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Want a high-impact maritime career? Here’s how Jimmy McGrath found his, with Port Authority of New South Wales.

Jimmy McGrath’s maritime career began as a deckhand on superyachts for the ultra-rich in the Caribbean and Europe. He then progressed to crewing ferries, barges, tugs and workboats along Australia’s east coast, including Sydney Harbour. But at Port Authority of New South Wales, he’s found a fulfilling role to which he wants to hold fast. Being a Port Officer at the Port of Newcastle keeps Jimmy where he loves to be - out on the water while delivering the endless variety he craves.

Pride on the water

It’s a hot, humid day on the water with a decent swell when we catch up with Port Officer, Jimmy McGrath. Jimmy spends much of his work days out on the Port of Newcastle’s waters, located in the estuary of the meandering Hunter River. Several times a day he’ll cruise past the Port’s historic seawalls and berths, taking in the cargo operations of the shipping terminals including coal, grain, fuels and even orange juice. Once a series of mudflats and shallow channels, the transformation of the Port into a major deepwater trading port is fascinating to all that work here. And the heritage-listed infrastructure is an ever-present reminder of the Port’s early days. 

Jimmy and his team play a critical role in keeping the Port of Newcastle (the largest port on the East Coast of Australia by volume) running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. His role requires monitoring the weather conditions and shipping schedule, ensuring safe navigational passage for all shops. Jimmy's also responsible for assisting pilots to their vessels via cutter. It's a task that requires him to keep his wits about him.

“Sometimes a pilot transfer can be quite testing when it’s rough weather, and cold and stormy, but then there are days you’ll feel like you really make a difference there,” Jimmy says. “And the pilots will show that they appreciate what we do, too.” 

Pilot transfers are an important part of Jimmy’s job and he’s proud to do it. Yet Jimmy says the aspect of his role that gives him the greatest sense of achievement involves responding to the unpredictable occurrences that inevitably crop up on the water.

This includes working with government agencies such as customs and law enforcement wherever needed and responding to the very occasional oil spill. It also includes assisting recreational boaters in distress.

“One day, we responded to a boat-fire call out. The people had jumped in the water because they thought the boat was going to explode from a burst fuel line. The fire went out, but the boat wouldn’t start so we towed the people back to the boat ramp. They were very thankful for our help and that made me feel great job satisfaction. Because we are here to help, and it could have been a lot worse had we not come.”

Jimmy doesn’t even need to be personally involved in a rescue himself to feel a sense of pride and fulfilment.

“You might not even be working the day that something happens. Instead, “You’ll see a Port Authority vessel involved in a recreational incident or assisting a ship pop up on the news and you’ll go ‘Yeah, those are our boats!’ We’re here to assist. It's cool, this is what we do. You definitely get job satisfaction in those moments. It’s fulfilling.”

From yachts to barges to container ships

Jimmy grew up in Batemans Bay, on the NSW south coast. His grandfather was a competitor in Sydney to Hobart yacht races and Jimmy always loved boats. So much so that by high school, he’d decided his career path lay in the maritime field. For about eight years after high school, Jimmy worked on superyachts in Europe and the Caribbean.

“You’re talking about the top one percent of the world’s wealthy who can afford to buy a superyacht, and pay for ten to twelve crew. So, it’s quite exclusive. It’s hard work but very rewarding. You see some beautiful places and meet some amazing people. But I reached a point where I wanted to return to Australia.”

On returning to home waters, Jimmy worked on ferries, tugboats and barges. But, perhaps almost inevitably, for someone so passionate about maritime, he found his way to Port Authority. When Jimmy joined our Sydney team in 2017, he’d never worked with big ships before. Yet he anchored himself securely amidst a supportive team that had his back.

“I found people very forthcoming when I started, they had good training and procedures in place and I really enjoyed that. It’s a very good culture here for training, welcoming new people and strengthening the team.”

Jimmy spent five years as a Port Officer in Sydney where he also trained in the Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) role, so he could step in as backup whenever needed.

“In VTS, I got to see the organisational scheduling; how the Port Authority manages the port and our interactions with shipping agents and other government agencies - Border Force, Customs, Water Police. We’d see some of that on the water as Port Officers, but I experienced lots more in the VTS training and I enjoyed that.”

Then, in 2022, when Jimmy and his wife decided to relocate to Newcastle, we were pleased to offer him a position transfer. For a man who’s grown fond of surfing Sydney’s northern beaches, it was tough to leave the Harbour City, but fortunately, Jimmy embraced Newcastle’s iconic Merewether!

A career with endless variety

In Newcastle, Jimmy has found plenty to keep him fully engaged in his role. Between the ever-changing conditions of the Port and the opportunities to meet people from all around the world, there’s always something new happening.

“What I enjoy most is that every single day is different. We’re primarily out on the water, so every day brings different weather and different ships arriving or departing. Then some things pop up during the shift that you’ve never heard about before - you’re like ‘Oh wow, and how do we deal with this?’ So, it can be challenging at times, but at the end of the day, it makes for an exciting work environment.”

While finding endless variety in his Port Officer role and having the opportunity to train with VTS, Jimmy’s also been happy to learn about another area of what we do. An occasion arose when he had the chance to assist our Survey Department, which relentlessly maintains all of the Port’s shipping lanes.

“That was fascinating to me. I’d never seen anything like that before or seen any boats with that sort of technology and equipment on board. I didn’t even know Port Authority did this job when I first joined! I found it interesting. And this is all part of what we do here.”

Jimmy has enjoyed having the opportunity to gain insights into some of the different areas in which we function. And while coal is still a big part of Port of Newcastle’s work, Jimmy notes he’s seen changes abreast as we look towards building NSW’s future.

“At the moment, there’s a big section of the Port where massive wind turbine blades are being stored to be taken to various parts of the country for wind farms. Seeing that transition into the future in action is quite cool. There are transitional plans for the Port and every day new things are happening that make it interesting. I love that. It’s dynamic. It keeps you on your toes, and it’s fulfilling!