Ilfracombe’s longest-serving harbour master since the 1800s is retiring this weekend.

Rob Lawson, 59, will step down once he has overseen the craning of the boats back into the water for the summer season.

Mr Lawson said it had been an amazing job, but after a heart attack two years ago he decided to rethink his life and will be spending more time with his family and grandsons.

The 17 years he has been in post have seen some huge changes at Ilfracombe harbour, including the arrival of cruise ships, Damien Hirst’s Verity and a variety of improved facilities such as the fishermen’s stores at The Cove.

His successor will be Georgina Carlo-Paat, a fully qualified master mariner who lives in North Devon and knows the area.

Mr Lawson, from Combe Martin, joined the Royal Navy as a young seaman aged 17 but rose through the ranks and ended his career as a lieutenant commander and commanded three ships on specialist hydrographic duty.

His first job at Ilfracombe was to ensure the harbour fully complied with the then-new Port Marine Safety Code, which involved a great deal of work.

He also signed Ilfracombe up to Destination South West, which attracts visiting cruise ships, and since then several liners have visited filled with hundreds of passengers, with another due next year.

Mr Lawson was instrumental in attracting national powerboat racing to the town for several years, as well as being a founding member of the Around Lundy Yacht Race and in at the start of the project to install Verity on the pier.

He said: “It’s been an amazing time. It’s the people that have made this job and every day is different.

“The biggest achievement in making the place more high profile is safety and I also made a conscious decision early on to keep the public profile of the harbour as high as possible.

“Ilfracombe has improved immeasurably over recent years and that’s a testament to not only improvements of the harbour but the people of Ilfracombe and forward-looking councillors who have driven the process.”

He said in September the harbour will see the next step in its development with the start of work on the new watersports centre.

Mr Lawson is married to Margaret and they have four sons – Daniel, Scott, Leigh and Benjamin – and two grandsons Alfred and Teddy.

He plans to spend more time with his family, as well as walking and indulge in some rare summer golf for a change.