During the best part of three decades, Captain Stephen Carter has played a vital role in bringing thousands of tankers, cruise ships, navy boats and supply vessels safely in and out of Manx harbours.

But after nearly 29 years, and now approaching his 73rd birthday this year, he’s stepped down from his role as harbour pilot.

He piloted his last cruise ship – Hurtigruten’s Maud – last month with the master marking the occasion as the vessel left Douglas by sounding the ship’s horn three times.

Captain Carter said: ‘I’ve enjoyed it immensely, it’s been very satisfying.

‘It’s a very responsible job. But it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Shipping doesn’t work office hours. You are on-call 24/7, 365 days a year.

‘Going out on a pilot launch in the middle of a gale, jumping off the launch and climbing up a rope ladder on a ship that’s rolling, you feel like a trapeze artist!

‘I’m 73 this year and I wanted to retire from it. I’m trying to take a step back and do a bit less. There had been two pilots but for the last five years there’s only been me and it’s difficult to plan holidays.’

He said during the last 29 years he’s piloted around 4,500 shipping movements in and out of the harbours of the Isle of Man, mainly Douglas and Peel but also Ramsey, Port Erin, Port St Mary and on one occasion Castletown.

‘In that time there’s only really been one incident which luckily wasn’t my fault,’ he said.

That incident, in the late 1990s, involved a loaded 75m gas tanker coming into Douglas. A mechanical fault meant that its engine couldn’t go astern and the ship headed straight for a cocktail party being held on three Round the World yachts moored at a pontoon by the Battery Pier.

‘We dropped the anchor and blew the horn to alert everyone on the yachts who were frantically getting off the decks and up the steps. Fortunately the anchor slowed the ship down and it ran into softer mud and stopped in time,’ he said.

He said that during his time as pilot, the size of shipping has increased dramatically.

‘When I started the tankers were 75m long, carrying 1,800 tonnes with a draught of no more than 5m. Now you might see 100m tankers with 3,900 tonne cargoes and a draught of 6.2m or even 6.4m. The harbour hasn’t got any larger. Cruise liners used to be the same size as the Ben-my-Chree but I’ve piloted ships to berth on the north side of Victoria Pier that are 160m long and with a tonnage of 18,500.’

Captain Carter, of Baldrine, had his first boat in Douglas in 1962 at the age of 11 and when he was 15 he went to work on the motor launches that ran to Port Soderick.

A maritime career beckoned after leaving school although he did work for two years as a journalist for the Examiner when it was based in Hill Street.

He insisted he will continue to have a hands-on roll with the Laxey Towing Company which he founded in 1978 and which supplies tugs, cranes, salvage and dredging services. He said: ‘I’ve no intention not to run Laxey Towing Company for the foreseeable future – it’s my baby, my company.’

Following his retirement as licensed harbour pilot, there will be a change to the way pilotage is carried out for the harbours division, with four Steam Packet captains to do some elements of the work between them. ‘It was decided that’s the best way forward,’ said Captain Carter.