THOUSANDS descended on Southampton for the start of Europe’s biggest commercial marine and workboat exhibition.

The event, using specially built marina at Mayflower Park, runs until Thursday brings together an exhibition, conference and awards.

Technology on display included hybrid vessels, while the conference was set to discuss the future of autonomous ships.

Andrew Webster, chief executive of Mercator Media, which organises the event, said: “This year we have about 7,000-8,000 professional visitors. About 85 per cent of those have the status of senior decision maker and influencer in the organisation that they work within and the typical visitor would be a harbourmaster, marine superintendent or marine operations manager.”

The event was opened for the second year by maritime minister Nusrat Ghani.

She told the Daily Echo: “I was really blown away by last year and this year is brilliant.

“It’s not just about he design and tech, but they really are harnessing what can be done with new technology – especially being environmentally friendly.”

She said had been on a hybrid boat at the start of the day.

“It’s the collaborative nature you have in the UK. All the firms, even though they’re competing, are quite keen to promote each other and see what they can learn from each other,” she said.

“It’s great to see an international delegation here. I’m always chuffed to try and promote what we have the UK. We already have a fantastic reputation for being at the cutting edge and Seawork helps to nurture that and incubate that a little bit more. It’s a great event for Southampton, it’s a great event for maritime so I’m chuffed to be able to come back.”

With many in the marine industry unclear what effect Brexit would have on their businesses, she insisted they could be confident in the future.

“I know there’s some turbulence at the moment and we’ve got to make sure that we get Brexit done by October 31, but for the maritime sector we have a 30-year vision which has been agreed and signed off and which is what our focus is on at the Department of Transport with the maritime team,” she said.

“Maritime 2050 sets in place the steps that we’re going to take to make sure that we are investing in the right research, encouraging good people to take up careers in maritime, the way that we’re hoping to promote the sector, take out some of the risk for firms looking at new innovative technology and make sure that we’re at the cutting edge, whether it is blockchain or hybrid boats.”

She insisted there would be “exciting extra trading opportunities” after Brexit.

Seawork has grown from 65 exhibitors when it began in 1998 to around 600 today.

Andrew Webster said around half the exhibitors have a Solent postcode.

He said the commercial marine industry was hugely important to all the other parts of the maritime sector. “In terms of value it’s probably bigger than all those other more traditional sectors put together but it’s a bit harder for people to get their heads around,” he added.