Captain of Gibraltar Port, Commodore Bob Sanguinetti

Gibraltar Port, the largest bunkering port in the Western Mediterranean, also has a strong reputation across the global shipping community for excellence in the supply of marine and support services. Since stepping into the role of Captain of the Port in May 2014, Bob Sanguinetti has assumed responsibility for all aspects of the Port Authority. 

Born and bred in Gibraltar, Bob left at the age of 18 to join the navy and then, through a naval sponsorship, attended Oxford University for three years, staying in the Royal Navy on his graduation for a further twenty seven years.

“I had always had an interest with the sea and an urge to travel, so joining the Navy allowed me to combine those two passions,” he states. “The seed was sown when I was fifteen and I picked up a brochure for careers in the Navy and it just developed from there.”

Bob says that he always had a fascination when Royal Navy ships came to Gibraltar and would annoyingly write to the Captains asking for photographs and pamphlets and to be allowed on board to have a look round. Growing up in Gibraltar meant that he was able to spend most of his upbringing on or in the water. “The sea is something that is in my bloodstream and the geography of Gibraltar lends itself to that,” Bob explains, continuing, “it is not just the proximity to the sea, it is because we are close to such a strategic point in shipping terms as the Strait of Gibraltar.”

The first half of the Commodore’s career was as an executive officer, spending most of his time at sea or on training courses getting ready to go back to sea. “My responsibilities have ranged from watch keeping to navigating to then fighting the ship as a warfare officer responsible for running the entire programme for the ship, to ultimately commanding a ship,” Bob says. “ Having served in seven ships ranging in size from small minehunters to aircraft carriers with frigates and destroyers in between, he was also privileged to command two ships, HMS Berkeley, a minehunter, and HMS Grafton, a frigate. “Coincidentally I was fortunate enough to take command of the frigate in Gibraltar, so that was a crowning moment in my career,” he states.

During his time in the navy, Commodore Sanguinetti served in high risk war zones. “I commanded a multinational coalition Task Group of ships in the northern Arabian Gulf,” he states, “and before that I had been navigator of HMS Cardiff in the first Gulf War in 1991. I was also on board HMS Beaver as a warfare officer for a stint in the Adriatic, enforcing sanctions during the Bosnia conflict, and, as Commanding Officer of HMS Grafton, we were seconded to a French Task Group during the war with Kosovo in the Balkans.”

The latter part of his career in the military saw the undertaking of a number of strategic roles with the Ministry of Defence, at Naval Headquarters in Portsmouth and most recently as Head of Intelligence at the UK”s National Operations Headquarters in North London. “As part of those jobs I went out to Iraq, to Basra, Baghdad, Afghanistan, Kabul, and to the Helmand Province supporting senior military commanders and politicians in London.”

“I have had a very privileged career and the one constant theme throughout has been the sense of purpose, the focus, and the professionalism of the armed forces which is something that after more than thirty years is in my DNA and it is something that is helping me in taking forward developments and initiatives in the Port.”

In 1998 Bob Sanguinetti, at the age of 33, was the youngest commanding officer at sea when he took command of HMS Grafton. A few years later he was severely reprimanded at a court martial after the £170 million warship ran aground in a well-marked channel as it left Oslo after his navigator assured him the route was ‘possible but tight’. “The shipping and the maritime environment is a hazardous one and it requires lots of people to work together to get things right,” Bob elucidates, continuing “and invariably sometimes things don’t go quite right.”

Stating that the event had been an influence in the development of his personality and character, Bob says that he drew strength from the way that he reacted to it. “I overcame the incident itself and pulled the team together to recover and to return the ship to operational service. Admitting that ultimately the ‘buck stopped with him’, Bob says that although there were a number of people involved in the process, what he would never do is suggest that it was anybody else’s responsibility.

“I was in command and that brings with it enormous privilege and honour, but it also brings huge responsibility and accountability.”

