staff and customers. Customers include shipping operators, local shipping agents, leisure craft owners, contractors and diving companies. Up to 40 requests for diving authorisations may be processed per month.
  • The production of ferry schedules. In addition to the annual berth allocations, berth changes are often required for short/long term berth maintenance/repair and at the request of the ferry operators. This will often mean that schedules have to be produced on a daily basis. Close liaison with landside operations is an essential part of this process.
  • The administration of ship security declarations under the ISPS Code (The International Ship and Port Facility Security Code) and reporting to the PFSO‚Äôs (Port Facility Security Officer’s)¬†as necessary.
  • The administration of the CERS (Code Enforcement Reporting Programme)¬†database, ensuring that all arrival and departure notifications are entered as required for all commercial and ferry traffic.
  • Carrying out a comprehensive program of monthly fender inspections.
  • Safety checks of all piers and berths within the Eastern Docks.
  • Provision of gangways to commercial vessels. Carrying out associated inspections prior to and¬†after use by vessels within the Eastern Docks. In addition a weekly safety inspection of all gangways in the eastern docks is carried out.
  • Delivering operator compliance checks on a monthly basis, ensuring that Port of Dover procedures are correctly followed in the event of the berth surge alarm sounding and that procedures for safety signals used during mooring operations are correctly followed.
  • Carrying out berth fits as necessary.

‚ÄúThere is a vessel movement on average every 6 minutes and this whole operation takes place within 1 square mile. On top of that you have 3 cargo visits per week. Cruise runs from Mid March to October generally and can range from 1 per week at the extremes of the period to a max of say 7 per week at the busy months (see below for monthly totals). Then you have the bunker vessel in 3/4 times per week plus probably on average 2/3 other vessels – aggregate/grain/ misc. Finally yachts – during the peak summer months up to 25 vessels will move on any given day, obviously this will reduce greatly during the winter to perhaps just half a dozen a day.‚ÄĚ

13th July 2018 – Press Release

“In the biggest upgrade of its kind for 14 years, harbour masters are overseeing ¬£1.4 million of investment in cutting edge technology at Europe‚Äôs busiest ferry port to ensure shipping and recreational marine stakeholders continue to have the highest standards of protection and advice available.”

Port of Dover press release (Link)

© Dover Strait Shipping  © Dover Strait Shipping

© Dover Strait Shipping, Facebook

“Total refurbishment….including new VTS equipment”

“Before” January 2018 (Dover Strait Shipping, Facebook) “After” April 2019 (Dover Strait Shipping, Facebook)

Evolution of Dover Port Control

Together with the massive changes in technology the Port Control building itself has evolved greatly over the years. Originally consisting of a small signal station with manually operated semaphore signals the building itself has been ‘added to’ over the years and now consists of a control tower with 360 degrees of visibility and visual light signals. If you look hard enough at the present building you will still be able to see the original station beneath.

Dover Port Control –¬†Past

© Nigel Thornton Collection  © Nigel Thornton Collection

© Nigel Thornton Collection  © Nigel Thornton Collection

Nigel Thornton Collection

Dover Port Control –¬†Present

© Ray Goodfellow  © Ray Goodfellow

© Ray Goodfellow  © Ray Goodfellow

Dover Port Control seen perched on the end of the Eastern Arm at the Port of Dover © Ray Goodfellow

© Ted Ingham   © Nigel Thornton

Dover Port Control seen perched on the end of the Eastern Arm at the Port of Dover © Nigel Thornton (Right) and © Ted Ingham (Left)

© Michael Woodland © Nigel Scutt

¬© Michael Woodland (Left) 🆕 ¬© Nigel Scutt (Right)


The Eastern Arm and Dover Port Control are not accessible to the general public but thanks to our visit to the Port of Dover we discovered that it’s also a grand place to take photos! Please find below a selection of photographs from Nigel Thornton taken on the day of our visit.

© Nigel Thornton

The Dunkerque Seaways arrives from Dunkerque

© Nigel Thornton

The Norman Spirit departs Dover for Calais

© Nigel Thornton

The Spirit of Britain seen arriving at Dover from Calais

© Nigel Thornton

The Spirit of Britain seen departing Dover for Calais

© Nigel Thornton

The Pride of Burgundy arriving from Calais

© Nigel Thornton

The Rodin departs for Calais

© Nigel Thornton

The Pride of Burgundy and the Spirit of Britain seen in the Port of Dover

© Nigel Thornton

© Nigel Thornton (all)

All information is believed to be correct and no responsibility is accepted for any errors or omissions found. All items included in this article are subject to © copyright. We would like to take this opportunity of thanking: Ray Newsam, Port of Dover, Michael Woodland and Dover Strait Shipping, Facebook for their assistance in compiling this feature.

Reference/Sources: Dover Express, Port of Dover and Dover Port News (October 1980 No. 11)

Article © Nigel Thornton and Ray Goodfellow (Dover Ferry Photos Group)

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