Don’t worry, it’s just an exercise. But what our sea apprentices learn during their basic training is actually very close to reality – as our reporter found out for himself.
Text: Lars Rauscher; Photos: Sebastian Vollmert
The night is dark, a storm is howling. In a flash of lightning, I can pick out the red roof of the lifeboat. I have to get inside as quickly as possible. My lifejacket keeps my head and some of my body out of the water. But the crashing waves make it hard to breathe. I swallow water and start to choke. I keep holding tight on the lifeboat. One after the other we climb aboard. Feet on the rope ladder, up onto the step and one knee on the edge.
Four powerful arms pull me up. I hold my breath, close my eyes, and bellyflop with a thud onto the wobbling floor of the lifeboat. Bathtubs full of water have collected there. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s an odd feeling. “Are you OK?” they ask every new arrival. The reflex kicks in to shuffle to the edge, crouch down next to the others. Make space for the next one. Another thud. My pulse, blood pressure, breathing rate, adrenaline level, all too high. But I’ve been rescued, that’s all that matters.
Basic safety course in Elsfleth
OK, I’ll admit it. What I’m experiencing here is just an exercise. A training session in the pool at the Maritimes Kompetenzzentrum (Maritime Centre of Excellence) in Elsfleth, northern Germany. One day of the two-week basic safety course that forms part of the initial training sailors undergo here at Hapag-Lloyd. Preparing them for something hopefully none will have to experience for real.
Inside the lifeboat, everyone is on top of everyone else, sitting on each other’s feet and legs. The boat is tossed around by the waves, the water sloshes. You want to look for the horizon but there isn’t one. Only darkness. And the entrance is closed anyway. Otherwise even more water would get in. The air is stale. Some of us are quiet, almost apathetic. Others are loud and a bit too high-spirited. Everyone is trying to keep their rising nausea at bay.
We’ve been jumping into the training pool for different exercises all morning. First in swimming costumes and lifejackets, then in orange immersion suits. From the two-meter-high wall at the edge of the pool, from a five-meter-high diving tower. With and without waves, rain, storms, noise and visibility. Overcoming every challenge. At the start of the day under normal lighting, it all looked so harmless. Now it’s tiring, cold, some of us are shivering. But we keep going, hold our noses, pull our lifejackets down, jump into the cold water and onto the lifeboat. We’re all bruised and our lips are turning blue. “The boat is made for twelve people, but your are 14. What’s the solution?” asks instructor Michael Trebin during the first round of the morning. “You can’t just leave your crewmates for the sharks!” So everyone gets in, got it.
The successful rescue
A powerful beam of light gives the inside of the boat a bright orange glow. The helicopter has arrived – even that can be simulated in the pool. One after the other we crawl to the entrance, drop into the water, swim a few meters out. The downwind from the helicopter blows every single raindrop into my cheeks, eyes, noses, mouth and ears at full force. But I have to be patient. Let the rescue line dip into the water first to dispel the static charge. I grab the loose end with my left hand, twist myself (complete with lifejacket) through the loop, use my right hand to grab the fixed end, hook in the carabiner and pull the loop closed. I give the hand signal and wait as I’m slowly winched up, landing in a seated position on the diving platform. I start to stand up carefully, my knees are shaking. The physical strain is immense, and on top of that you have the constant battle with your own mind. Again someone asks if I’m OK. Everyone looks after everyone else. And we get through it together.
Hapag-Lloyd is the largest training provider in the German shipping industry, with more than a century of experience. Almost 200 young people are currently undergoing training in Germany alone. Most on land, but nearly 100 on the water. Erik Hirsch, Senior Training & Education Manager at Marine Human Resources, is responsible for training the next generation of sailors, including those here in Elsfleth today.
“These young people have only known each other for five weeks. They’ve used the time for team-building better than almost every other group I’ve taught, and they take great care of each other. I’m really impressed”, he praises. The fourteen-strong group aged between 16 and 19 are training to become ship’s mechanics. They’re learning about shipping, on-board operations and seamanship from a practical perspective, which will prove extremely useful on their career paths to becoming officers. For Hapag-Lloyd, this course is a kind of elite training. “We give the young people a great start to their working lives, and we expect them to follow a technical or nautical career path after they leave us”, explains Hirsch.