“Turning this into a positive, and acknowledging that this took place over a decade and a half ago, it has made me a different and stronger person allowing me to better deal with adversity, and if people around me have to deal with adversity then I am far more empathetic than I would otherwise have been,” he says.

Delighted to be back in his birthplace, Bob became aware of the vacancy at the Port Authority whilst in London and after extensive research realised that the position was tailor made for someone of not only his professional background but also his personal circumstances and heritage. “It went from an idle exercise in preparing for an interview and writing a CV, which I had never done because I joined the Navy straight from school; into ‘I really must get this job’.” Bob had been looking forward to his next assignment which would have taken him to the USA into a NATO role but concedes that getting the role in Gibraltar has worked out for the best. “It has been a complete lifestyle change for me, my wife Sylvia and our three daughters, but as they were of university age when I arrived, it meant that we were much closer to them,” he explains.

In the competitive world of shipping and with a global economic crisis at the end of the last decade (from which he says Gibraltar is still feeling the ripple effect), together with an increase in competition from neighbours across the Bay and the Strait, Commodore Sanguinetti outlines the achievements that have been made since he took charge of the day-to-day running of the Port three years ago.

“What I have brought to the organisation is the ability to analyse a situation; identify where the weaknesses are, look at ways of addressing those weaknesses, identify where the strengths are, making the most of them and building on those strengths – and all in a collegiate and a team environment.”

The Commodore goes on to comment that in the military it is all about the unit. “Whether it is a battalion, a ship or a squadron of aircraft, it is how you bring people in to work as one and I think what I have been able to do is to pull together the team internally and strengthen the links that we have with the wider shipping community.”

There are a wide range of service providers who do business in the Port and indirectly another 800 people ranging from the shipping agents, to the bunker suppliers, to the tug operators. “Being in the military means that you need to be able to plug in to organisations and entities around you, achieving this via ‘stakeholder engagement’ and that is something that is second nature to me,” Bob comments.

The other initiative that the Commodore is proud of is adding some military style rigour to the operation at the Port, making it more outward looking. “That is something that I think I have been able to bring to the organisation and to the environment,” he states.

Amongst other things that Commodore Sanguinetti has implemented is improved information flow, something that he cites as being absolutely essential in the military. “It is also absolutely essential in this environment,” he explains, “so it is not just my people knowing what is going on but it is everyone who is doing business in the port, from the Gibraltar based service providers to the shipping community, from the ship owners and the ship operators to the ships themselves that are coming to Gibraltar.”

The other aspect concerns the finite amount of space in the Port and in the surrounding waters, and finding ways to maximise the efficiency. “This involves cutting down the turnaround times for ships arriving off Europa Point, to then coming into the Port and having the right service delivered, safely and efficiently so that ship can then leave as quickly as possible.” Bob went on to stress that ‘time is money’ for the shipping company and the longer a ship spends in Gibraltar unnecessarily, the more it impacts on the wider business of the Port. “It is pulling all those factors together to make a more efficient environment,” he confirms.

Tackling the issue of future plans for the Port post Brexit, Bob Sanguinetti thinks that whatever happens, new opportunities will open up. “There are risks and these are the same within the shipping community as they are for Gibraltar more widely,” he comments, “but the key factor for both is ease of access for people and for goods across the border.”

He goes on to say that he is very confident that the importance of the geographic location of Gibraltar will not diminish as a result of Brexit. “We will still be very close to the major shipping lanes of the world and we will carry on operating as efficiently as we always have done, continuing to improve on the services we deliver.”

“I am confident that we have a bright future post Brexit, and that is reflected in the shipping activity that we see in the port today and have seen in the months that have passed since the Referendum.”

Gibraltar is the busiest bunker port in the Mediterranean, the third biggest in Europe and the seventh biggest in the world. The bunkering business is a hugely important part of Gibraltar’s local economy and last year Bob was elected to the board of the International Bunker Industry Association. We asked him what he thought lay ahead for bunkering and ships using LNG.

