Once a seaman, always a seaman: Captain Hans Trey and Seafaring

When asked where we should meet to talk, without missing a beat, Hans Trey answers: “In the International Maritime Museum.” After asking how long it would last and being told at least an hour, he responds: “That long, really?” But it ultimately turns out to be more than three hours. It was like time just flew by. Or do seafarers use another saying?

When asked where we should meet to talk, without missing a beat, Hans Trey answers: “In the International Maritime Museum.” After asking how long it would last and being told at least an hour, he responds: “That long, really?” But it ultimately turns out to be more than three hours. It was like time just flew by. Or do seafarers use another saying?

People from Hamburg are, no doubt, a bit cold at first. But after three hours, Trey has warmed up to operating temperature. “Do we still want to go to the simulator?” he asks. And without waiting for a response, he says: “We just have to go to the simulator! After all, that’s my simulator!” Then Trey laughs, more of a mischievous he-he than a guffaw.

And just in case, he adds: “Of course, nothing happens without my team. We’re currently programming very challenging maneuvers for specialists, and a simulator for kids is also in the works.” In saying this, he reveals two things about himself: Trey enjoys what he does, and he does it with passion. When it comes to seafaring, both apply.

“Always Be Prepared”

Trey was a seaman because he enjoyed it. Well, perhaps we shouldn’t say “was” – as, strictly speaking, he still is one. Because he enjoys it. He enjoys leading visitors through the International Maritime Museum and being able to enthusiastically explain to them all – and I mean all – of the exhibits.

Of course, he particularly enjoys talking about containers – seeing that almost half his career was dedicated to them. As the head of Contrans Gesellschaft für Containerverkehr, Europe’s largest container rental company, he was there when the ISO container conquered the world as well as when container shipping got its start in Germany. And, for many of his years at Contrans, Trey was involved in making Hapag-Lloyd a global leader in the field of special containers.

The ship navigation simulator – one of the most modern in the world, costing six figures and with much of it funded by Hapag-Lloyd donations – is also about a containership. Trey heads the project, lending it a bit of his own fascination with seafaring. Why does he do it? “Always be prepared,” he answers, “for the next day at sea, for the next port, for the next step in your professional life.” And for your post-career life, too.

After withdrawing from active service with Hapag-Lloyd, the last thing Trey wanted to do was spend the whole day sitting around reading newspapers. He had 50 years of seafaring under his belt, all but three of them with Hapag-Lloyd. And that’s how Trey came to the Hamburg Nautical Association, on whose expanded board he still sits today, and eventually to the International Maritime Museum located in Hamburg’s Speicherstadt, the world’s largest port warehouse district .

“We’re 300 Meters Long Now!”

Trey has been retired for 15 years. But you can tell just how busy he still is when you try to make an appointment to meet up with him. The 80-year-old captain-turned-pensioner first pulls out his day-planner and counts the days that are already booked up. It’s a lot of days.

Most of these days will be spent in the International Maritime Museum, where he has his favorite place: the ship navigation simulator on Deck 1. If Trey perches himself in front of the controls of this high-tech machine, making adjustments on several computers at the same time while simultaneously explaining that he’s now programming in the bad-weather entry into the Port of Rotterdam, you’d think you were seeing the gleam in the eyes of a young boy who’d love to become a captain one day. “We are the ‘Tokyo Express.’ We are 300 meters long now!” he says, before deciding that he’d actually prefer to enter Hamburg into the simulator first. Under good weather conditions.

On Board the “Casablanca”

Trey says that it was clear he wanted to become a captain ever since he and his mother sailed on his father’s ship together in 1942, during the war. His father was a captain, too, and almost all of Trey’s ancestors had gone to sea. When they returned to the “Casablanca” from an onshore excursion in Naples, with the images of lava burning on Vesuvius still before their eyes, the radioman met them on the gangway with the news that their apartment in Hamburg had been bombed out.

They weren’t prepared for that. Of course not. But after his mother’s tears and his father’s shock, they understood better what had happened: They didn’t have their apartment anymore, but they still had their lives! Because they’d been at sea. During a war. But at its end, his father, then a merchant ship’s captain working for the OPDR (Oldenburg-Portugiesische Dampfschiffs-Rhederei), was arrested and taken off his ship in Trieste and then stuck in a Yugoslavian camp, from which he would never return.

