The Solent's sheltered natural harbours, double tides and inshore waters made it an ideal location for a ports industry to develop. Activity centres on the privately-owned Associated British Ports' (ABP) Port of Southampton and Portsmouth Commercial Port, which is owned and managed by Portsmouth City Council. Cowes Harbour is the main port for the Isle of Wight, and the only location on the Island with deep-water channels capable of handling bulk-cargo carrying ships.
The twentieth century has seen a progressive growth in the scale of port operations in both Portsmouth and Southampton, associated in many cases with reclamation of intertidal land. The expansion of the ports industry is driven by trends in the world market for shipping, which are essentially governed by market forces, the demands of the ship operators, and the supply within the ports. Competition within the UK ports industry and with Northern European ports is intense. The main trend driving the development of the Port of Southampton is the buoyant market in containerised goods - particularly from the Far East, and the increase in the maximum size of the container ships (the post-Panamax vessels).
Cowes Harbour is the major port of entry for commercial shipping trading to the Isle of Wight. Approximately 600,000 tonnes of cargo are handled annually including such commodities as fuel, oil/petroleum, stone, shingle aggregates, timber, grain and general cargo. Ships of up to 100 metres (330ft) in length and with a draft of up to 5.4 metres (17ft 9in) use the port and mainly berth at Kingston or Medina Wharves.
ABP Southampton is the harbour authority for the Solent and manages one of the busiest ports in the UK, handling 1.4m tonnes and with 1.8m visitors passing through each year. Its natural deep-water harbour, unique double tide and sophisticated Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) allow the port to welcome the world’s largest vessels, from deep-sea container ships to cruise giants. Equipped to handle any type of cargo, Southampton is a leading car-handling port, home to the UK’s second largest container terminal (DP World Southampton) and the sole UK port for all Canary Islands fresh-produce imports. The port is also widely recognised as the capital of the country’s cruise industry.
The UK’s premier cruise port, Southampton is home to the UK fleets of both P&O Cruises and Cunard Line (part of the Carnival Group) and is also used regularly by Royal Caribbean International, Fred Olsen Cruise Line and Saga Holidays. Over recent years, Southampton’s cruise business has seen impressive growth. To cater for this growth, ABP has invested over £22m in major refurbishment programmes at its two existing passenger terminals (the Mayflower and Queen Elizabeth II), as well as providing the new City Cruise Terminal. In 2007, ABP invested £9m in City Cruise Terminal, following a seven-year deal with Royal Caribbean International. The new Ocean Terminal was opened in May 2009 and plans are well in hand for a fifth Terminal, to be constructed in the Western Docks.
Southampton’s container facility, operated by DP World, includes 1.87km of deepwater quay, with up to 16 metres depth alongside, berthing for vessels over 400 metres in length, and16 quayside gantry cranes with super post panamax capacity. This is all backed up by a fleet of flexible straddle carriers.
Southampton is a growing force in the import and export bulk-cargoes sector. A 5-ha multi-user Bulk Terminal is situated in the port’s Western Docks, dedicated to the handling of dry-bulk cargoes and minerals, including animal feed, fertiliser, scrap, aggregates and marble chippings. It is operated by Solent Stevedores Ltd, a specialist independent stevedoring company. The volumes of bulk handled at Southampton have soared in recent years and, with growth set to continue, ABP has enhanced the handling and storage facilities at Bulk Terminal. A £6m investment has provided 2 Gottwald mobile harbour crane. The terminal has recently been expanded into the King George V Dry Dock, providing a further 2.8 ha of land for dry-cargo handling. The bulk-handling terminal at Berths 107 to 109 currently handles around one million tonnes of cargo a year. A purpose-built glass-processing facility operated by Recresco – the first of its kind to be built in a UK port – processes used bottle-glass into refined glass cullet, which is then shipped around the UK and abroad for use in the bottle-making industry. A flour mill, operated by Rank Hovis, imports and processes around 70,000 tonnes of wheat each year. An export grain-silo terminal is located in the port’s Eastern Docks, operated by Southampton Grain Terminal Ltd. The terminal has a 28,000-tonne capacity and can accommodate vessels of up to 52,000 dwt.
As the sole UK import port for Canary Islands produce, Southampton has extensive specialist facilities dedicated to this trade. Canary Islands Fruit Terminal provides 14,500 sq m of cool and cold storage. Each year, the port handles around 80,000 tonnes of fresh produce, including tomatoes, peppers, avocados and cucumbers. Southampton’s liquid-bulk traffic comprises mainly crude oil. The Esso and BP oil refineries at Fawley and Hamble handle over 28 million tonnes of oil and petroleum-related products.
Portsmouth International Port is the second busiest cross channel ferry port; the Continental Ferry Port accounts for 80 per cent of the Port's business and is served by passenger and freight ferries sailing to the Isle of Wight, continent and the Channel Islands. Portsmouth City Council has owned the Port since 1839, and it is the most successful municipal port in the UK. During 2010 a new passenger terminal was constructed.
Goods passing through the port include fruit and vegetables, fertiliser, ballast, oil, grain, steel, timber and vehicles. The port also increasingly serves cruise vessels.
Portsmouth Naval Base is preparing for the arrival of two new aircraft carriers post 2016 and contributes £1.6bn of output per annum.
The Port of Southampton differs from Portsmouth Commercial Port in the extent of its harbour authority powers within the Solent. ABP is the statutory harbour authority for the port of Southampton, whereas the harbour authority for Portsmouth Harbour and the Eastern Solent is the Queen's Harbour Master (QHM). ABP and the QHM co-operate in administering shipping movements within the Eastern Solent with ABP taking a co-ordinating role. The harbour authority role encompasses responsibility for the navigational safety of all vessels, including the maintenance dredging of channels to advertised depths, navigation marks, hydrographic data, and control of developments which would affect hydrography by issuing harbour licences.
ABP, Portsmouth International Port and Cowes Harbour Commissioners are the designated Competent Harbour Authorities (CHA) for the Solent. All pilotage of commercial ships is undertaken by pilots licensed by the respective CHA. There are close liaison arrangements between the three CHAs and QHM Portsmouth over pilotage and navigational safety matters. The smaller harbour authorities within the Solent carry similar responsibilities for ensuring navigational safety and close working relationships exist between them and the larger authorities