“The shipping community relies very heavily on Gibraltar to fuel its ships and we have a number of bunker suppliers based in Gibraltar,” he explains. “They all operate slightly different models but I think that diversity gives us strength and resilience and the fact that we are the biggest bunker port in the Mediterranean is testament to the fact that we must be doing something right.”

Bob goes on to explain that it is not just the price of the fuel but it is also the quality of the fuel and the service, so the amount of business bunker related has been growing year on year for the last two years.

“In the first half of this year we have seen even greater growth, so I see Gibraltar well placed to face the challenges of the future regarding bunkering.” These challenges include the implementation of stronger environmental regulations which will directly impact on the nature of the fuel the ships will be able to use in the future. “In regard to this, there isn’t a single simple solution, and there will be a range of products available to the shipping community, one of which is LNG, and I think Gibraltar has got a good news story to tell there.”

“As a key bunkering hub, the Port of Gibraltar sees LNG as one of the potential fuels of the future, and this is reflected in the provision that has been made for LNG at the power station and also in the agreement between Shell and the Port to provide LNG as bunker fuel.”

The Commodore explains that they are about two thirds of the way through a joint development study that was agreed between Shell and the Port of Gibraltar which will explore the challenges and will deliver the regulatory framework for LNG to be delivered as a bunker fuel in Gibraltar in the next twelve to twenty four months. “We have got the very powerful combination of the expertise that Gibraltar has in bunkering with the global presence and expertise that Shell has in energy more widely,” he says. “We have put those two together and we have created a tremendous partnership that will place Gibraltar very firmly on the LNG bunkering map of the future.”

Concerns over the safety aspects of a bunkering capacity LNG installation have been vociferously made by groups in Gibraltar, but Bob Sanguinetti is keen to promote the fact that the Port Authority will treat the provision of LNG in the same way that they treat the provision of any other service, not just fuel. “We have a very strict licensing and governance regime, one which assists but does not stifle business and the growth of business. Everyone understands that and everyone has to conform to those rules, so we will continue to deliver that same high standard of safety and protection of the environment through LNG as we do with conventional fuel today.”

In 2017, the Port of Gibraltar is scheduled to receive a total of 257 cruise ship visits and handle over 400,000 passengers. We asked Bob Sanguinetti if there are any plans in place to improve the cruise liner terminal. “The Government has been approached by a number of entities from the private sector to look at how best to take this forward, but it is not just a simple solution of providing the infrastructure at the terminal because that needs to be linked up with the infrastructure that then delivers the full tourism product to the passengers,” Bob explains, “and that clearly is not my remit.” He went on to say that the Port Authority works very closely with the Ministry and with the Tourist Board. “There is nothing definite in place with regard to moving or improving the cruise terminal at the moment, but there are potential plans out there that the Government is considering but I don’t see a significant change to the way we operate in the Port and the cruise terminal may just require some modernisation perhaps to deal with the increasing capacity of visitors.”

Commodore Sanguinetti confirms that the Port Authority is in the process of relocating its coastal surveillance and Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) system from its current harbour location at North Mole to new purpose-built offices at Lathbury Barracks, Windmill Hill Road at the south end of Gibraltar. This will be completed by the end of the year and with it will come a state of the art VTS system.

“This is the technology that puts together the picture that my team needs to gather information from various sensors to manage and oversee the busy traffic coming in to the Bay of Gibraltar,” Bob explains. “This is a strong signal of the Government’s interest in the safety of navigation in British Gibraltar Territorial Waters (BGTW).”

Confirming strong support from the Government in the Port’s marketing strategy, Bob Sanguinetti says it is essential that they have direct dialogue with the people who make use of the Port and in this respect they work very closely with the local Port community, the Port Operators Association, the Gibraltar Port Operators’ Association (GPOA). “We also reach out to the wider community whether it is through associations in other countries, shipping associations, ship owners or ship operators, or whether it is attending exhibitions and conferences.”

“People want to know what is going on in Gibraltar and why we are the success story that we are, Bob states, “and we see some of our best practices being emulated elsewhere, which is testament to the fact that I think we must be getting something right .”

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