“Now more than ever” is likely what Trey thought back then. When his teacher in Bremerhaven – where the family got its new start after the war – asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, the small Hans said: “A captain.” To get to know his father better, because he’d only rarely been at home. The father who, like his mother, had also forbidden him to become a captain probably for this very reason. The teacher scoffed: “You won’t make it! Never!” And, overnight, the teacher had one more good student in his class.

Captain Hans Trey Captain Hans Trey

150 German Marks and a New Jacket

So, then it was off to sea. As a ship’s boy on a coaster called the “Zeus-II.” Then, as an ordinary seaman and officer cadet on vessels of the Frigga shipping company and the OPDR, he sailed on many occasions with men who’d known his father as a captain. The fact that North German Lloyd (NDL) first rejected and then accepted him as an officer cadet after all – because he showed up in person in Bremen and insisted that they take him – would help him many years later to a make a great punch line . In 1970, when he was promoted to head the nautical department at NDL, he read aloud the letter that once informed him he didn’t meet the shipping company’s high standards …

He showed how much he met these standards between 1959 and 1962, when he earned his license with distinction. Always be prepared. That’s what Trey was, in both theory and practice. He had what was probably his most dangerous experience at sea in 1957 on board the “August Thyssen,” a dilapidated coal barge owned by Frigga.

In return for an extraordinary achievement, he was given a prize of 150 German marks and a new leather jacket. He’d lost his old one when the ship got caught in a winter storm and Trey got washed almost completely overboard by a big breaking wave. Even today, what amazes him most is that he was able to hold on to the guardrail with one hand and to another crew member with the other. “My only thought at the time was ‘Poor mom, now she won’t have a son’,” he says.

Show humility toward nature, toward the sea – in addition to a broken collarbone, that’s the lesson Trey learned from the incident. “In the face of a storm, of waves and of the sheer power of nature, you realize just how small you are,” Trey says. “And that there are things you simply need to yield to because you just can’t change them.”

“Grumbler?” No thanks!

“You have to change everything else if it doesn’t fit you,” Trey responds when asked for his life motto. To be a “grumbler”? No thanks. If Trey says “what you cannot change, you must accept it, as that’s the only way to have fun at work,” something complicated somehow sounds completely simple. Trey has apparently always had fun at what he does.

As a schoolboy who wanted to prove himself to his teacher. As a cadet who became a bona fide captain when he was only 32. And, before long, as the head of a completely new division – the first of its kind in the world – that specifically focused on shipping dangerous cargo.

In fact, in was simultaneously one of the first to bear the name Hapag-Lloyd: “Hapag-Lloyd Inspection for Hazardous Cargo .” When the “MS Moselstein” exploded in the Port of Antwerp in December 1966, Trey and his ship happened to be nearby. He was put in charge of investigating the disaster. And the result was that he then had to always remain on shore, occupying himself now with how to make things safer for the others at sea.

Once a Seaman, Always a Seaman

In 1974, Trey went back to school for an “executive development” program in Lausanne, Switzerland. “There, they first completely took us apart and then put us back together again,” he recalls with another laugh. That’s how you turn a captain into a manager. In 1986, he moved to the United States to be director and vice-president of Hapag-Lloyd America. When a new law on handling dangerous maritime cargo went into effect there in 1992, Trey was right on the scene – and optimally prepared to assist with the changes .

By 2001, Trey had decided to call it quits and go into retirement. Though he actually wanted to stay in the US, his wife gently steered him in the opposite direction, saying: “A Hamburg boy belongs in Hamburg.” Since living back in his hometown, Trey has come to realize that his wife was right. In Hamburg, he has a few good friends, ships and, last but not least, the International Maritime Museum and its simulator.

Trey now switches the simulator back to the bad-weather program for the Port of Rotterdam. “Almost none of the visitors can manage it,” he says with a smirk. But Trey has managed it, as an active captain and in the simulator on Deck 1 . “Though, admittedly, with a bit of practice,” he confesses.

At times like these, one can imagine how Trey and his fellow captains at the museum can spend hours upon hours in front of the huge monitors with the gleaming eyes of young boys who want to become captains one day. For as long as it takes to bring the containership safely to the quay. Once a seaman, always a seaman.

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